My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 4, #41,
May 17, 1999


For right now, let's just be heroes.
David and David

As I was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I wondered once again why it is that in fairy tales and literature, when the forces of darkness are about to engulf us, the heroes who are willing to take arms against them are so often children.

The easy explanation is that these are rites of passage stories, tales of how boys become men, and girls become women. Every society has its rituals by which children prove their worthiness for the adult world. But that does not explain why children in these stories show a whole-hearted bravery adults rarely match, accept burdens too big for them that adults would cringe from. Can you imagine Harry Potter or Dorothy Gale saying, "We'll defend the Kosovars, as long as we don't actually risk the lives of our troops"? So again I say, why do our stories choose children for the battles that count?

Perhaps because there is a purity of vision about children, a black-and-whiteness that recognizes fair and unfair, good and bad, right and wrong, without shading in between. Eleven-year-old Harry Potter, whose parents were killed by a jealous sorcerer, is swift to understand that those who seek the sorcerer's stone will use its power for wickedness, and that he has to stop them. Dorothy stands against the Great Oz and tells him fair is fair; they did what was asked of them, so he has to do his part and give them the brains, the heart, the courage, and the home they overcame all odds to claim. Ten-year-old Jane Eyre, little as she is, attacks the vicious bully with the unheeding fury of righteousness -- she knows she does not deserve to be treated that way.

There is also a persistence in children's hold on an idea. The same intentness of focus that can produce bratty continuous demands for what they want, no matter what threats are administered, also allows them to persist in the right against the powerful. Oz thunders, "I am Oz, the Great and Powerful." Dorothy replies, "I am Dorothy, the small and meek" -- but she still demands what she knows is right and just.

Children also have the protection of innocence, and even ignorance. The government of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game uses children who think they are playing video games to save their world and destroy another. That they are being ruthlessly used and discarded adds another dimension to the story.

Childish innocence includes a blithe sense of invulnerability, a lack of understanding that death is real and permanent and applies to them too. As we grow older, we begin to understand how at risk we are, to accept the truth of the saying, "Meddle not in the affairs of wizards, for thou art small and crunchy and good with ketchup."

Adults try to ward off evil with good sense. We buy insurance. We wear our safety belts and take our vitamins. And if we were given Bilbo's ring and asked to fight a dragon, we would have many good and worthy reasons for staying safe at home. We have responsibilities. We have work to do, and children who depend on us.

Joan of Arc, you'll recall, was a teenager.

Perhaps too, we use children because they live in a world in which, because causes and effects are dimly understood, all things seem possible. Unlike adults, who only believe what makes sense to them, children believe what they see and hear and feel. The boy says aloud what his eyes tell him is true -- that the king has no clothes, and Beauty understands that the Beast is kind, no matter what she has been told. The children in Stephen King's It and Dan Simmons' Summer of Night (which are virtually identical stories) must act against eternal supernatural monsters because somebody HAS to, and the adults can't admit the monsters exist.

Huck Finn is a particularly interesting case because he HAS bought into adult ideas of what makes sense. Having accepted his society's convictions about slavery, he feels guilty about helping a slave run away. But as he and Jim take turns protecting each other on their journey down the river, they develop a bond that according to his society cannot exist. Understanding that he will feel guilty whether he lets Jim escape or turns him in, he chooses what he knows over what he has been told -- Jim is a friend, and you do not betray your friends. "All right," he says, "I'll go to hell."

Perhaps, too, when we tell these stories, they are metaphors for ourselves, puny humanity, infinitely small in the universe, pitted against forces too great for us to understand or resist -- and yet it is the grandeur of our species that we do resist. We are the species that rages against the dying of the light, the species that says "Death be not proud," the species that speaks of doing what is right in spite of death.

The stories that resonate most with us are the stories that tell us we can bear any burden, do any deed, in service of what we know to be right. But they also suggest that we suspect the trappings of adulthood -- our shades of gray, our competing obligations, our excellent reasons -- may keep us from doing it. Perhaps we know ourselves too well, and to make us believe we can be heroes, we must send gallant children forth to play that part.

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