Why Darkness Matters

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” C.S. Lewis

Halloween is considered by many to be the darkest day of the year and, while I grew up in a household that did not participate in the holiday, this post is not intended to be a rebuttal for either side of the Halloween argument. But the concept of exposing children and/or ourselves to darkness and evil, in general, is something that never fails to interest me. Because darkness matters. And the context in which we put darkness is critical to the way we view the world around us. But instead of providing that context, many people feel it wiser to shield children (or ourselves) from darkness. Especially in the Christian community. In doing so, one of the most important teaching devices is eliminated and the eucatastrophe, a story telling device I’ll get to later, is rendered powerless.

The quote above from C.S. Lewis is taken from his collection of essays entitled, “On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature” and, just like darkness, the power behind this quote lies in its context.

“A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children’s literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened. I suffered too much from nightfears myself in childhood to undervalue this objection. I would not wish to heat the fires of that private hell for any child. On the other hand, none of my fears came from fairy tales. Giant insects were my speciality, with ghosts a bad second… I don’t know anything my parents could have done or left undone which would have saved me…We do not know what will or will not frighten a child in this particular way.

“I say ‘in this particular way’ for we much here make a distinction. Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children the false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the OGPU and the Atomic Bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker… [So] let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

I think it’s important to understand that Lewis was plagued by fear as a child so when he champions the fairy tale, complete with its darkest elements, he’s not speaking from a place of ignorance. Nevertheless, he still asserts the importance of using fictional darkness as an aid in introducing the mind of a child to the very real darkness present in our world and their role in soundly defeating it. We can freshen Lewis’ statement by replacing OGPU (the secret police of the Soviet Union, responsible for the persecution of certain religious groups) with ISIS. “Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.” GK Chesterton says, similarly, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Yes, the darkness is deep. The horror and fear are engulfing. But greater still is the Joy that will come with the ‘turn’ and, Little Reader, I want you to taste all of that here in these pages, where I know there is victory, rather than through the evening news where darkness seems the sure victor.

The literary ‘turn’ that takes place in the dearest of stories, between certain and inevitable doom and effulgent, radiant victory, is called a eucatastrophe. This term, coined by JRR Tolkien, is the combination of the Greek prefix meaning “good” followed by “catastrophe” which, in classical literary criticism, refers to the unraveling of a drama’s plot. Eucatastrophe. Essentially, a happy ending.

“The consolation of fairy stories,” Tolkien says is “this joy… In its fairytale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much  evidence…) universal final defeat and…giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, is poignant as grief…In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes, we get a piercing glimpse of Joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”

The triumph of heaven will exceed the atrocities of hell. Our hearts are wired for eucatastrophe because, in the words of Tolkien, “the birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” That’s why we cry when the stone table cracks, when Harry leaps from Hagrid’s arms, when the Ring is engulfed in the fires of Mount Doom. “..However wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, [the story] can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”

That’s why darkness matters. It is the question that demands an answer. It is the urge that begs for alleviation. Darkness begets the Eucatastrophe. So, to all the little trick or treaters: look into the darkness with an audacious expectation akin to that of David, facing his impending death, as his adversary laughed, “Let it be known, this nation of cowards sends its children to fight!” Don’t shut your eyes and don’t look away because the sun is going to come up soon. And vampires will be vanquished and the ghosts will go away. The darkness will dissipate, the good guys will win, and I want you to be there.

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