A Fairy Tale Death

Here is the blurb about the book “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettelheim.

“Bruno Bettelheim was one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century and perhaps none of his books has been more influential than this revelatory study of fairy tales and their universal importance in understanding childhood development.

Analyzing a wide range of traditional stories, from the tales of Sindbad to “The Three Little Pigs,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” Bettelheim shows how the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in our greatest human task, that of finding meaning for one’s life.”

I suggest an addition to what fairy tales tell us about not only children, but also about adults: that we innately feel horror about the slaughter of animals for food. Somehow that horror is culturally excised, but it is there, and the fairy tale capitalizes on that sensation.

During the period of the creation of the fairy tale, there were many ways in current practice to torture and kill people. Burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering, being ripped apart by horses, breaking on the rack etc… Nonetheless fairy tales from those bygone eras feature the horror of a different kind of death. Although, I have not and have no desire to do an in depth study of fairy tales, I know the popular ones as many children do who have access to books in the Western world.  I do not recall anyone in a fairy tale meeting his or her end, or fearing to do so, through one of those standard methods. There were the poisoned apple and the poisoned spindle, but the respective victims did not fear those innocuous objects and happened upon them and picked them up willingly. Instead, to engender the greatest horror in a fairy tale, the humans face the risk of suffering what is routinely done to animals. The witch is going to fatten up Hansel and Gretel and put them in the oven; the ogre at the top of the beanstalk is going to grind up human bones for dinner; the wolf is going to eat Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother; the wolf is going to eat the three little pigs, all of which have entirely human characteristics (the ability to build houses and talk, for example). In short, how awful and frightful to be subjected to the fate that we inflict on nonhuman animals, i.e. killing them for food. The strong affinity for animals that many children have and which is fostered by “stuffed animals” and story books anthropomorphizing them, which are either a cause or effect of that affinity, might well make a child subliminally view an animal type of death as particularly horrifying.

One might counter that what is found horrible in those stories is the cannibalistic nature of the death, not a connection to what is done to nonhuman animals. Not so, I would say because cannibalism was not as prominent of a practice in the world that gave rise to the fairy tale as animal confinement and slaughter for food; in fact, it might not have even been known or even comprehensible. Cannibalism was a practice discovered at some point among other cultures or egregiously resorted to by starving sailors, post the period of the fairy tales’ creation.

So, if, as psychologists avow, fairy tales tell us something about ourselves, they are telling us that the most terrible and scary treatment we can imagine is that which we inflict on animals. This is the point where people take up the dogma, “Animals are different,” overlooking the scientific fact that of course humans are animal (not vegetable or mineral and those are your choices). No question, all species differ, but all species have their own interests, have a capacity for suffering, and fear death. When a group, in this case our exalted species, is perpetrating an evil on another, it is always best to consider the victimized group as different, otherwise what that dominant group is doing might be too horrible to contemplate, so horrible that it counts as a terrible and frightful prospect in stories that hold up a mirror to our hidden selves.

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