Are fairy tales simply nonsense?
by Gordon Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 3/4
To encourage us to think about fairy tales in a new way.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a book of fairy tales. Remind yourself of the plots of a few classics so you can retell them, as given in the example in the 'Assembly', but adapt as you feel suits you and your audience.
- This assembly uses a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein. One of the earliest references to it is in 1963, in an article about the value of folk tales entitled 'The listening heart' by children's librarian Jane Buel Bradley, Wilson Library Bulletin, p. 678: 'And Doris Gates, writer and children's librarian, reports that Albert Einstein told an anxious mother who wanted to help her child become a scientist: "First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!"’
- Enter the assembly when everyone has settled with your nose buried in the book of fairy tales.
Look up briefly and say, ‘I’ll be with you in a bit, I just have to find out what happens.’ Briefly return to the book, then close it and look up as if you have finished reading an exciting story.
Tell everyone all about the story in a breathless, excited voice. You can use any fairy tale you know. For Cinderella, for example, you might say something like, 'So, there’s this girl and she has to work like a servant for her horrible sisters. They’re so nasty. I was scared stiff about what would happen to her . . . and then there was a ball - like a posh party - and she wasn’t allowed to go, but the sisters were and then she found these magic beans . . . oh, no, hang on, that’s the story before, but, anyway, I think you’d love this book. It is full of these fantastical stories you see . . .'. Do your best to provoke a reaction by asking the students if they love fairy tales. You may like to ask for a response from them. If possible, ask those who are likely to turn their noses up at the idea of fairy tales as being too childish for them.
- At this point, drop the naïvely enthusiastic act and continue as follows.
Listen to what the great scientist Albert Einstein is reported to have said when a mother asked how to help her son become a scientist. He said, ‘First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!’
- Why on earth would he say that? After all, fairy tales are not real, they do not deal with facts and some people think that they are the complete opposite of scientific thinking.
Perhaps he said it for this reason: when children hear tales that start, ‘Once upon a time’ and don’t seem to be set in the real world but in worlds with magical beings, giants and strange happenings, they quickly learn that these stories are not ‘real’. So one thing that fairy tales help us to understand is the real world because they help us to understand that some things are not real.
Also, fairy tales help us to see how ideas can be universal. So, if we think that Cinderella is treated unfairly, this helps us to understand the whole idea of ‘unfairness’ and when Jack climbs a beanstalk and only just escapes with his life, we quickly learn that we should think carefully before putting ourselves in danger.
- When we are young, we hear these stories and become scared or sad for the people in them, but we feel these things in a safe way. So, we can learn important things about life through stories without coming to harm. In the same way, when we’re older, we can enjoy scary films because we can experience being frightened while actually being completely safe.
Time for reflection
Fairy tales are for little kids – and great scientists!
We may not read fairy tales any more, but many of us like stories about strange worlds, such as those in the Harry Potter books and films, The Narnia Chronicles, Discworld series, The Hunger Games universe, Dr Who, the world of Minecraft, Star Wars and many more.
It seems that visiting imaginary worlds in the process of reading, playing games and watching films can help us to live in the real world. Reading opens up whole new worlds to us. It can thrill, encourage, excite and bring about a wide range of emotions. It can take us out of our current situations, but also help us to learn how to live in the real world.