Myth connects us to the deepest truths and dynamics of human experience, and it does so through the gift of imagination and catharsis. As we identify with the hero, we experience what he goes through. We share not only his thoughts, but also his emotions. Heart speaks to heart.
Some time ago my wife sighed and tossed aside the book she was reading with the exasperated observation, “This book has too many words in it.”
I was disappointed to see that it was my latest.
She’s right. My books have too many words in them. So do most books. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment is an example. Bettelheim, who committed suicide by putting a plastic bag over his head, has been exposed as a charlatan, a bully, and a Jewish anti-Semite. A survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, he claimed to be a colleague of Sigmund Freud and to hold advanced degrees in psychology. Investigators have been unable to trace the documents. He is a sad example illustrating the truth that “Freud” should be spelled with an “a.”
In addition to being a bad man, Bettelheim wrote a book with too many words. The Uses of Enchantment is based around the idea that fairy tales are useful. In an age when tidy parents were concerned that wicked witches and lecherous wolves might frighten their darlings, Bettelheim argued that the dark symbols and villainous characters help the child in his formative years to deal with the ominous impulses in his own life in a safe way.
He suggests that the child feels hatred toward the mother because she doesn’t always give him everything he wants. However, the little one is supposed to love his mother, not hate her. The wicked witch, the jealous queen, or the villainous stepmother provide a transference object. Little Johnny can hate the wicked witch but still love his mother.
Deep in her subconscious little Susie is terrified of sex. She wants to love her Daddy and big brothers, but they make her nervous with their big hairy strength and latent sexuality. The big, bad wolf—the hirsute, drooling beast gives a proper object for her fascination and fear. Will she be devoured by the wolf? Grandma has been. Will that be her fate too? Happily the father-figure comes along and chops up that wolf with his axe.
Bettelheim’s is an intriguing theory, but it didn’t need much more than a scholarly article to explicate. Nevertheless he has a point, and even if it is too Freudian, it touches on the uses of enchantment not only in fairy tales, and not only for children. In fact, the symbols and characters of fairy tales operate in the human imagination in the same way that symbols, plots, and characters work in all myth and fantasy literature.
Whether they are the myths of ancient civilizations, J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpieces, science fiction or superhero movies, the uses of enchantment are the same. The characters, plots, and symbols connect with the universals within human experience. You may call it the collective unconscious if you like, but this is only a term that seeks to name the common human experiences that transcend particular times and cultures.
What interests me is that psychiatrists like Freud and Carl Jung thought themselves so clever—and a secular society thought them so clever—for discovering a dynamic within human culture that anyone with even a somewhat thoughtful understanding of religion would have known already existed. The rituals and myths of religion were once the dynamic that helped little ones face the terrors of the night and made connections for ordinary people with the deep down things.
Tolkien was blamed for populating his story with cardboard cut-out characters. The critic did not understand the uses of enchantment and the power of archetypes. Frodo is the classic orphan-hero who dies and rises again. Gandalf is the archetypal magus. Bilbo is the avuncular encourager and Samwise the typical sidekick supporter. Aragorn the returning king and Saruman the archetypal good-man-gone-bad. These characters and the plot they play out echo in the human imagination—connecting to other, more deeply-rooted stories and characters within our shared humanity.
There are far more uses of enchantment than poor Bettelheim supposed. The characters and plots of myth do more than help children cope with their mysterious worries. Myth connects us to the deepest truths and dynamics of human experience, and it does so through the gift of imagination and catharsis. As we identify with the hero we experience what he goes through. We share not only his thoughts, but also his emotions. Cor ad cor loquitor—heart speaks to heart. It is in this transaction that we do more than navigate the terrors of the night. We also connect with the timeless stories of the quest—the search for redemption and release.
I met Tolkien’s daughter once. I was in Oxford and Father John Saward asked me to cover weekend masses for him at his church of Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory in North Oxford. I had heard that Miss Tolkien still lived in the area and that she attended Mass at Fr. Saward’s parish. In the sacristy I asked about her, and the server said she was in the front row. So after Mass I had the opportunity to greet her very briefly.
My comment to her was, “I believe your father was the greatest Catholic evangelist of the twentieth century.”
She looked surprised and asked, “Why is that?”
“Because he wrote, ‘There’s good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for!”
I didn’t have time to quote the whole thing:
“It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
I didn’t have time to explain that Tolkien’s myth keeps alive in a multitude of hearts and minds the greater myths of a barren wasteland, a people enslaved by a Dark Lord, the whispers of a returning king, and a little hero who overcomes the perfidious powers with hope, courage, and a few faithful friends.
I didn’t have time to explain that these myths help a people who have turned against a Christian religion that has gone dark to recognize the true light when they encounter it.
I not only didn’t have the time.
She knew that already, and besides… it would have been too many words.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Britomart” (1900) by Walter Crane (1845-1915), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.