Fairytales, alive in the minds of loving fathers, carry the imaginations of little children into the very depths of joy, beauty, adventure and responsibility. The knight in shining armor rides into the face of danger, braving certain destruction, to save the kingdom from the fire-breathing dragon. As he disappears into the smoke-filled lair, the princess, bedecked with flowing tresses, languishes silently for the hero. And lo, from of the jaws of death, he triumphantly returns, injured but alive, to love her forevermore.
“A happy ending!” the children shout with glee. “I am so glad he was all right!” the little girls sigh. “I would have gone into the dragon’s lair!” brag the boys as they stab imaginary swords in the air. “All is well!” the father thinks to himself as the children drift off to dreamland, not only entertained, but more importantly, desiring to accomplish for themselves these great and beautiful deeds.
Today, I fear that the classic fairytale is vanishing. It is fading, not because storytellers are disappearing, but because the image of the hero that was once unambiguous has become muddied. Children, who easily grasped the meaning of “good-night” stories, have had the very foundation of fairytales stolen from them: that good must conquer evil, courage must conquer fear, and man must conquer himself. As a result, no steady model of heroic virtue is currently set before the impressionable mind’s eye, and this, I fear, is the death knell of the hero.
So who is this “hero” for whom I eulogize? Ask a child to define “hero” and you will hear the staple definition of our times. Success in any field of human endeavor will register high on their heroic scale. Sports, music, politics, education and service give opportunity for excellence, and insofar as it is worthily achieved, I give credit where credit is due.
But the question remains: Can success be inspirational without being heroic? Consider, if you will, a football superstar who is inspirational while on the field and then decidedly uninspiring when off the field. This inconsistent state of affairs is readily available for children to imitate. The converse case is preferable and illuminates the true relationship between heroism and inspiration.
Daniel Ruettiger (Rudy of Notre Dame) repeatedly overcame rejection to finally suit up with the football team. He played only two plays in his entire football career, yet he is the only player in the history of Notre Dame football to have been carried triumphantly off the field.
This truly inspiring story of heroic virtue finds its source not in the football stadium but on the invisible practice field, somewhere in the interior part of the man. From this hidden place, heroism shines out, and it is seen by both man and child. The child cannot explain this mystery, rather he simply believes. It takes a mature intellect to recognize, through all the circumstances, exactly where heroism lies. It is not in the accomplishment but in the man himself.
Indeed, children are moved by inspirational stories; they cheer at the moment of glory, but seeing why someone is inspirational is vital for living heroism. A child must be shown, as Aristotle points out, that “the beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.” This mark of heroism, noted in Rudy, is undeniably clear to the child when it is placed within his reach. The stories of heroes must be told in the language of images, the language of children, so that they can see and imitate. It is here one enters the world where heroes are born: fairytale land.
Fairytale land is found behind a door which exists within every imagination. It is the figurative representation of the real world, only in the perfect way: the good is truly good, the evil really evil, and things actually are what they seem to be. But do not think that this world is a tame one. The hero clashes with the monsters, and his bravery is tested as the struggle rages between good and evil. This struggle is not foreign to us; it accosts us in our world and challenges us to fight, to be heroic or not.
For a thousand years the stories of knights and ladies formed the imaginations of our forefathers. They have handed down a great patrimony in the tales and the deeds that shaped the world we know. We must defend it. Under such weight, we cannot afford to let the vision of fairytale land evaporate from the minds of children, forcing them into the real world before they are able to understand it. The future depends on the formation of their imaginations. As G. K. Chesterton reflects, “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.” Let us not continue to shroud this land of heroes and heroines, of joy, of beauty, and of adventure with the satirical humor of innovative “fairytales.” Heroes are much too precious, and the loss is too great to leave to chance.