This paper was written for Professor Hill’s Early English Masterworks class at Sam Houston State University on September 11, 2013.
The Role of the Fairy Tale
Imagination builds creativity – something viewed as quite essential not only to early development in children, but also for adults in the working world. It begins with stories told to little ones in books – stories such as Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, and Sleeping Beauty. Such stories grow into bigger fantasy realms that have the ability to entice the somewhat older generation (ie: Harry Potter and Twilight). However, there comes a time at which fairy tales and illusions must be let go of in order to successfully move forward, such as in the journeys of the main character in Voltaire’s Candide. The question this situation seems to beg is this: Are fairy tales and such illusions as those found in books harmful or helpful overall? This question is addressed in both an interview given with Richard Dawkins as well as a piece written by J.R.R. Tolkien, titled The Monsters and the Critics. Both Dawkins and Tolkien have firm beliefs on both sides on the spectrum in terms of whether fictional fairy stories are truly necessary or not and whether monsters should just be removed from the equation.
Richard Dawkins seems to believe that fairy tales are childish, romanticized stories meant for the naïve to stay naïve. Dawkins has a strong background in science, logic, and atheism, which is why he stresses his belief that reality is the thing that should be focused on instead of magic and monsters. When accused of taking the magic out of childhood by his interviewer, Dawkins simply responds by saying, “There’s so much magic in science.” His adherence to reality and science reveal to the listener that Dawkins has a hypothesis regarding myths. To him, they inspire a negative connotation. As he explains in the interview, he has no real evidence that there are any “pernicious effects” on children brought up with such mythical thinking such as believing in spells and magic and other things of that nature (Dawkins). However, he plans to study that subject a bit more. In any case, it is quite obvious that Richard Dawkins is opposed to the existence of fairy tales and myths filled with monsters such as the dragon or Grendel in Beowulf. Valuing reality over fiction, Dawkins has made it clear that he intends to pursue truth over mysticism and spectacle, and that he does not approve of monster stories.
J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other hand, seems firmly rooted in his belief that myths such as Beowulf are extremely significant in a positive manner; this is a severe contradiction to Dawkins and his commentary on the genre. Tolkien takes some time in Monsters and the Critics to discuss his views on the role and impact of the fairy tale. Tolkien argues that monster stories have an ability that normal stories with only human characters do not. The monsters make the story universal regarding a hero facing the forces of evil in a way that simply writing about a hero versus a “bad” historical human would not. Tolkien comments on this, saying, “for the universal significance which is given to the fortunes of its hero is an enhancement and not a detraction that his final foe should not be some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by imagination for just such a purpose” (Tolkien). It not only makes Beowulf what it is, but the presence of monsters enhances the overall story. It provides a larger, bigger picture view of Beowulf’s conflict and the conflict of all men in the struggle of life. “It is just because the main foes in Beowulf are inhuman that the story is larger and more significant,” Tolkien says. “It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts; it stands amid but above the petty wars of princes.” In other words, Beowulf’s triumphs are not just triumphs. It is not a historical story meant to inform. The story functions almost as an allegory in this way. Beowulf’s dragon was necessary; it was needed. No other end would have been better for him than that of such intensity. As Tolkien explains in Monsters and the Critics, replacing the dragon with a man would have just been absolutely absurd and destroyed the story.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s words juxtaposed with Richard Dawkins’s interview bring to light an obvious disagreement between the two. While Dawkins strictly values reality over fiction, Tolkien argues the importance of such beings (monsters and the like) by stressing their significance in literature and the symbolism they tend to have in works such as Beowulf. Either way, monsters and magic have been present in literature for many, many years and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
- “Interview with Richard Dawkins on Fairy Tales and Retirement – Channel 4 –
RichardDawkins.net.” Interview with Richard Dawkins on Fairy Tales and Retirement –
Channel 4 – RichardDawkins.net. The Richard Dawkins Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Sept.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. “Monsters and the Critics.” English.uga.edu. University of Georgia, n.d. Web. 25