I have been remiss in my blog posting this past week, on account of hosting my five-year-old nephew for the last eight days. The occasional status update aside, I have literally written no more than two sentences with him here.
On my desk now sits something called a skybar Wine Glow Cover, a trinket my sister salvaged and offered up in way of thanks for taking in the Little Dude (LD) for a week. It wasn’t necessary; I love my nephews and was happy to give the eldest the kind of one-on-one attention and alternative education that isn’t always feasible in his home environment right now.
But the Wine Glow Cover seems a decent metaphor for the kind of public performance I’ve been giving this past week–my nephew the centrepiece of all my status updates online, and in general a constant presence at the table of my social interactions these past few days. I haven’t figured out the part in this metaphor where my nephew glows and keeps things cool, but I’m sure with a little more wrangling I could find something that works there, too.
The point is, as easy as it has been to share some of my thoughts through anecdote this past week, the hard part has been speaking past the centrepiece. Certainly, the length limitations of socially acceptable status updates haven’t made this any easier–but even if they did, I almost wouldn’t know where to begin.
After long days of outdoor adventuring, LD and I watched movies together. Over the course of the week, these included Ghostbusters, The Iron Giant, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, some Wallace and Gromit, and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. The penguins got the biggest shrieks of joy from him, but Chaplin took first prize in stringing LD along for a roller-coaster ride of mixed, scene-specific emotions.
Percy Jackson, however, troubled me something fierce. The storyline is boilerplate–a series tired, ham-fisted character and quest archetypes easily leaning on the success of Harry Potter to achieve their own, collective acclaim–but that alone didn’t bother me. Rather, as the story builds on ancient Greek mythology, I found myself calling out each new monster, god, or setting before the film named them for us–a practice that made me hyperaware of two very different narrative traditions at odds in this film.
After all, Greek mythology is explanatory in nature: What is that great light in the sky and how does it move? How do spiders come to spin such marvellous webs? Why are there seasons? Who makes the storms in the sky? How does night fall across the land? Were humans ordained by some greater being to enjoy wine and dance and song? Where do we go when we die?
Moreover, these were stories written in a time long before the division of cultural narratives into children’s tales, youth fictions, and adult literature. To see these expansive, universalized stories pared to a format that fits modern conventions for intermediate-age storytelling is strange.
YA fantasy fiction in particular has two immensely successful variations: 1) The story of a child whose life is miserable and dull until they enter an entirely new realm where their purpose in life and a toolkit of super new skills is handed to them, and 2) the story of a child who is given a set destiny and toolkit, only to defy one or both to the greater happiness of all.
The inability for these two modern narrative tracks to allow for anything else is most markedly seen in Percy Jackson around the concept of Hades–a place cast in the film as all fire-and-brimstone. (Hell, in other words.) Consequently, its master, Hades, is also presented in a decidedly Satanic guise, and nothing of the Elysian Fields (nor of Hades’ advocacy for proper respect for the dead) emerges in this retelling of Greek mythology.
(One could perhaps argue that this film is drawing from the very early days of Greek mythology, before the afterlife was given such nuance, but I see no mythological rigour here, such as would merit benefit of the doubt: just elements picked willy-nilly, if sparingly, from the great body of Greek myths.)
In short, Percy Jackson, like most YA fiction, is so mired in its contemporary, Judeo-Christian culture that it dares not nudge a toe past certain figurations of good and evil and the “why” of human life. (And even then, I have no doubt the very fact that this series leans on Greek mythology has marked it as Satanic literature in the eyes of many.)
Sure, Hades is the dude who kidnapped Persephone and forced her to be his bride–but in the original Greek mythology, Zeus gave him the go-ahead for this monstrous plan. Simply put, Greek gods are every bit as flawed and complex as human beings–and that poses a dilly of a pickle when trying to use them to create easy moral lessons for children and young adults alike.
It’s a quandary I was generally faced with this past week, as my nephew routinely wanted to know if X person in Y film (or in real life) was a good guy or bad guy. At his age, black-and-white determinations of right and wrong are in full force, and it takes a great deal of patience and repetition to break down prejudices being made on snap-judgments about what is and is not familiar to him–be it a kind of dress, a form of human interaction, or even the colour of a person’s skin.
The form of my nephew’s questions really clicked matters into place, though–reminding me, oddly enough, of Eldredge’s Evangelical text, Epic, in its appeal to a greater adventure. After all, if there are good guys and bad guys in the world, that must mean there’s a contest between good and evil being waged in our lives, and therefore we must each be tasked with some truly exceptional part in this battle… right?
Of course, this isn’t the narrative of Greek mythology: in Greek mythology existence is a litany of triumphs and defeats amid the capricious interventions of higher powers, and even the gods themselves are sometimes beset with hard lots–Prometheus sentenced to have his liver rent from him daily by a buzzard; Atlas suffering the weight of the world on his shoulders; Persephone entombed for six months out of every year.
But it is the contrived narrative of modern life–the narrative, that is, of individual exceptionalism. And this exceptionalism fares pretty poorly in our fairy tale appropriations of ancient mythological purpose.
Take, for instance, the stunningly bad epilogue to the Harry Potter series, in which it emerges that the height of these children’s lives lay in the battles they waged and won in their formative years; for all the marvels of this magical realm, as adults their primary adventures lie in marrying, having kids, keeping steady 9-to-5s, and preparing for their own kids to have adventures in turn.
In those scant final pages, you can almost picture the grand lads of the last seven volumes going to fat watching Quidditch matches with pints of Butterbeer by their sides, or setting up some manner of magical LAN party or D&D club that meets every Wednesday to do virtual battle. This is the great promise of YA fiction? An explosion of fleeting, dramatic acclaim before adulthood, followed by 50+ years in a steady, salaried job somewhere?
If I may be permitted a point in these many paragraphs (a debatable matter, as I can still feel rust fall like rotted shingles from my fingers–and yes, that terribly mixed metaphor is just proof of one and the same), it is that some narrative structures provide more of a “long-view” approach to life than others.
Certainly, a great deal of contemporary YA fiction, in situating all life’s adventures around cataclysmic events that must be decided here and now by a young person rising or refusing to rise to the challenge of his or her destiny, fails this sustainability test.
Conversely, Greek mythology, in presenting comparative examples for a wide range of life situations (irrespective of age and none particularly affixed to an individual being called up to save the world) does a better job framing the world as something not necessarily created to serve your quest above all others.
Is it the only mythology to offer such a narrative structure? No, not at all.
Is it the best mythology to offer such a narrative structure? No, I’m loathe to make that call, too.
But the existence and continued prevalence of Greek mythology does offer up a mirror to contemporary culture–the problems of which can (and have) filled many a book to date–and serves as stark reminder that the way we generally view life is by no means the only way in which life can be viewed.
(Fortunate) children in the contemporary world certainly believe in the exceptional life. And though many of these children grow up, many do not grow out of this belief in individual exceptionalism–with all the oversimplifications of “otherness” that necessarily follow in its wake.
I don’t mean to suggest that moving from an exceptionalism-driven life to a more Brahmanic approach is the mark of maturity to which all should aspire. But I do grow increasingly convinced that the exceptionalist approach is not the most tenable narrative road for teaching children how to live well–that is, with dignity and compassion and active participation from beginning to end.
Could there be a fantasy literature for young adults that promotes this middle path over the flash-bang thrills of vicarious exceptionalism? If so, what would it look like? Do examples exist on the margins of popular YA fantasy fiction today?
Or is such a narrative structure entirely out of the purview of this age class and genre? Does the very demarcation of literature into age categories make the construction of non-insular young adult literature a futile exercise?
Finally, what does it say that so very many adults are primarily reading fiction in this age class, too?