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The value of fairy tales and fantasy

Posted by Richard on January 29, 2011

This post began as an email message to some friends, following up on a marvelous quote I'd shared with them at breakfast. I decided it's worth posting here where others may see it.

"Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed." — attributed to G.K. Chesterton

I heard it on Criminal Minds, a very good crime drama if you like your crime dramas dark and sometimes disturbing. The protagonists are members of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, which profiles and tracks down serial killers. Each episode features a quote, delivered as a voice-over, that's more or less apropos to the story. Some of them are cited here:

12 great sci-fi quotes from (yes, really) Criminal Minds

If you search for that quote (or a significant portion thereof), you'll get lots of hits, many from computer geek or sci-fi/fantasy sites.

The oldest source I found is an excellent 1994 essay by Terry Pratchett, "When the Children Read Fantasy." It's posted here, but reposted in a more readable font and format here. I highly recommend it.

Pratchett attributed the quote to Chesterton, but his version is slightly different:

One of the great popular novelists of the early part of this century was G.K. Chesterton. Writing at a time when fairy tales were under attack for pretty much the same reason as books can now be covertly banned in some schools because they have the word 'witch' in the title, he said: "The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed."

The Wikiquote page for Chesterton has this (but like all the other versions I found, it doesn't cite a source in Chesterton's writings):

  • Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
    • As quoted in Coraline (2004) by Neil Gaiman, epigraph.
    • Variant: Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.
      • As quoted in Raising Young Children: 52 Brilliant Little Ideas for Parenting Under 5s (2007) by Sabina Dosani and Peter Cross, p. 38

I found the version in bold at some other quote sites, too. They're probably all just cribbing from each other. 🙂

Since Wikiquote's source for the variant (which is close to the Criminal Minds version) is a 2007 book, I suspect that that version may have evolved from Pratchett's version.

Wikiquotes also has this, for which it does cite a Chesterton work:

  • What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
    • Tremendous Trifles (1909)

Wikiquotes has lots of other interesting Chesterton quotes. Some I disliked, others I liked very much. Here are a couple of the latter:

  • Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.
    • Illustrated London News (23 October 1909)
  • The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. …
    • Illustrated London News (1924)

As for the dragons quote, the version from Criminal Minds may not be authentic, but I think it's the best version. The wording is direct, simple, and elegant, and there's a nice symmetry/balance to the three short sentences.

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