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.