Stories used to be about what Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, called the Hero’s Journey. Now, we are downplaying and sidelining heroes. Heroic tales are now classified as “genre fiction,” another term for pop literature. Moral allegories, on the other hand, are almost unheard of, but when they are published are still generally snubbed by modern literature professors. If you look at the most enduring classics from the last three thousand years, heroism and allegory predominate: Homer, Aesop, knightly romances, and fairy tales are all of this kind. Notions that the best literature is experimental, self-expressive, or politically empowering are peculiarly modern. My favorite example of this is how James Joyce is always listed among the top 100 authors of the 20th century, and J.R.R. Tolkien, who has had a wider and arguably more positive influence, is rarely listed at all.
Aristotle called fiction “something more philosophical and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universal truth, than of particular fact.” (Poetics 9:5-8)
It is only through stories that we understand what a hero is. A hero, to put complex intuitions into simplistic words, is someone who stands up for what is right even when this is hard. A hero doesn’t need a sword in his or her hand to be a hero. His essential quality is courage. But the highest courage only shows during times of utmost adversity. And this is why we learn about heroism best from stories, because the utmost adversity is not something you encounter every day. It’s something that happens rarely and is then told and retold so we are ready for it when it happens again. And this is why the whole point of an adventure story is not to portray the way our reality usually or factually is, but the way it could be, as Aristotle realized. It’s a way of philosophizing about our highest ideals without having to put ourselves in the highest danger. So to say that we need more stories about everyday life, or “more original” or “more realistic” stories where evil wins for once, or “less clichéd” stories that champion some (not cliché?) political ideology, is to completely miss the point of what stories are for.
I once had someone tell me that they were disturbed at my belief in classics and tradition because it seemed I wanted to sap the creativity out of life. But this is the opposite of what I want. Tradition is not about conforming or stifling but about learning and creating. I am more disturbed that people have never read the Bible and are ignorant of its message, than I am at those who have read it and disagree with it. This goes for the classics in general. I would much rather have a society of people who have unsympathetically read Plato’s Republic and can use its insights in their reasoning, than a society modeled exactly on Plato’s Republic. In fact it would be a bad thing if we modeled a society on Plato’s (somewhat totalitarian) Republic. But it’s still one of the most important books ever written, because it gets you to think against the grain.
Tradition provides freedom. It provides freedom of thought and action.
Birds can fly, but humans are more free, because we have knowledge. We have memory. Tradition is that memory.
Hero stories constitute a memory of what courage is capable of when everything seems hopeless. Why is literature about the World War II period, 1939 to 1945, more popular than literature about the period from 1949 to 1955? For exactly this reason.
We should not stamp into children’s minds that tradition is all bad or all good. The most essential thing to teach is, on the contrary, that reading old books will give you two things: knowledge and courage. And that knowledge gives you the power to find and recognize freedom, and that courage the power to seize and hold onto it. By neglecting the classics we lose this knowledge. By neglecting heroic stories we lose this courage.
Courage and Knowledge are much of the value of stories, but not all. They also possess hard-to-quantify aesthetic values as well. We should add Beauty to our list of virtues enhanced by great literature. One thing I love about good fantasy literature is how much nature and wilderness it portrays, and how beautifully it often does so. That we need this in our stories is a modern necessity, as we spend too little time in nature. A hike in the mountains does more to satiate me in this way than the best books do, but on the other hand I would prefer my hikes not be deadly adventures, while I do enjoy wilderness stories involving danger of death.
We need not demand that all stories are about physically combating evil. All characters of great nobility and magnanimity are refreshing to read about, and good for us. Mortal danger is not necessary to show this. The touching Humility of Jane Austen’s Fanny Price; the steadfast Diligence of Homer’s Penelope; the newfound Charity of Dicken’s reformed Scrooge; the admirable Courage of Villeneuve’s Beauty in facing the Beast; the noble Chastity of Sir Perceval when faced with temptation — the list is endless. I think it is a mistake to think that adventure implies bloody fighting. There are many other intense struggles we might face in our lives, and these should not be neglected. But it should be clear that the basic notion of a “hero” still applies — we are still talking about characters who must face trials to stand up for what is right.
I admit that most of our entertainment still does feature heroism of some kind. Movies and books that don’t generally do not sell. We have a natural and healthy craving for it. Nevertheless, it appears to me that heroic values in entertainment have been decaying for some time. The trend actually started “at the top” decades ago, as university literature departments went non-traditional, then modern, then “postmodern,” favoring stories with flat political messages or no moral message at all. It didn’t take long for this to seep into genre fiction, most notably fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Movies came next, and recently TV shows with evil protagonists have become more and more common. Arguably many of these “grimdark” shows and movies are supposed to show the negative consequences of making bad life decisions, but few even bother to make an excuse for it any more. It seems to be taken for granted now that darkness sells and isn’t harmful to adults.
But now it looks like this darkness has seeped into children’s entertainment too. Just take a stroll down the young adult aisle at Barnes and Noble. It seems that YA, undead, and post-apocalypse genres have all merged into one monotonous thing.
Imagine taking a parent from the year 1900 and having them make a stroll down a modern YA book aisle. Imagine their amazement. Four things would strike them: (1) how few old books, classics, histories, fairy tales, legends, or mythologies are to be found; (2) how dumbed down and simplistic the language is; and (3) how superficial the entertainment, how lacking in the themes of morality, allegory, or faith.
As for the fourth surprise, no, it is not how much death, evil, or tragedy modern literature has. Instead, what would amaze them is (4) how little death there is. That was actually greater in 1900. As John Taylor Gatto puts it in The Underground History of American Education:
“Death, a staple topic of children’s books for hundreds of years because it poses a central puzzle for all children, nearly vanished as theme or event after 1916. Children were instructed indirectly that there was no grief; indeed, an examination of hundreds of those books from the transitional period between 1900 and 1916 reveals that Evil no longer had any reality either. There was no Evil, only bad attitudes...”
Charlotte Mason, a classically-oriented teacher who lived from 1842 to 1923, quotes several other teachers on how surprisingly engaged children become when reading challenging classics:
“A teacher writes (of children of eleven),—’They cannot have enough of Publicola and there are always groans when the lesson comes to an end.’“ (A Philosophy of Education, 1923, p. 51)
Publicola is one of Plutarch’s Lives, a biography of the Roman statesman who helped overthrow the monarchy and establish the Republic. Violence, bloodshed, and tragedy are by no means absent from this story. But if you read Plutarch you'll find him to be what we would call now a “moralizer,” as he never fails to evaluate the actions of the person his biography is about, classifying them as admirable or reprehensible. This makes for reading that is exciting, edifying, and also historically informative. (Plutarch is in fact my personal favorite among biographers.)
Anyway, that used to be for eleven-year-olds. Googling 5th grade fiction the first thing that comes up is a Goodreads list. The first title on the list is a book called Ava and Pip, about a girl who helps her older sister overcome shyness by writing stories for her.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad story or a bad kind of story. It’s good for children to read literature of various kinds, including literature about everyday themes they can connect with at a basic level. Nevertheless, I’m not sure it is healthy for this kind of literature to form the core of an education. The best literature helps us transcend the mundane and come in contact with greater ideals, with a wider and deeper perspective on life. Even in their play—which is fundamentally a form of learning or self-education—children will usually pretend to be adult characters. This is because childhood is fundamentally a preparation for adulthood. Great literature will further this purpose; it will help shape children into better adults. As Charlotte Mason puts it:
“...to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 51)
Why settle for anything well-meaning and well-written but mediocre? Why settle for anything that champions mediocrity? You only grow up once.
Second on Goodreads’ list is The Tell-Tale Start featuring a “gothic” looking cover with too cartoony-looking boys next to a zombie-like portrait of Edgar Allen Poe. The adventure of these “great-great-great-great-grandnephews of Edgar Allan Poe” begins when their black cat is kidnapped and “transported to the Midwest.” (?)
Third is another “gothic” tale, Hyde and Shriek in which an elementary school teacher drinks a breakfast smoothie that makes her change “back and forth between mean substitute teacher Ms. Hyde and a sweet sixth grade girl named Jackie.”
“‘What has surprised us most,’ said the Headmaster of A., ‘Is the ready way in which boys absorb information and become interested in literature, literature which we have hitherto considered outside the scope of primary school teaching. A year ago I could not have believed that boys would have read Lytton’s Harold, Kingsley’s Hereward, and Scott’s Talisman with real pleasure and zest or would study with understanding and delight Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King John and Richard II; but experience has shown us we have underrated the abilities and tastes of the lads we should have known better.’“ (A Philosophy of Education, p. 51)
Harold, Hereward, and Talisman are all heroic, realistic novels about actual medieval knights and kings.
I know that Walter Scott was a challenge for me when I read him in my twenties. Shakespeare even more so. But I think that people (including myself) too often forget that children’s minds are absolutely primed for learning languages. It’s well-known that the younger you are the easier it is to pick up a second language. Certainly older forms of English would be easier for children to learn too. In fact elsewhere Charlotte Mason suggests to begin with the King James Version of the Bible when teaching it to children. In my own experience reading various versions of the Bible with my kids, they do just as well with King James and even find it more enjoyable.
If you want to get your children interested in Edgar Allen Poe (even he’s not at the top of my list), why not have them read Edgar Allen Poe? If you want them to read Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, why not have them read Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde? Why all this work priming them to eventually read classics that aren’t even the most classic?
Tolkien’s The Hobbit was originally published, in 1937, as a book for children ages five and up. Fifty years later, when I was five years old, my teacher gave me a book called The Big Rig, which had no words more than 3 letters long.
John Taylor Gatto writes,
“I decided to teach Moby-Dick to my eighth-grade classes. Including the dumb ones. ... Soon after ... I realized the school edition wasn’t a real book but a kind of disguised indoctrination providing all the questions, a scientific addition to the original text designed to make the book teacher-proof and student-proof. If you even read those questions (let alone alone answered them) there would be no chance ever again for a private exchange between you and Melville; the invisible editor would have preempted it. ...
“The school text of Moby-Dick had been subtly denatured; worse than useless, it was actually dangerous. So I pitched it out and bought a set of undoctored books with my own money.” (The Underground History of American Education, p. 50)
Gatto was astonished at how strongly his students took to Moby-Dick, unabridged, and other classics once they got into them. They were soon begging to read more.
One hundred years ago (and in many enlightened classrooms and homeschools today) eleven-year-olds were reading and enjoying Shakespeare. This seems to confirm that, as the title of Gatto’s other book states, our schools have been Dumbing Us Down. Indeed, if YA books are supposed to be for readers ages 12-18, when are we supposed to get our real education? When do we ever finish preparing for adult thinking? If we want to think like adults by the time we are 18, shouldn’t we be reading adult thoughts for years before that? Children are capable and we should not stunt them. All this “edgy” YA literature is fake edginess. Hamlet remains the original and best in dark thrillers. The Odyssey remains the original and best in fantasy adventure.
But if we only teach classics, the argument goes, where does new literature fit in? Is there no room for modern novels, for modern literary creativity?
There is plenty of room for novelty, of course, but it should be up to mature adults to read it. We’ve got everything backwards. Classic is for kids; modern is for adults. A soul needs a firm foundation to start on. It needs to be built on powerful ideas that have survived for decades, centuries — or what is most tested — millennia. Once it has this foundation, there is no danger in exploring any and all literature to your heart’s content. Having a foundation gives you freedom, because it gives you strength. But if you start at a tender age with the latest commercial fad, well, who knows. It’s a gamble.
As C.S. Lewis puts it:
“The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’. For some at least of such comments must be false.” (Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
The more I meditate on this the more perplexing the whole modern attitude to literature becomes. How can we be so keen to gamble with our children’s mental and spiritual development? Is it any wonder mental disorders have become more common over recent decades? There is precious little in modern education that seeks to express the highest in Virtue, Courage, or Beauty. Lacking a grasp on Heroic values, the meaning of poetry evaporates, and even of mathematics, science, philosophy, religion, and God. And this why all of these things are today seen as merely servants of Progress. Because (lacking a better object) they are tailored to the progressivism of politics, to the reduction of science and mathematics—and all forms of knowledge whatsoever—to mere sources of material well-being. And so the most obvious and material forms of knowledge, the non-literary, the mathematical and the scientific, have been enthroned above the rest because we have forgotten that anything else is needed.
A great education is an education in Heroism. It’s an education that creates a Hero, not a Bureaucrat.
Yes, I do read contemporary books too. Two of my favorites that I’ve read recently are John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education (quoted above) and Martin Prechtel’s Long Life, Honey in the Heart, about life in a Mayan village in Guatemala. I’ve been recommending these to everyone and giving away copies to anyone I think would be interested. We do need new ideas. It would be hypocritical for me to deny this, as I published a book myself just last year and I have more in the works.
Still, I think that too much modern entertainment, too much modern media, and even too many modern books, can warp your perspective. Over the last ten years, as I’ve weaned myself from TV shows, movies, news media, web surfing, and social media, I’ve noticed decided improvements in my own perceptions, attitudes, and moods. I’ve even noticed these improvements disappear again when I fall back into habits of media consumption.
What happens is everything becomes a critique. “Good” movies and books become critiques of our bigoted society. All politics becomes critique, and everything becomes politics. It starts seeming that everything is a war of critiques. That everything is a satire or a tragedy; that nothing is an adventure or an epic. Life becomes a satire of itself. I lose sight of the positive.
This usually doesn’t last long for me though, not anymore. Because I’ve learned to recognize the symptoms and the cure is easy. I garden. I go for a hike. I play with the kids. I sit and read a classic. And then it all goes away. Life is no longer a long waiting for social and political changes out of my control to happen; life becomes whole again. People become divine beings again; conversation becomes deep and spiritual again; life starts to feel like living again.
Stories—to return to the original subject—do need conflict. So there will always be some antagonist, something negative to criticize. However, conflict is not, by itself, the essence of story. There must be some kind of transcendence, too. And we can transcend nothing if we do not first understand and embrace it. This is why Shakespearian villains are so compelling — they are human and sympathetic.
We must positively promote the Good. This alone is enough to turn away all of the bad entertainment and all the hopeless criticism of it.
“The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone.” (Experiment in Criticism)
Most new books are bad, and this has always been the case. Most new movies and TV shows are bad too; we all know this as we go through our nightly ritual of deciding “what to watch.” Bad entertainment is made endlessly — can you stop it being made? Can you critique every movie and show and book? No, there is not even time to peruse them all. You can and must ignore most of them, and sometimes go back to the original sources of true, beautiful, and good ideas: hard work, nature, and ancient wisdom.