Sunday, October 9, 2011

The World Be Dark.

Let's get one thing straight people, books are dark places.  Books are also light and happy places.  Books--and really stories in general--give us places where we are confronted by darkness and shown that even in the darkest situations we can triumph.  Recently, in my story analysis class, my professor brought up this book The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettleheim.  (Now please be aware this is second hand info--my copy in on it's way but this is her assertions from the book)

Bettleheim is a child psychologist who studied the impact of fairytales on children.  His assertions on fairytales are that children need to hear them.  They need to hear the ones specifically with "happy endings" this is not because we too all want happy endings but because of the characters triumphs over darkness.

Children's largest fear in life is that their parents will abandon them and they will have to face the evils on the world on their own.  This is a valid fear.  How many of us feared losing our parents or being left alone, when we were children?  I know that was one of my biggest fears as a child.

What fairytales do, according to Bettleheim, is they confront children with this fear. There is no sugar coating, no talking down to them and telling them everything will always be rainbows and sunshine.  Fairytales say that yes, someday you will be left in the woods by your parents and you will be forced to deal with the evil witch, who wants to eat you.

Scary right?

Yeah, I shivered there just typing that.

Here is the reason why children need the "happily ever after."  It's not just icing on the cake.  It's a teaching method.

Who know that?

Apparently, Bettleheim.

Fairytales put children in horrible situations and then show that they, even at such a tender age, can triumph.  They can persevere.  Dark things WILL happen to you, but if you are prepared for it, you too can shove the witch in the cauldron.  

Children NEED this because they need to know they can prevail in the darkness of the world.  That's why fairytales feature children.  They are not the heroic myths that we receive in high school and college, about great men and women who affect the world around them.  Fairytales are about the ordinary boy or girl who are put into horrendous situations and prevail. 

It's part of growing up.  Facing the world head on and not waiting for people to come to you.

Now there are those (and WE know ALL about them) who would argue that literature, especially for children, has taken a darker turn.  They argue this is not a good turn.  It is in fact a horrible one, that will teach our children all of the horrible values we endeavor to help them avoid.  With the advent of dystopias as the current trend, and the love-y dove-y, sparkly vampires being shoved aside, they say we are going to disturb our children with such darkness.

To those people I say: have you read a newspaper recently?

Here's the facts: our government can't work together, our national debt is through the roof, the largest number of 20-somethings are moving HOME (reasons include, no job, lack of funds, failure to launch), the jobless rate is the highest pretty much since the Great Depression, oh and did I mention the millennials are going to be the FIRST generation EVER in the USA to not out pace their parents in terms of over all state of living?

The world be dark.

How are we supposed to face this? Hmmm?  With stories that are happy, where nothing bad happens, and everyone ends with a smile on their face?  That helps me, sure.

The book most often cited as too "dark" is the Hunger Games.  Let's look at that book for a moment.  It features a girl fighting for her life in a word where her government is corrupted, she doesn't have enough money to feed her family, her mother is less of a mother and more of child, and to add insult to injury she's fighting for her life, literally, in an arena being filmed all so that she can protect her sister and be there to take care of her in the future.

How many of those things from Katniss's life happen to deal with real world problems we see today?  (And I didn't even add in "deal with war")


And yet, we see her triumph.  She lives, you could argue she thrives, but more importantly Katniss perseveres through this life.  Whether or not you think the end of Mockingjay is happy or not, Katniss has her happy ending: family and love.

The lesson to be learned is not: how to kill the kid next to you, but rather that you as a reader can come through the darkness of the arena (x2) and civil war, losing your best friend, and STILL find happiness at the end.

So yes, the world be dark, but thanks to tales like fairytales and the Hunger Games, I can face it.    


  1. That's interesting. I never thought of fairy tales as a tool to teach children to survive. However, I do remember them being incredibly dark and terrifying, but in the time of H.C. Andersen many children were forced to grow up at an earlier age than they are today.

  2. This is true, H.C. Anderson is EXTREMELY dark, however Bettleheim excludes the works of Anderson because they do not include happy endings--which is essential for instruction.

    True kids did have to grow up faster, in the old days, but I would argue kids grow up fast today as well, just without the requisite responsibility of true adulthood.
    (This is purely just for an intellectual discussion not meant to attack you as a person.)