Fairy Tales Are Dangerous Mr Dawkins!

This smart essay at Imaginative Conservative is framed as a letter to British atheist Richard Dawkins–who criticized fairy tales recently because they aren’t really true…

It never ceases to amaze me how a man as smart as Dawkins in science can be as dumb as a rock when it comes to literature and religion. The vast confusion of so many people about types, forms and uses of literature makes me wonder what on earth they are teaching in English classes these days. It would seem to me they are teaching grammar badly and then trotting the kids through several set texts: Huckleberry Finn, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Scarlet Letter–while never really digging into the various forms and uses of literature. However, I’m getting off track and I am prepared to be corrected by all the irate English teachers I have offended!

Gracy Olmstead writes,

Dear 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:

She goes on to quote Tolkien and Lewis about the strengths and uses of fantasy stories for children. Here’s Lewis:

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.

Read the whole essay here


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