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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Deep Narratives of Childhood



One of the first books I ever read in English was a children's version of the story cycle of the great Irish hero Cuchulain. Cuchulain remains to this day one of my favourite heroes, the bloody comedy of his origins and early career, and the intensely heroic fatalism of his end, literally dying on his feet and fighting to his last breath, made a deep and positive impression on my forming mind. Alongside this was an illustrated and hideously expensive leather-bound tome of Sir James Knowles' interpretation of the King Arthur stories which, though far from being the best iteration of the Arthurian legends, is still a moving and evocative account.

What these books did for me as a child went far beyond the juvenile escapism usually associated with fantasy. These stories provided me with my first introduction to the concept of honour, the importance of good faith in our dealings with others, the reality of absolute obligation, broad principles of the limited and justified use of force, and models for living fiercely and well in the face of certain mortality. Of course, I'm not claiming that my infant mind identified or understood these concepts in these terms or anything like them, but what's important here is that these stories fundamentally influenced the shape of my inner world. They provided the beginnings of shape and definition to my notions of society, and of the nature of good and evil. This, I believe, was largely due to the way that myth is generally based on some kind of deep truth - the perception of this truth made these stories feel utterly real to me, and thus, by extension, the values and precepts contained within them. 

There are quite a few people who are of the opinion that these stories were a shockingly inappropriate basis for such ideation, but that strikes me as being beside the point. The point, as I see it, is that the earliest and most important step in a child's understanding of the world comes through narrative. Stories are fundamental to the human experience for many reasons, and their etiological role in the education of children is one of the most important. 

This being the case, it's important to recognise the critical role fiction in book, film and game form plays in the formation of world view. Western culture is notable for having shed tribalism, ancestral veneration, oral history and, to a large extent, God. While I firmly believe that shedding all of these things has been to our net benefit, there remains the fact that it leaves a worrying gap. With myths, legends, family or clan mnemo-narratives, and even bible stories largely absent, we are faced with a situation where the world view of our children is founded on Pixar films and picture books which don't really seem to have any deep content at all. 

I think it's important to remember that the primary model for any child's world view, and therefore the shape of our future world, is to be found within the stories they're told. This is one of the reasons for my unreasonable hatred of the monocultural superficiality of Disney/Pixar 'family movies', and the blatant propaganda contained in most cartoons and children's fiction today. I think there's a strong argument for retaining at least some of the core narratives from humanity's history. I don't really care which ones, just so long as the dominant voice is not puerile, breathtakingly shallow, trend-driven, mass produced garbage which, though reportedly brilliant as entertainment, is deeply suspect as early education. 

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