John Dickson Batten's illustration of Jack and the Giant. English Fairy Tales (1890)
John Dickson Batten's illustration of Jack and the Giant. English Fairy Tales (1890)
At Oxford in 1893 Thomas Henry Huxley opened the Romanes lecture with a fairy tale: “Here is a delightful child’s story, known by the title of “Jack and the Bean-stalk,” with which my contemporaries who are present will be familiar. But so many of our grave and reverend Juniors have been brought up on severer intellectual diet, and, perhaps, have become acquainted with fairyland only through primers of comparative mythology, that it may be needful to give an outline of the tale” (47). Huxley likened Jack to the votaries of science who had climbed the beanstalk and (in a rather awkward stretch of the fairy tale metaphor) had found a “wonderland” where scientific investigation makes common objects seem extraordinary. I’d like to set aside the metaphor for a moment (there’s a whole other post to be had on Jack and the Laboratory) and address Huxley’s assumptions about his young colleagues’ education.

Huxley spent part of his career campaigning for a “severer intellectual” -or at least more scientific-“diet” for students. He even spent his summers in the early 1870s instructing schoolteachers in biology at the New Science Schools in South Kensington. The young men who took in the Romanes Lecture 20 years later were the inheritors of his educational reform- and yet he suggests their education has deprived them of the pleasures of oral storytelling.

I have a host of questions about Huxley’s opening: was it a jibe at literary fairy tales, which, before Joseph Jacob’s collection of English Fairy Tales (1890), were predominantly imports from France and Germany? Huxley’s education reforms were motivated by a fear that Germany would eclipse Britain in all things scientific – was he leery of German fairy tales (which didn’t include Jack stories) too? Was Huxley’s aside a criticism of the education system or a comment on oral culture? What rhetorical effect did a fairy tale offer Huxley? I’m mulling at the moment; but I’ll post again once I’ve mustered my thoughts about someone like Huxley would ally himself with the imaginative world of fairy tales.

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2 thoughts on “Gather ‘Round: T. H. Huxley’s Fairy Tale

  1. Could it be possible that Huxley was just having some fun with the younger generation of scientists (and perhaps himself in the process)? Recourse to myth and fairy tales are so common in Victorian scientific discourse — Prometheus being the classic example of scientific mythologizing — that it seems possible that Huxley may have felt they had been taken for granted, misappropriated, misunderstood in the younger generation’s “severer intellectual diet.” Re-instituting a little wonder and fancy into the intellectual diet would benefit Huxley as a scientific authority both within and without scientific circles.

    Huxley’s reference here is so strange to me. I really don’t know what to make of it. Very interesting!

  2. Hi,

    What really set me going was Ruskin’s comment in the ’68 that fairy tales serve to “fortify [children] against the glacial cold of selfish science” – he’s definitely humourless compared to Huxley.

    I know that there’s more than just a turf war over education here. I don’t want to take the relationship between fairy tales and imagination for granted, but I’m curious about how fairy tales fit into the way that pro-science educators to explain the role of imagination in scientific investigation. It’s early days for me: Any thoughts? Does recourse myths and fairy tales serve the same purpose?

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