My daughter has just turned six. Like any six year old, she absorbs stories everyday, not only through the books we read her, but through the cartoons and films she watches. We also went to see Peter Pan at the theatre this Christmas. Stories surround us, especially when we are young. Stories speak to us about our concerns, and they do the vital job of forming the imagination of children. In fact, they do more than this, through the currency of symbol, they initiate a child into a culture, by implicitly affirming certain values and opposing certain other ones.
In recent years a strange thing seems to have happened to stories and fairy tales. Almost all the modern ‘children’s stories’ have to a greater or lesser degree subverted traditional narratives, and thus conveyed values to children which are radically at odds with what our culture has considered valuable for centuries.
This really hit home this holiday when I was watching a modern animation called ‘Mimi and the Mountain Dragon’ on the BBC with my daughter. I realised with some annoyance that I was sitting through yet another story in which dragons were portrayed as nice, gentle, misunderstood creatures. Now, by this point, this is not a surprising plot twist but a tired old trope. In fact, I asked my daughter if she knew any stories in which the dragons were actually the baddies, and she couldn’t think of any at all. This is worth thinking about for a bit.
Now you might argue that there is no significance to this beyond the fact that in the modern era we are no longer satisfied with the same old stories, and we are seeking the thrill of the new. There is no doubt an element of this. But think about the pre-eminent story of our culture, or at least one of the key ones – the hero myth, in which the slaying of the dragon is the culmination of a quest which exemplifies the virtues of cunning, strength, honour and self-sacrifice. The dragon, the ancient serpent, represents a force of evil as old as time itself. It represents the darkness of cthonic, unregenerated chaos out of which order must be constantly drawn.
Now children once grew up reading stories in which the dragon was a creature of daunting intellect and cunning, a force to be afraid of. Thus we had a chance to decode the more subtle types of dragon in the religious and mythical stories of our culture. For instance, the moral world which we inhabit in the West, and thus the narratives which we have told, have identified the tempting, dangerous and seductive side of evil, the way in which it can cast a glamour, and also the way in which courage and strength are needed to overcome it. Clearly these values are based on our Christian inheritance, the perception of good and evil in this way is part of the tradition of Christian culture.
But if you grow up only ever seeing gentle misunderstood dragons, you’re going to find your Christian inheritance a lot harder to decode. There are very good reasons why the heroes are brave and the dragons are fierce in all the old tales.
But when all the dragons become misunderstood, and the real evil is identified as the villagers (as it is in Mimi and the Mountain Dragon), or more precisely their outdated customs in which they have been taught to hate the dragon, then we are in a totally different world. In this world tradition, custom, virility and honour are all toxic. The only real sin is exclusion. Thus the dragon must be befriended, included, discovered to be harmless.
We now have a generation of children raised on woke fairy tales, in which all the old values are subverted because they come from a world of hierarchy, of patriarchy, of tradition, in short everything which the modern person has been taught to hate and fear. For many people this is absolutely a good thing, but there is also a sizeable chunk of people for whom the ‘traditional values’ like chivalry, temperance, and so on are still worth handing on in stories.