Today, on the radio, as I drove into work, I heard that Richard Dawkins didn’t think fairy tales were good for children because it might encourage them to believe in things that weren’t real, and that they should instead focus on being cynical.
I was quite annoyed about that. Then I checked Dawkins’ Twitter feed and saw what he said.
“Interesting Q[uestion] what effect fairytales might have on children. Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.”
To be honest, I actually agree with him on the critical thinking front. I realised that among all the positives I could come up with about fairy stories was the idea that whatever magical content the story has (witches, dragons, magical swords, talking animals) the driving force of the story is usually if you use your brain, out-thinking the villain tends to work better than anything else. The whole point is that nothing is what it seems.
Is there usually some sword action? Yes. But the end-boss-fight tends to be preceded by the hero or heroine getting the info first. There’s a helpful old woman/bird/talking cooking pot that gives guidance and steers the protagonist away from just blundering in. I’m thinking of “How Ian Direach got the blue Falcon” or “The Princess Bella-Flor” and such stories. The hero overcomes the problems and dilemmas set before him by being brave, yes, but also by being kind and listening to wise counsel.
While writing this I was waiting for Dawkins himself to speak on BBC World Service about the issue, and get a better idea of what he actually thinks.
What do we even class as fairy tales? The first ones that come to mind are the big obvious Disney ones: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid… the ones with wilting princesses and fairy godmothers. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. I point you towards Andrew Lang’s collections of folk tales from across the world. He tracked down and wrote up oral tales that were being lost. At home, I have the Orange Fairy Book. It has stories from Scotland and Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia… and most of those are about young people (not always children) solving problems and kicking ass. They’re practical and often brutal.
The Goose Girl (Grimm) Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)
Dawkins seems to be all about the quest for truth. In stories like “The Enchanted Wreath”, “The Bird of Truth” and “The Goose-girl”, self-serving, lying characters do all they can to keep the truth from coming out. Eventually it always does. Of course, the premise is usually about false brides, but I guess they’re a product of their time. The point is, it’s still relevant to modern day. The wronged party sticks to their beliefs and plugs away, seeking justice or a way to get their voice heard. The more the liars work to keep the truth from coming out, the bigger the mess, and the harsher the punishment from the King/Prince/Universe. It’s also a reminder that good people, who seem intelligent, can be taken in by smooth talking.
What about Anansi and the trickster tradition? Brer Rabbit, Reynard the Fox? Those tales are all about outsmarting your adversaries. They’re about quick wits and comeuppances. Sometimes the trickster is the one who falls into his own trap, but that teaches its own lesson: alright, be smart… just don’t forget your social skills.
Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby
Have now heard him on World Service and made some quick bullet points from what he said.
– Fostering supernaturalism is a downside of fairy stories
– Fairy stories beneficial for learning there are stories that are not true: can learn to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and gives children exposure to making those judgements
– enjoyment: good to stretch the mind beyond the mundane (he points out that science and science fiction can also fire the imagination/curiosity)
– Child psychology issue – why do children stop believing in Santa/Tooth Fairy/dragons but grow into adults who still believe in God? (to be honest that is an interesting question and I say that as a Christian)
– How do we make the distinction between frog à prince and water à wine? (in his opinion both are equally fairy stories)
So I missed his point and he didn’t mention any of mine. Dawkins is arguing that stories as whole bubbles can be used to compare fantasy with reality. Not a bad point, and I think we all go through the internal process of analysing fairy tales or doing a mental check against reality when we’re children. It doesn’t take long to get the idea that in stories dogs can talk, but Mrs Next Door’s labrador can’t. That’s a natural thing and it happens anyway. I assume that’s what he means. I don’t think he’s asking parents or teachers to make children explain or write essays stating that they understand these points. We don’t have to show children a biology textbook alongside The Frog Prince, or get them to do background research on the rich/poor divide when they’re reading The Prince and the Pauper. He’s pointing out something we do without prompting already.
On the other hand, I think he’s selling kids short. Children are not stupid. The awesome part of being a youngling of your species is your endless capacity for learning. Children are infinitely absorbent sponges of knowledge be it street-smarts or academic. They are constantly adapting to new environments and experiences. They’re like natural Borg.
Joanne Harris (oh my beloved Chocolat) is quite passionate about this today. She tweeted:
“Children instinctively understand the distinction between “telling lies” and “pretending”. Why then do some adults find it such a challenge?”
and that’s a reasonable point. Children are among the biggest, meanest cynics on the planet. Anyone with a three-year-old can attest to that. They know you don’t actually have their nose, they know exactly where you hid the chocolate biscuits, and they know that a pumpkin can’t really turn into a carriage. Perhaps because from birth (until they can decide for themselves what they want to read) they are told stories, they appreciate being in on the joke. They go along with it, perhaps because they pityingly think that you still believe, but they’re not fooled. I have been fixed with the withering stare of a small child who thinks I’m an idiot for talking – outside the context of sanctioned pretending-time – about mermaids or dragons. “Poor you,” their eyes say, “you gullible fool”, before they pat me on the hand and ask for juice. Fairy stories, or any kind of fiction really, are not lies.
That’s where the enjoyment comes in. Children (and adults too!) like to pretend. Fairy stories give all children the chance to experience high adventure, danger and excitement without the need for fancy gadgets, downloadable content, or surround sound. They don’t need to worry about if they can afford it, they don’t have to share their imagination with eight siblings like they do their toys. All they have to do is let themselves dismiss reality for a while. It’ll still be there when they come back.
I really don’t want to touch the “The Bible is (not) fiction” hornet’s nest. I am a Christian who believes in God, and I don’t mind whether you do or not, or if you believe in a different God. That’s your business, as my beliefs are mine. But objectively, Jesus feeding the five thousand with the loaves and fishes, or walking on water… neither of those would be out of place in a fairy tale. Clearly there is a whole lot more to religion and faith than that, and it isn’t the main point of this post, but I didn’t want to just gloss over it. I can see why as a non-believer it would be difficult to see the difference, is all.
The two Caskets – a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!
Critical Thinking is indeed a skill that we should all become basically competent at, and for the most part our daily decision-making is based on it; consciously or unconsciously. But there is a lot more to the contents of the stories that Dawkins seems to acknowledge. Yes, they are enjoyable and feed the imagination, but they’re also a good way of showing:
– in order to overcome problems you need to take action
– evil happens where good people do nothing
– friendship and kindness are two extremely powerful things
– helping those in need is never wasted time
– using your brain is often more effective than physical force
– sitting around complaining while others do the work doesn’t go well in the long run
– schemers and liars get their bad karma dealt out to them in spades
– there is good advice out there, if only you listen to it
The problem with all that is of course that it is intangible and unmeasurable: you can’t quantify the emotional benefits of kindness. But I find those points just as useful life lessons as Dawkins does the power of logic and analysis. People cannot be dissected and measured; they are irrational, emotional, reactive. Fairy stories help us to work through complex issues by making them manageable. Memorable simple stories stick with us through our whole lives. If we stand up to bullies, does it matter that it’s because we remember Belle standing up to Gaston? If we are brave enough to tell our boss we found some problems with their latest awesome project, does it matter that we were inspired by the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes?
There is room for both mine and Dawkins’ opinions on why fairy stories are beneficial: as whole constructs or for their hidden lessons, I hope we can agree that everyone – not just children – should use all available resources to make informed decisions on how they live their lives. Whether that’s scouring a narrative for implausibility or remembering that showing people kindness makes people more likely to be kind to you, isn’t it just a good thing people are thinking about it?