Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 558:
BETTELHEIM, BLY, AND REVELS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 558.

Today, we become children for an evening. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just been to a new kind of theatre. It's called The Revels. The Revels began in Boston. Now it's spreading from one American city to another. The format is close to vaudeville. It's a loosely connected set of folk themes: music, recitations, dance, and skits. They all revolve around some ancient ceremonial theme -- the summer solstice or Christmas.

It's a lot of fun; but what arrests me is the way it satisfies a craving. The belief that we can find truth by utterly rational means has dealt us false. We've laid every aspect of life under our microscopes. Yet those microscopes never did offer to show us what life is all about.

Now we see that we've lost a whole piece of self-understanding by ignoring the old folk stories and myths. You've all heard Joseph Campbell on that theme. Well, he has good company. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim tells about fairy tales.

He says we can wring meaning from life only by courageously struggling against what seem to be overwhelming odds. This is the message that fairy tales get across to children. Struggle is unavoidable and intrinsic. Only if we don't shy away -- only if we steadfastly meet unexpected and unjust hardship -- will we overcome obstacles and emerge victorious.*

Modern children's stories avoid these problems. Yet children badly need to hear, in symbolic form, how to deal with them. Safe stories don't mention death, aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. Fairy tales confront children squarely with these parts of the basic human predicament.*

Robert Bly recently looked at the problem of male isolation in our society. He reads us the Grimms' fairy tale of Iron John. He explains its clear, and very wise, instructions on how to turn a boy into a man. We've grown too clever to hear the succinct wisdom of this old fairy tale. Now, too many American men are unfinished. We resort to addiction, brutality, or retreat to push away the pain of our incompleteness.

So the Revels audience dances out of the theatre onto the greensward. We all sing about uniting our separated souls -- of climbing the hills to pull wild mountain thyme. We meet the healing folk mythology for a moment, on a very visceral level.

It is a peculiar moment. It is a moment when we acknowledge that, to be whole, we must serve the mind with a full range of hearing. It is a moment peculiar to any creative process. It is a moment when we once again find truth by gazing at the world with the eyes of our inner child.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bettelheim, B., The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Bly, R., Iron John: A Book About Men. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Pub. Co., Inc., 1990.

* The starred paragraphs are paraphrases from Bettelheim, op. cit., p. 8.

For more on the Christmas Revels in Houston and other cities, see the following website: http://www.revels.org/


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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