Why we need fairy tales


Richard Dawkins recently generated some heated debate about fairy tales, claiming that they are bad for children. I was contacted by the NZ Book Council and asked if I’d like to write a short piece in response for their online site Booknotes Unbound (well worth a regular visit if you’re interested in NZ writing). Here’s my article:

Many (many) moons ago, when I entered teacher’s college, I had the great privilege of being taught by master storyteller Jack Lasenby. His classes were unforgettable. He wove magic with words, retelling the fairy tales and myths of the ancient world. What he wanted us to understand was that these stories have a weight and a transformative quality that fires up human imagination and opens the mind, thereby creating a lifelong hunger for well-formed (and meaningful) written and spoken word. And that this hunger for powerful language – and this questing for the underlying meaning of life’s metaphors – was the greatest gift we could pass on to our students (and our own children).

I have never forgotten these lessons. In fact, they still whisper at me every time I sit down to write. So when The Times reported that Richard Dawkins, Britain’s self-appointed Saint of Atheism, had come out against fairy tales, declaring they were bad for kids, my hackles rose! What he said, according to the article, was that ‘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, about witches and wizards or princes turning into frogs. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog. It’s statistically improbable.’ What we would be better doing, he said, was to imbue our children with the ‘spirit of scepticism’. For instance, Winnie-the-Pooh was implausible: you’d never see bears, tigers, pigs and kangaroos sharing the same eco-system. As my Facebook buddy Loretta would say to such anal pedantry:  ‘FFS!’

Not surprisingly, Dawkins caused quite a stir. What was surprising however (given the man is certainly no stranger to controversy) was his speedy and fervent backtrack in the Guardian shortly afterwards. He was quoted out of context, he cried, and said that he championed the development of the creative imagination, though: ‘fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes … [but] unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect in some cases because after children learnt that there is no Santa Claus, mysteriously they go on believing that there is a God.’

Ah, so here we get to the nub of his gripe: that we must not allow anything that might possibly harbour religious belief. And judging by the bipolar extremes of responses to both The Times and the Guardian articles1, most people were more interested in carrying on the ‘Is-there-Isn’t-there-a-God?’ debate than to actually explore the argument about fairy tales one way or the other (with a few notable exceptions). One can only assume the reason behind his hasty retraction is that even his supporters thought he’d gone a step too far and were starting to speculate that perhaps the Emperor’s robes were growing just a little too transparent …

I used to admire Richard Dawkins. He has an excellent mind and is extremely articulate. I read the God Delusion and agree with his basic arguments (even if he didn’t know when to stop!). But he’s become the very thing he has long lambasted others for: he has become a fundamentalist, allowing his world view to colour everything he says and does. I don’t say this lightly; according to the Oxford Dictionary ‘fundamentalism’ is defined as: a strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. And in terms of religious fundamentalism it says: a form of religion… that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture. Dawkins (and those supporting him in this particular online debate) seems to be saying that because (in his opinion) one must not be fooled by the fakery that is belief in a supernatural being (i.e. God), one therefore should not indulge in any wandering into the world of imaginative fancy, for fear of being sucked into a deadly supernatural (aka religious) vortex.

Yet as a scientist he must know that the reverse is true. It is through allowing the mind to wander into thoughts and worlds not yet colonised by others’ theories or expectations that we have made the most spectacular leaps forward in knowledge and understanding. In fact, imagination and speculation have always been scientists’ friends. Archimedes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, Lovelace, Carson … all the brilliant thinkers who have given the world so much started with a thought that must have sounded something like ‘What if…?’ Discovery and invention are merely the imagination made real after fancy takes flight. In fact, Einstein said ‘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.’ And perhaps it would be wise to add ‘and science fiction’ to that statement. The writers of this genre have been the first to imagine scientific and technological advances in everything from space travel to the mobile phone!

Maria Tatar, a professor at Harvard College, argues fairy tales are helpful in allowing the child to ‘work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do so in a  safe, ‘once upon a time’ way … [they] have a role in liberating the imagination…2’ In an article posted on the NY Teachers blog3, the authors champion fairy tales as vital to a child’s development by showing them how to handle problems, providing a common cultural language that crosses cultural boundaries, teaching the basics of story structure as well as critical thinking skills and moral lessons. Elsewhere, writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim states fairy tales are important as a means of providing useful role-models when main characters demonstrate bravery, self-actualisation and the ability to triumph over adversity4.

When I really started thinking about why I think fairy tales should be included as a vital part of every child’s literary landscape, all the points mentioned above sprang to mind. I’ve seen the power of story used in a biblio-therapeutic setting to introduce other ways of thinking and being. As a writer, every day I experience the powerful forces of imagination, as it delivers up thoughts, ideas, realisations, characters, conversations and dreams that I could never locate without learning to trust that I can tap into this thing called my ‘imagination’ – a way of thinking separate to my logical, mundane mind. It is something far more creative, intuitive, exciting and magical (dare I say supernatural!) than the intelligence I bring to bear on everyday tasks. If fairy tales can help to unleash this powerful force in everyone’s minds then I say go for it! (I’ve met many a person who has said they wished they could think more creatively – and have yet to find anyone who’s said they wished that they did not.)

One of the most compelling reasons for keeping fairy tales alive in our culture is that they teach us about the possibility of transformation. Frog to prince. Beast to lover. Loneliness to love. This fosters hope; a way to keep the metaphorical wolves at bay. And I can’t help thinking today’s kids need a lot of that, given the world they’re faced with.

Of all the people who have written on this, Joseph Campbell has to be the one who understands it best, for it was he who analysed the many myths, legends and fairy tales of the world and discovered It’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself, if not the world.’ How could Richard Dawkins not approve of that?

By identifying the mono-myth – that one universal journey that sits beneath all stories – Campbell recognised that each person’s trek through life, their unique personal myth (or fairy tale, if you like) always centres on transformation and transcendence: that each of us must discover who we really are, not only as a being separate from all others but also how we fit into the world and the people around us. And he understood that this could only come about through tests, trials and challenges – the outcome of our own quest, if you like. Our initiation into adulthood. Our slaying of the dragon. Our escape from the beast within.

This article was commissioned by the New Zealand Book Council and first appeared in the Sunday Star Times (Sunday 13 July 2014) then on the Booknotes Unbound website 

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