Entertaining, magical and captivating, fairy tales have been an oral and written tradition for many centuries through various parts of the world. Today we know popular fairy tales through Walt Disney and Dreamworks, but who were their predecessors, and who was the original intended audience for these stories? Bruno Bettelheim and J.R.R. Tolkien are both recognized for their distinct views on fairy tales. Bettelheim, a children’s physiologist, believed that, “fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own” (Bettelheim, 7). Tolkien, a writer and fairy tale enthusiast, had an opposing view. “Actually, the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history” (Tolkien, 11). So which is it? Are fairy tales limited to children or can they exist within our adult lives, I believe Bettelheim has the answer.
Bettelheim’s view of children’s literature and fairy tales takes a concrete approach to learning the way in which children understand stories. He believes that stories are developed to help children understand real problems with the help of fantasy. Upon reading Bruno Bettelheim’s, The Struggle for Meaning, he wrote that “…a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can cope with that which goes on in his unconscious”(Bettelheim, 7). Fairy tales are able to offer explanations to the child about their real world problems and struggles and Bettelheim recognizes this. In his Introduction to The Struggle for Meaning he writes that, ” …the child fits unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which then enable him to deal with that content” (Bettelheim, 7). Doing this allows the child to see himself in the hero and identify with the hero’s successes and the hero’s failures, learning the mistakes and lessons through a character from the story.
Contrasting Bettelheim to Tolkien can help us better define the interpretation of a fairy tale. Called a Fairy Story, Tolkien immerses himself and his readers into a Faerie realm, a place where a reader should not be caught up in words or writing, but rather relax and allow the qualities of the story inspire the reader. He states that there is a distinction between fairy tales, travelers tales, Beast-fables and Dream stories, and not to compile each together. Tolkien has a stranger, more complex view of fairy tales and believes that they can do an adult more good than a child as children have not developed a taste for good literature. “But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant” and concludes that adults appreciate the stories more because, “…is is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age” (Tolkien, 11, 12). It’s clear that Tolkien wants his stories to exist outside of the confines of a child’s playroom and in the minds of appreciative readers.
While Tolkien advocates for the literature of the stories, Bettelheim continues to expand on the belief that fairy tales play an important role in the development of a child. Children are able to begin identifying problems within themselves with the help of fairy tales. The child’s introspection of the story helps him face issues of morality, right from wrong and victories. “Because of this identification the child imagines that he suffer with the hero his trials and tribulations, and triumphs with him as virtue is victorious. the child makes such identifications all on his own, and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him” (Bettelheim, 9). In a muted fashion, fairy tales explain existential dilemmas in the simplest of ways so that the child can understand the problems that the story offers. An example that Bettelheim uses is the story of the Three Little Pigs. Through this short fairy tale, the child quickly learns that the pig who spent the most time building his house instead of playing was the victorious one who saved the day. The child may remember this story the next time he is faced with a task and will choose to put more effort in like the third pig. Bettelheim explains that, “The child identifies with the good hero not because of his goodness, but because the hero’s condition makes a deep positive appeal to him. The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’ … If this fairy-tale figure is a very good person, then the child decides that he want to be good, too.” (Bettelheim, 10).
The learning initiatives provided to children through fairy tales are unparalleled to what a fairy tale can offer an adult. Tolkien dissociates the popular idea that fairy tales are for children by reminding his readers that children are still humans, just like us. “I think that this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” (Tolkien, 11). I agree with Tolkien’s view on this, but have to point out that Tolkien undeniably writes for a different audience. Wordy and full of imagery, a child would not be able to keep up in the Faerie realm that he creates.
Fairy tales hold meaning to individuals of all ages. I appreciate that Tolkien has a true love for fairy tales, writing and storytelling, but I believe that Bettelheim does a better job distinguishing that a fairy tale holds more power to a child than an adult. Fairy tales are some of the first places where we begin our reading, where our imaginations develop and where we begin understanding problems that are bigger than ourselves. A fairy tale enlightens, enriches and does more justice for the child than it could do for the adult.