Gruesome tales

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From monstrous worms to big, bad wolves, scary characters have always been a feature of children’s stories. Tessa Strickland explains why encountering violence and terror in stories – and the power of the imagination – can help children to face their fears and make sense of the world around them.

A cat lies on a mat, dreaming. A small child lies in the sun, also dreaming.

What is the difference between the inner world of the cat and the inner world of the child? I can’t answer this question, but I can propose that within the child lies dormant an understanding of the nature of good and evil, right and wrong. As the child grows up, she will learn more about the nature of these great mysteries through the actions and attitudes of those around her, using their exchanges and her responses to them to forge her sense of identity, her inner story. She will also learn about these mysteries from the stories she hears. In this way, if she is fortunate, the inner and outer worlds of the child will obtain some kind of balance. How does this come about? Since humans first started to forge community and culture, the process has been the same: through the power of imagination. It is through this faculty that we are able to embrace our inner and outer worlds at the same time, and in doing so, to navigate life’s complexities. It is the imagination that shapes what we think and do, throughout our lives, and it is cultivated through the medium of story. By imaginatively identifying with the characters in stories and the adventures they have, we enlarge our understanding of the world; we become more alive.

The child stirs, opens her eyes and contemplates the garden gate. She has been told not to go out of the garden on her own, but the prospect is very tempting.

The cat stirs, sniffs the summer air, decides to go hunting.

Along comes the dog. He settles down on the cat’s mat for an afternoon nap.

What’s going to happen when the cat returns? There will likely be trouble; there will likely be a fight. Fur will fly and blood will spill. There will be violence.

The child decides to test the boundaries. Singing a little song to herself, she opens the garden gate. Singing a little song, she wanders along the path beyond the garden, into the wood. Singing a little song, she meets... a wolf! Uh-oh.

I have never met a wolf on a path through a wood. I don’t know how I would respond if I did, but the chances are that terror would pour through every fibre of my being. The child in the story is probably scared too; but she does not lose her wits.

The wolf is charmed by the song, so he asks her to sing it again. She obliges him, but as she does so she starts to inch back along the path to the garden gate...

Close encounters

In this story of the little girl and the wolf (inspired by The Sweetest Song, in The Story Tree by Hugh Lupton, Barefoot Books), the child’s resourcefulness ensures that she makes it back to the safe side of the garden gate. Phew! The threat of violence has stirred her, but she has not been overcome by it.

In ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, a Brothers Grimm tale that has captured the imagination of children the world over, the encounter is more visceral. Here, Little Red Riding Hood gets swallowed whole, as does her Granny. What does it feel like to be swallowed alive?

I haven’t been swallowed by a wolf, but I know how it feels to be swallowed up by another person’s anger, or by my own grief and rage. Here, the violence is fully played out, but what the tale of Little Red Riding Hood delivers is the promise that what is wrong will right itself: the wolf, the ‘evil’ in this story, gets his comeuppance and is disposed of.

It is interesting to think about Little Red Riding Hood from the point of view of the wolf. Was he wrong to swallow Little Red Riding Hood and her granny? Why was he wrong? What if he was starving? If you were starving and you saw a friend’s apple, would you eat it, planning to pay her back, or would you go hungry? If you were a cat, and a dog sat on your mat, how would you get it off?

Stories as lifelines

Those children whose early life experiences have kept their instincts in reasonably good shape can naturally discriminate between behaviour that is creative and behaviour that is destructive; through stories and through personal experiment and boundary testing, they learn as they grow older that these two aspects of behaviour need each other; that violence is a part of the fabric of life; and that violence can be transformed. They learn too that it pays to be attentive: in all kinds of circumstances, an act of carelessness or mean-mindedness can bring violent consequences.

Sometimes, it is very difficult to know what choices to make. Again and again, the guidance in fairytales and myths is that kindness helps: the child who, driven out of home, is left to wander in the wild, often encounters small, insignificant creatures who are in need of help. Later, when that child is in deep trouble, up against a largerthan- life witch or demon who wants his bones for breakfast, it is the little creatures who come to his aid. Myths and fairytales can be lifelines – as Barry Lopez puts it, ‘Sometimes we need a story more than we need food to keep us alive.’ As a publisher of myths and fairytales, my rule of thumb is that if a story stirs me with its music and its language, its beauty and its violence, and if it ends with good ending well and bad ending badly, it may well be a lifeline for a child or two. And who knows? Perhaps the dog and the cat will be listening too.

Tessa Strickland is Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Barefoot Books.

More in this category: « Seek out a story Story is king »

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