Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Maze of Heroics

Last night, my family and I watched Peter, Susan and Edmund stand by Prince Caspian's side as the massive, evil Telmarine army advanced, great catapults lobbing massive stones to crack the walls of Aslan's How -- the Narnians' last refuge. The young heroes held their ground as the army advanced, slowly, thrumpingly, rhythmically, hidden behind helms wrought into fierce, iron expressions.

In the blue glow of the screen, I watched my children's faces more than the film. The boys' innocent eyes were wide, fixed on the action. They leaned forward to watch the battle unfold and, as Peter lead the charge forward, they bounced a little in their seats. Each time a heroic act was committed, they would let out a "Yes!" or a gleeful laugh.

Ye olde lump riseth in ye olde throat when I see this sort of thing -- when I see my boys reveling in human bravery and sacrifice; when I see them dreaming of great feats in battle; of being heroes themselves.

Yet, I have made it clear: I would rather die than see them go to war. If there were a draft, I would hide them.

Still, I encourage them to devour tales of knights and battle and magic, because those very tales had such an effect on me as a boy. This contradiction in my nature has always bothered me a little, but, today, I think I worked it out.

I remember reading a book by Neil Peart. In it, he quoted someone -- I don't remember who it was -- who said "adventures suck when you're having them." It's only afterward that they become things of value. For instance, spending a day in London, when I was in my twenties, chasing around in the streets, first, looking for my lost wallet and, then, trying to make it to a Western Union office before it closed and making it there with only seconds to spare -- this was no fun. Not even a little bit. But it sure as hell makes a good story, when told in detail. (In one's living room. With one's wallet secure in one's back pocket.) It's something I'm proud to look back on. It makes me look a little like an adventurer, myself.

The meaning is filled-in in retrospect. At the time, it was just a drag. Nothing else.

When centuries pass, war looks pretty cool. Certain commanders become labeled as noble geniuses. Certain soldiers become heroes because of gallant acts of selfless bravery.

The magnificent "Battle Under the
Mountain" by Matthew Stewart
It is even better in a fictional story -- one like Lewis's above -- when the good guys are fighting indisputable bad guys -- sometimes, even, unholy monsters, the taking of whose lives one could argue isn't even murder, because they are not even people.

But the eventual metaphoric glory isn't worth it -- not outside of the books' covers; not in the real world. I want my kids to feel the swell of pride when they see heroic acts on a fictional battlefield. But it is my job -- and the job of all parents, I think -- to help them realize that jumping on a grenade with one's helmet in order to save one's fellow soldiers is an act that was forced by the greed and whims of people in high political places. (Yes, it is heroic, but it never should have come to that.) War is never really about a White Witch wanting to keep an entire world frozen into an eternal winter; it's about real-estate, money and intolerance of other beliefs and cultures.

It's my job to help my sons cross the bridge from Narnia into reality and to help them see the difference between their wars and ours. Narnia and I must teach them that to be like Peter is to rush into a burning building to save another person; it's not to carry a gun and to shoot someone because someone in a large office says he is an enemy.

Put into the maze, the rat will eventually find the cheese. It is the hand that drops the creature into the maze that makes all of the difference, to me.


  1. Not sure which quote you read, but the one I always think of is from G.K. Chesterton: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered" from his short essay 'On Running After One's Hat' (

    As for the rest of it, I'm both a soldier's daughter and a soldier's wife, so my perspective is a little different (I may in fact be at once more and less cynical than you are on the issue, if that's possible). It would take me several hundred pages to work that all out so maybe I'll just ask if you've ever read Chesterton's novel _The Napoleon of Notting Hill_ instead

  2. 'nora -- No, I haven't read it, but it in now officially on my list.

    I'm alway conscious of that -- that some readers, like yourself, might have very real military roots or ties. If one really believes in the cause of a fight, then the whole perspective is bound to be different. I got thinking about WW2 after I wrote this -- if ever there was a time to fight . . . Still, war is so counter to everything I hold dear. Gah! You're right -- many tomes of many pages needed.

  3. Chris, if you're looking to temper your kids' views after watching the action sequences in movies, you might (depending on their ages) turn them to Lloyd Alexander's Prydian series, or his more mature, magic-free, underrated Westmark series. The former (as I suspect you know) culminates in a book that focuses on the human cost of even a just and necessary war, while the latter is a serious look at violence, politics, and armed revolution. Heck, I think you'd appreciate the Westmark series yourself.

  4. Jeff -- I have been hinting at the Prydian books to my 10 year old, but no luck, yet -- not enough baseball in it. Maybe my seven year old and I will read Prydian together soon. I do want to read the Wesmark stuff, as well, Jeff --the Prydian series was some of the most delightful reading I have ever done. Love Alexander's work.