In preparation for going to see the new “Beauty and the Beast’ I reread “The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” by Bruno Bettelheim. This is a profound, provocative and delightful book, one that every parent should read, because it provides a guide to a special kind of fun, imaginative and developmental game you can play with your children: how to tell them fairy tales and the meaning of those stories to their emotional growth.
Here’s a quick example of how it works. When my son was about 4 years old, his favorite story was the genie in the bottle. As Bettelheim encourages the story teller to do, responding to his very evident excitement, I would exaggerate the genie’s frustration at being caught in the bottle. This is because, at around that age, children are grappling with the problem of self-control. Waiting for anything is like being a very powerful, but increasingly angry genie stuffed down in a bottle. In desperation, the genie recounts to the boy who’s freed him that at first, while he was waiting to be freed, he vowed he would grant his rescuer three wishes, then anything in the world, and in growing frustration, which was the part that my son really identified with, he promised his rescuer anything in the universe. When no one frees him, he becomes furious, and oh boy did my son sympathize with the genie then. The genie is so furious at having to wait that he vows to cut off the head of whoever frees him. Yes! My son loved that. But, then, the boy, who had actually taken pity on the genie and let him out, was now in terrible trouble. Suddenly, my son’s sympathies shifted. It didn’t seem fair that he should have his head cut off for helping the genie. But, the clever boy is undaunted and manages to trick the genie back into his bottle. Oh, boy! The kid relished that triumph.
Of course, the story goes on. But what the kid experienced in the telling of this story, and I told him that story many times over the years, was profound and very important to his emotional development and understanding himself, and all by using his own intellectual powers. The marvelously strange and powerful genie in the bottle is all the impulsive feelings that children have to learn to manage. The genie tries and makes promises to himself, but the waiting stretches beyond his capacity for patience and turns into frustrated anger. Then, the boy who let it out must deal with what he’s unleashed. He musters his powers of wit and cleverly tricks the genie and triumphs; he masters his overwhelming feelings by using his head.
From Bettelheim: “For a story truly to hold the child’s attention, it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties; while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him. In short, it must at one and the same time relate to all aspects of his personality – without ever belittling but, on the contrary, giving full credence to the seriousness of the child’s predicaments, while simultaneously promoting confidence in himself and his future.”
Most fairy tales have something for both boys and girls, (are we still allowed to reference biology?). The kid’s favorite fairy tale was “Little Red Riding Hood.” He had quite a crush on Red. He was also fascinated by the devious and powerful wolf and was very concerned for Red’s safety, often moved to warn her aloud about the dangers of the Big Bad Wolf, who he secretly admired.
I think you get the idea. Now, we come to “Beauty and The Beast”, a fairy tale that is more for the older child, trying to resolve its oedipal feelings. Bettelheim: “Beauty and the Beast…a child’s oedipal attachment to a parent is natural, desirable, and has the most positive consequences for all, if during the process of maturation it is transferred and transformed as it becomes detached from the parent and concentrated on the lover.”
“The Beast’s palace in which all of Beauty’s wishes are immediately fulfilled… is a narcissistic fantasy typically engaged in by children…an existence where nothing is demanded of him and all of his desires are met as soon as he expresses them. The fairy story tells that such a life…soon becomes empty and boring – so much so that Beauty comes to look forward to the evening visits of the Beast…Beauty comes to life (again) when she learns that her father needs her.”
“Thrown into a conflict between her love for her father and the Beast’s needs, Beauty deserts the beast to attend her father. But then she realizes how much she loves the Beast – a symbol of the loosening of ties to her father and transference of her love to the Beast. Only after Beauty decides to leave her father’s house to be reunited with the Beast—that is after she has resolved her oedipal ties to her father—does sex, which before was repugnant, become beautiful.
“This foreshadows by centuries the Freudian view that sex must be experienced by the child as disgusting as long as his sexual longings are attached to his parent, because only through such a negative attitude toward sex can the incest taboo, and with it the stability of the human family, remain secure.”
It should also be noted that “Beauty and the Beast” owes something to the Cupid and Psyche myth about how we must reconcile our animal erotic desires with our higher selves. The Beast and the father almost die when separated from Beauty, representing their soul and psyche in the Greek myth. Your physical person cannot survive without the love and beauty of your soul and intellect.
And you thought “Beauty and the Beast” was just a silly Disney concoction. Similar fairy tales are found in all cultural heritages. You will find many identical stories in the “Arabian Nights”. Take your kids, go yourself, and drink deep of the wisdom of the ages.