I’ve recently noticed a trend in the books being published for children. Quite contrary to old-school fairy tales where wicked deeds are dealt swift justice, the new brand gloss over evil, or even victimize the classic villain. Faerie is no longer the realm of high beauty & serious consequences, but of safety rails & political correctness. The wicked witch isn’t really so wicked… it’s just her insecurity complex that makes her behave badly. The big bad wolf’s viciousness boils down to a misunderstanding among neighbours.
Last year during our annual writing retreat, Bri & I went to see the film version of Into the Woods. While we thoroughly enjoyed the production, I couldn’t help squirming in my seat just a little at the paradigm shift being worked into the threads of Faerie. This modern reconstruction of classic fairy tales makes a point of turning our traditional notion of clear-cut Good vs Evil right on its head. The subtle aim is spelled out loud & clear in the song “No One is Alone”. Here’s a just a taster:
People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.
Honor their mistakes
Fight for their mistakes
One another’s terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right, Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good
This post-modern pantomime may at first sound open-minded & profound to our 1st-world, highly sheltered & sanitary sensibilities, but it will never succeed in supplanting the classic goody vs. baddy tales of old. Why? Because it is wholly unrealistic & wholly unsatisfying. Some over-protective parents may like its sickly sweet sugar coating, but children will not. They are much more raw & robust when it comes to stomaching the truth about evil.
So here’s a plea to writers & publishers alike: Do NOT become squeamish of writing absolute evil into your stories. Here are just a few reasons:
Reading about evil prepares children to face it in reality.
However much we might like to delude ourselves, evil is a reality. You need only flip on the news or pick up a paper on the way home for proof. Children don’t need to the news to tell them evil is real. Even sheltered children when playing make-believe seem to know by some instinct that the game should involve a hero battling a villain. It’s as if they are born with a heightened sense of justice. By filtering out evil in Story, we do a serious disservice to our young readers who are grappling with it’s reality and need to come to terms with it on page before they face it head on in life.
I recently watched an old TV special about J.K. Rowling & was rather struck by this comment Stephen Fry made about the fearless honesty with which she writes about evil in Harry Potter:
I think it’s a function of literature to give children nightmares just as it’s a function of the biological world to give them measles. Because if they don’t get their nightmares when they’re twelve, they don’t wrestle with the dread of the unknown. Then, when it comes later in life, you’re really in for trouble, just as mumps at thirty is a much bigger deal than mumps at eight.
The darkness of the evil in Harry Potter is demonically dark. Surprising that the series is the hugest success in Kids’ Lit history? Hardly! It’s a testament to fact that kids want more than entertainment in laughs from what they read. They want meaning, truth, heroes they can champion because those heroes face villains they can & should rightfully hate. The evil of Voldemort motivates Harry to fight for all that is good in his world.
Steve Kloves, the screenwriter for most of the Harry Potter films, observed the grand & compelling themes in Rowling’s story:
The Thing about Potter is that it’s very earnest about expressions of things like Loyalty, Courage and Redemption. Audiences were hungry for that.
He couldn’t be more right. Loyalty glows in Harry Potter in contrast to treachery & self-aggrandizement. The moment of Redemption, when Love breaks through & wins the day, is so powerful only because of the vileness of the evil it’s overcome. These are the oldest themes in Story, and they have hardly lost their luster.
And this brings me to the second reason we must not shy away from writing about evil–not gratuitously, for the sake of inflicting our readers with nightmares, but meaningfully…
The greatest stories are redemptive, but without evil, good cannot prevail.
The presence of evil takes a story from entertaining to compelling. Just consider what Lord of the Rings would be like with no Sauron–a lyrical description of the quaint and beautiful lives of hobbits, dwarves & elves. Perhaps enjoyable just as a pretty painting is for its detail. But the beauty of Middle Earth is enhanced ten-fold after its near decimation. Hobbiton is all the more splendid at the end of the books because Frodo, through toil & humble sacrifice, has fought and saved it from a great and powerful evil. Middle Earth is redeemed. We rejoice with its victors.
Going back to “Potter”, If J.K. Rowling had written a book all about a boy wizard who wants desperately to make the Quidditch team, we would have found it amusing & imaginative. But would Harry Potter have become the phenomenon that it is had Voldemort–a paradigm of pure evil–never threatened to destroy all that was good & wonderful about the wizarding world? I think not. Evil raises the stakes of Harry’s plight, & our commitment to seeing Harry through to the bitter end rises with them.
What so often makes Children’s stories the best stories, the ones that stick with us all our lives, that mold us into who we become, is their very boldness in dealing with the Big and Real stuff of human existence, namely Good vs. Evil. Chivalry, Heroism, Sacrifice, Courage, Justice, real Adventure all depend on there being real threats & real dangers posed by real evil. Those are themes kids can and should sink their teeth into. Ultimately, happy endings are happiest when they’ve been hard won. Or as Kathleen Shumate from the fantastic blog The Story Warren puts it:
The depths of suffering in a story only serve to make the redemption that much richer and more satisfying.
So will the newfangled notions of Into the Woods replace the traditional formula of Good vs. Evil in future fairy tales? Er… don’t hold your breath on that. I reckon these lyrics from “Wonder” ( from Lord of the Rings the Musical) are likely to resonate far longer in the land of Story:
Out of death, life
Out of night, day, glory from sorrow
Out of grief, joy
Out of storm, comes strength for tomorrow
Out of dust, gold
Out of fire, air, comfort forsaken
Out of rage, calm
Out of loss, find, glory awaken
Let’s be bold for the sake of our readers. Let’s write stories that will arm them for future battles, inspire them to hope in dark times, & give them a taste for Glory!