Moral Lessons in Fairy Tales

I am delving into the world of fairy tales again, drawing primarily from Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

As a young child struggles to make sense of the bewildering world around him, he also strives to understand and gain control over his own emotions and desires. He needs “a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior.” ¹

One of the most basic goals of literature written for children is to impart moral lessons and encourage moral behaviour. Because the ethical lessons in fairy tales are understated and at times even buried, these stories were widely accused in the 18th and 19th century of being amoral, or even immoral and thus unsuitable for children. Fairy tales don’t beat you over the head with the lesson, like other chidren’s literature of the time (and our time as well).

Le Chat Botte by Gustave Dore

It’s true that there are a few stories within the fairy tale tradition which seem rather obviously amoral – “Puss ’n’ Boots” and other ‘trickster’ tales. Bettelheim believes that these stories serve an entirely different purpose than the majority of fairy tales, that of “giving the child the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life. … Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed.” ²

As well, in most fairy tales there is a definite sense that, yes, bad things can happen to good people, which in its own way may be a useful lesson for children to learn.

In the old European fairy tale … [v]irtue and hard work are punished as often as they are rewarded and, in some perverse way, this knowledge absorbed from the old tales always proves exhilarating, even liberating, for children. Such stories tell us that the future cannot be read with certainty … Capricious events may well bring unexpected alterations, for good or evil. The fairy tale’s ultimate message is that there is a magic to existence that defies charting.” ³

Amoral tales and general capriciousness aside, fairy tales do teach moral lessons. (When all is said and done, and Red Riding Hood has escaped the wolf, doesn’t one come away with the conviction that she should have obeyed to her mother and not loitered about talking to strangers?) Other ancient literary forms may be more obvious with their moralizing, but it is this obviousness which Bruno Bettelheim believes makes them far less effective when it comes to instilling moral behaviour in youngsters.

For example, MYTHS deal with ethical dilemmas but they are faced by superhuman heroes and gods. Myths are epic in scale and include a touch of the divine; they exist on a plane above that of earth.

“… the dominant feeling a myth conveys is: this is absolutely unique; it could not have happened to any other person, or in any other setting; such events are grandiose, awe-inspiring, and could not possibly happen to an ordinary mortal...” ⁴

In contrast, fairy tale heroes are Everyman. So much so that they are almost never given names, other than ‘the Woodcutter’, ‘the Old Woman’, ‘the Swineherd’, ‘the Youngest Daughter’, etc. An Everyman is someone we immediately identify with, because he or she is ordinary, just like us. And if we identify with them, we learn from their mistakes and are lifted up by their successes.

FABLES are the most moralistic story form, for they tell us directly, in no uncertain terms, what we should do. Aesop’s Fables in particular have certainly lasted through the centuries, but they don’t exactly hold the warm place in the hearts of children that fairy tales do. For example…

Pig by L. Leslie Brooke

“The Three Little Pigs” (fairy tale) and “The Ant and the Grasshopper” (fable) both attempt to teach us not to be lazy and take the easy way out, for if we do, we may perish.  The fable explicitly tells us what to do:

Moral: We should always make plans for the future.”

The fairy tale, on the  other hand, tells an entertaining story and leaves all further interpretation up to us. In doing so, the “Three Pigs” is able to win over the listener first and let the moral sink in afterward. (Unless you are reading a modern variant of the tale, in which the author is compelled to be preachy.)

The Ant and the Grasshopper by Charles H. Bennett

Another reason the Pigs are more effective than Aesop’s tale is that the Ant is such an a**hole. He has no compassion for the suffering grasshopper, no generosity of spirit, no forgiveness. The Ant is not in the least bit admirable, and it’s a rare reader who doesn’t feel sympathy for the Grasshopper instead.

Bettelheim writes that, in a child’s mind, the likeability of the hero or heroine is key:

It is not the fact that virtue wins out at the end which promotes morality, but that the hero is most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles. … The child makes such identifications all on his own, and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him. … a child’s choices are based, not so much on right versus wrong, as on who arouses his sympathy...”  ⁶

And finally…

“The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’ “


¹ Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Random House, 1975) p. 5

² Ibid., p. 10

³ Selma G. Lanes,  Down the Rabbit Hole; Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature. (New York: Atheneum, 1971) p. 94

⁴ Op. cit., Bettelheim, p. 37

⁵ Aesop, Aesop’s Fables. (New York: Macmillan, 1989) p. 24

⁶ Op. cit., Bettelheim, p. 9

⁷ Ibid., p. 10


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