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.
remember being frightened out of my wits by the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz; crying
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.”


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