My heart always sinks a little when I see Richard Dawkins trending on Twitter. As past incidents have shown (content note for mention of sex abuse in those last two links), it’s rarely a sign of anything good. I clicked the link with trepidation, and found the source of the latest controversy – Richard Dawkins thinks that fairytales are dangerous for children.
The statement baffled me so much that I had to re-read it several times over, to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. But no, there it was in black and white. Dawkins believes that introducing children to fairytales ‘inculcates a pernicious supernaturalism’, and that it would be far more helpful to ‘foster a spirit of scepticism’ in our kids.
I can’t even feel angry about this. Instead, I feel bewildered and sad. For me, a life without fairytales, without stories of magic and dragons and monsters, would be a life that was utterly joyless. A life as a swineherd, without ever becoming an adventurer. A rainy day stuck in a dusty old house, instead of a journey to Narnia. Monochrome Kansas, instead of technicolor Oz.
Dawkins seems to believe that introducing children to fairytales will leave them susceptible to believing everything they’re told, without question or discernment. If this is what he truly thinks, then he’s missed the point of fairytales entirely. In Coraline, Neil Gaiman quoted a couple of lines by GK Chesterton that sum up the true purpose of fairytales:
“Fairytales are more than true: Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Questioning what one is told, challenging what appears to be true – this is what fairytales are all about. Being brave despite insurmountable odds, being clever and thinking sideways – this is what children learn from fairytales and fantasy stories. Fairytales help a child’s imagination flourish, and it’s imagination, more than anything else, that drives progress. Space travel, flight, healing powers that can bring people back almost from death – all of these things used to be fairytales. If we’d never imagined them, they would never have happened.
And, even if fairytales didn’t have a purpose, it wouldn’t matter. For the past couple of years, I’ve volunteered at The Story Museum in Oxford. Stepping inside that building is like stepping into a fairytale. I’m twenty-eight, and I still felt a thrill wandering down a secret passage to find Merlin, hearing eerie music as I reached out to take the One Ring, peering through a viewing device to see the Borrowers hiding in a kitchen counter.
I’ve seen the same thrill, the same joy, on the faces of the children who visit. I’ve seen them lose their shyness and inhibitions, and chatter happily about the stories they love best. I’ve seen them explore their creativity and confidence and the boundlessness of their own imaginations.
I can’t imagine that they’d find the same sense of inspiration in a page of The God Delusion.
Like it or not – and I can’t see any reason not to like it – humans are storytellers. We always have been, and we always will be. I’m an avid reader of New Scientist and watcher of science documentaries. I love learning new facts and hearing about the hypotheses of people who are looking at the world the way I look at books. But I’ve noticed that each and every one of those articles and documentaries is arranged as a narrative, as a story. Because that’s the way we humans process things. Even a fundamental theory like that of the Big Bang begins with a silent ‘Once upon a time…’
Fairytales have fed my interest, not just in stories, but in everything. Reading about comic book superheroes makes me wonder how their powers could be applied in real life. Reading about dragons makes me consider how a dragon could actually be put together. Moving away from biology and physics, reading about tricksters and adventurers and people overcoming the odds has taught me things about bravery and wit and love and loyalty that I would never get from a textbook.
Dragons don’t exist, yet – who knows what cloning and genetic engineering will bring us? – but they can be beaten. Two of the most dangerous metaphorical dragons are ignorance and disinterest. Fairytales are the weapons that will strike those dragons down.
Edit: Dawkins has since said that his words were taken out of context – which is fair enough, newspapers seem to do that a lot. I do find the fear of people ‘inculcating a pernicious supernaturalism’ in children to be rather silly and scaremongering – playing along with children’s imaginings is harmless fun, and most kids already have a healthy scepticism and a questioning nature of their own, even without the encouragement of adults.
Alice Nuttall is the author of Spider Circus, a story of magic and dragons and scary carnivorous horses that is available on Amazon and Smashwords. She can also be found rambling on over at Twitter, and posting writing updates at Facebook.