THE HEALING BOOK
THE THERAPEUTIC POTENTIAL OF THE FAIRY TALE
Gödéné dr. Török Ildikó
főiskolai docens (assistant lecturer at college)
Nyugat- Magyarországi Egyetem Benedek Elek Pedagógiai Főiskolai Kar
(University of West Hungary, Benedek Elek Faculty of Pedagogy)
H-9400 Sopron, Ferenczy János u. 5.
Tel.: (36) 99 512 859
Fax: (36) 99 332 390
Reading books is an essential part of our lives, however, surveys have shown that, in our
times, a considerable share of the population do not read books.
Reading good books has several positive effects. Bibliotherapy is a form of therapy,
which can help persons with psychic problems by reading literary works. There is a
growing need for this, because there are more and more people with psychic problems in
our hectic world.
In Hindu medicine, fairy tales were used to cure patients with psychic troubles. French
literary historian, Nisard, also pointed out the value of fairy tales for persons in critical
Childhood is a cherished memory for everyone. Fairy tales, especially those told by the
parents are very important for children. They have numerous positive effects: they help
children cope with their problems, they give them the feeling of safety, and they promote
the development of their personality, imagination and vocabulary.
‘If we are left alone without books, we are instantly thrown into confusion, we get lost, we do
not know what to abide by, which side to take, what to love, what to hate, what to respect,
what to disdain. It is even difficult for us to be flesh and blood humans – ourselves…’(1),
The book is a real good friend, a part of everyday life, the medicine of the soul. Through it,
we want to be entertained, to improve ourselves, to learn, to laugh, to cry and to forget our
daily troubles. Nevertheless, the number of people who read is decreasing at an astounding
rate. This process is a global phenomenon, and thus, Hungary has not remained unaffected. In
our country, 25% of the population read regularly, and a third of them read serial books.
According to a survey, conducted by reading sociologist Gereben Ferenc in November 2000,
the situation is still worse than it was earlier. The proportion of persons reading nothing, not
even daily papers, has doubled within 15 years, and the number of those over 18 years of age
not reading books has increased by 15%, which means that more than half of the adults does
not read a single book in a year. Only 12% of the just mentioned age group use a library,
while there is a suspicion of some degree of functional illiteracy in the case of 20-25% of
them. The survey has shown that the interest in reading and literature has decreased radically.
However, early 20th century Hungarian poet Kosztolányi Dezső already pointed out the
importance of reading: ‘I know: the book is not a fashion article, and our age admires
something else… It prefers to fight the kilometres and miles… Mankind is racing forward by
land, by water, by air; … However, this will come to an end once. Then, mankind will be
taken aback a little. It will examine itself and reflect about its path and its destiny. And it will
also look for an answer in its uncultivated, encrusted soul. But it will not find it for the time
being. The question will be answered by the book. The book, which was disdained and
thrown aside… The book, the mental manna, from which everyone can have enough, the
heavenly nourishment, whose amount increases as more and more people eat from it, the
magical bread, which leaves no one hungry, which satisfies every need, and makes one
powerful so that every one can be a capitalist and an estate owner of knowledge through it, a
millionaire of thoughts.’ (2)
There is a growing need for reading, and for reading valuable books. Books have an answer to
any of our questions if we are able to take the right choice. The knowledge, wisdom and
practical experience of centuries are hidden among the lines. Any time when we feel the need
for it, we can take the right book from the shelf, and we can find an answer to the question
just occupying us.
‘For at least one million years from its emergence, mankind did not read, since there were no
letters. The early humans, however, had an immensely poorer spiritual life.’ as Hegedűs Géza
Literature that is written and read is little more than 2500 years old. During this time, humans
got to know the world around them and their place in it. Literature – verse or prose – is a
branch of art, which addresses them differently from the way education does.
Good literature relaxes us, it teaches, forms, heals and entertains. The more refined and
polished our receptive system is, the deeper is the reception of a work of art. In every one,
there is a receptive system that determines what one understands. Goethe holds that the
purport can be found only by someone who has something to add to it.
While we read a book from its first letter to its last one, we undergo an immense change, we
become able to understand and receive finer and finer nuances.
The belief that reading influences a person’s attitude, emotions and behaviour is as old as
reading. The term ‘bibliotherapy’ originates from the Greek words ‘biblion’ (book) and
‘therapeia’ (healing). ‘The essence, methodology and ars poetica of bibliotherapy is to heal
through the response to books. To search in a person and to find the work – the whole or a
fragment – that has stuck to their mind, that will help them with magic power to overcome
physical and psychic pains.’ (4) holds Dr Vértes László.
Everyone experiences the motions of the human spirit, its joys and pains in a different way.
Some cope with critical situations easily, while the same means a trauma to others. The
everyday events of our hectic world are also not very favourable to persons with a sensitive
disposition. There are more and more people psychic problems. Kádár István writes: ‘Today,
Western modern people do not obtain the necessary symbols, and the sense of their lives has
weakened too much to nourish their souls. The symbols that used to be living lose their
significance and do not revive – and this causes the psychic disorder of today’s Western
This is why mental health care has become more and more important in many fields of life. In
health care, educational and social welfare institutions there are already qualified employees
who can provide help to persons with problems professionally, with the help of a new,
psychologically and sociologically based attitude, and, moreover, they can also contribute to
For people with psychic troubles, various forms of therapy can provide remedy, depending on
their conditions. Bibliotherapy means reading out shorter literary works or relatively closed
portions of longer works, processing these emotionally, and elaborating the parallels between
the text and the lives of the participants as completely as possible, but not a literary analysis.
‘Take yourself to pieces and the world will pour into you.
Take the world that has become you to pieces and totality will pour into you.’
(6) holds the poet Weöres Sándor.
The practice of bibliotherapy is very old: we can come across it in Hindu medicine, where a
psychically disturbed person was given a fairy tale in which their individual problems appear.
With the help of the tale, the patient could find the way out of their difficult situation. Thus,
fairy tales have a healing effect. Nisard, one of the world’s renowned literary historians, wrote
about them: ‘When illness and fatigue has taught you that there is only one measure of life:
when you come to the point where you even lose your faith in your hopes; then the fairy tale
writer returns, who knew that all the time, and who also tells you about this and comforts you,
not with new disappointments but through showing you your trouble in its own shape and
demonstrating which of its thorns you can break off by comparing it to the troubles of others.
The fairy tale writer helps you to collect your memories. He conjures up your life, he leaves
the sorrow to the past, and he warms you up with the memory of delights.’ (7)
The fairy tale is about the human. About the human being who loves life, who is afraid of
death and for whom it is important to establish a loving human relationship with another
Childhood illuminates one’s life with its magical light. Even if you come into adult life from a
cruel, dreary life, you cherish some glittering fragments from your childhood. Fairy tales help
children to process the everyday conflicts in their environment better. The language of fairy
tales, which is rich in images, also makes it easier for children to continue shaping their own
world. They can assure themselves of their own power and their creative force while they spin
the story of the tale further as they play.
Young children generally enjoy fairy tales told by their parents more than the stories of
cartoon figures and puppets shown in images on television, which are often difficult for them
to identify and follow. When listening to fairy tales from records, they are also left alone with
their impressions, and miss the safety provided by asking questions and getting answers.
If children can snuggle on their mother’s lap, they never find the stories so frightening,
because a dialogue can develop between them. They can even change the parts of the story
that they do not like. How telling fairy tales connects two persons and how they can both form
the story is demonstrated in the reminiscences of Goethe’s mother: ‘He devoured me with his
eyes, and if the fate of one of his favourite characters did not go the way he had wished, I saw
it on his face how angry he was or that he was fighting back his tears, sometimes he
interrupted me, saying, for instance: ”Mummy, the princess will not marry that wretched
tailor even if he kills the dragon!” Then I stopped and postponed the catastrophe until the next
evening. The work of my imagination was thus often complemented with his; and when the
next day I formed the characters’ fate according to his fancy, saying “You guessed right, it
was really so”, he got very excited, and I almost saw his heart beat.’ (8)
Bruno Bettelheim compares listening to a tale to sowing seeds in his work The uses of
enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales: ‘… from seeds falling into good
soil, beautiful flowers and slender trees grow – that is, they make listeners accept important
emotions, they facilitate the realisation of facts, they nurture hope and reduce anxiety –, and
through this, they can enrich a child’s life both momentarily and in the long run.’ (9)
A story ‘Gyermekkorom tükörcserepei’ (‘The Mirror-Splinters Of My Childhood’) by
Hungarian writer Sütő András shows the spiritual poverty of an adult who has forgot his
childhood and is unable to remember it. The grandfather and his grandson get on the back of a
horse statue in the zoo to fly up to the sky with the magic of the fairy tale. As they are
travelling around the world, an angry zoo-keeper calls them to account for the transgression,
but the grandfather stands up for himself and his grandson: “Did we take away the horse?
Yes, we did. Did we bring back the horse? Yes, we did. Here he is, take stock of him, he
hasn’t got colic, his legs aren’t broken, and stuff it, because he is no use without us, it is only
a nag with spavined legs and it is stuck to the ground. The magic steeds are in us, do you
understand? … Let the poor thing run. He has also been to the sky once. But he has already
forgotten it.’ (10)
In our present science-centred, rational, violent world there is a greater need for fairy tales
than ever before. It is important that children’s developing imagination should be presented
with them. A good fairy tale arouses their interest, makes their imagination start working, has
an effect on their emotions and thinking, and it makes them creative. Many suppressed
anxieties, aggressions against parents, siblings and others are evoked and worked off through
fairy tales. The lucky ending of fairy tales gives the children moral strength, comfort and
hope, as they hear and understand that not only they can have problems but also the characters
in the tale. The problems may take a turn for the better in the future.
In addition to all that, fairy tales develop children’s vocabulary, with the help of which they
can probably see the events in the world from a perspective that is a little different. They
make children distinguish between the real and the impossible, and they encourage them to
carry on the stories in their imaginations. They teach them positive moral values, they avoid
violence, which children encounter every day.
We should achieve that families develop an atmosphere in which fairy tales are a shared
pleasure for adults and children.
Literature accompanies us throughout our lives. It helps us to solve our problems, to cope
with the difficulties human coexistence, it teaches us our nation’s moral conventions and the
use of a pure Hungarian language.
(1) F. M.Dosztojevszkij, Bölcsességek könyve. Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 1983. p. 153.
(Translation of F. M. Dostoevsky: Book of wisdom)
(2) Kosztolányi Dezső, Nyelv és lélek – Levél a könyvről. (‘Language and psyche – A letter
about the book.’) Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1990. p. 409.
(3) Hegedüs Géza, Az olvasás gyönyörűsége. (‘The delight of reading’) Budapest: Móra
Könyvkiadó, 1978. p. 23.
(4) Egészségnevelés. (‘Health education’) 1997:38. p. 188.
(5) Kádár István, Kozmosz és lélek. (‘Cosmos and psyche’) San Francisco, 1982. p.8.
(6) Weöres Sándor, A teljesség felé. (‘Towards totality’) Budapest: Tericum Könyvkiadó,
1995. p. 108.
(7) A francia irodalom története. (‘The history of French literature’) vol. 3. p. 129.
(8) Irodalmi olvasókönyv. (‘Literary reader’) 1980. p. 26.
(9) Bruno Bettelheim, A mese bűvölete és a bontakozó gyermeki lélek. Budapest: Gondolat
Kiadó, 1988. p. 213. (Translation of Bruno Bettelheim, The uses of enchantment: The
meaning and importance of fairy tales.)
(10) Sütő András, Gyermekkorom tükörcserepei. (‘The Mirror-Splinters Of My Childhood’)
Budapest: Móra Könyvkiadó, 1982. p. 114.
Benedek Marcell, Az olvasás művészete. (‘The art of reading’) Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó,
Bartos Éva, Olvasókönyv a biblioterápiáról. (‘Reader of bibliotherapy’) Budapest: OSZK,
Petrolay Margit, Könyv a meséről. (‘Book about the fairy tale’) Budapest: Trezor Kiadó,
Zilahi Józsefné, Óvodai nevelés játékkal, mesével. (‘Kindergarten pedagogy through playing
and fairy tales’) Budapest: Eötvös József Kiadó, 1996.