Storytime pt. Two, or The Power of Stories and the Hidden Shape of Reality
While sitting around the lunch table a couple of days ago, one of my coworkers mentioned that she had a professor who hated Disney stories with a passion. They’re too simplistic, the professor said, too black and white. They don’t represent the real world, which is much more complicated than good guys against bad guys.
I disagree — not that the real world (especially the people in it) is more complicated than good good guys and bad bad guys, but that such stories are too simplistic. If such stories are anything, they are too powerful.
I wrote in my previous post, “I think it’s important for Jack’s stories that the heroes be brave, the princesses beautiful, the dragons bad, and the danger real.” Add to my list, then, that the good guys be good and the bad guys be bad.
See, these stories aren’t really about the good guys and the bad guys. Everyone I know and everyone I know of has the potential for both good and evil. The good guys are capable of horrible atrocities, and the bad guys are capable of profound goodness and grace. It’s part of the human condition. This conundrum is answered, of course, in Christianity’s epic story of man created in the image of God (good) yet stained by sin (bad). It’s no surprise, then, that each of us is both good and bad. So far the professor is half right.
But the very best stories aren’t about good guys and bad guys; such characters aren’t intended to represent real people. The good guys in the tale are not a symbol of the guy so much as a symbol of the good; they represent qualities of goodness and badness, which makes them much more Real and True than the mistaken professor will allow. In A Landscape with Dragons, Michael D. O’Brien writes, “The meanings of symbols.. are a language about the nature of good and evil.”
These stories teach us that good and evil are real. They teach us the qualities of good and evil. They teach us that good can triumph over evil, and how to fight for it. To quote G.K. Chesterton’s famous line, “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
The dragon, in other words is real, and we need stories to teach us what to do when we encounter him.
This is why stories are so powerful: they peel back the world and show us what lies beneath. They expose us to things that we cannot otherwise know precisely because our world is too convoluted to show us.
O’Brien explains this in some length:
All of us readily grasp the language of a parable drawn from the universal human story. The forms may be dressed in elaborate costumes and enact impossible dramas, but they enable the lover of tales to step outside of himself for a brief time to gaze upon his own disguised world. What is the value of this temporary detachment? It is an imaginative withdrawal from the tyranny of the immediate, the flood of words and sensory images that often overwhelm (and just as often limit) our understanding of the real world. A rare objectivity and insight can be imparted regarding this world’s struggle for spiritual integrity. In the land of Faerie, the reader may see his small battles writ large in the wars of titans or elves and understand for the first time his own worth. He is involved, not in a false or spurious world, but in the sub-creation of a more real world (though obviously not a literal one). I say more real because a good author clears away the rampant undergrowth of details that make up the texture of everyday life, that crowd our minds and blur our vision. He artfully selects and focuses so that we see clearly the hidden shape of reality.
I’ll be the first to admit that Disney too often encourages the rampant undergrowth of details, and that its presentation of good and evil often leave something to be desired. But the problem is not that Disney draws too sharp a line between good and evil, but that it so often blurs what should be clear. Only by giving children unmissable examples of good and evil, of black and white, can we give them the framework to navigate their relationships with gray people in a disingenuous world.
Jack will learn the contradictions and complexities of human nature soon enough. Until then, I’d rather give him stories that teach him about good and evil — teach him that evil is real and must be overcome and how to overcome it, especially when he finds that evil within himself — than those that give him a flaccid worldview which cannot come to terms with the presence of evil, and certainly cannot defeat it.
In part three, I’ll discuss the qualities of a Good Story.