What Happened to Storytelling? And Does It Matter?

Most children now meet fairy tales only in prettified and simplified versions which subdue their meaning and rob them of all deeper significance – version such as those on films and TV shows, where fairy tales are turned into empty-minded entertainment. (The Uses of Enchantment, New York: Vintage Books 2010, p. 24)

Thus pronounces Bruno Bettelheim ca. 1976. And he’s right – I would say that the vast majority of children don’t have fairy tales told to them, orally, today. I believe Bettelheim even disapproves of fairy tale picture books as providing an inappropriate filter of the artist’s conception of what princesses and dragons and dwarfs etc. look like, which doesn’t allow the child to use his (for Bettelheim, all children are male) imagination. To be honest, I can’t think of one instance of a modern child being told a fairy tale – just told orally, by an adult, in words, no pictures or puppets or visual aids. Not one instance – not myself, not my own kids or those of friends and relatives, not the kids I’ve dealt with in my professional life. Even leaving aside Disney, which is the biggest filter for today’s kids, if a fairy tale isn’t disseminated by a movie, there’s usually picture books, puppet shows, or kindergarten or library story time sessions (with puppets and picture books). I don’t know of one adult who sits down with children and tells them fairy tales.

We don’t tell stories any more today in this society – not traditional, formal stories, anyway. (The stories we tell are “what happened to me on the way home from work” or “do you remember what went on at the football game” and “what you were like when you were little”, not “Once upon a time” fiction that we heard from others.) The stories children learn today they learn from different media, not the spoken word.

And now I’m going to ask a somewhat heretical question: Does it matter? It’s all fine and dandy for Bettelheim & Co to go on about the importance of fairy tales in a child’s life, and then dismiss stories that arrive in the child’s world via film or picture book as “empty-minded entertainment”. The reality is, that is how children meet with fairy tales today. They hear fairy tales from Disney, and that’s been the case for the last forty or fifty years. Today’s adults are very likely to have learned fairy tales from picture books, the movie theatre, the TV, or at least an illustrated book version of Grimm’s or Andersen’s, not from being told them on their grandmothers’ knees. So what meaning do those tales have for us? What do we do with them, what function have they got for us?

I don’t buy the “empty-minded entertainment” idea – I don’t think there is any such thing. Disney’s Snow White is as much a reality in a child’s mind as her spoken-word great-great-great-grandmother in the Grimms’ day. To have folklorists and psychologists dismiss visually or audio-visually mediated stories as irrelevant and worthless is, IMO, yet another instance of traditionalistic arrogance, a la “Everything was better in Ye Olden Days”. And that attitude really gets us nowhere.

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2 thoughts on “What Happened to Storytelling? And Does It Matter?

  1. Ah yes, Bettleheim. I read him back in my children’s lit days – really loved reading his work actually (about the same time I read Joseph Campbell). It certainly did shape the way I think about and understand fairy tale, and also the work of Jane Yolen – I absolutely adore her. I did read a wide variety of fairy tale to my boys, and they never were the Disney versions, but I had no aversion to illustrated books at all as I used that incredible artwork as another way for experiencing the story. We read many versions of the stories so that my boys understood that all art is an interpretation, both written and visual, and by extension, oral as well. We talked a lot about how stories were handed down orally for many years until they were finally written, but that there are many ways to interpret these archetypal stories, and indeed even now we watch modern movies and see the elements of those stories woven through in so many creative ways. I had wanted to develop good oral story-telling skills, and did spend some time trying to develop them, but I finally gave up because as you have pointed out, that is no longer the cultural soup within which we live. It was just too hard. Reading aloud has its own challenges – I have become very good at it – but remembering a story well enough to just tell it – ah – that escapes me. I even took Boy #1 to the Vancouver Storytelling Festival one year – marvelous stuff. But ultimately, you are right – we do what we can, and becoming a “purist” about how we share stories with children doesn’t really serve anyone. I personally think that the movies Beowulf and Lord of the Rings were a gift to humanity – for they brought those magical stories (as truncated and altered as they were) to life to so many people who would have otherwise remained ignorant of them. I had never read Beowulf, for example, and now I want to. I know the movie version is really different and now I want to see how. Picture books and movies are a window, a doorway if you will, to the original story. How can that be a bad thing?

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    • Well, according to Bettelheim (and Zipes, whose theories I much prefer) even reading the story out of Grimm’s is already going a step too far. You’re supposed to tell them, orally, or “the child” won’t be getting any of the benefits that he supposedly will derive otherwise.
      I have to admit that I really don’t like Bettelheim; he’s extremely dogmatic about what “he, the child” does or feels, as if all children were boys and felt exactly the same thing. For example, he cites the Grimms’ “Goose Girl” as an example of how “the child” feels this story is just because the bad woman gets punished in the end – I hated that story as a kid, because the horse gets his head chopped off and he never gets revived, which I thought was horribly unjust. Of course, it’s all very Oedipal and what-not.
      I guess what it comes down to is that I have no use for (and/or understanding of) Freudian theories, and Bettelheim is very Freudian indeed.

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