Here there be dragons

Here in Villa Villekula there have been a few disagreements of late as to what movies make appropriate viewing for Dances With Mermaids, whose ninth birthday is on the horizon.

She’s seen The Lord of the Rings a few times now, as well as all three Jurassic Park movies. She even watched Jaws with me after demanding to see it pretty much every day during the past summer. So we’re talking about a girl with a bit of grit, when it comes to stories.

This past weekend we watched a 1981 movie called Dragonslayer, which caught the interest of Dances With Mermaids after I idly mentioned that it had the single best movie dragon I’ve ever seen. I pre-screened it a little while ago and I was glad to renew the acquaintance: it’s one of the great lost movies of the 1980s, loaded with Dark Ages atmosphere and surprising twists on one of the hoariest fantasy scenarios in literature or film. The biggest of these is the idea that a kingdom, having come up with a sacrificial lottery system that keeps the local dragon under control, would be hostile to the idea of a sorceror coming to stir things up. The other is that the chief bad guy, Tyrian (the excellent John Hallam), while clearly a badass, is also a pragmatist with an undeniable code of honor — he’s seen what happens when people mess with the dragon, and he doesn’t want it to happen again. And the dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative, remains the best firebreather in film, a stop-motion creation that can still outflame the computer-generated beasties that rule Hollywood. (One of the biggest reasons I’d like to see Peter Jackson make The Hobbit is that I want to see his Weta effects shop make Smaug into something that could give Vermithrax a run for his lighter fluid.)

The story also has a scene in which a sacrificial victim becomes a very gory meal for a bunch of baby dragons. When that scene came along, I found the Woman Warrior giving me the old slit eyes. “I can’t believe you think this is appropriate for her to see,” she snarled, using the exact same voice my old elementary school principal used when she found me reading a copy of Mad. “Well, gee, she’s seen Jaws and Jurassic Park,” I replied, not making much headway. So what is appropriate for a hugely imaginative girl with an insatiable appetite for fantasy?

Right in the middle of this stewing comes a very good piece about Katherine Paterson’s celebrated novel Bridge to Terabithia, and the current film version. I’ve never read the book, but for those who grew up with it, part of the book’s quality is the unflinchingly honest way it deals with death:   

When people tell Katherine Paterson that they’ve given the book to a child whose friend has died, she worries it’s too late, because the book works better as “emotional practice.” But it’s easy to understand the impulse, because one piece or another of Jess’ grief will resonate. The book’s death focus goes too far for some people. Terabithia is ninth on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books. In an essay for the New York Times Book Review, she defends it by arguing that children need not only the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, but also “proper endings” in which “hope is a yearning, rooted in reality.”

That line about “emotional practice” strikes a chord for me. When she was much younger, Dances With Mermaids developed a fixation on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She would dress up in her fantasy dresses and mimic Snow White’s panic-stricken flight through the forest, ending with her fainting in the middle of a tangle of branches. It’s very weird to see your little girl imitating a woman in the grip of terror, and doing so repeatedly. But she was practicing the strong emotions she encountered in stories. We made sure that along with the fear, there were other emotions and feelings in the stories she experienced, and they all became part of the hidden and largely forgotten materials we use when, as child, we are unknowingly building the foundations of our character.

Dances With Mermaids can take dragons, sharks and dinosaurs in stride, but while watching the most recent film version of The Secret Garden there was a scene that upset her so much, I had to promise to throw away the videocasette. No surprises about the scene: it was a dream sequence in which a baby cries impotently for succor as her mother draws farther and farther away. It hit her where she lived, and I suspect she’ll brood on it every once in a while.

Am I sorry I let her watch Dragonslayer? No. If she’s going to feast on fantasy, I want her to have the very best, if only to balance out the schlocky computer-animated Barbie moviers that also command her attention. Joan Didion got it half right when she said we tell ourselves stories in order to live; we also tell ourselves stories to prepare for what life will bring us. Stories where the damsel in distress doesn’t get rescued also tell us useful things about life, and deliver the information in a manageable form.

What the little girl was teaching herself, during those play sessions when she pretended to be Snow White, was how to be brave. Courage is a skill, after all, and it has to be nurtured in all kinds of ways. Stories are one of them. Lucky for us, there’s no shortage of great ones.   


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