I’m pretty much scared of my own shadow. So when my then four-year old son noticed Beowulf on his grandparents’ coffee table and chose it for a bedtime story, I shuddered. The vivid illustrations, Grendel’s monstrosity, his mother’s primal revenge, the gory scenes in the mead hall… No way!
Maybe we’ll read it sometime during the day, I said, thinking this clever compromise could buy me time, I don’t want you to have bad dreams. Then the frustrated tears welled in his eyes. Mommy, he said, it is a LEGEND, and legends happen in your imagination.
Stumped on that one, I relented. There were no bad dreams. Many more scary stories followed.
Of course I understood the cautions from other parents who felt Beowulf could wait until eleventh grade. Overexposing my kids to intense violence and complex psychology had been my worry too, but for some reason, I kept reading. Through the chapters the reason became clear.
Beowulf, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky – all of these tales have elements that are undeniably scary. Abandonment. Treachery. Fury. Murder. The antagonists embody the most sinister elements of human nature. They creep off the pages and seep into our consciousness, lacing our minds with unease.
Yet my kids can’t get enough. I think they respond to these stories because they experience them completely in the present.
My kids don’t have the life experience to truly empathize with desperate grief. They haven’t yet had to make choices where none of the consequences will be painless.
So why even introduce these wrenching tales? Why not protect them from the harshness that will come soon enough?
Because life is complicated. Life’s conflicts and temptations are not always black and white. Sometimes real people have rationale reasons for doing bad things. We don’t always agree on who the good guys are. Since life’s struggles often play out in shades of grey, we read.
Take Edmund, from The Chronicles of Narnia. He betrays his siblings to the White Witch and the results are disastrous. Still, Edmund’s brother and sisters rescue and forgive him. That helps my kids understand the bonds of family.
It wasn’t until the last book of the Harry Potter series that the stern teacher, Severus Snape’s truest loyalties were revealed. And even then, we’re left questioning his character. Snape introduces complicated themes of trustworthiness, revenge, vulnerability and redemption – concepts which are both the solid ground and the quicksand of human relationships.
Contemplating humanity in fiction is good practice for real life. It’s a crazy world, and I want my kids to be prepared to negotiate its ambiguities. So we read scary stories, and as the chapters of my children’s lives are written, I hope they will be guided by the characters they’ve encountered in the many, many pages turned behind them.