Sunday, October 2, 2011
Library Essentials Month: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
Yesterday in my discussion of The Classic Fairy Tales by Peter and Iona Opie, I said it was one of the first books in my fairy tale library beyond actual fairy tale collections and fiction. That book was actually the second. The first nonfiction title was The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage) by Bruno Bettelheim. I acquired it in high school from my mother--she was in college and took a class that used it extensively--and when the class was done, I inherited her book, highlighted text and all. Now my mother has little to no interest in fairy tales beyond that I work with them so that copy holds extra sentimental value as a shared experience. Years later I took the same course--used the same book--and the professor, Margaret Ordoubadian, became my mentor. So, yes, it made an impact.
That said, Bettelheim is very problematic and should be read with a shakerful of salt, at least enough to salt a slug. That's not to say that some of his theories don't ring true, but his methods and such are fraught with issues, such as his choosing of one tale to represent the whole--usually Perrault and Grimms--without real consideration of variants or translations or even the literary influence Perrault, Grimms and the rest put on the tales with their own edits and world views. He's faulty, but I'm not here today to disparage him, so I'll stop that discussion before it steams ahead.
In the end, Bettelheim got a lot of people thinking about fairy tales in new ways. He made an impact, a large one, and his work is still referenced for good and bad several decades later. If you are going to work with fairy tales, you need to be familiar with his work. That makes The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales a library essential. And the book is now available in ebook format, too. It was briefly out of print but a new edition and cover was issued last year, so used or new, it is readily available.