Thank God for Richard Dawkins. Had he not told us what to think as regards fairy tales many of us might never have known. The problem with fairy tales, according to Professor Dawkins, is that they are potentially harmful to children because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism”.
“Statistically,it’s just too improbable” for a frog to turn into a Prince.
Now, I have always rather admired Professor Dawkins. There is a great deal to admire. However,if this is a serious pronouncement, I must take issue with it.
Children, as a breed, are not stupid. They can be gullible but, generally, they are not stupid. It is in their interest to believe in magical beings bearing gifts for them – like Father Christmas, and the Tooth Fairy. What's more, most parents of very small children actively encourage their children to believe in these myths. In reality, Father Christmas is mummy's and daddy's big, red, white-bearded helper; he only rewards virtuous children who toe the family line. Children are bright enough to know you don't look a gift-bearing magical being in the mouth. (That’s one of the things they learn from fairy tales, no less!)
But do children really need to be told that it's “statistically too improbable” that a frog will ever turn into a prince?
I don't think so.
And I don't believe that is the most important issue.
As I see it, the damage that fairy tales do is not about that kind of statistical improbability. It's about teaching trusting little girls some toxic myths about love that can have a long, long half-life.
Let's stick with the frog-prince thing for a moment. It's essentially the same myth that underlines Beauty and the Beast: the love of a good, humble, virtuous girl will be enough to transform a lower form of male life into a much more appealing form of life.
The statistical improbability is far too great to make it a good belief to hang your happiness on.
But a lot of women do.
They believe that behind the bad, or nasty, facade there's a wonderful man just trying to get out.
It's a truly misguided kind of optimism. In fact, it’s the same kind of optimism that might lead someone to buy a box of eggs from the supermarket in the hope that if they provide those eggs with the 'right' conditions, they'll end up with 6 dear little chicks.
Sadly, nice little girls, and nice women, do not possess some kind of transformational magic wand that will turn losers into perfect lovers.
Unfortunately, they tend to be the last people to realize that.
So, they unconsciously take Beauty and/or Cinderella for their role model. They don’t make it their mission to go around kissing true green frogs. But they may well kiss quite a lot of human pond life.
And Heaven help them if they meet anyone masquerading as a Prince. They’ll probably start warbling: “I know you/ I walked with you once upon a dream”.
Will it turn out happily as it did for Sleeping Beauty?
Statistically, that, too, is highly improbable.
So, here’s the thing: unlike Professor Dawkins, I don’t think too many children are likely to be harmed by the “supernaturalism” of fairy stories. But generations of women have been harmed by the simplistic and misleading view of relationships peddled by fairy tales.
Perhaps we need to teach children something useful about the way that most relationships work.