Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Death in Children's Stories

*Note, this post was first written, but not published, well over a week before the events in Newton, CT. Bear that in mind when reading it, but I am already beginning to think about how it applies to that event and especially to the children affected by knowledge of that event.
At Bible Study on Monday night, or rather in the pre-Bible study man talk (the ladies having either not arrived or gone off to procure refreshments) one of the guys mentioned a comic book inspired cartoon he had seen as a kid, and mentioned an episode in which Superman had had his dreams invaded by his arch-nemesis, and in the ensuing nightmare had accidentally killed his friend. The guy reminiscing about this episode pointed out, "You know, some of those cartoons were pretty dark. I mean those were kid shows, but they were really dark for kids."

I mused that I didn't particularly see a problem with death and violence in kid's stories or movies, necessarily, as long as it was done right. Some of the guys agreed, some disagreed, but we didn't really get into a conversation about it.

A couple of things went through my mind when I heard that comment. The first was all the parents I know who try so hard to keep their children from seeing certain movies because they are afraid they will scare them or give them nightmares (and by parents I mean mothers. I don't think I have ever seen a father censor a movie on that argument.) Parents who won't let their children watch "Lord of the Rings" because they think the orcs are too scary, or who won't let their children read the Chronicles of Narnia because of all the fighting. (This is a much smaller subset.)

There were a couple of movies that my parents wouldn't let us see when we were kids because they were afraid we would have nightmares. I don't remember any of them, but I think my parents, on the whole, were pretty sensible about it. They did their best but predicting what would or would not frighten each of us was an impossible task. I remember being frightened out of my wits by the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz; crying at the dressed up White Rabbit in a live action version of Alice in Wonderland; having nightmares about the ghosts in Tevye's dream in Fiddler on the Roof; and lying awake for what felt like years, mulling over the haunted wood scene in Anne of Green Gables. The things my Mom expected to scare me, (Star Wars, for instance) were not scary at all. In fact, Star Wars was hands down my favorite movie for most of my childhood.

What this indicates to me is that it is impossible to predict with certainty what will or will not frighten any given child. The child himself decides, subconsciously and without understanding the reasons, what he will be afraid of and how he will be afraid of it.

On a deeper level, the whole idea that children must be protected at all costs from frightening ideas and images is counter-intuitive to me. (You will note that 1: I am a man and 2: I have no children of my own.) I do not think that movies that are frightening simply for the sake of being frightening, (i.e. horror movies) are good for children. On the other hand, I think that violence, fear and death are absolutely necessary in children’s literature and movies.

Grownups who do not want these elements in children’s stories do not understand the purpose of stories in a child’s life. Grownups think of stories as merely entertainment, but this is a stunted two-dimensional way of looking at it. Children know better. To a child a story is another life, no different in perceived reality or importance from the child’s own real life. Stories are a way of learning, perhaps the most powerful way in which children learn. Grownups worry sometimes about children entering so completely into their imaginary worlds. I know a lot of grownups were disturbed by how seriously I took my imaginary world as a kid but that is precisely how we learn. By investing the imaginary world with such depth, the lessons we learn there stick deep. To this day I still learn things in the same way. I imagine things and live them in my mind before they happen and learn prudence. I listen to other peoples’ experiences and try to enter into them, and I learn empathy. I live various possible solutions to problems and anticipate complications. None of this would be possible without that early childhood training in allowing my imagination full rein.

More importantly, stories change who we are. They allow us to grow up.

One of my young second cousins is 4 ½ years old. His parents have been showing him the animated Redwall series (based on the truly outstanding books by British author Brian Jacques.) Now, in the Redwall series there are many bad guys. In the first season there is the vicious rat Cluny the Scourge, and his vast horde of bloodthirsty vermin, weasels, stoats, ferrets and such. However, more sinister still is the serpent, Asmodeus. The brave warrior mouse Matthias has to fight with this serpent who is a hundred times his size and overcome it in order to achieve the sword of Martin the Warrior and fulfill his destiny. (Ha Ha! Just remembering the story is getting me pumped. I loved that series and read dozens of those books out loud to younger kids when I was a teenager. Good times!)

My cousin’s mom told me that the little boy was so scared of the snake that he was standing up on the couch as he watched it, ready to run away at a moment’s notice. But then his dad showed him how Matthias killed the snake, and now it is the little boy’s favorite part of the movie. He role-plays “Matthias and the Snake” over and over again with his dad, or whoever else will play it with him. Sometimes he is Matthias and sometimes he is the snake, and both are deeply significant from a psychological point of view, but the main point is that that he has looked the snake in the eye, and slain it.

G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy stories are important, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.” There should be a sign over the entrance to this world to warn us, “Here there be dragons!” Like it or not, dragons roam the byways of this earth and sooner or later every child will meet his dragon. When he does he should do so already knowing that dragons can be slain.

I am not talking about head knowledge either. I memorized my Baltimore Catechism with the best of them when I was a fuzzy headed altar-boy. I could quote from memory about the theological virtue of hope, God’s promise to grant me the “salvation of my soul and the means necessary to obtain it,” but I was fully twenty-five years old before that formula meant anything to me more than the words that made it up. I had long since encountered dragons aplenty and had long since had need of the hope in my heart that would give me the courage to fight them without rest or quarter, certain that in the end victory would be mine. The rational understanding of that hope came from my formal education, the training in writing, logic, philosophy, catechism and other such arts of the mind, but the habit of hope had been formed at a much earlier age by much humbler influences. Long before I knew how to read about serpents I already knew that they ought to be defeated, and that they could be defeated, and that I was born to fight them.

The grownups who refuse to allow anything frightening in the stories their children hear, watch and read, may be providing them with better entertainment, (or maybe not. After all, what is a story without a conflict?) However, they deprive them of so much more. They assume that all fear comes from outside of the child, but this is not the case. This is a fallen world. The shadow of Original Sin is cast from within and the fears are already there. Frightening things frighten because they echo in the dark places of our own souls. In depriving the child of an imaginary bad guy to be afraid of, you deprive him of any way of focusing on the internal fears. In depriving him of imaginary heroes you deprive him of any way to face his fears and defeat them.

Children’s stories, therefore, should be realistic. This is not to suggest that dragons, hobbits, elves and dwarves are to be eschewed. The fairy stories are more realistic than the tamer stories could ever be, because the fairy stories get to the real root of the world, to goodness, truth and beauty; to evil, lies and ugliness; to the courage to stand up for the right and resist the wrong. In the end, fairy tales tell us the only things that really matter.

They tell us there is hope.


1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a great post! I totally agree with your point that stories are important for children, I love that quote by Chesterton as well. You made an important point, however, it has to be done right... there is no problem with having something evil in a story as long as it is clear that it is 'evil.' I am only against stories in which good and evil are blurred, of which there are many today.

    About imagination... It is funny, I know a family that would not let their children watch LOTR because they said that visualizing the story in a movie would ruin their imagination. Mine is still functioning quite well:).

    On censering movies, my parents both did... due to a variety of reasons (scary was not usually one of them... more substance/language). So, some Dad's do. To be honest, I have definitely watched movies that I was terrified by... and that I would never watch again. But I am a bit sensitive, and it was not because they were scary.

    God Bless,

    P.S. Those Redwell books sound great and remind me a bit of the "Wind in the Willows."