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Why we need monsters at the bottom of the garden

Monster eye

Monster eye

I showed in passing in my last post a quote from Douglas Adams:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

Now, he was talking about the the perverse nature of religious belief to demonstrate that he felt it was unnecessary.  Religion isn’t the only source of beliefs however, particularly for children and there are far better books to get them from than the Bible.

I’m referring of course to fairy tales, those windows into a more magical world where the wild things are, the denizens of the dark cupboards, mysterious castles and long forgotten kingdoms who teach us that there are monsters out there in the world.  In our current society we seem to be losing the need for monsters.  We shelter our children from the frightening and the upsetting, censor their stories and hamstrung their villains into comical figures, easy for heroes to vanquish and then allow to escape, shaking their fist at the hero as if they had just taken the last biscuit from the packet rather than destroy their entire life’s plans.

Would Disney’s Cinderella have been a better story if the evil sisters had chopped off their toes to fit into her shoes and had their eyes pecked out?  What about the evil queen in Snow White?  Should she have danced in red-hot iron shoes until she died?  Possibly, it certainly would have shown the results of their wickedness in an easy to understand form.  What of Little Red Riding Hood?  In the original story both Red Riding Hood and Grandmother are devoured by the wolf, who gets off scot free.  A scary ending, but gets the point of the story across far better than relying on a woodcutter always being there to rescue you.

Our time as children is when we learn how to behave in the world and we do them no favours by sheltering them from its nastier side.  In fact, they are generally much more resilient than you’d expect.  Neil Gaiman, an author who doesn’t shelter us from the frightening, found that adults generally find his book, Coraline, creepier than kids do.  [Neil incidentally has just been awarded the Newbery medal in the US for The Graveyard Book which is gloriously full of monsters.  Perhaps this is a turning point?]

These stories teach us that it is ok to be scared and brave when you face those fears and do something anyway.  That there are times when you win and times when you don’t and without the latter, the former wouldn’t exist.  For without monsters there is no cost to defeat and, without cost, there are no challenges, and without challenges, no thrill in victory or sadness in failure, just the grey depths of uniformity.

To end on another quote, this time from G.K. Chesterton:

Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

Photo: © TCMHitchhiker Creative Commons License

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