A Tale of Two Towers

A good friend of mine wrote a review of the movie, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" recently, in which he said:

"Do see Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring. It is very well done. Just don't bring your young child to it. Way too scary and intense for them."

This got me thinking, and I disagree with this so violently, that I just have to write about it here.

My reaction to this innocent comment ties in closely with my thoughts on protecting our children and the virtues of "trashy" genre fiction, and the way that the 9-11 conflict are viewed. It also ties in with a lot of what I've been hearing in the media for the last couple of months.

The thing that really troubles me is the part about the movie being "way too scary for kids". That's only true if you buy the notion that kids are fragile little things that must be protected from life. I just don't believe that. I still believe, as I did back when I wrote my "24 Hours of Freedom" essay, that you harm children by trying to child-proof the world rather than world-proof the child.

Life is scarier than any story, and it's just not safe. This is the year when we should all have been reminded of that. Instead it's the year when so many of us, both children and adults, were shattered by the revelation, when the world of safe illusion came crashing down in the smoke and ruin of -- you should excuse the expression in a reply to a review of The Lord of the Rings -- the Two Towers.

Just about every week I hear someone on TV doing a bit about how to help your kids cope with the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center towers. Let me tell you, after 9-11 is a lousy time to start. Before 9-11 they should have learned that the world is a dangerous place, that there are people capable of tremendous evil, and that good people have to stand up to them.

That's what fairy tales and myths and epics are for. That's what trashy genre fiction is for. They teach us the lessons we need to face life. They are about transformation and heroism. LotR is about how little people, ordinary people, can change and save the world by not letting evil win, by never giving up. It's about how good people don't want to be swept up in violence and war, but still do not give up in the face of it.

This notion that our children are too fragile to handle scary things or strong emotions isn't new. It's been around for a century or two. Back in 1818, Thomas Bowdler became a verb ("to bowdlerize: to expurgate (a book, for example) prudishly") by publishing an edition of Shakespeare in which "those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family". And so we got all that nasty risque stuff out. Soon enough the risky stuff went with it as we decided that violence and strong emotions were too much for the dear things. Litle Red Riding Hood is no longer eaten by the wolf, Cinderella's step-mother and -sisters no longer punished at her wedding, and the tales of the Little Mermaid and the Match Girl end happily.

The conflict between the powers represented by Tolkien's Two Towers are scary, and so are the orcs and the Balrog, but if you haven't learned the lesson from them, then New York's Two Towers, the hatred of al Qaeda, the intolerance of the Taliban, the twistedness of someone who intentionally spreads anthrax is much scarier. And that ignores the whole issue of the lessons of Saruman as they apply to the question of those who would abuse power, cut back on our freedom because we need such weapons to seek out and destroy our enemies.

Children should see LotR and the fairy tales should not have had all the scary parts taken out, nor the sex and romance. People should not have been taught "just go along with the hijackers and everything will be OK". We shouldn't be asking how to make America safe again. It never was safe. Just lucky and prosperous. The world always was full of danger and evil. It just didn't always come to the Shire.

But this fall, the evil that had been upon the rest of the world came undeniably into our Shire. (Please note that we've been brewing up our own, in Oklahoma City, Waco Texas, Lincoln Montana and so forth, and it visited us before in the World Trade Center and on our way home over Lockerby, but we always managed to deny it.) When it did, the heroes were not the mighty and the powerful. All they could do was pass laws to make sure nail clippers can't be carried on planes. The heroes, the ones who actually did something to combat evil were just plain folks like you and me: Todd Beamer, Thomas Burnett and Jeremy Glick had heroism thrust upon them, and the folk who'd been dedicated heroes all along: the fire fighters, EMTs, doctors and policemen whose first response is to go towards disaster, not away from it.

I am so tired of parents who want to protect the children from movie and TV violence or "get sex back behind closed doors where it belongs", baby proof the house and child proof the world. I want to prepare them to save others as the towers fall, to face hijackers or muggers and stop them, to comfort the fallen, to recognize the abuse of power and to resist its seduction. I want them to know about sex, and all the messy things that it involves, both beautiful and deadly. I want them to understand the world so that they can live in it.

I say:

take the children to "The Lord of the Rings" before its too late.

The story of Frodo is the kind of example that we need to have incorporated into our psyches in order to become the Todd Beamers and Father Mikes that did the right thing on September 11. Fairy tales and epic fantasy are ways that we learn those symbols, the way we learn how a hero acts. By having faced fictional terrors in the stories of our youths we prepare ourselves to face the terrors that reality can bring us.

What's dangerous is teaching them that there is or can be a world without violence, closing sex behind the doors so they know nothing about it, teaching them that there is always someone liable for every bad thing that happens, who could have prevented it and who should be made to pay for their failure, that if you just play along with the bad people, don't raise your head up, it will all be all right, that guns are what kill people, not people and if we just ban weapons everyone will be safe, that seeing violence on a screen causes otherwise good people to do terrible things.

We must stop trying to child-proof the world. We must stop trying to outlaw all possible danger. We must stop keeping our children ignorant. In doing these things we make them and ourselves unprepared to cope with real danger, real evil. By keeping our children totally sheltered in order protect them, we make them far more vulnerable to violence and emotional damage when the world breaks through. Rather we must give them back the heroes that our cynicism has taken away, and we must show them how heroes act when the terrible threatens.