Sir Richard rides forth to slay another dragon

Richard Dawkins has a new crusade: he has declared war on fantasy — especially works of fantasy for children. Well, that’s not quite fair — he claims a degree of uncertainty: “I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.” But then he goes on to say that “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards” — which is what we do when we let kids read Harry Potter books and that kind of thing — “is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know.”

He doesn’t know — but boy howdy, does he have suspicions. In fact, he even wonders whether his parents’ carelessness in overseeing his own youthful reading material may have damaged him in some way: “I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

It strains credulity, does it not, that someone of Dawkins’s education and intelligence could believe that there is no difference between allowing children to read fantasy stories or fairy tales and “bringing [them] up to believe in spells and wizards” — or that children who read stories in which frogs turn into princes could thereby be made skeptical of a science that teaches them that such metamorphoses are impossible. This is astonishingly, Gradgrindingly, literal-minded. Children delight in reading about spells and wizards and frog-princes because they know such things to be impossible — that’s the fun of it. Good grief.

It’s especially noteworthy that Dawkins has precisely the same suspicions of fantasy and fairy tale that many fundamentalist Christians do. I’m reminded of the old Onion headline: Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children. “‘I used to believe in what they taught us at Sunday School,’ said Ashley, conjuring up an ancient spell to summon Cerebus, the three-headed hound of hell. ‘But the Harry Potter books showed me that magic is real, something I can learn and use right now, and that the Bible is nothing but boring lies.’” Dawkins will probably be citing this story as evidence in his own indictment of Potter and his ilk.

Long ago, C. S. Lewis wrote, “About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale.” Why? “It is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think that no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me; the school stories did.”

That’s from an essay called “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” and Dawkins should read it before proceeding further in his “research” into this topic. But I don’t think that likely. It seems to be a rule with Dawkins that when he disapproves of something, he makes sure not to read people who know anything about it before making his own pronouncements. Keeps the mind clear, I suppose.