So it has come to my attention that there is a dearth of good literature in our modern age. There is too much about making friends with the dragon, and not enough about putting something pointy deep into its dark and evil heart. There is much about two mommies and two daddies. There is little about truth, justice, and the quest for righteousness.
I need to thank my wife for this insight. She talked about a passage in a book which she loved, talking about a father bringing his children back from the brink of modern stupor by the power of Tolkien. She talked about the importance of good literature for children. I will admit that it was somewhat academic for me at the time - we were not yet married, and I have always been more academic anyway - but I have had my world rearranged by a growing bundle of joy, and also happen to be rereading that book, so hey, blog fodder!
The real danger of so much modern literature, as Michael D O'Brien points out in both his fiction and non-fiction works, is that our children our taught to befriend the dragon, as it were. In the words of his books, to "swallow the dragon."
It is the way of literature these days it seems. The white man had so persecuted the "other," that clearly all "other" must in fact be okay in their own right. We have stopped looking for the right of things by their own merit, but instead by the merit of who opposes them, which is not necessarily a very good measuring-stick.
We used to read the Greek myths as great stories of the heros slaying the monsters and freeing the people from bondage and evil.
Instead, in my Greek class, we have people sympathizing with the Minotaur.
In case you don't recall who the Minotaur is, he's half man, half bull, and he eats people. This guy is bad news, an embodiment of evil, and my classmates, and professor, are sympathizing with it! Please allow me to reiterate: HE FREAKING EATS PEOPLE!!!!!!
But maybe that's just all they give him? Maybe he's just really ugly and maligned by a society too obsessed with physical beauty?
He's a monster.
He must be killed.
End of sentence, page, story, period.
But Jeremiah, you white male you, what gives you the right to say that? Why is it okay to kill these so-called monsters. Aren't dragons just big lizards with wings? Doesn't Dracula just have a skin condition, pointy teeth, and a slight need for particularly raw food?
Well, I suppose that the simple, "Because that's not the way the story goes, O my revisionist Herr Redakteur!" won't suffice...
Fine, you want to know the real reason we must kill the monster?
Because the monster is us, or more properly in us.
The monster represents one of two things, and usually a little bit of both. Either it is the external enemy of good, the fallen one himself, or it is the fallen nature within us.
A great example of this is Dracula and the vampire mythos. See how the way Dracula and other vampires feed has been sexualized over the years? Well, that's really because we in the modern age are a little dense, and also a lot permissive. In many ways, the vampire was always a symbol of the disorder of lust, that is the emotional and physical desires which should be associated with spiritual love, but instead are selfish and aimed only for self gratification.
That's right, putting the stake through Dracula's heart was a reminder that we must root out our own lustful desires, purify them as the sun burns away the vile Transylvanian Prince.
Now do we see the danger of Twilight? What is it saying but that there is no danger from lust, and no consequences? Edward is described as being "excruciatingly beautiful," he doesn't burn, he apparently has a soul (or it doesn't matter), there is absolutely no down side to it. In other words, follow your lusts, you won't get hurt. It is your right to be free and licentious with your sexuality.
[Editor's note: Kill it. Kill it with fire.]
What's really at stake here is that while shades of grey tales help us to explore the edge cases of morality, the times when it's not easy to discern what is right, children aren't there yet. Before you can explore the grey areas, you need to know what black and white are. You need to know right from wrong, absolutely, and to know that they exist, and that they matter.
When a young child sees Harry Potter being rewarded for breaking the rules and being rewarded, their formation now includes that there are no absolute rules, and that you are the only final arbiter of your morality. Now, while I will agree that you are the only actor of your morality, and the only one directly responsible for it, you cannot also be the measuring stick for it. Down that road is the world you see today...
One other thing that bugs me are the Seriously-when-are-these-going-to-stop-coming-out-quels. Let us take for example Saw 3D, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. The latter two especially have been remade to death, and should be put, along with that pun, into a sealed coffin 6 foot under, never to see the light of day again.
Why are they so bad? The bad guy never dies! He's invincible! No matter what you do, he's going to come back and kill more people!
Our literature and other media inform our worldview, so when we see that this bad guy keeps coming back again and again, we look at the same thing in our own world (poverty, oppression, dictatorships, et cetera), and can get a sense that it will never end, that no matter how many evils we defeat, there will always be more.
That's why Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other similar epics are so great. I used to dislike the way that they ended, and now everyone goes away, and everything is different, and there's nothing worse than an annoying bureaucrat to deal with... All the exciting parts are in the midst of the trouble!
Except, they are reminding us that we are finite, this world is finite, and our troubles are finite. There will be a last battle, and after that will come the peace of the final victory, which will last for ever and ever and unto the age of ages. They are reminding us that while right now we may feel overwhelmed, and like nothing we do makes any difference, that it won't last forever, that there is hope.
It is very important to note here that I am not at all concerned with kids reading or seeing scary monsters, by any means, so long as they are not the type of grotesque which is meant only to scar (such as descriptions of abortion, or of sexual acts).
"One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic.
The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul."
What these stories provide with their gruesome orcs, cruel dragons, slavering hordes of bogey men and monsters of all sorts, witches and hags and gremlins et al, is that there is a way to beat them. As Chesterton says;
"At the four corners of a child's bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone. For the devils, alas, we have always believed in."
So it is indeed our duty to tell children of the orcs and the goblins and the dragons and the witches and of every other evil thing, and about the hero who through humility and sacrifice found the weak spot in the dragon's armor and thrust his sword, piercing the black heart and saving the village.
Adults can handle most of these sorts of things just fine, heroes who aren't perfect, bad guys who aren't all evil, et cetera, assuming that they themselves have properly formed consciences, but good literature for adults does not automatically translate to good literature for children. Adult literature should push us, make us ask questions, try and find the truth even when it is muddled and distorted. We cannot expect the same out of children, and we cannot ask them to "take their own meaning from it." Children must be formed from a young age in what is good and right, and what is wrong and bad. They must hear of strong men and women of heroic virtue slaying dragons, conquering selfishness, and doing what is right even when it is difficult or unpopular to do so. They must suffer consequences if they do wrong, or if they listen to the dragon. They must win.
With all the nonsense flying in print and film today, it probably can't hurt us adults to take frequent forays into the realm of absolutist literature, where the good guy is good and the bad guy is bad, and the dragon deceives many with its sweet speech, almost convincing the hero who hears the lie of it in the last instant and skewers the evil in front of him, and so doing skewers the evil inside of him.
As for me and my house, we shall read the Tolkien.