A detailed review of Bettelheim and his works on education can be found here (in pdf form)

pg. 4: Bettelheim criticizes conventional reading given to young children. Reading must be more than entertaining and informative, it must be a pathway to understanding deeper meaning to aid children in their development.

"I became deeply dissatisfied with much of the literature intended to develop the child's mind and personality, because it fails to stimulate and nurture those resources he needs to cope with his difficult inner problems. The preprimers and primers from which he is taught to read in school are designed to teach the necessary skills, irrespective of meaning. The overwhelming bulk of the rest of so-called 'children's literature' attempts to entertain or to inform, or both. But most of these books are so shallow in substance tat little of significance can be gained from them. The acquisition of skills, including the ability to read, becomes devalued when what one has learned to read adds nothing of importance to one's life . . . the idea that learning to read may enable one later to enrich one's life is experienced as an empty promise when the stories the child listens to , or is reading at the moment, are vacuous. The worst feature of these children's books is that they cheat the child of what he ought to gain from the experience of literature: access to deeper meaning, and that which is meaningful to him at his stage of development."

pg. 5: Stories must be edifying as well as entertaining. They must take children's struggles seriously and not simply build self-esteem.

"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 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."

Fairytales are uniquely well suited to being meaningful literature for children during their development.

  • pg. 5. " . . . nothing can be as enriching and satisfying to child and adult alike as the folk fairy tale. True, on an overt level fairy tales teach little about the specific conditions of life in modern mass society; these tales were created long before it came into being. But more can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child's comprehension . . . The child finds this kind of meaning through fairy tales. Like many other modern psychological insights, this was anticipated long ago by poets. The German poet Schiller wrote: 'Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.'"
  • pg. 12: "Fairy tales are unique, not only as a form of literature, but as works of art which are fully comprehensible to the child, as no other form of art is. As with all great art, the fairy tale's deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meanings from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment. When given the chance, he will return to the same tale when he is ready to enlarge on old meanings, or replace them with new ones."

How fairytales help children help themselves.

  • pg. 6-7 ". . . a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams . . . by doing this the child fits unconscious content into conscious fantasies . . . [fairytales] offer new dimensions to the child's imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own . . .the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images . . .[that can] give [him] a better direction to his life."
  • pg. 8: "This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence -- but if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious . . .the fairytale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments."

Children should deal with their pressures, anxieties and predicaments. Parents should not protect them.
  • pg. 7 ". . . the prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry and even violent fantasies . . . only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child -- that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of tings. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny . . .we want children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in their own eyes."
  • pg. 10 ". . . the child is subject to desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and he often experiences mortal anxiety. More often than not, he is unable to express these feelings in words, or he can do so only by indirection: fear of the dark, of some animal, anxiety about his body. Since it creates discomfort in a parent to recognize these emotions in his child, the parent tends to overlook them, or he belittles these spoken fears out of his own anxiety, believing this will cover over the child's fears."
Morality & Amorality

pg. 8. "It is characteristic of fairy tales to state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly. This permits the child to come to grips with the problem in its most essential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters to him. the fairy tale simplifies all situations. Its figures are clearly drawn; and details, unless very important, are eliminated. All characters are typical rather than unique . . . A person is either good or bad, nothing in between. One brother is stupid, the other is clever. One sister is virtuous and industrious, the others are vile and lazy. One is beautiful, the others are ugly. One parent is all good, the other evil."
pg. 9. ". . .[the] child's choices are based, not so much on right versus wrong, as on who arouses his sympathy and who his antipathy."
pg. 10. "Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed. Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problems."

Picking a Fairy Tale
  • pg. 18. "If a child does not take to the story, this means that its motifs or themes have failed to evoke a meaningful response at this moment in his life. Then it is best to tell him another fairy tale the next evening. Soon he will indicate that a certain story has become important by his immediate response to it, or by his asking to be told the story over and over again. If all goes well, the child's enthusiasm for this story will be contagious . . . when the child has gained all he can from the preferred story, or the problems which made him respond to it have been replaced by others which find better expression in some other tale. He may then temporarily lost interest in this story and enjoy some other one much more. In the telling of fairy stories it is always best to follow the child's lead."
  • pg. 18-19: "Explaining to a child why a fairy tale is so captivating to him destroys, moreover, the story's enchantment, which depends to a considerable degree on the child's not quite knowing why he is delighted by it. And with that forfeiture of this power to enchant goes also a loss of the story's potential for helping the child struggle on his own, and master all by himself the problem has made the story meaningful in the first place. Adult interpretations, as correct as they may be, rob the child of the opportunity to feel that he, on his own, through repeated hearing and ruminating about the story, has coped successfully with a difficult situation."
  • pg. 19. "The true meaning and impact of a fairy tale can be appreciated, its enchantment can be experienced, only from the story in its original form."

This section examines the "internal life" of fairy tales emphasizing the difference between the modern telling of children's stories and the differences between fairy tales, fables, and fantasy.
  • pg. 24. "today many of our children are far more grievously bereaved -- because they are deprived of the chance to know the stories at all. Most children now meet fairy tales only in prettified and simplified versions which subdue their meaning and rob them of deeper significance -- versions such as those on films and TV shows, where fairy tales are turned into empty-minded entertainment . . .since these stories answered the child's most important questions, they were a major agent of socialization . . .[they] offered material from which children formed their concepts of the world's origin and purpose, and of the social ideals a child could pattern himself after."
  • pg. 25. "In a fairy tale, internal processes are externalized and become comprehensible . . .the patient could discover not only a way out of his distress but also a way find himself, as the hero of the story did."
But fairy tales do not teach morality, right and wrong.
  • pg. 25. "but the paramount importance of the fairy tales for the growing individual resides in something other than teachings about correct ways of behaving in this world -- such wisdom is plentifully supplied in religion, myths, and fables. Fairy stories do not pretend to describe the world as it is, nor do they advise what one ought to do . . . the fairy tale is therapeutic because the patient finds his own solutions, through contemplating what the story seems to imply about him and his inner conflicts at this moment of life."
The difference between fairy tales, myths, and fables . . .
  • pg. 26 "Myths and fairy tales have much in common. But in myths, much more than in fairy stories, the culture hero is presented to the listener as a figure he ought to emulate in his own life, as far as possible. A myth like a fairy tale, may express an inner conflict in symbolic form and suggest how it may be solved -- but this is not necessarily the myth's central concern . The myth presents its theme in a majestic way; it carries spiritual force; and the divine is present and is experienced in the form of superhuman heroes who make constant demands on mere mortals. Much as we the mortals, may strive to be like these heroes, we will remain always and obviously inferior to them."
pg. 27
". . . fables [tell] by means of words, actions, or events -- fabulous though these may be -- what one ought to do. Fables demand and threaten -- they are moralistic -- or they just entertain."
Bettelheim speculates why adults are hesitant to tell fairy tales to their children and why it is important that they do . . .
pg. 27
". . . we are not comfortable with the thought that occasionally we look like threatening giants to our children, although we do. Nor do we want to accept how easy they think it is to fool us, or to make fools of us, and how delighted they are by this idea. But whether or not we tell fairy tales to them, we do . . . appear as selfish giants who wish to keep to ourselves all the wonderful things which give us power." Fairy stories provide the reassurance to children that they can eventually get the better of the giant -- i.e., they can grow up to be like the giant and acquire the same powers. They are 'the might hopes that makes us men.'"


The fisherman and the jinny (genie) illustrates the basic pattern of providing hope to children that they can "trick" the "giants" in their lives, but also discusses how affection can be turned to anger and the conflict small children experience when punished. At first, they want their parent's affection, but this can turn into anger at the parent for depriving them of their affection.
  • pg. 31. "Action takes the place of understanding for a child, and this becomes increasingly true the more strongly he feels. A child may have learned to say otherwise under adult guidance, but as he really sees it, people do not cry because they are sad; they just cry. People do not hit out and destroy, or stop talking because they are angry; they just do these things. A child may have learned he can placate adults by explaining his action thus: "I did it because I am angry" -- but that does not change the fact that the child does not experience anger as anger, but only as an impulse to hit, to destroy, to keep silent. Not before puberty do we begin to recognize our emotions for what they are without immediately acting on them, or wishing to do so."
Psychological Truth and Reality
  • pg. 31. "Since it is a fairy tale our of never-never-land which presents the child with these images of behaving, he can swing back and forth in his own mind between 'It's true, that's how one acts and reacts' and 'it's all untrue, it's just a story,' depending on how ready he is to recognize these processes in himself."
Fairy tales also help children embrace struggles, real life might not be easy.
  • pg. 33. "Things are not quite so easy to accomplish as one may imagine or wish. To a less persistent person, the fisherman's first three catches would suggest giving up because each effort leads only to worse things. That one must not give up, despite initial failure, is such an important message for children that many fables and fairy tales contain it. The message is effective as long as it is delivered not as a moral or demand, but in a casual way which indicates that this is how life is."


Bettelheim contrasts fairy tales with myths because of how the stories are presented. The same basic plot and characters can be recast successively as myth and legend. However, the characters in myths have special powers or abilities that prevent their story from being fruitfully applied to ordinary everyday situations. In myths and legends, characters have distinctive names, while the characters in fairy tales are typical and representative, often with names that suggest their role ("fairy godmother" "the king") or have generic "every person" names like Hansel and Gretel, Jack and Jill. Bettelheim writes,
  • "the dominant feeling a myth conveys is: this absolutely unique; it could not have happened to any other person . . .and could not possibly happen to an ordinary mortal like you or me . . . even which occur in fairy tales . . .could happen to you or me or the person next door when out in a walk in the woods." (pg. 37)

In addition, myths are often tragic -- great individuals are brought low and then possible earn redemption -- and many end with a pessimistic view of the world. Modern day superheroes are an example of this type. Batman will fight his dual personality, inner demons even if he vanquishes his whole rogue's gallery. Superman will always have a hidden identity of Clark Kent. In short, they do not live "happily ever after." A corrupt world allows the villains in myths to thrive and they are only subdued for a short time. Bettelheim observes, that
  • "the myth is pessimistic, while the fairy story is optimistic, no matter how terrifyingly serious some features of the story may be. It is this decisive difference which sets the fairy tale apart from other stories in which equally fantastic events occur . . ." (pg. 37).
Fairy tales are about "ego integration" and the creation of a healthy self. Myths, in contrast, respond to social pressures and moral codes (the "superego") that reflect society's needs and desires and are accomplished through "id" actions such as violence, magic, romance, etc.
  • "Mythical heroes offer excellent images for the development of the superego, but the demands they embody are so rigorous as to discourage the child in his fledgling strivings to achieve personality integration. While the mythical hero experiences a transfiguration into eternal life in heaven, the central figure of the fairy tale live happily ever after on earth, right among the rest of us." (pg. 39)


While the previous section focused on the contrast between the ego (fairy tale) and superego (myths, fables) stories and the dangers of overly moralizing and mature stories, in this section Bettelheim turns his attention to the interface of ego and id (indulgent fantasies) stories. The id represents the drives or urges that are pleasurable -- eating, sex, defecation, sleep, leisure, play, etc -- embodied in a "pleasure principle" (Do what feels good). In contrast the "reality principle" preaches limiting our desires to meet our social or physical reality. If we eat everything we wanted, i.e., if we behaved like animals, we would not be able to live in civilized society, we would break relationships with others, we would do harm to our personal physical and mental health. Fairy tales, like "The Three Pigs" show the child the advantages of maturity. If we progress toward a more mature self, we become more able to overcome our difficulties than if we allow every drive, urge, or pleasure dominate our life.

Bettelheim reiterates the importance that fairy tales only "suggest" answers to the child, it never provides a specific code as myths and fables do. They promote growth, not results.
In this section Bettelheim notes that the child's world is animistic and magical. In other words, flora, fauna, and other inanimate objects have personalities, can speak, and embody human emotions, problems, and concerns. Primitive religions and fairy tales are full of half-animal, half-human characters and often portray "fantastic" characters and events, such as the ability to fly, talking dogs, and Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Bettelheim illustrates with a child's reaction to a slamming door, "'. . .he strikes the door that has slammed on him.' It should be added that he does the first because he is convinced that this pretty thing loves to be petted as much as he does; and he punishes the door because he is certain that the door slammed deliberately, out of evil intention." (pg. 46)
  • pg. 45. "He can gain much better solace from a fairy tale than he can from an effort to comfort him based on adult reasoning and viewpoints.. A child trust what the fairy story tells, because its world view accords with his own."
Drawing upon child psychologist Jean Piaget, Bettelheim continues
  • pg. 46. "To the child, there is no clear line separating objects from living things; and what ever has life has life very much like our own. If we do not understand what rocks and trees and animals have to tell us, the reason is that we are not sufficiently attuned to them. To the child trying to understand the world, it seems reasonable to expect answers from those objects which arouse his curiosity. And since the child is self-centered, he expects the animal to talk about the things which are really significant to him, as animals do in fairy tales, and as the child himself talks to his real or toy animals. A child is convinced that the animal understands and feels with him, even though it does now show it openly."
As many developmental psychologists have noted, young children have approach their thinking in concrete and narcissistic terms, not abstractly or socially. Bettelheim argues they still engage with "big questions" they do it in a different manner than adults
  • pg. 47. ". . . he ponders these vital questions not in the abstract, but mainly as they pertain to him. He worries not whether there is justice for individual man, but whether he will be treated justly. He wonders who or what projects him into adversity, and what can prevent this from happening to him. Are there benevolent powers in addition to his parents? Are his parents benevolent powers? How should he form himself, and why? Is there hope for him, though he may have done wrong? Why has all this happened to him? What will it mean for his future? Fairy tales provide answers to these pressing questions, many of which the child becomes aware of only as he follows the stories."
In fact, "realistic" explanations can be incomprehensible
  • pg. 47-8. ". . . realistic explanations are usually incomprehensible to children, because they lack the abstract understanding required to make sense of them. While giving a scientifically correct answer makes adults think they have clarified things for the child, such explanations leave the young child confused, overpowered, and intellectually defeated."
Fairy tales provided a safe entrance to dealing with difficult and complex concepts.
  • pg. 51. ". . . the more secure a person feels within the world, the less he will need to hold on to 'infantile' projections-mythical explanations or fairy-tale solutions to life's eternal problems-and the more he can afford to seek rational explanations . . . the more insecure a man is in himself and his place in the immediate world, the more he withdraws into himself because of fear, or else moves outward to conquer for conquest's sake."
Bettelheim concludes by discussing the parallels and contrasts fairy tales with Bible stories.


Vicarious satisfaction is the ability to enjoy something through an alternate vehicle than direct confrontation. Children are not emotionally or cognitively equipped to deal with some of the realities of their external and internal world and so they must find a safer and more cognizable way to reason through these dilemmas. This is why "play" is so important to children's development and routines such as "dress-up"
  • pg. 53. ". . . fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children. At the age when these stories are most meaningful to the child, his major problem is to bring some order into the inner chaos of his mind so that he can understand himself better-a necessary preliminary for achieving some congruence between his perceptions and the external world."
Bettelheim notes the role of "play" through dolls or toys as a way to externalize internal conflicts and master them.
  • pg. 55. "In normal play, objects such as dolls and toy animals are used to embody various aspects of the child's personality which are too complex, unacceptable, and contradictory for him to handle. This permits the child's ego to gain some mastery over these elements, which he cannot do when asked or forced by circumstances to recognize these as projections of his own inner processes. some unconscious pressures in children can be worked out through play. But many do not lend themselves to it because they are too complex and contradictory, or too dangerous and socially disapproved . . . Here, knowing fairy tales is a great help to the child, as illustrated by the fact that many fairy stories are acted out by children, but only after the children have become familiar with the story, which they never could have invented on their own."
Fairy tales are an innocent outlet for psychological pressures children experience. They have the advantage of having a definitive structure and can be talked about openly and do not need to be suppressed.
  • pg. 57. ". . . one might say that the child who is not exposed to this literature is as badly off as the girl who is anxious to discharge her inner pressures through horseback riding or taking care of horses, but it deprived of her innocent enjoyment. A child who is made aware of what the figures in fairy tales stand for in this own psychology will be robbed of a much-needed outlet, and devastated by having to realize the desires, anxieties, and vengeful feelings that are ravaging him. Like the horse, fairy tales can and do serve children well, can even make an unbearable life seem worth living, as long as the child doesn't know what they mean to him psychologically. While a fairy tale may contain many dreamlike features, its great advantage over a dream is that the fairy tale has a consistent structure with a definite beginning and a plot that moves toward a satisfying solution which is reached at the end. The fairy tale also has other important advantages when compared to private fantasies . . . it can be openly talked about, because the child does not need to keep secret his feelings about what goes on in the fairy tale, or feel guilty about enjoying such thoughts."
Bettelheim emphasizes the repeated telling of fairy tales so that the child can internalize the story, free associate with the elements of the story, and identify with the different elements of the story
  • pg. 58. "The child feels which of the many fairy tales is true to his inner situation of the moment . . . but this is seldom an immediate recognition . . .Only on repeated hearing of a fairy tale, and when given ample time and opportunity to linger over it, is a child able to profit fully from what the story has to offer him in regard to understanding himself and his experience of the world . . . It takes distance and personal elaboration over time before a girl can identify with Jack in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and a boy with Rapunzel."
Bettelheim makes a point that a future book (Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death) will make about the emptiness of images and illustration to stories; they neuter the imagination.
  • pg. 59-60. "This, incidentally, is the reason why illustrated storybooks, so much preferred by both modern adults and children, do no serve the child's best needs. The illustrations are distracting rather than helpful. Studies of illustrated primers demonstrate that the pictures divert from the learning process rather than foster it, because the illustrations direct the child's imagination away from how he, on his own, would experience the story. The illustrated story is robbed of much content of personal meaning which it could bring to the child who applied only his own visual association to the story, instead of those of the illustrator . . . Adults and children alike often prefer the easy way of having somebody else do the hard task of imagining the scene of the story. But if we let an illustrator determine our imagination, it becomes less our own, and the story loses much of its personal significance."

The narrative structure of fairy tales insures that the story, while relevant, is not taken as real. The stories do not pertain to concrete situations in the here and now, but are set in the distant past ("once upon a time") and in distant locales ("in a land far away")
  • pg. 62. "'Once upon a time' 'In a certain country,' 'A thousand years ago, or longer,' 'At a time when animals still talked,' 'Once in and old castle in the midst of a large and dense forest'--such beginnings suggest that what follows does not pertain to the here and now that we know. This deliberate vagueness in the beginnings of fairy tales symbolizes that we are leaving the concrete world of ordinary reality. The old castles, dark caves, locked rooms one is forbidden to enter, impenetrable woods all suggest that something normally hidden will be revealed, while the 'long ago' implies that we are going to learn about the most archaic events."
The point is to temporarily suspend reality, but the goal is ultimately to return to reality an improved and better person. It is fantasy, but not escape. It is also important that this inner, psychic reality be acknowledged by adults. It is not something to be hidden or be ashamed of, but is deemed legitimate by figures of authority in the child's life.
  • pg. 63. "The Fairy tale, from its mundane and simple beginning, launches into fantastic events. But however big the detours . . . the process of the story does not get lost. Having taken the child on a trip into a wondrous world, at its end the tale returns the child to reality, in a most reassuring manner . . .permitting one's fantasy to take hold of oneself for a while is not detrimental, provided one does not remain permanently caught up in it. At the story's end the hero returns to reality--a happy reality, but one devoid of magic. As we awake refreshed from our dreams, better able to meet the tasks of reality, so the fairy story ends with the hero returning, or being returned, to the real world, much better able to master life . . . The child, so much more insecure than an adult, needs assurance that his need to engage in fantasy, or his inability to stop doing so, is not a deficiency. By telling fairy tales to his child, a parent gives the child an important demonstration that he or she considers the child's inner experience as embodied in fairy tales worthwhile, legitimate in some fashion even 'real.' This gives the child the feeling that since his inner experiences have been accepted by the parent as real and important, he--by implication--is real and important."
Bettelheim again returns to the theme that fairy tales are better than "real" stories. There is the possible that the "real" and the "fantasy" world will become blurred or suppressed.
  • pg. 64-5. "Stories which stay closer to reality by starting in a child's living room or backyard, instead of in a poor woodcutter's hut hard by a great forest; and which have people in them very much like the child's parents, not starving woodcutters or kings and queens; but which mix these realistic elements with wish-fulfilling and fantastic devices, are apt to confuse the child as to what is real and what is not . . . If a child is told only stories 'true to reality' (which means false to important parts of his inner reality), then he may conclude that much of his inner reality is unacceptable to his parents. many a child thus estranges himself from his inner life, and this depletes him. As a consequence he may later, as an adolescent no longer under the emotional sway of his parents, come to hate the rational world and escape entirely into a fantasy world, as if to make up for what was lost in childhood."


This section deals with the common motif in fairytales of split maternal or paternal figures, or "fairy godmothers" and "evil stepmothers." Children see the world simply through the lens of "black and white" without shades of grey. However, parents can often seem to be both benevolent and good and cruel and evil and this dichotomy can be difficult for children to handle. Through fairy tales, children are able to magically split their parent into two figures or pretend that one parent is a fake or false parent and that resolves the dilemma. Bettelheim explains.
  • pg. 68-9. "While all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects to feel fully sheltered by the first, most cannot do it as cleverly and consciously as this girl did . . .'family romance[s]'. . . are fantasies or daydreams . . .[that] center on the idea that one's parents are not really one's parents, but that one is the child of some exalted personage, and that, due to unfortunate circumstances, one has been reduced to living with these people, who claim to be one's parents . . .These fantasies are helpful; they permit the child to feel really angry at the Martian pretender or the 'false parent' without guilt . . . The fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one's angry thoughts and wishes about her--a guilt which would seriously interfere with the good relation to Mother . . . in the fairy-tale rescuer, the good qualities of Mother are as exaggerated as the bad ones were in the witch. But this is how the young child experiences the world: either as entirely blissful or as an unmitigated hell."
Bettelheim continues to explain how fairy tales allow children to give vent to their angry and impulsive wishes in a non-judgmental way. The consequences of anger can be remedied and are reversible. It is not an existential crisis and they will not lose the love of their parents or others they depend on. Most importantly, it keeps them from turning their anger inward as they become angered by the prospect of being angry. Bettelheim describes some of the situations that may frustrate or anger a young child.
  • pg. 72-3. "Left alone for a few hours, a child can feel as cruelly abused as though he had suffered a lifetime of neglect and rejection. Then, suddenly, his existence turns into complete bliss as his mother appears in the doorway, smiling, maybe even bringing him some little present. What could be more magical than that? How could something so simple have the power to alter his life, unless there were magic involved? . . .consider the child's dealings with inanimate objects: some object--a shoelace or a toy--utterly frustrates the child, to the degree that he feels himself a complete fool. Then in a moment, as if by magic, the object becomes obedient and does his bidding; from being the most dejected of humans, he become the happiest."
Bettelheim concludes:
  • pg. 73. "The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence. While fairy tales invariably point the way to a better future, they concentrate on the process of change, rather than describing the exact details of the bliss eventually to be gained. The stories start where the child is at the time, and suggest where he has to go--with emphasis on the process itself."


Children have complex feelings, but do not have the mental apparatus to deal with these feelings often. Fairy tales, by presenting the child with simple, one-dimensional characters allows the chidl to isolate and analyze the conflicting feelings and overcome them.
  • pg. 74. "The child, like all of us, is at any moment in a welter of contradictory feelings. But while adults have learned to integrate these, the child is overwhelmed by these ambivalences within himself. He experiences the mixture of love and hate, desire and fear within himself as an incomprehensible chaos . . . he cannot comprehend intermediate states of degree and intensity, things are either all light or all darkness . . . This is how the fairy tale depicts the world . . . Every figure is essentially one-dimensional, enabling the child to comprehend its actions and reactions easily. Through simple and direct images the fairy story helps the child sort out his complex and ambivalent feelings, so that these begin to fall each one into a separate place, rather than being all one big muddle."
Bettelheim describes how different characters represent different parts of our personality. The ego, or self, is usually portrayed as the hero, often a "simpleton" who has similar limitations or characteristics of a young child (short, slow, lacking intelligence, power, status, etc.). The id, our drives and instincts, are represented by animals. The superego, or our conscience, is usually represented by kings or queens -- parental figures -- who reward us for good behavior. Bettelheim explains.
  • pg. 75. ". . .the hero . . . is specifically called 'the dummy' . . . rendering of the original debilitated state of the ego as it begins its struggle to cope with the inner world of drives and with the difficult problems which the outer world presents. The id . . . is frequently depicted in the form of some animal, standing for our animal nature. Fairy-tale animals come in two forms: dangerous and destructive animals, such as the wolf in 'Little Red Riding Hood'. . .and wise and helpful animals which guide and rescue the hero.


This section illustrates the point of the previous section through the fairy tale, "The Queen Bee." It shows how we are supposed to use the vital energy from our passions and drives to move toward full personality integration that resolves our internal psychic needs with societal demands. We must use all the elements at our disposal and not slavishly doing what we are told or doing what we want.


This section details the frequent sibling pairings that occur in fairy tales. It is not for balance, i.e., so that both male and female readers can identify with the main characters, but to illustrate the dual nature of our personality. At the beginning of the tale, the siblings are indifferentiable. Then, through some act of fate or magic, one of the siblings is transformed (usually into an animal) and over the course of the fairy tale is transformed back and reunited with their sibling. These stories highlight the dual nature of our own personality and the process of resolving those tensions successfully.


Sindbad (Sinbad) extends the analysis of humans' dual nature and how fairy tales can help explain it to a child who may only be able to view the world through absolute categories. The key point here is ambivalence. This is not so much about dual parts of our personality, but dual feelings and choices. We all "want it all" and at different times we might have different desires or establish different balances. Sometimes we are meek and mild, other times fiery and aggressive. We may be generous one moment and stingy the next. This can be confusing to someone who is trying to establish their own identity in counterpoint to the world around them. The question: who am I (really)? can be difficult. In the story of Sindbad, these ambivalent feelings are projected onto two separate, but linked characters.
On a personal note, one of my favorite movies is a 1980s Brat-pack film called St. Elmo's Fire which details the difficulties and challenges of a group of friends transitioning from college to adult life. Objectively, it is not a good movie, all the characters are flat and one-dimensional, but what I have always gained from it is how I can identify at times with the feelings expressed by each, representing a spectrum of ambivalent feelings and desires. Like Sindbad, these characters unite and reunite at a college bar St. Elmo's Fire and compare notes. In modern movies, the tendency has been to more complex and nuanced character studies of individual roles by single actors and not emergent thems from ensembles of "flat" characters. Similarly, Bettelheim bemoans how most popularized tellings of the Sindbad story have excised the character of Sindbad the common porter and focused only the adventures of Sindbad the Seaman, turning a fairy tale aimed at promoting balance into a id-story fantasy.

  • pg. 85. "The fairy tale helps us to understand ourselves better, as in the story the two sides of our ambivalences are isolated and projected each onto a different figure. We can visualize these ambivalences much better when the instinctual id pressures are projected onto the intrepid, immensely rich voyager who survives when all others are destroyed, and brings home unheard-of treasure to boot, while the opposite, reality-oriented ego tendencies are embodied in the hard-working, poor porter. What Sindbad the Porter (representing our ego) has too little of -- imagination, ability to see beyond the immediate surroundings--Sindbad the Seaman has too much of--since he says that he cannot be satisfied with a normal life 'of ease and comfort and repose.'"

The frame story of Arabian Nights is a story that many people know well. It is the story of betrayal by a trusted person leading to a reaction of shallow and self-destructive relationships. The king, Shahryar, betrayed by love, decides to reject love, and pursue only lust. This is a reject of the self, the ego, and a collapse into the drives of the id. However, as happens in many relationships, our self-destructive reaction to being betrayed is to act in a manner consistent with being betrayed, i.e., "You think I'm worthless (and unlovable), so I will behave as worthless and unlovable as your rejection implies. This could be children in response to parents, friends in response to friends, or boyfriend-girlfriend pairs. This is especially true when our self-concept is grounded solely on our relationship with another person because rejection by that person becomes tantamount to self-rejection. As the psychologist Erich Fromm observed in another context, the goal is to be lovable, not to have the love of another. What makes us vulnerable is the ego weakness and its subsequent inability to protect us against the predations of the id or super-ego. It is also notable that in the Hedges' piece about contemporary cultural narratives highlights the prominence of betrayal in modern Americna society.
  • pg. 88. "Fairy tales have meaning on many different levels. On another level of meaning, the two protagonists in this story stand for the warring tendencies within us which, if we fail to integrate them, will surely destroy us. The king symbolizes a person completely dominated by his id because his ego, due to severe disappointments in life, has losts its strength to keep his id in bounds. After all, the task of the ego is to protect us against devastating deprivation, which in the story is symbolized by the king's being sexually betrayed; if the ego fails to do so, it loses its power to guide our lives."
I think Bettelheim makes another point here that is interesting. The love relationship, whether between different dimensions of one's personality or between two people is not a rescue mission where one sacrifices or immolates themself for the benefit of another. It is reciprocal. Bettelheim notes that it is only when Scherazade adds her own passion to her storytelling that they become effective.
  • pg. 89. "Only when Scheherazade's love for the king further inspires her storytelling . . . has she become a fully integrated person. Such a person, the frame story tells, is able to deliver the world from evil as she gains happiness for herself and for the dark other, who believed that none was available to him. As she declares her love for the king, he declares his for her. What greater testimony can we have to the power of all fairy tales to chagne our personality than the ending of this one tale . . . murderous hatred has been changed into enduring love.

Much of this section gets deep into "oedipal complexes" that I do not find helpful of insightful. The key for our purposes is the basic structure of the "two brothers" story type. Bettelheim contrasts it with the Brother-Sister in that the conflict is "leaving the nest" and the mutual envy between the "stand-patters" vs. the ones that flee the nest. It also suggests, again, that the best strategy is to seek balance and for the mutal aid between individuals who strike out on different paths. In modern narratives, this often takes the form of the "odd couple" or "buddy" movie where two dissimilar individuals are paired, and, after overcoming initial conflicts learn to help and respect each other while on their journey. The end result is a ying-yang where each adopts some aspects of the other's wisdom.
  • pg. 91. "The stories on the 'Two Brothers' them add . . . the striving for independence and self-assertion, and the opposite tendency to remain safely home, tied to parents [to this dialogue] . . . the stories stress that both desires reside in each of us, and that we cannot survive deprived of either: the wish to stay tied to the past, and the urge to reach out to a new future. Through the unfolding of events, the story most often teaches that entirely cutting oneself off from one's past leads to disaster, but that to exist only beholden to the past is stunting; while it is safe, it provides no life of one's own. Only the thorough integration of these contrary tendencies permits a successful existence."
A classic example of the "two brothers" format is Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" where the mermaid and human self are the two halves of the pair.

In this chapter, Bettelheim distinguishes between how seemingly similar plot structures have different meanings for different age groups. For example, the common device of children abandoned by their parents can have different meanings for a younger child than a teenager. For a teenager, it can be the clash of wills and visions between the proto-adult child and the parent and provide reassurance that, in the end, after struggle, the child will be vindicated and may surpass the parent. However, for a younger child, it becomes the consequences of being abandoned for bad behavior. In this there is the distinction between the withdrawal of unconditional "mommy love" to the young child and the withholding of conditional "daddy love" for the older child.
  • pg. 98. "The young child in such tales is simply deserted--like Hansel and Gretel--for the anxiety of the prepubertal age is' If I am not a good, obedient child, if I give trouble to my parents, they will no longer take good care of me; they might even desert me.' The pubertal child, more confident that he might be able to take care of himself, feels less anxious about desertion and thus has more courage to stand up to his parent. In the stories where the child is handed over to a servant to be killed, he has threatened the parent's dominance or self-respect, as Snow White does by being more beautiful than the queen. In 'The Three Languages' the count's parental authority is put into question by the son's so obviously not learning what the father thinks he should."
Bettelheim also delves into the symbolism of the different animals encountered by the hero in the story, making the general point of how individuals must confront different challenges or progress through different stages in their maturation.
  • pg. 101-2. "This story also implies that simply learning to understand all aspects of the world and our existence in it (earth, air, water) and of our inner life (id, ego, superego) does little for us. We profit from such understanding in meaningful ways only as we apply it to our dealings with the world. To know the language of dogs is not enough; we must also be able to deal with that which the dogs represent. The ferocious dogs, whose language the hero has to learn before any higher humanity becomes possible, symbolize the violent, aggressive, and destructive drives in man. If we remain alienated from these drives, then they can destroy us as the dogs devour some men . . . The birds symbolize the higher aspirations of the superego and ego ideal."


Many fairy tales present the hero as anti-hero, the one that one would least expect to be successful, as the main driver of the story's action. This is different from myths, where the heroes typically have special birthrights, children of kings or gods, etc. Fairy-tales tend to the "Forrest Gump" meme where the one considered stupid by society turns out to be the most intelligent. This type of story is especially important to children because they view themselves as lacking ability, while the story reassures them that with time and effort they will overcome their limitations and upstage their doubters.
  • pg. 104. "The fairy-tale motif of the child abused and rejected by older siblings is well known all through history . . . The unhappiness of the 'dumb' child whom the rest of the family holds in low esteem is not mentioned. His being considered stupid is stated as a fact of life which does not seem to concern him much. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the 'simpleton' does not mind this condition, since others thus expect nothing of him. Such stories begin to unfold when the simpleton's uneventful life is interrupted by some demand . . . A small child, bright though he may be, feels himself stupid and inadequate when confronted with the complexity of the world which surrounds him. Everybody else seems to know so much more than he, and to be so much more capable. This is why many fairy tales begin with the hero being depreciated and considered stupid. These are the child's feelings about himself, which are projected not so much onto the world at large as onto his parents and older siblings."
Bettelheim also notes the wisdom of being attentive to one's unconciousness needs and drives and not simply listening or following conscious reason to approach our life problems. Intuition can be as important as reason.
  • pg. 103. "The hero of 'The Three Feathers,' though considered stupid, is victorious because he does this, while his competitors that rely on cleverness and remain fixated to the surface of things turn out to have been the stupid ones. Their derision of the 'simple' brother, the one who remains close to his natural basis, followed by his victory over them, suggests that a consciousness which has separated itself from its unconscious sources leads us astray."
The key message is not the plight of those who are looked down upon. They do not want help from the outside, they need reinforcement of their own eventual competence to handle the challenges they face on their own.
  • pg. 104-5. "On the simplest and most direct level, fairy tales in which the hero is the youngest and most inept offer the child the consolation and hope for the future he needs most . . . The outcome of these stories tells the child that he who has been considered by himself or by others as least able will nonetheless surpass all . . . what the child who feels downtrodden needs is not compassion from others who are in the same predicament, but rather the conviction that he can escape this fate."


For young boys, the substitution of competition with Father-figures with an achievement/accomplishment task -- solving a riddle or slaying a beast -- who guards the object of desire. In addition, this interpretation allows for a self-indulgent interpretation of the female's attitude to the young boy. It is not that the female does not want to express affection for the boy, but is prevented from doing so by some external force. Instead of guilt, the boy is able to view himself as heroic and rewarded for success. This interpretation does not endanger the young boy's dependence on his real parents.
  • pg. 111. "No little boy has ever failed to see himself in this starring role. The story implies: it's not Father whose jealousy prevents you from having Mother all to yourself, it's an evil dragon--what you really have in mind is to slay an evil dragon. Further, the story gives veracity to the boy's feeling that the most desirable female is kept in captivity by an evil figure, while implying that it is not Mother the child wants for himself, but a marvelous and wonderful woman he hasn't met yet, but certainly will. The story tells more of what the boy wants to hear and believe: that is not of her own free will that this wonderful female (i.e., Mother) abides with this bad male figure. On the contrary, if only she could, she would much prefer to be with a young hero (like the child). The dragon slayer always has to be young, like the child, and innocent. The innocence of the hero with whom the child identifies proves by proxy the child's innocence, so that, far from having to feel guilty about these fantasies, the child can feel himself to be the proud hero."
The presence of the evil stepmother is a common motif in fairy stories. This "stand-in" can be the target of ire and once again, the benevolent father figure is prevented from rescuing the young girl. It also supports the idea that there is an unnamed "Prince Charming" out there who will find the unnoticed girl (think Cinderella) desirable and allows here aspire to the role of a "princess" or "bride" or "wife."
  • pg. 112-3. "What blocks the . . .girl's uninterrupted blissful existence with Father is an older, ill-intentioned female (i.e., Mother). But since the little girl also wants very much to continue enjoying Mother's loving care, there is also a benevolent female in the past or background of the fairy tale, whose happy memory is kept intact, although she has become inoperative. A little girl wishes to see herself as a young and beautiful maiden--a princess or the like--who is kept captive by the selfish, evil female figure and hence unavailable to the male lover. The captive princess' real father is depicted as benevolent, but helpless to come to the rescue of his lovely girl."
Bettelheim describes the value of sublimated oedipal themes in fairy tales. It is not that they are real, but allow children to explore conflicts in safe ways without endangering their basic support system: their parents.
  • pg. 115. "Thus a child can have the best of both worlds, which is what he needs to grow up into a secure adult. In fantasy a girl can win out over the (step)mother whose efforts to prevent her happiness with the prince fail; a boy can slay the monster and gain what he wishes in a far-distant land. At the same time, both girls and boys can retain at home the real father as protector and the real mother who dispenses all the care and satisfactions a child needs. Since it is clear all along that slaying the dragon and marrying the enslaved princess, or being discovered by the fairy prince and punishing the wicked witch, occur in faraway times and countries, the normal child never mixes them up with reality."


In this section Bettelheim considers several reasons that modern fairy stories have been sanitized and bowlderized. Specifically, he identifies three main reasons given by parents or childcare professionals.
  • " . . . fairy tales do not render 'truthful' pictures of life as its, and are therefore unhealthy."
  • "Some parents fear that by telling their children about the fantastic events found in fairy tales, they are 'lying' to them. Their concern is fed by the child's asking, 'Is it true?'"
  • "Some parents fear that their children may get carried away by their fantasies; that when exposed to fairy tales, they will come to believe in magic . . . Other parents fear that a child's mind may become so overfed by fairy-tale fantasies as to neglect learning to cope with reality."
Bettelheim distinguishes between fully understanding a child's psychology and fruitfully engaing that child in addressing their problems. Children understand the world through simple categories and narratives and must be approached in a manner that they can understand and appreciate.
  • pg. 120. "This is the tragedy of so much 'child psychology': its findings are correct and important, but do not benefit the child. Psychological discoveries aid the adult in comprehending the child from within an adult's frame of reference. But such adult understanding of the machinations of a child's mind often increases the gap between them--the two seem to look at the same phenomenon from such different points of view that each sees something quite different. If the adult insists that the way he sees things is correct--as it may well be, seen objectively and with adult knowledge--this gives the child a hopeless feeling that there is no use in trying to arrive at a common understanding. Knowing who holds the power, the child, to avoid trouble and have his peace, says that he agrees with the adult, and is then forced to go it alone."
Bettelheim criticizes approaches to childhood development that emphasize exclusively "id-suppressing' strategies that appeal only to greater maturity or moralizing fables. We must be in touch with our drives and needs as well as societal demands for our behavior to fully develop as persons.
  • pg.121."The unconscious is the source of raw materials and the basis upon which the ego erects the edifice of our personality. In this simile our fantasies are the natural resources which provide and shape this raw material, making it useful for the ego's personality-building tasks. If we are deprived of this natural resource, our life remains limited; without fantasies to give us hope, we do not have the strength to meet the adversities of life. Childhood is the time when these fantasies need to be nurtured."
Avoiding anxieties or shielding children from conflicts that they clearly experience stunts the child's development. Maturity is gained by facing and overcoming our anxieties.
  • pg.122. "The rationalizations for continuing to forbid fairy tales despite what psychoanalysis revealed about the unconscious, particularly that of children took many forms. When it could no longer be denied that the child is beset by deep conflicts, anxieties, violent desires, and helplessly tossed about by all kinds of irrational processes, it was concluded that because the child is already afraid of so many things, anything else that looked fearsome should be kept from him. A particular story may indeed make some children anxious, but once they become better acquainted with fairy stories, the fearsome aspects seem to disappear, while the reassuring features become ever more dominant. The original displeasure of anxiety then turns into the great pleasure of anxiety successfully faced and mastered."

This section mostly is a summary of Bettelheim's overall argument. Since it is covered in greater detail in previous sections, not specific commentary here.


Bettelheim identifies the elements of traditional fairy stories and contrasts them with modern fairy tales
  • pg. 143. "The shortcomings of modern fairy stories highlight the elements which are most enduring in traditional fairy tales. Tolkien describes the facets which are necessary in a good fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation--recovery from deep despair, escape from some great danger, but, most of all, consolation. Speaking of the happy ending, Tolkien stresses that all complete fairy stories must have it. It is 'a sudden joyous 'turn' . . . However fantastic or terrible the adventure, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to tears.'"
The main achievement of fairy stories is that inform the child that no matter how difficult their current reality is, with effort and growth, problems will solved, limits will be breached, and peace of mind will return.
  • pg. 147. "Failure to experience recovery and consolation is true enough in reality, but this hardly encourages the child to meet life with steadfastness which will permit him to accpet that going through severe trials can lead to existing on a higher plane. Consolation is the greatest service the fairy tale can offer a child: the confidence that, despite all tribulations he has to suffer . . ., not only will he succeed, but the evil forces will be done away with and never again threaten his peace of mind."
Stories that sanitize or simplify fairy stories deprive the child of the story's emotional meaning. The child's sense of justice must be met and parties should be treated as they deserve.
  • pg. 147. "Prettified or bowlderized fairy tales are rightly rejected by any child who has heard them in their original form. It does not seem fitting to the child that Cinderella's evil sisters should go scot-free, or even be elevated by Cinderella. Such magnanimity does not impress the child favorably, nor will he learn it from a parent who bowdlerizes the story so the just and the wicked are both rewarded. The child knows better what he needs to be told . . . The child feels that all's well with the world, and that he can be secure in it, only if the wicked are punished in the end."


Bettelheim has strong opinions about how fairy tales should be presented to children. He believe they should be told -- i.e., read to a child by an adult, instead of reading the story in isolation. Telling the story gives it emotional impact and allows the story to be flexible to apply to the specific need and interests of the child.
  • pg. 150. "To attain to the full its consoling propensities, its symbolic meanings, and, most of all, its interpersonal meanings, a fairy tale should be told rather than read. If it is read, it ought to be read with emotional involvement in the story and in the child, with empathy for what the story may mean to him. Telling is preferable to reading because it permits greater flexibility."
Children should be encouraged to find their own meaning in the fairy story and not be informed of an objection general interpretation or meaning of the tale. The message is communicated by the reader's tone, not by explication of the story. Stories appeal to emotional truth, not rational analysis.
  • pg. 155-6. "One must never 'explain' to the child the meanings of fairy tales. However, the narrator's understanding of the fairy tale's message to the child's preconscious mind is important. The narrator's comprehension of the tale's many levels of meaning facilitates the child's deriving from the story clues for understanding himself better. It furthers the adult's sensitivity to selection of those stories which are most appropriate to the child's state of development, and to the specific psychological difficulties he is confronted with at the moment . . . That is why it depends largely on the narrator's feelings about a fairy tale whether it falls flat or is cherished. The loving grandmother who tells the tale to a child who, sitting on her lap, listens to it enraptured will communicate something very different than a parent who, bored by the story, reads it to several children of quite different ages out of a sense of duty. The adult's sense of active participation in telling the story makes a vital contribution to, and greatly enriches, the child's experience of it. It entails an affirmation of his personality through a particular shared experience with another human being who, though an adult, can fully appreciate the feelings and reactions of the child."