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Marking Morality

26 October, 2011 (12:26) | Creativity

Aesop's "Tortoise and the Hare" may be his most famous fable.
Aesop’s “Tortoise and the Hare” may be his most famous fable.

There’s something amazing about Aesop that I have a great deal of difficulty understanding. His fables are unrealistic and fanciful, and yet they teach a morality that’s applicable in the real world.

This isn’t something you can say about Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. Harry Potter doesn’t teach morality, the Lord of the Rings isn’t over-the-top in its discussions of moral movement, and the original Grimm  Fairy Tales are brutal in their punishment of moral transgressions (and sometimes for no reason as well). Aesop, meanwhile, uses talking animals to explain hubris, trustworthiness, inspiration,  the value of intangibles, and danger among others. At times, like the Grimms, Aesop is brutal and unforgiving, but more often his fables are illustrative and unrealistic, yet the two avoid conflicting.

A coworker of mine has been spinning yarns for the kids at the after-school program. He’s blessed with an excellent imagination and a gift for story-telling I envy. His stories may not make the most sense, but their fantastic nature and solid roots make them enjoyable.

Every story he’s told, so far, has tried to end with a moral. Some have been stated explicitly — “always eat your broccoli,” much to the chagrin of the kids–while others have been implied — “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “you are what you make yourself.” I’ve been extremely impressed with the effort and thought he’s put into these stories, and his incredible deftness in coming with whimsical additions on the fly.

This morning, he gave me a preview of his next installment. In it, he’s decided to introduce warfare by having the humans try to invade the friendly world of monsters he’s created. To prevent the story from being violent, he’s decided that military might will be ineffectual and that the response from the good guys won’t result in any deaths.

“I want to teach the kids that the monsters’ way is better,” he told me.

While this is an admirable goal, I see it as ineffectual.

Warfare is a real world issue, one’s that’s gory and painful and altogether too human. It’s a difficult topic that shouldn’t be glossed over or used frivolously. By introducing a topic of such gravitas, a storyteller needs to treat the subject with respect. There need to be repercussions and evidence of what makes it bad. Given that the audience is elementary school kids, it makes it doubly hard to do so well and keep things lighthearted.

My first response was not to introduce warfare at all. If the story requires an army to be defeated, find a way to do so before the battle begins. Entreaty the villains with logic and convince them not to fight. Trick them into scuttling their own goal. Have the heroes seek arbitration and get to the root of the conflict without combat. Or even use espionage and cunning to defeat the greater enemy without trading blows. My coworker dismissed this idea as anti-climactic. To me, that simply indicated an unwillingness to explore another option.

My second response was that if war must happen, then making that war completely unrealistic would prevent his message from being effective. If the army can’t harm the monsters and the monsters have magical skills and abilities to defeat the army without hurting anyone,  there is no threat or suspense to the story. Victory is given to the more powerful entity, not the more worthy, the more just or the more intelligent one. It’s not the monster’s non-violent way that saves the day, but their strength and magic. The intended moral is lost.

As a writer, I have a terrible time writing for children or being silly and fanciful. I want to address serious topics and explore difficult ideas. I want my characters to struggle morally and not simply whine for seven books before winning because they’re “good” or destined. I want my heroes to be reluctant and flawed, my villains to be more than just evil or greedy, and my endings to be bittersweet and sensible. I want my bullies to have insecurities and my protagonists to be forced to compromise. These aren’t things that can be done when lightly flitting through a fanciful world.

Ultimately, without Aesop’s skill of succinct morality, storytelling  has to choose between spinning a good yarn or addressing right, wrong, and everything in between. Despite the difficulty, I’ll take the former every time.