What were my parents thinking?
That’s an assessment that we all make about our parents or guardians or caregivers at some point once we become adults (admittedly some of us sooner than others), and I’m not some special exception to this rule. I’ve looked at my own life in these terms, of how my parents’ decisions, beliefs and in so many cases the permission they granted me to see, say, or do the things I wanted to that, on the surface, one might find it amazing that I am here now typing this and not up in the clouds plucking harp strings. What never ceases to amaze me as I—honesty is key here—delve into my upbringing is how often the following words of Mark Twain come knock, knock, knocking like an unwelcome guest:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
Let the wee hours of a Saturday morn set the stage for an experiment. It’s a seemingly benign day, September 17, 1983, and this unassuming child, this innocent babe in footie pajamas, who in three days time will turn five, sits with his twin brother on the green carpeting of their parents’ living room floor and--as quiet as a whisper--turns on the old console television set, having been given permission to watch Saturday morning cartoons so long as they didn’t wake the house.
The first voice to greet the children as the volume comes up are spoken from a child as well. “Hey! Look! The Dungeon’s And Dragons ride.”
What was this boy's parents thinking?
There are few defining moments in a person’s life. For this unassuming child, this soon-to-be less innocent babe, Dungeons and Dragons was one of those moments.
Because that Dungeons and Dragon’s carnival ride, which started each show, whisks a group of children from their own world, abandoning them in a desolate place known as the Realm, a world full of bogs, sinkholes, volcanoes, and deserts with no way to get home. It is a world of deadly creatures—it is a world without hope.
And it is on this nondescript, run of the mill morning, when this child realizes for the first time, that there are some pretty nasty characters out there, characters that he will one day face without his parents there to protect him.
And that is an important lesson for a child to learn. Did my parents know that I learned this lesson on that fateful day? Was it carefully crafted from the texts of Dr. Spock (not the Vulcan)? I don’t know.
Some might call this viewpoint a bit dark—if they are being nice about it—but I don’t think it is morbid. Fantasy’s seed germinated, took root and flourished in children’s literature, and at least a part of its success is attributed to these lessons.
A healthy dose of mortality is in all likeliness the secondary, the indirect, lesson here. What is more important--and here is the point where I ask myself did my parents, on at least a subconscious level know these lessons existed in the cartoons I loved as a kid--is that these children confront and defeat the denizens of this vile world with heroism, intelligence, and teamwork (okay luck too) over and over, on a weekly basis.
I’m reminded of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz where the adults of the stories are either too far removed or too inept or unable to confront the evil, leaving it to the children to be heroes.
Was it important for this child on that particular Saturday morning to recognize the importance of self, community, and society before he could tie his shoes? I think so.
Lessons regarding what it means to have valor and morality don’t work without villains. We need the Boogeyman as much as we need Santa Claus; a being or ideal that is overwhelmingly evil, seemingly hopeless, where the best outcome is simply self-preservation, because one can not truly appreciate the questions posed by a storyteller without them. Whether that Boogeyman is disease, an evil wizard, or a man-eating shark is irrelevant. We gain insight about life, about human nature when we see the poignancy of a story. In a world such as ours, this includes loss--the ultimate loss we experience is, of course, death.
Because of its villains, fantasy literature allows us to see what it is to be a hero (human?). In a society where the newest generation seems to be one of entitlement, fantasy literature does the opposite. It reminds us that we are only entitled to what we are willing to fight for—and ultimately, what we are willing to die for. Regardless of current societal views, these stories endure.
In fact, often they don’t just endure. Many thrive. In J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many characters selflessly lay down their lives to protect Harry, because Harry stands for something more valuable to the common good than one’s life. How does this affect poor Harry? He finds himself at odds with the powerful wizard of all time--and while Harry has many friends, he must confront and fight Voldemort alone. Talk about BIG philosophical values. As a reader, I can only infer that there is some inner-truth in these values, or why else would a series suffer so much success, despite its existence in a society of entitlement?