LITERARY REVIEW

The enticement of the esoteric

The appeal of the apparently violent WWF and its stars

The appeal of the apparently violent WWF and its stars  

VIOLENCE in children's literature is not a new phenomenon; traditional children's stories fairly explode with violence, and often with a cruelty and brutality that horrifies the adult perspective. Grimm's fairy tales are indeed grim; often macabre, with little children being devoured by wolves, witches' heads being thrust into hot ovens and pigs boiling the big bad wolf in soup.

Nonetheless, for a generation brought up on the delights of Enid Blyton's famous five, two boys, two girls and a dog, that inhabit a world of hidden treasure, scary smugglers and other small time crooks, the dark undercurrents of today's popular fiction can be disturbing. Children's bestseller lists today are topped by Harry Potter, that near iconic boy wizard who grapples with the dark forces, sorcery, witchcraft and black magic, defying death and destruction. Harry Potter is an orphan, just like the Baudelaires, in pseudonymous author Lemony Snickett's best-selling yet grimly bizarre A Series of Unfortunate Events. Besides black magic, blood and gore are prominent on children's bestseller lists with R.L. Stine's Goosebumps as well as Fear Street which tells of the gruesome events that happen to people who live on "Fear Street" in the town of Shadyside. The ongoing series, which continues to sell at an astonishing rate, revolves around teenage characters who encounter mayhem, violence, brutality, murder and often, occult phenomena.

The Famous Five

The Famous Five  

So what is it that makes these books so popular? Is it simply the thrill of the forbidden, the enticement of the esoteric? What is the effect such violence could have on the child's psyche? Is this any different from, say, watching violent scenes on television?

Parents, children and other critics differ. Yet most concede violence in a literary context need not necessarily be bad. For generations of children entertained with traditional often-violent fairy tales, at home, at school story sessions and often at bedtime reading, these stories continue to enthral. Set in old world kingdoms, forests and fiefdoms, and peopled with evil giants, cruel stepmothers, wicked wolves and of course little children, the violence in the fairy tale, besides adding to the story value and creating a dramatic impact, is today even seen as beneficial for the child. For psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim in his Uses of Enchantment argues that exposure to evil characters in fairy tales as well as to their violence and cruelty is actually therapeutic, with good clearly winning over evil in all the stories (the wolf who eats Red Riding Hood or the stepmother who wants to kill Snow White, are good examples). What's also important is that you see the little people win over the bad people by using their wits and with a little judicious help from the good forces in the world (Jack, Hansel, Gretel, the little pig, or Snow White, being good examples).

Harry Potter different symbols for different

Harry Potter different symbols for different  

For the world of older children's fiction, liberated from the overt moralities and cloying sweetness of Little Lord Fauntleroy, readership has expanded dramatically with miserable even morbid situations attracting much interest and even empathy. Witness then the Baudelaires, whether in Austere Academy, Vile Village or Hostile Hospital. Terrible things do happen to them — over and over again. People get killed in the story — sometimes violently, though the violence is not graphic. There is a sense of good people valiantly and possibly fruitlessly struggling against evil, disbelief and incompetence. The helplessness, yet continued resourcefulness, of the Baudelaires would be appealing to children who are often helpless in their relations with the adult world. So also Harry Potter's struggle against the power of organised opinion represented by Rita Skeeter and the Daily Prophet as well as the menacing mediocrity of Cornelius Fudge's Ministry of Magic. This is real life and these are real world issues where the stakes are so often simply life and death and today's teenagers can see that. Contrast for instance the imagery and issues in the very title of The Hostile Hospital with say, teenage detective Nancy Drew `s Password to Larkspur Lane or even The Haunted Bridge where Nancy collects clues and tracks down a mysterious jewel thief and you get a sense of real life versus Never-never Land.

Besides this, suspense, murder and action stories have always been favourites for all age groups. Conflict is then almost endemic to a good story, and literature, mythology, folk tales, and even religious texts are full of violent narratives. As R.L. Stine points out (and he should know, having sold over a 100 million copies of over 160 different spooky stories) "everyone likes a good scare, and I think everyone likes to be able to have creepy adventures and face monsters when they know they're safe at the same time". Thus safely distant and decidedly vicarious, reading about violence and horror could well be a way for children to not only clarify their stance on moral issues by exploring the alternatives but to exercise their responses to the terrible and be prepared for it in real life. By being one step removed from violence in books in a setting where the violence is mostly framed by a moral context, violence in literature generally has much less of a negative impact on children than disturbingly explicit, more mirror-like images on TV.

The enticement of the esoteric

Yet parents and teachers have often been apprehensive of exposing children to such violence and many have been the calls for bans on controversial books whether it be J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for depiction of a suicide and mental breakdown or R.L. Stine for his gruesome accounts of attractive teenage girls in terrifying situations: being stalked, kidnapped or lying dead. Ultimately, the effect of exposing children to violence in literature does depend heavily on the framework of the story; while the Goosebumps or Spookesville series may frighten children into nightmares, it could also enable them to experience the violence vicariously and thus become equipped to better deal with frightening situations in their life. As child psychologist Maya Kripalani points out, "A lot of it depends on the individual child — if you have a sensitive child with a fertile imagination he is more vulnerable to getting nightmares."

For the parent, pertinent issues centre on the kind of reading envisaged. It often works well to read a few chapters of the book in question or look up a spectrum of reviews. Yet at the end of the day, children are reading more and enjoying reading these violent books, perhaps for their complexity and because they are indeed true to life "fantasies", stories that are definitely more interchangeable with an investigative human interest story on CNN, than the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or even Agatha Christie could ever be.

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