When it comes to fairy tales, characters of all kinds abound: wicked witches and powerful wizards, brave knights and beautiful princesses, evil stepmothers and ugly stepsisters. These familiar symbols and many more provide children with symbolic ways for learning how to cope with the daunting challenges and obstacles of the real world.
Among the first texts on this fantasy and folklore was “Fairy Tales, Their Origin and Meaning” by John Thackray Bunce of Birmingham, England. First published in 1878, Bunce addresses the usefulness of such stories for adults as well as children. He wrote: “Altogether, this Fairy Land that we can make for ourselves in a moment is a very pleasant and most delightful place, and one which all of us, young and old, may well desire to get into, even if we have to come back from it sooner than we like.”
Bunce’s 19th century work laid a foundation for further studies on how fairy tales give children a learning tool for dealing with new, frightening thoughts and feelings. Not quite a century later in 1963, Stanford University professor and psychiatrist Julius E. Heuscher published “A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning and Usefulness.” Heuscher gave multiple interpretations of both individual stories and of common themes and symbols found in the literature. Some of these included how fairy tales dealt with death, and the frequent appearance of a hero or heroine with golden hair that signified their goodness.
Bunce and Heuscher noted that fairy tales provide children with an alternate reality that is more under their control than the challenges of real life. In fairy tales, brave heroes face dangers much like youngsters do, but in the end goodness triumphs. The repetition of favorite fairy tales provides reassurance to children that however scary life may seem at times, things can still turn out all right.
A recent book, “Ancient Symbology in Fantasy Literature: A Psychological Study” by William Indick (Mcfarland;, 2012) underscores the universal nature of many of the symbolic characters and themes found in fairy tales. In the preface Indick writes: “Marie von Franz, the famous Jungian psychologist and scholar, asserted that ‘fantasy is not just whimsical ego-nonsense, but comes really from the depths; it constellates symbolic situations which give life a deeper meaning and a deeper realization.'” Indick goes on say, “The symbols seen throughout fantasy literature are not born independently. All fantasy has it roots in ancient mythology.” Fairy tales thus open to children a deeper sense of symbolic meanings that have represented unconscious thoughts and feelings through centuries.
Perhaps the most famous book on how fairy tales influence children’s development is Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” first published in 1976 and reprinted in 2010. Bettelheim’s thesis was that fairy tale themes such as abandonment found as in “Hansel and Gretel” enabled children to deal with their own fears in a highly symbolic way. Survivor of Nazi concentration camps, the Vienna-born Bettelheim headed the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago from 1944 through 1983.
In his book, Bettelehim suggested that themes such as abandonment found in “Hansel and Gretel” gave children a remote way to deal with their fears. The stories provided ways for children to visualize themselves as fairy tale heroes and heroines who could escape the wicked witch, survive threats of bodily harm, and even rescue beloved kin, as in “Little Red Riding Hood.” In other words, by engaging their imaginations repeatedly through stories, children are able to experience and understand fears, giving them mental tools to deal with the challenges of their emotional growth.
Although highly celebrated for his book, Bettelheim ironically turned out to be something of a fairy tale himself. As early as 1991, the Chicago Tribune reported on an essay by University of California anthropologist Alan Dundes claiming that Bettelheim took large portions of his work from Heuscher’s. His biographer, Richard Pollak, published a 1998 account, “The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim” (Simon & Schuster), in which he asserted that Bettelheim had none of the degrees he claimed. Pollak also provided a side-by-side comparison of sections of Bettelheim’s and Heuscher’s works.
In her review critical of Pollak’s biography, New York Times section editor Susan Boxer noted: “[Bettelheim] once said, ‘We must live by fictions – not just to find meaning in life but to make it bearable.'” Just as fairy tale fictions help children cope with their fears, sometimes grown-ups retreat to their own fantasies to deal with the stress of life.