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fairy talesDear Mr. Dawkins,

You’ve said lately that fairy tales are quite harmful. Your reason for thinking this is simple, and true: you told attendees at the Cheltenham Science Festival, “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism … Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog—it’s statistically too improbable.”

But shortly after, you did add a caveat to those statements—you noted that you do not “condemn fairy tales. My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.” But you still wondered, understandably, if fairy tales “inculcate into a child’s mind supernaturalism … that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I’m now thinking they probably don’t.”

There are two reasons I think fairy tales are important, and I wonder if you’d consider them—especially the first reason. I don’t know if you’ll like the second reason—because I think it could bring life to your worst fears.

The first reason is one that C.S. Lewis (I know you’re probably not a fan of his, but bear with me) first posited. In a longer essay on writing for children, he suggests that fairy stories present important—and very real—courage to their readers, through a metaphorical means:

… Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. … It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St. George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

Lewis saw a potent metaphorical force in the fairy tale: it helped children battle the pains and frustrations of reality through its images of valor and heroism. None of us ought to read children news stories about serial killers and tragic accidents. These things are too graphic and frightening for their young minds. But by reading them stories of evil monsters, and by telling them of knights and heroes who bravely stood up to such monsters, they receive greater mental and moral strength. When they grow older, they’ll have to fight their own real-life villains and calamities. The fairy tale’s metaphorical power gives real strength to them as they grow.

Of course it’s statistically improbable that any child will ever be required to carry a magic ring across a perilous land ravaged by monsters, toward an evil, all-seeing eye and its dark kingdom, in order to save all of humanity. But how many of the children who read The Lord of the Rings will grow up to fight injustice and oppression in its real forms? Might some of them become doctors on the frontlines of fighting cancer, teachers willing to work in the most troubled school districts, social workers eager to combat corruption and manipulation in the foster care system?

I can understand your objection to Santa Claus stories, when portrayed as real: this is a mixing of fact with fantasy that can be very disillusioning to some children. But Santa Claus stories also have their benefits, it can’t be ignored—the proper sorts of stories, ones that capture the spirit of the real St. Nicholas, teach us generosity and kindness.

You could also note the observations of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the aforementioned fantasy trilogy, one of the greatest masters of fantasy fiction. In a fascinating essay on fairy tales, he wrote the following:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice.

Interestingly, Tolkien’s argument suggests that even you, Mr. Dawkins, could fall prey to fantasy of a sort: could it be that you worship statistical probability to some excess, to a degree that necessitates the disposal (or at least shackling) of creative imagination?

Tolkien goes on, suggesting that fantasy actually reinvigorates us to the real:

We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.

… And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.

This reminded me of the first time I read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child—I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I almost think you’d like it. It’s about a boy named Milo, who’s grown bored of the real world. He’s tired of toys and trinkets. Then he finds a phantom tollbooth, and journeys through it into a world in which numbers, letters, sounds and shapes all have a synesthetic or anthropomorphized beauty. Milo leaves this world—but its creative power returns home with him. His toys will never be the same: they are re-enchanted by the myth. The world of the Phantom Tollbooth taught me to appreciate the beauty and pattern of numbers, the texture and color of sounds, the depth and precision of words. It showed me the interrelated fabric in nature, the way our imaginations can connect and color various empirical materials. Our world is full of enchanting metaphor, and fairy tales help us see the magic. Lewis notes this in his observations, as well:

Does anyone suppose that [a child] really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.

And this is the argument for fairy tales that I don’t think you’ll like—because the more you appreciate the pattern and beauty, the magic and charm of the empirical world, the less likely you are to chalk such things up to statistical probabilities. When you see the wonder of nature and people, the potency of words, the luminosity of our world, it’s very hard to return to a merely statistical, empirical vision. Things do become enchanted and mysterious. We begin to consider visions and miracles.

These things are very dangerous, so I can understand why you’re alarmed by them. Perhaps you’re right—perhaps it’s better for us to just abandon the tales and fantasies. After all, the more we dabble in “creating worlds,” the more likely we are to consider whether our own world had a Creator. The more we construct and tell stories, the more likely we are to ponder the possibility of our own Storyteller.

So let’s throw out the fairy stories and fantasies, and stick to the facts, the statistically probable realities. Let’s dispose of Harry Potter, and read our children Diary of a Wimpy Kid. That’ll better equip them to face reality.

Gracy Olmstead

Republished with gracious permission of The American Conservative

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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12 replies to this post
  1. GKC indeed! Personally, it would be more scientific to teach frightened children the statistical likelihood of overcoming bullies, at least 37%, while sharing the actuarial tables would put them to sleep faster than exciting takes of knights in armour. the other possibility is to sneak science into fairy tales, including a 2-3 hour discussion of the chemistry of sleeping draughts in Snow White, and a few nights on strategies for bringing people out of comas and possibilitieas of lasting brain damage. The tykes would be whining for their tablets in no time, and leave we grown-ups alone evermore.

  2. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” -Albert Einstein

  3. literaryprofferings,
    I was thinking of The Everlasting Man while reading the article from begining to end. And no doubt so did Tolkien and Lewis.

  4. For the record, as a child I couldn’t stomach fiction. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief. It wasn’t until grade 2, when I discovered astronomy that I started to actually liked reading. But fairy tales were a different story. It’s easy, even for a 7 year old to see that most classic fairy tales the story is just set up for a morality lesson. This can be seen whether it’s Hansel and Gretel taking candy from a stranger, or how the kindness shown to an ugly unimpressive frog can turn him into a prince, or in the Little Mermaid (original version, not the remake) how it is better to die than to do evil.

    I think Mr. Dawkin’s issue is that he became too convinced of his pet theory outlined in the Selfish Gene (an excellent book, BTW). He’d rather believe that an entire universe popped out of a quantum vacuum than believe that a single pumpkin cart could pop into existence ready to take Cinderella to the ball. His obsession gave him a mania and tunnel vision that prevents him from seeing something even a 7 year old science inclined and fiction hating child could see. There are fairy tales and novels about this, but I doubt he’d ever bother reading Moby Dick.

  5. But, Harry Potter teaches Paganism and similar tales teach Satanism! Yikes, do we have to have approval from ‘experts’ on these distinctions?

  6. That was a very fine piece.

    One annotation, for the record: “The Phantom Tollbooth” sounds strikingly like a certain classic (I’m from Germany so that’s a classic to me), to wit, The Neverending Story (which has little to do with the movie of the same name), which, by coincidence, directly treats the points you made.

    [The book follows a young boy on his way into the land apparently translated “Fantastica”, but literally “Fantasia” – the movie got that one thing right -, in a story written in red color, while Fantasia itself is described in letters in blue color. Any readers, at least if grown up, will realize that the real story is the one in red, not the other one. Then it proceeds (in green, as the boy has entered the realm of fantasy now) about what he’s doing there, how he’ll get out again, what dangers there are, and finally, changing into red ink again, how he applies what he has learnt in the real world.

  7. I like Gracy’s writings, but every time I see an article that is addressed to a popular figure, endeavoring to teach them a message, it screams to me that the article is seeking approval and justification. That said there are many good parts to the remainder of the article.

  8. It’s a very classical way to write an article. In Book X of The Republic, Plato recommended throwing all the artists out of any wise state, then invited the artists to respond. Standard critical theory books have a number of letters written as a direct reply to Plato’s argument hundreds or thousands of years after he was dead. In the same way, by being a public figure and saying these things, Dawkins arguments, and Dawkins, can be addressed directly under the assumption that many have heard what he said.

  9. I loved this.

    Until the last line. It seems like the reference to Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a bit of a dig. Actually, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is hilarious, and awesome in its own way. There’s nothing mind-numbing or anti-imaginative about those great, little books.

  10. G.K. CHESTERTON: “The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever after, and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at each other.”

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