Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

Book Review: Landscape with Dragons (updated)

Dear Reader,

It was pointed out to me that I made a pretty grievous error in the earlier version of this post (got the author’s name wrong — whoops!). Fpr some reason wordpress won’t let me edit that particular post, so here it is revised. The original post is from 2014. 

I have heard  a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by  Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.

The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he has to say. These include:

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)

  • Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
  • Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:

“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)

In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when O’Brien gets down to the specifics of what he means.

O’Brien gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:

“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)

These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things which can happen in the real world and what can happen in  stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.

O’Brien also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:

“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)

But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. O’Brien is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:

“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)

I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that O’Brien clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.

Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think O’Brien also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.

Now I would like to address another major point O’Brien makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, O’Brien says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. O’Brien himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:

“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous  because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)

In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).

The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). O’Brien laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:

“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)

O’Brien also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:

“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)

I think part of the difference I have with O’Brien may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a  number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but O’Brien also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:

” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)

And again:

“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)

Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like O’Brien sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man’s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, O’Brien makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.

On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. O’Brien thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. O’Brien doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.

To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things O’Brien says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind O’Brien’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations of these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting point for forming one’s own opinions on these works.



Book Review: Once Upon a Time

Dear Reader,

I have already done two posts on Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see here and here), but I wanted to give you a more proper review of it. Warner’s book is not a tome, but, as I said previously, it is dense at parts and I felt at times as if I had to wade through it. I suppose in the greater scheme of things it may be a shorter history, but do not think from its title that it is a short, easy read. At points I found it fascinating and it definitely made me think (see those earlier posts), but at other points I felt like giving up on it altogether.

Warner begins by defining fairy tales. They are, she says, “one-dimensional, depthless, abstract, and sparse; their characteristic manner if matter-of-fact” (Kindle Loc. 196).  The characters in fairy tales are ordinary people (as opposed to myths which are inhabited by superheroes and gods). They also face ordinary problems, though it may not seem so at first glance. They reflect the time and place of their origin and are meant to help ordinary people cope with troubles they face:

“Fairy tales used to transmute the horrors by setting them once upon a time and far away, and in this way did not directly raise the spectre of a killer nest door but smuggled their warnings under cover of magical storytelling.”

The messages of fairy tales are ones of resistance, hope and escape.

Fairy tales have changed over time; they have also been reinterpreted. Often, it seems, these two things are intertwined. Those who interpret the tales do so not detachedly but adapt the tales for their uses. There are definitely parts of this book which are unsuitable for children (not that it is intended for them by any means) as Warner discusses Freudian and feminist interpretations of the tales. She spends quite a lot of time, on and off, in this book on what may be loosely termed “women’s issues.” As she says, so many fairy tale villains are women — wicked queens and stepmothers abound– that it is hard to avoid the idea that there are some real gender-related issues going on here. I am left wondering at the end, however, whether this is because it is the females themselves who need the tales or whether it is because males are trying to create a certain depiction through them.

Ultimately, for Warner fairy tales are a means of conveying truth. These truths are adapted to their time and place and yet they are also in many ways timeless. She has a quote I love: “‘A lie hides the truth, a story tries to find it'” (Kindle Loc. 2534). What this saysto me is that we can often say more truth through fictional tales.

In the end, however, I do not think Warner is coming at fairy tales form the same place I am. Her concluding paragraph says that:

“We are walking through the dark forest trying to spot the breadcrumbs and follow the path. But the birds have eaten them, and we are on our own. Now is the time when we all must become trackers and readers of signs. Fairy tales give us something to go on. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do. It is something to start with.” (Kindle Loc. 2555)

I suppose two things come out to me from this last paragraph. First, that Warner, like so many of those whose work she reviews, is not dispassionate about her subject. This is not an unbiased recounting of scholarly thought on a  topic. It probably would have been much less interesting if it were. But still, one must take into account as one reads it that the author has her own attachment to fairy tales and one presumes her own interpretations of them.

The second thing I am struck by is that this is not a biblical understanding. I know some Christians will avoid all such tales and I am not among them. I do think that we can learn a lot from fictional stories; we can explore ideas and learn about ourselves. Jesus taught through stories and God revealed Himself through His people’s stories. But Warner’s langauge at the end is quite hopeless. We are not alone nor are we so lost as she says. And, above all, we also have other things to go on, namely the Word of God.

I suspect if we met in person, Warner and I would not have much in common and there were parts of this book that I found dry and when I wanted to give up on it. But I am glad I didn’t. There was also quite a bit here to make me think. I would recommend this book. I would not hand it over to my children but it is a decent read for anyone who in interested in fairy tales and children’s literature and who is able to think critically about them.



Fairy Tale Follow-Up (More on Young Adult Fiction)

Dear Reader,

Do you know what I forgot in my last post? Mermaids! In that post, I talked about fairy tales and how so many kids, and especially young adult, books these days have main characters who are werewolves, vampires, etc. But I forgot mermaids. Yet today in my BookBub email of cheap Kindle books, I find that mermaids should indeed be included. The blurb on The Syrenka Series by Amber Garr reads:

“This stunning trilogy of sacrifice and love follows spirited 17-year-old mermaid Eviana as she flees an arranged marriage. But the decision to follow her heart has consequences beyond anything she can imagine… 

Now fairy tales are pretty much as old as humanity but this particular blurb highlights what I think bothers me about these young adult books. If you’ll notice, the protagonist is the mermaid. In most classic fairy tales (as far as I observe in my uneducated opinion), the fanciful creatures are not the humans or the heroes and heroines; they are the bad guys. But these days not only do the witches and vampires take center stage, they are often the main characters; the ones we are to sympathize with and relate to. What does this mean? What does it mean that so many young adults are fascinated by these books? Well, the obvious answer to me is that they are longing for something more and/or different than what they are, for escape from the world they know. This may not seem huge development in the history of teenagers, but I feel that there is something different in tenor about it all. It’s all very subjective, I know.

Another thing I forgot is that it is always wise to finish reading a book before one begins discussing it. This whole topic arose because I was reading Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner. When I wrote that previous post, I had not finished the book. Now I have (and I am also pleased to report that it was a bit shorter than I had thought; one drawback of reading things on the Kindle is that it is hard to know where one is; it turns out that a good chunk of the end of the book is notes and the reading bit ended sooner than I expected). And what I found near the end is that Warner at least begins to answer my questions. She talks about how fairy tales have been reinterpreted and rewritten. A key milestone in this history seems to be there reworking by the feminists in the 1970s. Warner says that:

“The contrary spirit of feminist fairy tale has also enlivened the growth of Young Adult fiction, with unflinching fantasists exploring the lives of girls — and some boys — through revisiting ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Snow White’, and other classics. The furious feminist protests of the Seventies have become axioms of children’s publishing and film producers’ brainstorming sessions.” (Kindle loc. 2075)

Now I can just hear those super conservative Christian parents saying, “Aha! Modern fairy stories are influenced by feminist thought. I knew they were all evil and here is more proof!” And I will admit that this should at least make one pause and think. It is always good to do so when selecting books for one’s children anyway. But I am also not sure that this means we need to reject all such stories outright.

My own inclination is that there is a very real, even God-given desire at the root of this kind of literature. Warner also alludes to this when she says that fairy tales, which she says elsewhere are about escape, are a means that “rational dreamers” use to think about, among other things, “ways of avoiding hell” (Kindle loc. 2264). Isn’t this astounding? Fairy tales are about avoiding hell?? I am not completely sure I know how Warner means this. She does say that such stories allow us to come to terms with real world evils in a context divorced from reality. So I suppose it is not too big a leap to surmise that as we try to deal with the evils of our world that we are also trying to wrestle with ultimate evil.

Another book I reviewed recently, Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner, helps me out here. Horner is a Christian and his thesis is that everything we humans should know about God we suppress but that this suppressed knowledge comes back out in other ways. In other words, we can’t really suppress it. In the case of the young adult novels I am discussing, this would mean that our knowledge that we are meant for something more comes out as stories about teens who are really werewolves or mermaids or half-vampires. It is the only human longing: “there must be something more than this.” And indeed there is.

As I’ve said, I don’t think it is inherently wrong to read books like this. Fantasy itself can be used to convey truths in the hands of the right writers (think Lewis and Tolkien). And even in the works of non-Christians, there can be an awful lot of truth that comes out, at least about the human condition if not about the Divine. I do feel overwhelmed though when I go to my local library to pick out books for my older kids. There is just so much out there and I don’t have time to read it all. There are more of them than me and they read faster. So I do do a lot of judging a book by its cover and praying for the best.

What about you? How do you pick books for teens? Any good recommendations?