Hide not my children from these stories with evil

Two nights in a row, now, I have watched with my daughter “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It is the classic Suess cartoon, complete with the adorable, antler-bearing dog, the wide-eyed Cindy Lou Who, and the goofy sleigh ride down into Whoville. Ellen loves it not only because it is her first exposure to television (“they’re walking!” she observes), but because it is memorable and fun. Being only two and a half, she can’t catch all Boris Karloff says, so I prepped her, repeating the story as a “Once upon a time” tale frequently enough that, before watching, she was explaining how the Whos sing to make the Grinch happy.

Then, tonight, after she went to bed, I listened to a recording I have from childhood – Zero Mostel reading the same tale, but in a much different manner. Mostel reads the Grinch minus the animation, without visual sneers, evil eyebrows, or a clear illustration of a tiny heart. Thus, when he reads the Grinch, he must make him evil using only his voice. Even then, however, his reading takes a different approach than Karloff’s; he has chosen to make the Grinch evil, a frightening character overflowing with hatred – in particular, hatred for Christmas and the Whos. Ellen has not heard Mostel’s rendering, but I’m sure if she did, it would terrify her.

To the adult or teenager accustomed to self-consciousness about acting silly, Mostel seems over the top or “nuts,” but I am convinced that Mostel’s terrifying reading makes the story truer than the animated TV classic. Truer in the sense that if the Grinch’s starting point is too high, the change enacted at the end is less of an accomplishment – not a true change, but an adjustment. The terror of the Grinch makes his final change significant in a way it cannot be when the Grinch possesses adorable edges – only in beginning low can he rise as a truly dynamic character.

But many parents will claim (even unconsciously) that a children’s story is no place for a terrifyingly evil character. Consider the parent who complained to a colleague of mine that “The Most Dangerous Game” and its portrayal of Zaroff the man-hunter was inappropriate reading material for school. It is this claim I detest the most, though I understand its motive. Its motive is love: we as parents love our children so much we want to protect them from every evil and every fear. But the best way to protect is to equip and to train, because we will not be there to protect our children forever.

And when it comes to equipping an individual for encountering evil, I have yet to find a better training device than literature, and for children that most often means fairy tales. Present a child with a fairy tale, a “world full of darkness and danger and ambiguity” (Buechner), and she can begin to recognize evil and its wiles. Presenting a tamed evil – a grumpy but harmless Grinch or a morally upright Zaroff – not only paralyzes the story’s ability to pursue a reader’s imagination, it serves no utilitarian purpose, for by it a child cannot learn to recognize the real thing.

We must not deny the fairy tale its ability to portray the complexities of reality. In fact, a fairy tale’s value rests upon its ability to accomplish this. In a true fairy tale, as in reality, “Not only does evil come disguised . . . but often good does too” (Buechner). Even a young child has begun to encounter the difficulties of the world, and in the difficulties of a story, a child will recognize the echoing reality. If it reverberates as true, he can learn. If it resounds not, his reaction will likely be passive, since then it is just a story, handcuffed from acting act upon him for better.

Of course, helping a child to recognize evil is only part of a fairy tale’s great mission; the rest, the truly great burden of the tale, is helping a child to overcome evil. In the fairy tale’s world, “Good and evil meet and do battle . . . much as they meet and do battle in our world, but in fairy tales the good lives happily ever after. That is the major difference” (Buechner). And the fairy tales’ unique manner of overcoming evil equips it perfectly for battle with that complex world, for they are “above all . . . about transformation, where all creatures are revealed in the end as what they truly are” (Buechner).

This happy ending has received unfair criticism for being trite. If the evil was truly evil and the battle against it was truly a battle, it is difficult to see the resulting resolution as trite. If it is trite, then maybe the resolution was hasty, or maybe (and this is more likely), the evil was tepid. With a tepid evil, the good is unavoidably impotent – it has accomplished nothing remarkable if it has not overcome a terrible evil – and its triumph is undeniably unimpressive.

C.S. Lewis expresses the idea this way in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”:

I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones. (qtd in Ryken 428 )

Such captures the contrast between the animated version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the audio version. The animated version is fun, but it leans slightly towards escapist entertainment for children since it relieves its portrayal of evil with silliness and antics. I even play it for my two and a half year old, who cannot completely track such quickly narrated action. The audio version, however, strikes me as a fairy tale of frightening substance. Mostel captures the evil of the Grinch, making his hatred of the Whos and his conversion to Christmas so much more believable and satisfying.

When Ellen is old enough to understand the words, expect me to share Mostel as much as Karloff. Karloff is fun and she’ll always request it, but I’m convinced Mostel has more to teach her about living in this world.

. . .

Postscript Note: Jeffrey Overstreet articulates nicely part of the theme I’ve expressed here (well, he says it better than I) and his article is worth perusing:

If [entertainers] beasts actually scare and disgust the audience, viewers might head for the exits. We’re stuck, then, with tolerable—even likable—beasts. Indeed, many big screen beasts seem more human than their bland human co-stars. They’ve a certain mystery, a fearsome magnificence, a compelling conflict in their countenance. It’s tough to find storytellers brave enough to make the beast properly repulsive.


Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

Ryken, Leland. The Christian Imagination : The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Wheaton: Shaw, 2002.