Sunday, 10 April 2011

On violence and children's stories

My children love adventure stories, and in their games together they often recreate scenes from their favourite stories. In the comfort of the living room, in the darkness of the bedroom, or in the eerie twilight of the backyard, they have been Peter Pan and a lawless crew of pirates, Bilbo Baggins and a ferocious dragon, Aslan and the white witch, a scarecrow and a tin man and a cowardly lion; they have slain giants and battled dwarves and roamed beneath the earth and peered down on tiny cities from a soaring carpet.

There are people – mostly people with PhDs who have never met a real child – who say the old fairytales and adventures are too violent. For my part, I tend to avoid contemporary children’s writing because it is, for the most part, not violent enough. Only an expert could think that what children really need is stories about tolerance, multiculturalism, sensitivity to difference, and all the abominable boredom of what is called ‘life skills’.

Anyone who has ever met a child will know that they inhabit a world of magic, monsters, and mayhem; that their freedoms and fantasies are rambunctious, loud, bright and brutal as an army with banners; that what they really need are tales of giants and dragons, cruel strangers and enchantments, evil fairies and magnificent hordes of treasure, animals that talk and children that thwart their wicked stepmothers. They do not want to know how to be nice to a lonely old woman in the woods: they want to know how to trick her and shove her in the oven. Or if I may speak biblically: they don’t want stories about obeying your parents and respecting your elders; they want a story about the youngest son who sneaks away from home and slays a giant with his trusty sling and five small stones. That is how children learn to navigate the dangerous rocks of that other country, that unimaginable foreign place where adults dwell; that is how they practise their moral agency, how they learn to be free.

Our handwringing educational moralisers not only misunderstand childhood, they also misunderstand the relation between stories and morality. The teenager who brings a pistol to school one day and guns down all his classmates was not reared on the good honest violence of the old adventure tales, but on computer games where acts of violence occur devoid of any human context or any narrative of friendship, bravery, and noble deeds. He was also reared, let us not forget, on a steady diet of sententious animated films, with their paralysing niceties of environmentalism, postcolonialism, tolerance, and Being True to Yourself. Our culture is blighted by the unprecedented mass production of such children’s stories – not by people who know or like children, but by film corporations with their focus groups, their market research, and their cynical cold statistics about what parents want and what they are willing to pay for.

Lately my children and I have been reading The Silver Chair, the sixth book in C. S. Lewis’s thrilling Narnia series. It is a very good children’s book, because it has all those things that children really love: fantastic talking animals, a strange unvisitable country, an unthinkably evil witch, a hideous reptile, ghastly great giants that cook and eat children, brave knights in glistening armour, enchantments of blackest magic, and, most important, the exhilarating absence of adult supervision, adult instruction, adult moralising. It is a good children’s story because it gives you not what children ought to like, but what they actually do like.

Today we read the chapter where the witch turns herself into a gigantic serpent, green as poison, with flaming eyes and flickering forked tongue. The loathsome creature coils its body round the prince, ‘ready to crack his ribs like firewood when it drew tight’. But our heroes rush at the snake with their swords. They strike its neck, and with repeated blows hack off its head. ‘The horrible thing went on coiling and moving like a bit of wire long after it had died; and the floor, as you may imagine, was a nasty mess.’

After we had read this bracing and edifying narrative, my little boy wandered off to talk to the dog, while my two daughters set about re-enacting the scene in the living room. My older daughter dressed up like an evil serpent, while her sister and I took up our swords and pursued the vile creature across the room. The house was soon filled with all the blood and clamour of battle: the serpent’s horrible hissing, the flashing of noble weapons, the appalling sound of that evil neck being hacked in two, the bitter cries of triumph and defeat.

That was when my little boy sauntered back into the room, carrying a handful of sticks and chewing on something he’d picked up from the ground outside. Amid the wild brutality, the vicious hissing and thrashing about, the bloodcurdling shouts and warlike screams, he scratched his head and remarked idly, ‘Oh, are we playing Mums and Dads again?’


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