Sunday, July 6, 2008

On Absent Parents

This entry contains very mild spoilers for the movie Spiderwick.

So, I just watched Spiderwick, which is a well-made, reasonably well written, funny kids’ fantasy movie (I’ve not read the book- shockingly- so I can’t tell you how it measures up). No, it hasn’t got the depth or startling newness that other fantasies have, but it’s certainly worth watching.

However, this is not the focus of this entry. After watching the film I headed over to, which for those of you who do not know (!) collates reviews from various sources and, based on what the reviewers say, gives each movie a rating. It’s a good source of all kinds of reviews.

Because I enjoyed Spiderwick, I was more interested in the negative reviews. Most were along the lines of it being fairly run of the mill as far as plot goes. However, one by Cynthia Fuchs focused on a different problem. She writes:

“As Spiderwick keeps time with the notion that kids’ fantasies must feature bad, absent, or otherwise troubling parents, it also offers precious little in the way of clued-in adults or even adults with a modicum of competence in dealing with their children’s fears or worries.”

She’s right, of course, that children’s fantasy contains many bad or absent parents. Think of the Narnia series, of many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, of A Little Princess, of Roald Dahl and of Harry Potter. Parents are dead, missing, lacking in some way or simply unimportant. Even when parents and family are present and important, such as in Susan Cooper’s Dark series, they are rarely part of the adventure.

But why is this the case in so many of the most beloved series?

Any child knows the answer. Parents, of course, are the barrier between children and the adventures they imagine they would have without them. Parents put their children to bed on time, make them eat their vegetables, make them go to school. Without parents, there are dragons and demons and all kinds of nasties and wonderfuls waiting just around the corner. A child alone is a child on the brink of adventure: they must be brave, and clever, and resourceful, even noble and powerful.

(Not in reality of course, but in fiction and imagination, which is where kids and authors- hopefully- live.)

A child in a fantasy world most often knows things the adults around him or her do not know, or can see things that adults cannot see. This secret knowledge is central to children’s imagination, even if they tell the nearest ear all about it. Even if the knowledge is very mundane, pretty much all children think they know things better than adults. Adults are, in a child’s viewpoint, constantly thinking about the time, and work, and the next thing, and oh-my-god-what-am-I-going-to-cook-for-dinner-tonight. Their minds, in a child’s view, are too busy to perceive the magic going on all around them. Almost every fictional series has the younger members of the group believing- and seeing- first. Think of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door: it is Charles Wallace who sees the ‘dragons’ in the vegetable garden. And the Murray family is hardly a normal family.

Adults not believing kids is part of this, which is why so many of these stories have a scene where the truth is revealed. The child is right. The adult is wrong. No, it’s not a reflection of reality. Only adults want to read books where there isn’t really a drove of dragons in the vegetable garden.

In this age, where kids are never far from adult supervision, it’s not really all that surprising that orphans thickly populate the pages of fantasy fiction.

Is this such a problem as Cynthia Fuchs thinks it is? In my view, no. Decidedly, no.

The only people who might mind about the portrayal of parents are parents themselves. Children aren’t reading these books and watching these movies and thinking “Hm, parents obviously are supposed to be absent and mean. What are my kind, caring parents who visit me in the middle of the night when I think I hear something go bump doing wrong?”

And nor is it teaching children that parents are wrong. Most books don’t contradict the normal things that parents say (eat your vegetables, it’s bedtime). Children know that what is happening in the book is complete fiction. It’s a different child, in a different world, with different parents.

If anything, stories like these give children the opportunity to not only dream about adventure, but also the independence they will some day have to embrace (that is a lot more complicated than even the trickiest story describes). Characters in these books are brave, kind and ingenious; the stories are often about finding your true strength in the absence of the protective shield that exists most of the time in the real world. It’s not a bad thing for a child to mentally practice that kind of independence and moral behaviour in complete safety.

And if by chance there is a child who does experience this kind of trauma, what better chance to escape than to a world where the child is powerful and can escape from evil forces? Most of these children find wise, kind parental surrogates who guide them in their adventures. Even happy children can relate to that kind of outsider validation.

All in all, the absent parent does no harm, except to over-anxious and less-absent parents. It sets up the ideal dream adventure world for the reading child, and maybe even helps them on the all-important road towards growing up themselves.


Patrick Cook said...

Didn't Orson Scott Card write about this? I think he claimed that almost all heroes are fundamentally adolescent, regardless of their age, because the "genre," if that term can be used for so broad a field, of heroic quests requires that the heroes be unattached: they can have neither parents, nor children nor a spouse. Thus, many are orphaned and/or widowed. Others have a family, but are estranged from it. J.K. Rowling admitted that she had to kill off Dumbledore because Harry needed to be free from father figures so as to become truly heroic, in the classical literary/mythological sense (I guess Hagrid is an avuncular figure, rather than a paternal one, and even he is largely absent from the final book).

I can also relate to reading the "rotten" reviews of films I enjoyed to see where I disagreed with the critics, although I prefer Metacritic now that Rotten Tomatoes has adopted its (relatively) new and horrible design.

Sorry for the prolixity.

Teshi said...

Hey Patrick!

Yep, I think that it is largely understood by the writers of the "genre" that this is the case. However, I do not think that adult figures need to be entirely absent from the scene as was the fate of poor old Dumbledore. Some young heroes simply find their mentors incapable of providing any more assistance in crucial matters, which has the same effect.

Thanks for pointing me towards Metacritic. I'd not seen it before. I noticed RottenTomatoes design change but it doesn't really bother me.

And I don't mind your prolixity, although I had to look it up in the dictionary.

Patrick Cook said...

"I noticed RottenTomatoes design change but it doesn't really bother me."

That puts you in a (lucky) minority. People from Roger Ebert down have complained about much harder it is to use. How much of this is just whining and how much of it is legit seems up for debate, but I'd guess it's about 50-50.