On fairy tales

“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952. The wiseacre of our time seems to be Richard Dawkins who, two years ago, told the world that fairy tales could be harmful because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” (he had said similar things in 2008). In a later clarification, he added that fairy tales could “be wonderful” and that they “are part of childhood, they are stretching the imagination of children” – provided some helpful adult emphasises that “Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t.”

But many scientists grew up with, and were inspired by, fantasy literature. For example, Jane Goodall tells of growing up with the novel The Story of Doctor Dolittle (as I did!). In fact, many science students and professional scientists avidly read fantasy literature even as adults (as they should). The booksthatmakeyoudumb website lists, among the top 10 novels read at CalTech and MIT, Harry Potter, Dune, and The Lord of the Rings. And Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician.

This is a science blog, so I have a strong emphasis on scientific truth, which tells us many important ecological and physiological facts about, for example, frogs. Without science, we’d all still be struggling subsistence farmers. But there is actually more than scientific truth out there.

There is also mathematical truth. Are the links in this frog network all equivalent? Yes, they are – but that is decided by mathematical proof, not by scientific experiment. It is in fact a purely abstract mathematical question – the background picture of the frog is actually irrelevant.

And there is ethical truth. Is it OK to eat frog’s legs? Science does not give us the answer to this (although logic can help us decide if our answer is consistent with our other beliefs), but fantasy literature often helps us to explore such ethical questions. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one superb example. Would you “snare an orc with a falsehood”? Would you attempt to take the One Ring and “go forth to victory”?

There is metaphorical truth. A frog may, in spite of what Dawkins says, be a handsome prince – there’s more to the universe than can be seen at first glance. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Children often learn this important fact from fairy tales.

And there is even religious and philosophical truth. Does the frog-goddess Heqet exist, for example? Does the universe exist? Is there a spoon? The methods of philosophy are different from the methods of science, and some amateur philosophers simply state their beliefs without actually justifying them, but philosophy is actually very important. Science itself is based on certain philosophical beliefs about reality.


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5 thoughts on “On fairy tales

    • Apparently so. In January 1958, Elizabeth Margulis wrote an article called “Fairy Tales and More Fairy Tales” in the New Mexico Library Bulletin, saying:

      “In Denver I heard a story about a woman who was friendly with the late Dr. Einstein, surely acknowledged as an outstanding ‘pure’ scientist. She wanted her child to become a scientist, too, and asked Dr. Einstein for his suggestions for the kind of reading the child might do in his school years to prepare him for this career. To her surprise Dr. Einstein recommended ‘fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested this frivolity and asked for a serious answer, but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus of this quality!”

      • Yes! I did not know the whole story behind it, but I do know Einstein’s quote goes something like,”If you want your children to be intelligent, read fairy tales to them. If you want them to be more intelligent, read more fairy tales.”

        If it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me 🙂

      • “If it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me” – I certainly agree! 🙂

        The (widely repeated) quote, as far as I can tell, is based on the Elizabeth Margulis story – it doesn’t actually seem to be Einstein’s exact words. It’s still very good advice, however.

  1. Pingback: On children’s novels | Scientific Gems

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