What do we know about the imagination? Why do we have it? And do we need it? Shelley and Chesterton considered imagination the moral organ of man. Lewis said imagination was the organ of meaning. Tolkien described it as the part of man that causes him to “sub-create” (only God can create, said Tolkien). For each of these men, imagination resulted in literature—poetry, fantasy, fairy tales. And for most of us a definition of imagination is dependent upon our observation of its products. The product most easily recognizable as imaginative is the fairy tale.

The essays on imagination by Lewis and Tolkien, which I have reread annually for much of my adult life, leave me both satiated and tantalized. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” though thorough, stops short of telling me why he and other Christians are so interested in imagination. Explaining imagination is no easy task.

Help has come from an unexpected source: a child psychologist. In a compelling and brilliant book entitled The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Knopf, 1976), Bruno Bettelheim proposes that for a child to develop an integrated personality he needs fairy tales, he needs imagination. “Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children” (p. 53). This book should become the basis for future studies of fairy tales.

In his introduction Bettelheim tells us what he won’t do in his book: he won’t concentrate on how fairy tales reflect our cultural heritage, our moral values, or our religious nature, though throughout his study he cites several fairy tales that function in each of these ways. As he explains, those are book topics in themselves. Rather, he looks at fairy tale as an art form that helps children (and adults) answer such questions as: “What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I truly be myself?” And these are metaphysical questions.

Fairy tales suggest—they do not dictate answers. Therefore, different fairy tales may answer those questions for different children at different stages of development. And the same fairy tale may provide answers to different problems for one child as he grows.

Bettelheim wrote this book to help adults, particularly those with children, recognize the importance of fairy tales. He urges parents to overcome their fear that fairy tales will frighten children—a twentieth-century phenomenon, as Lewis and others have pointed out. Fairy tales never pretend to describe external reality, and no child confuses dragons or unicorns with cattle. The once-upon-a-time setting gives a child all he needs to understand what the tale is about. “The ‘truth’ of fairy stories is the truth of our imagination.… Before a child can come to grips with reality, he must have some frame of reference to evaluate it. When he asks whether a story is true, he wants to know whether the story contributes something of importance to his understanding” (p. 117).

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The Uses of Enchantment also explains how fairy stories help a child sort out his universe. The Bible explains that “God divided the light from darkness.” Bettelheim sees fairy tales helping children do the same: “As he listens to the fairy tale, the child gets ideas about how he may create order out of the chaos which is his inner life. The fairy tale suggests not only isolating and separating the disparate and confusing aspects of the child’s experience into opposites, but projecting these onto different figures” (p. 75), such as the wolf and the father in “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Now, all this might sound as if it destroys the appealing magical quality of a fairy tale. But Bettelheim avoids that by insisting that the art form is as important as the psychological meaning of fairy tales to children. If the story doesn’t entertain, it won’t educate either.

Bettelheim dislikes the modern fairy tale, which violates what is most enduring about the traditional tales. A good fairy story, he says quoting Tolkien, needs fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation—the latter most of all. Each of us needs hope; modern tales often end with despair. How can a child feel that he can work out his problems if all he hears are sad endings?

“Hears” is a key word. Even if a child is old enough to read, the art form of the fairy tale demands to be spoken. “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” (p. 150). A child needs the emotional and physical involvement of the teller. Also, the ancient tales—and just how ancient we learn in part two, “In Fairy Land”—were “shaped and reshaped by being told millions of times, by different adults to all kinds of other adults and children.” Bettelheim urges his readers to reread the fairy tales as they read his book.

Part two explores the meanings and history of some well-known fairy tales—“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and, of course, “Cinderella,” the oldest and best-known fairy tale (when first written down in China in A. D. 9, it already had a history, says Bettelheim).

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Some readers may reject Bettelheim’s interpretations as being too psychological, though I think he’s on the right track in most cases. But as he explains in his introduction, his interpretations are “illustrative and suggestive.” “Jack and the Beanstalk” may have phallic significance, Sleeping Beauty’s bleeding finger may symbolize the onset of puberty, and Goldilocks might deal with sibling rivalry. Whatever the interpretation—and as art fairy tales have many—parents should never explain them to children. Imagination works subconsciously for children. Bettelheim wants parents to understand this, and he hopes his book will help them be sensitive about which tales help a child and why.

Although Bettelheim does not write from a specifically Christian perspective, what he says about fairy tales touches Christianity. Fairy tales are about justice, mercy, original sin, love, and peace. Through imagination they help a child recognize love and sacrifice, first in his parents, and then in others. And unless a child understands that, he will find it difficult to understand what Christians claim is the ultimate source of sacrificial love.

Film: Fragments of Reality

The darkened room is hushed with expectancy. All eyes strain ahead as heavy curtains glide apart and a narrow cylinder of light pierces the gloom. Suddenly color and light fill the front of the room while discordant electronic notes shatter the stillness. The film begins.

Every year millions of people enter a theater, willing if not eager to surrender themselves to the film experience. Any intrusion of reality, such as light from an opening door or audience whispers, distracts and irritates. The enthusiastic viewer wants to lose himself in the film world.

The modern scientist defines reality as a construct of mathematical symbols based on the junction of time and space, mass and energy, matter and field. So it is not possible for the modern artist, working from this definition, to create art that is an imitation of reality; his reality is not apprehensible through his senses. Thus begins a subversion of conventional reality that results in the fragmentation, dissolution, and destruction of the most fundamental beliefs and precepts.

In his book Film as a Subversive Art (Random House, 1974) Amos Vogel clearly outlines the techniques used in avant-garde films to accomplish this subversion. Time and space are telescoped or dismissed altogether. Memory, reality, and illusion fuse until the viewer realizes with a sickening flash that the discontinuity only reflects the modern world view. Camera movements are frequent, editing is unpredictable. Narrative structures and clearly defined characters give way to uneasy improvisation and poetic complexity.

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Vogel provides numerous examples of these techniques. Among them is an ominous scene from the movie Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog, 1970. Two eerily stunted beings with caps, oversized goggles, and long white clubs appear to be examining a dead pig. The Kafkaesque image is infused with metaphysical dread.

How successful are avant-garde films in subverting viewers? Research indicates that the average person seeks out those films that support his point of view and avoids those that do not. If forced to view a film that assaults established opinions or convictions, the average person tends to react in anger by distorting the film’s content to reaffirm and justify his own convictions. Finally, the average person will remember only those things in a film that he values according to his age, sex, intelligence, level of formal education, socioeconomic values, needs, and desires.

Unfortunately, increasing numbers of viewers bring no well-thought-out world view to the film experience. Established convictions and beliefs, if any, are minimal, and these are ripe for subversion. The unwary are easily robbed of their sense of meaning and purpose.

Artistically sensitive Christians need to respond forcefully to the nihilistic anarchism filling theater screens. Verbal and written criticism would shield the vulnerable person who wanders out of a Fellini movie feeling dirty and depressed but not knowing why.


Carol Prester McFadden is a free-lance writer and editor in Arlington, Virginia.

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