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Fairy tales can teach us more about life than science

No matter what Dawkins says, fairy tales contain some valuable life lessons

By on Friday, 6 June 2014

Snow White and Cinderella both feature in Grimms' Fairy Tales (PA)

Snow White and Cinderella both feature in Grimms' Fairy Tales (PA)

What to make of the story in the Telegraph, with the title “Dawkins warns of harm to children raised on “supernatural” fairy tales”? Well, the first thing to say is that it was inaccurately reported and that Dawkins didn’t say it (even if it sounds rather like the kind of remark he would make). The well-known evolutionary biologist has now been tweeting what he really thinks: for instance, that “It IS pernicious to inculcate supernaturalism into a child. But DO fairytales do that? [It’s an interesting question]. The answer is probably no.” He has also tweeted the remark that “Fairy tales, as well as charming, can be good training in critical thinking. Children learn to see through a certain class of falsehoods.”

All this is of particular interest to me because as well as having a Catholic childhood in which the supernatural – not “supernaturalism” whatever that means – was simply part of the bread and butter of one’s religious education, I had a huge appetite for fairy stories. I am sure this is not uncommon. Children love tales of the imagination, having quite a lot of imagination themselves before it is schooled out of them, and I think it is rarer to be of the Dawkins camp in which a child is aware from a young age that fairy tales must be nonsense because there are no such thing as witches, magicians, spells, magic and people returning from the dead.

Apparently the young Dawkins, before the age of two, had worked out that “Father Christmas” was a man called “Sam”. I daresay he would have thought the kind of literature I feasted upon as ridiculous and would have rejoiced at having “seen through it”. But are fairytales really only important simply as vehicles for budding youthful scientists to pronounce that they can’t be true as there is no evidence for them?
I have just been back to Grimm’s Fairy Tales to remind myself of how I had regarded them as a child. Dawkins is alleged to have stated, in an obvious reference to the story of the Frog Prince, that “There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog; it’s statistically too improbable;” how very like Mr Gradgrind, who always wanted facts and nothing else. As a child, what I absorbed from this story was not the “statistics” (something I have never grasped) but that you shouldn’t break your promises, as the princess had done; a valuable moral lesson that is still true. It’s also true in life that if you are faithful to your promises, good things will come; not a handsome prince, but something deeper and more lasting.

Other stories that I re-read reminded me of other life lessons that I had absorbed, consciously or unconsciously: The Juniper Tree, which includes a child’s decapitation at the hands of a wicked step-mother, of evil and cruelty and how they are always avenged. The Seven Ravens of how love sacrifices itself for others and thus receives its reward; The Water of Life, about the requirement of courtesy and kindness, especially to those who are different or unattractive in some way, and what happens if you succumb to greed or jealousy. In their way, these fairy tales are also moral tales, showing how good vanquishes evil. They fitted in perfectly with the Gospel stories I heard, about another kind of “water of life” and how evil cannot harm you if you trust in God. When you grow up, having read Grimm, you know well that there is evil in the world, mainly perpetrated by people but also that, as the lives of the saints show us, God loves those who are fools for Christ’s sake, and who, like the heroes of Grimm, might roam the world disguised in rags for a time but who will eventually come into their true kingdom. So Grimm, in its way, taught me important truths rather than falsehoods. Science and statistics are clumsy tools for measuring the imagination.