We had a teen discussion last night on Hilda Van Stockum's The Winged Watchman, a family story set in Holland during the terrible days of the Nazi occupation during World War II. There were ten teens and four moms and we had quite a wonderful discussion.
Even though it can be considered a simple children's story, it has a great deal of depth and wisdom in it. We spent a lot of time discussing details of the story - conflicts in people's hearts and families because of the war, character development, perspective and lots more.
It was also a nice opportunity to discuss how we are affected by stories and what the author accomplishes through her characters. We thought it was a bit of a "soft" story in a way - no real sharp edges, you know. The Verhagen family is a family we can relate to even though circumstances force them to be "more than" themselves. It seems that the author also uses them as a sort of lens through which we can understand some more difficult things as well. For example, though the mother of the Verhagen family is admirable and heroic and suffers through fear and want, we can relate to her because she is not so very far from ourselves. And yet, through her, we better understand the heroism (and deprivation) in those we are less able to relate to. She helps us understand them better (in an "even more so" sort of way), but she also (Mrs. Verhagen still, in case this is getting too confusing) shows us a path of action that we could imitate if we found ourselves in difficult circumstances. Mrs. Verhagen must make difficult decisions, unselfishly, and she helps us to believe that these choices, in the end, will make us happier.
This brings me to a more general concept that came up in our discussion. The idea of "hope" in stories. It's funny, because this also came up on Flying Stars recently (check the comments) which also reminded me of something I wrote a few months ago for the Catholic radio project I'm working on (I'm still waiting on the radio station to implement it - a prayer for God's will here would be much appreciated):
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1917), "One is entitled to think that the future of humanity is in the hands of those who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and optimism."
It may surprise you that fairy tales are recommended to develop a child's sense of hope. The world has long recognized the value of fairy tales. Albert Einstein said that: "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."
G.K. Chesterton reveals something much deeper: "The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides him is a St. George to kill the dragon."
G.K. Chesterton recommends The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang in Heretics.
Here is a larger portion of the quote from Chesterton on fairy tales. It comes from "The Red Angel" in Tremendous Trifles (pg. 86):
I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. I do not speak of the man in the green tie, for him I can never count truly human. But a lady has written me an earnest letter saying that fairy tales ought not to be taught to children even if they are true. She says that it is cruel to tell children fairy tales, because it frightens them. You might just as well say that it is cruel to give girls sentimental novels because it makes them cry. All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. There is just as much difficulty in saying exactly where pure pain begins in his case, as there is in ours when we walk of our own free will into the torture-chamber of a great tragedy. The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul.
The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it - because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. 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.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
I hope to share more about our discussion later. Good night!