Revisit Middle-earth, Hogwarts and Never-Land with your kids this Halloween. Getting to know Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter and Peter Pan will set them up for life, writes Ray Robertson
There are multiple reasons why authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and J.M. Barrie continue to captivate young readers. Their ability to take us into a fantasy world where magic is a natural part of everyday life is just one of them. The greatest books provide more than just a ‘good read,’ they actually impart goodness and wisdom; they support and carry us through life. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1955), the Harry Potter heptalogy (2007), and Peter Pan (first written as a play in 1904) are all perfect examples.
These stories have some really tough life lessons to impart (that have nothing to do with magic or the supernatural), and this is one of the reasons we continue to read them to our kids. But we also continue to read them to our kids simply because kids love them.
Children connect to the vulnerability of the characters, they live vicariously through their potentially fatal challenges and, when the last page is turned, they return to their real lives having survived death by the Nazgûl, Lord Voldemort or Captain Hook.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a profound, classic example of beautifully written fiction, it shows kids what literature – or more specifically, fantasy – is all about. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling adventure story, an epic battle (of good versus evil) for Middle-earth. Immersed in a mind-blowingly complex fantasy world, what children learn about is their own reality. There’s a lot of bravery to be found and fear to get through before the ‘happily ever after.’
Tolkien’s Middle-earth is epic in every sense. He writes as if he were recounting both history and legend, and draws children into a world that feels every bit as real as their own. As they walk the gardens of the Shire, sleep under the stars and climb the slopes of Doom, kids grow alongside and befriend the fellowship – Froddo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, Pippin Took, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli and Gandolf – and all those who fight with them. They mourn their deaths, and glory in their triumphs.
Through the story, children come to a new understanding of the nature of good and evil. They feel the slow-rising tide of temptation, of power, of the Ring. They wrestle
with the complexities of pride and humility. They witness the heroic virtue of self-sacrifice, and they learn to cherish friendship.
Overcoming their fears alongside Frodo and Sam, and witnessing their bravery, children find their courage. Middle-earth’s fate is placed in the hands of ‘little people’
like themselves, so kids learn that they too have the potential to stand up for what is right – and that they must never give up.
The Lord of the Rings also has a fiercely inclusionary message to impart – Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits overcome their differences to come together and fight Sauron.
As the ferocity and size of the battles increase, children come to understand war in a very real way. It’s presented not in a romanticised way, but with all its complexities, horrors, great losses and triumphs. Tolkien fought in the First World War, and he weaves his experiences into his story. Interestingly too, his central female characters are
warriors – they are not the sort to sit by the hearth, rather they are there to save the day.
The Lord of the Rings is also deeply relevant to young readers in the way it encourages a deep appreciation for nature. Tolkien’s heroes live in harmony with Mother Earth, while his antagonists seek to destroy and manipulate her. What’s more, The Lord of the Rings is profoundly spiritual – those who seek to destroy the Ring of Power are helped by something greater than themselves, kids are introduced to the concept of an after-life (Valinor, the Undying Lands) and of rebirth (Gandolf the Grey returns as Gandolf the
White), Hobbits show them the value of simplicity and goodness. Although Tolkien swore that The Lord of the Rings is not allegory, it is undeniably full of metaphor.
Young children reading Potter for the first time may focus on the classroom banter and the potion-making but as they get older, they find that Rowling’s books have a lot
to teach them. Again, a battle for power unfolds in a fantasy world populated by witches, wizards, Muggles (men) and all manner of magical creatures; good triumphs
over evil (real-world evil not the supernatural kind) and friends stick together no matter what.
Essentially what kids learn through reading the heptalogy is courage. It becomes easier to stand up to a bully at school once you have fought Lord Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange and Dolores Umbridge alongside Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Bravery means standing up for what’s right and acting on it even when it’s hard;
intelligence, loyalty and nerve are important; our choices determine who we are.
Children learn that it’s wrong to be prejudiced or to seek power over others. Anyone who was disturbed by Rowling’s recent comments about transgender people should note that in the world of Potter, children are taught always to support and be accepting of those who are ‘different.’ Only people like the Malfoys use the word Mudblood, Hermione sets up the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) in response to the unjust treatment of house-elves at the 1994 Quidditch World Cup. Kids are encouraged to empathise with outsiders and to stand up for anyone who is mistreated simply for being themselves – Harry, Luna Lovegood, Professor Lupin and, of course, Dobby the House Elf.
The characterisation in the Harry Potter heptalogy is incredibly complex and there are amazing role models for girls as well as boys in these books. At the same time, children learn that people (even Dumbledore and Snape) aren’t all good or all bad but a mixture of both.
A classic coming of age story, Potter provides an introduction to the iconic hero’s journey – kids reading the books for the first time, literally grow up with Harry. They walk with him on the road to maturity and experience his breakthroughs (and setbacks) as if they were their own.
Underneath all the fun and fairy dust that has allowed the play to transfer so well to the world of pantomime and Disney, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has some equally important
lessons to share with young readers. There’s evil to overcome (Captain Hook may be a bumbler but he’s a bona fide baddie) and a homeland to fight for, family and friendship are all important. Children are introduced to the idea of death, which Peter expects will be an awfully big adventure, and they learn that everyone (apart from Peter) has to grow up.
Of course, kids love all the good magic that’s expressed in Peter Pan – you can fly if you think lovely, wonderful thoughts, you can save a fairy’s life by clapping your hands. So, is it that which makes them love the 116-year-old story? Yes. But only in part.
The other side of it is that kids, like adults, actually like to suspend disbelief every now and then, and really feel the fear. It’s fun for them to get so caught up in Peter Pan that they scream when the wicked pirates (or the ticking crocodile) come near. What they are enjoying is the thrill, the hyperarousal of the fight-or-flight response within safe parameters.
It’s true that Peter Pan can cause nightmares (none of us has ever really gotten over the horror of Tootles shooting the Wendy Bird), but, generally speaking, the fears children experience in a story like this are manageable. By age seven, most kids know the difference between what is real and what is not and, once they are able to do this, most can cope with the scares they experience in the make-believe world of a book. Kids can handle the fears they face in Never-Land because Never-Land doesn’t actually exist.
Kids are instinctively drawn to scary things because they rely on the continuing safety of the real world. And in the real world, there are no evil fairies, malicious mermaids or wicked pirates – and your parents are always there to protect you. Reading Peter Pan means visiting places where impossible things are suddenly, temporarily, possible. It gives kids the chance to experience a really potent fantasy and almost live it, without any of the consequences. They get to experience fear in a controlled environment (in the
fantastical world of the play) in the safety of their own homes.
The best children’s books are written in such a way as to help kids differentiate between what is real and what is not. A common device sees a book open in the real world, one with which young readers are familiar, that is populated by characters not unlike themselves. Then, after a page or two, something happens to these characters, which means they transition into a world of make-believe. So it is that in Peter Pan, The Darlings are woken up by a magical boy, whom they have already met in their dreams, and they fly with him (second turn to the right and then straight on till morning) to Never-Land. Children know when the bridge between reality and fantasy has been crossed, and they adjust their fear threshold accordingly.
In reading Peter Pan, children are left in no doubt of their happily ever after.
Tags: education, magical reads