When I was nine or ten, my mother gave me a copy of The Hobbit, thinking quite rightly, that it would be the sort of story I would enjoy. When I got the riddle game with Gollum deep under the Misty Mountains, I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again for another year.
As a child, the abject fear that the heroes of the story will not make it hale and whole to the end is very, very real. The thought of Bilbo in the lightless cave still brings a shiver to me, even though I know it works out all right in the end.
Of course in real life, there is no guarantee of a happy ever after. Those we love leave us, courtesy of accidents, decease, old age, or most tragically of all, through choice. Terrible things happen to people that deserve it least. The wicked prosper, unfettered from the grasp of the law, to say nothing of justice.
So, are the stories that are read to and read by children lies? Do they set up an unrealistic expectation for a life that is undeniably unfair? Absolutely. Should we stop telling those tales to kids? Absolutely not.
To be young is to be powerless. In our youth, we are told where to go, (usually to school or bed) what to eat, how to dress and speak. There is very little agency in being a child and if we knew how unforgiving life can be, I’m sure no one would venture out of their homes.
The concept of losing your parents, even for a moment, is extremely upsetting for a child. Think back on anytime you’ve seen or been a crying lone child at the beach or at an amusement park. It’s as if the ground has disappeared and they are falling endlessly towards some unknown horror.
So it is peculiar that stories meant for children are littered with the bodies of dead parents. From King Arthur to James (of the Giant Peach fame) and Harry Potter, it seems that being an orphan is synonymous with being a hero. I suppose it is difficult to go off and have an adventure when you have to be home for supper.
While the stories we make for children are lies, on multiple levels, but consider the last item in Pandora’s box. That’s what got both Bilbo and me out of the cave and kept us going forward.