Gate 1: Tolkien vs Bettelheim (Essay)

Draft an essay in which you form an argument in support of one of the theorists we have discussed (Tolkien or Bettelheim) regarding which theorist you believe has the more accurate understanding of fairy tales and their purpose. 

Part of the magic of fairy tales is that they can be whatever we want them to be. From instructional tales for children to fantastical escapes for all ages, these stories come in many forms and serve a variety of purposes. Given this variety, it is difficult to determine what the specific purpose of fairy tales should be, especially as Tolkien and Bettelheim do not seem to agree on how to define a fairy tale. Even so, both Tolkien and Bettelheim make reasonable arguments, although I find Tolkien’s understanding of fairy stories to be much more compelling than Bettelheim’s.

In the introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales help the child to “[fit] unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which then enable him to deal with that content” and further suggests that fairy tales have “unequaled value” in this respect. (7)  Bettelheim sees fairy tales as children’s stories, with their purpose being to aid children in understanding and coping with the world around them.

On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories defines fairy tales in a more complex manner. Initially, it can be difficult to understand precisely how Tolkien interprets a fairy tale, or fairy story as he tends to call them. To Tolkien, a fairy story is a tale involving the Faerie realm, a place that “cannot be caught in a net of words, for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.” (4)  Tolkien also clarifies that fairy tales are not travellers’ tales, stories of Dream, or Beast-fables.

In further contrast to Bettelheim, Tolkien argues that “common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories” but that this perceived connection is without basis. (11) To Tolkien, a fairy tale’s primary purpose is not to instruct children in how to cope with the world around them, rather that the stories offer Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. If anything, Tolkien implies that adults have more need of fairy tales as “children have, as a rule, less need than older people” of the fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation provided by the fairy stories. (15)

Although fairy tales are often perceived by our culture to be stories for children, I disagree with Bettelheim. The fairy tale does not possess unequaled value for children. Growing older does not always cause us to need less guidance in how to cope with the world around us – as our understanding of the world increases, so too does the complexity of the problems we can comprehend and face. Also, there are many types of stories and experiences that children can encounter which will enable their growth and understanding. Fairy tales are certainly valuable to children, but they are not as singularly valuable as Bettelheim would imply. Fairy tales can have great value for humans young and old, and children are capable of understanding other stories just as they understand fairy tales.

In advocating to disassociate fairy tales from children, Tolkien states that the error of connecting fairy tales to children is “one that is therefore most often made by those who … 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.” (11)  I strongly agree with Tolkien that children are not so different from the rest of the members in the human family, and I feel that Bettelheim downplays children’s intelligence and perceptiveness in believing that children should only understand fairy tales so well. Children are capable of understanding so much more than fairy tales, and I believe they have much more potential than Bettelheim gives them credit for.

Fairy tales are very valuable for those of all ages. Bettelheim does make a valid argument in pointing out ways in which fairy tales can help children. However, as beneficial as these stories are for the child, I find them to hold even greater importance for the adult. There is much to be Recovered from fairy tales, which allow us to refresh our perspectives on our lives. This may restore the sense of wonder and awe that is generally only attributed to children, or simply cause us to consider our worlds from a different angle, in the sense of someone discovering that Coffeeroom  reads mooreeffoc when viewed from the inside of a glass door, as Tolkien points out.

Fairy tales also provide a means of Escape, not only from the hustle and bustle of modern technology, but also from the hardships of life, including “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.” (Tolkien, 22) I can attest from personal experience that the escape fantasy and fairy tales provide has helped me to cope with pain and sorrow in my own adult life. The opportunity to leave one’s troubles behind and venture into a story, even if only for a little while, can aid in lessening the pain and alleviating the sorrow.

Finally, fairy tales also bring us Consolation, in the form of a Happy Ending. As for this aspect of the fairy tale, Tolkien expresses that, “Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.” (22) To Tolkien, happy endings and the Joy that the “eucatastrophe” brings are nearly essential to fairy tales. While I may be more inclined to consider tales without happy endings to also be fairy tales, I do agree that the quintessential fairy tale should have a happy ending. My favorite fairy tales, the stories that I most enjoy revisiting, whether rereading or rewatching, all contain the common element of the happy ending. Happy endings also help to enhance a story’s Escape and Recovery in that the happy ending gives hope to those seeking to evade their troubles and provides inspiration of what could be to those who may have lost sight of such possibilities.

Overall, though I do not discount Bettelheim’s argument, I agree more with Tolkien as to what a fairy-story is and what purpose it has. Fairy tales have so much more to them than their guise as simple children’s stories would imply. Certainly, fairy tales offer significant value to children, but they also possess at least as much value for the adult.

One thought on “Gate 1: Tolkien vs Bettelheim (Essay)

  1. Theresa Endris

    This is something I have recently written on Tolkien’s essay which might shed some insight on the argument, in light of Tolkien’s theological perspectives, which are necessary to understanding his theory on fairy tales:


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