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Slaying Dragons

2013 September 20

In probably the most bizarre reaction to the recent Navy Yard shooting, Elizabeth Hasselbeck (of Survivor and The View fame) argued on Fox & Friends that after situations like these instead of gun control what we really need to be talking about is video-game control. Since apparently the gunmen in recent shootings were addicted to violent video games, she argues that it is not gun control that we need but limitations on how long people are allowed to play video games each day. Amusing hypocrisy aside, her comments brought to mind the arguments of two books I recently read on the need to immerse ourselves in realms of fantasy (even violent fantasy) but to not at the same time be dehumanized by relying on the supernatural.

In his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones sifts through numerous studies to argue that far from encouraging children to acts of real violence, fantasy violence helps youth by giving them safe outlets to grapple with their intense emotions and fears. He argues –

“For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.”

children brave knightsWhile I find the argument regarding whether or not children should play violent games to be fascinating, what intrigues me the most is the idea that it is in fantasy that we learn how to kill our monsters. This is an argument that I often make when I am talking to groups about The Hunger Games and some parent inevitably complains that the books are far too violent for them to allow their teen to read. I reply that these are books about the futility of violence which show the painful and devastating realities that violence, even justified violence, wreaks upon the world. If youth only hear that they must avoid stories that tell the truth about violence while at the same time hear that “justified” violence requires their unquestioning support, then they will never learn how to cope with the very real effects of actual violence. Sometimes children need to be reassured that dragons can be slayed, but they also need to learn that dragons are complex and can sometimes take years to oust from their lair.

When the film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out I was asked if I thought the depiction of the very violent rape would encourage people to do likewise. I answered that no, on the contrary, now more people will realize how absolutely horrific something that we often hush up and ignore actually is. That whole series of books went into the dark corners of abuse of women and children and the system that supports sex trafficking not to glorify them or make them sexy, but to expose them. Topics that we are afraid or too helpless to deal with in reality have to be dealt with in story or else we lose hope. The hackers in the Millennium Trilogy are the heroes because they are the only ones capable in the modern world of exposing a corrupt system that sacrifices women. We needed as a culture to see that if we are creative and brave enough sometimes the biggest and baddest dragons can be defeated. Only story could do that for us.

Yet at the same time, we can also become so wrapped up in the supernatural magic we find in story that we can fail to fully live out the paths they inspire us to take. Right after finishing Killing Monsters, I started reading Kester Brewin’s After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature, From Batman to Shakespeare. In it Kester argues –

“The most heroic thing we can do is to give up on our childhood dreams of being superheroes, and to free ourselves from their addictive lure. We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium. Great institutions can do brilliant work, but the inescapable problem with our projection onto them of super-natural ability is the large, dehumanizing demands that they create.”

It is only when Prospero rejects magic or Bruce Wayne rejects the Batman that they are finally able to live in a way that affirms instead of uses and destroys humanity. Even though they intended to use their access to the “super-natural” for good, it came at a cost to both them and the culture around them. Just as a child who is constantly sheltered or not permitted to imagine defeating their monsters might never truly learn how, so too those who never move beyond that place of fantasy. If the superhero is always the savior, then there is no place for one to live into their full humanity. And yes, that superhero can be the government, or the army, or even faith and prayer. Projecting the assumption that something super will be there to rescue us abdicates our responsibility to ourselves and to others. The idea gives us hope, but in reality we must live out that hope in order to make it real. It’s complex and complicated. It’s easier to blame video games for violence or to pray that God/Superman/Republicans/Obi-won Kenobi will come to our aid. It’s easier because it means we don’t have to face our monsters, we don’t have to slay any dragons.

But that makes our story very poor indeed. We need to tell better stories.


3 Responses leave one →
  1. Karl permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Glad to see that Lewis quote; it was the first thing that popped to mind as I started to read the post. I think Tolkien got the concept you are talking about re. the superhero not always being the savior. Gandalf’s role as a maia sent to middle earth from the West and who at the time of LOTR was probably the 3rd if not the 2nd most powerful being in JRRT’s middle earth, wasn’t primarily to go around like a super hero removing all the threats to middle earth using his own powers, but rather to inspire and empower the mortal inhabitants of middle earth to fight the evil themselves.

    I’ve enjoyed returning to the fantasy genre in recent years after taking a fairly long hiatus. I thought I’d read all the stuff that wasn’t complete second-rate crap (I love fantasy but hate bad fantasy). But lo and behold, after enjoying A Song of Ice and Fire which I discovered about 5 years ago, I started to read books that were recommended by George RR Martin or by others who appreciated his writing for the same reasons I did, and found that a whole new generation of fantasy writers are turning out some really good stuff.

    Among them:

    Robin Hobb – her stuff isn’t all that new, but it was new to me.
    Patrick Rothfuss
    Scott Lynch
    Daniel Abraham
    Susanna Clarke
    Suzanne Collins, of course
    Joe Abercrombie

    Also discovered and have enjoyed Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction, which as GRRM said is a sibling or close cousin of fantasy

  2. January 31, 2014

    Hey Julie,
    It was good seeing you again at C21. Your 7-21 talk was terrific; I definitely resonate with using pop culture stories to help us better understand ourselves, our faith, and our calling into the world.

    I should have written this last week, but this post of yours really helped me strengthen my sermon last Sunday. I’m grateful.

    On another note…without knowing any of our particular circumstances, as one who has been through a divorce, let me borrow a phrase and say: it gets better. Hang in there.
    Blessings on all you are doing.

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