Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, has re-kindled a centuries-old debate: Should children read fantasy and fairy tales, or should parents and teachers nurture them on more factual and less fantastic material?
At the Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this month, Dawkins posed the question, “Is it a good idea to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are, or is it a good idea to foster a spirit of skepticism?” He answered his own question, calling it “rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism—you get enough of that anyway—even maybe fairy tales, the ones we all love.”
It is no surprise an outspoken atheist and evolutionary biologist objects to stories involving supernatural events, but how should Christians respond? Some have criticized fairy tales. Others, from John Bunyan to J.R.R. Tolkien, argue the tales instill courage, morals, and a capacity for wonder at God’s marvelous works.
In 1916, Methodist magazine The Christian Advocate listed seven questions to ask when assessing children’s books: The second was, “Are all the incidents wholesome, probable, and true to life?” The article suggests readers reject or at least seriously question stories not meeting this standard.
At Cheltenham, Dawkins said a prince turning into a frog is “statistically too improbable,” which made his audience laugh. Similarly, some Christians argue that fables defy the wisdom of Proverbs 8:7: “For my mouth shall speak truth.”
Other Christians, though, say factually untrue stories can include moral or spiritual truths. John Bunyan met resistance to his fable-like tale Pilgrim’s Progress because of its allegorical nature, but responded in the book’s preface: “Some men, by feigning words as dark as mine, / Make truth to spangle, and its rays to shine.”
In the late 1500s, author Philip Sidney described how our fallen nature prevents us from acting as we know we ought, and how stories provide the heroes missing from philosophy and history.
Myths and fairy tales play an important cultural role by helping pass values and ideals from generation to generation. Beauty and the Beast shows the transformational power of love. Cinderella shows the humble exalted. The Three Little Pigs teaches that hard work brings delayed comfort.
Books like Little Women or the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger also convey these moral and cultural values. But Sally Goddard Blythe, author of The Genius of Natural Childhood, says fantasy and myths go beyond those stories. They help children think creatively and develop imagination that leads to new inventions and discoveries. In his autobiography, Dawkins recalls reading the tales of Doctor Dolittle, the naturalist who could speak to animals.
Beyond the pragmatic reasons for reading fairy tales, many Christians value fantasy for the exact reason Dawkins shuns it—its supernatural view of the world. “We all like astonishing tales, because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy.
Fairy stories imply a spiritual side to what might appear mundane. Christians should be especially aware that, because God is at work in the world, far more is going on than we comprehend with our senses and our reason. Because “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” Christians should never cease to be astonished by the world—and sometimes adults, not only children, need reminders. “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green,” Chesterton wrote.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien, a devout Catholic, wrote, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the … wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”
The title of Dawkins’ autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, makes me wonder what he wondered at, if not the magical and miraculous nature of God’s created order. Children who read fairy tales don’t look at a frog and expect it to turn into a prince, but they might learn a way of looking at life that tunes them to the spiritual significance behind simple things, something Dawkins denies.