A few years ago, Neil started reading stories out loud, on the walk to school. I now do most of these walks and have taken over the reading tradition. This week I began reading ‘Pippi Longstocking’ and several things struck me.
Firstly, Pippi is fun and she is fun because she is slightly mad and anarchic. She has a different perspective on the World. Her whole life is play. It made me think of the importance of play for children, an importance described in recent years by Rowan Williams in ‘Lost Icons’ and Sue Palmer in her work on childhood. Children need the freedom of play to investigate the World and discover things about it and themselves. They also need those stories which feed their imagination. Author Anthony Horowitz, when speaking about his character Alex Rider, pointed out how in stories where children have adventures, the author has to get rid of the parents or parental figures first, for what loving parent would allow children to risk their lives chasing international criminals, dark lords or roaming across strange lands?
Children need loving, secure homes. There is nothing fun about chaotic homes or negligent parents. However children also need play and stories that introduces fun, risk and anarchy into their lives. So my child loves the idea of Pippi’s wacky ideas but would never (by the look on her face) eat Pippi’s biscuits (made on the floor and walked over by Mr Nelson the monkey).
Secondly, stories are necessary for children’s spiritual development. One of the aspects that children get to play with when listening to stories is that of freedom. In Pippi’s case this is literally freedom to do what she likes, although she still has to be told to go to bed, even if it is herself who is doing the telling. It is interesting that Pippi’s creator has provided her with two friends, Tommy and Annika who enjoy her antics but curb her worst excesses. Last Summer I read another Scandinavian story, Moominsummer madness at bedtime. Moomin Valley is a place where the strange, magical and scary happens on a regular basis. However, the little community, with ‘adults’ Moominpapa and Moominmama, seem to cope with everything life throws at them, from the Hobgoblin’s hat to the Hattifattners.
Freedom is important spiritually. Freedom however, isn’t about being able to do just what you like. It is about being free from the things that hold us captive and stop us experiencing God’s love. One part of St Ignatius’ Principal and Foundation says this:
“All the things in this world are gifts from God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God, insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the centre of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.”
Our freedom comes when we let go of those things that strop us responding to God’s freely-given love. So many things can hold us captive and prevent us from being the people God made us to be.
Now my thoughts took me to “The Voyage of The Dawn Treader”. Two things struck me. The character of Eustace (quite close as a name to Useless) is a character who has been indulged, but not loved. He is not free to give or receive love. Only on being turned into a dragon, does he realise how self centred he has been. This experience allows him to become freer, to learn to love and to be loved. In doing so he becomes part of the crew and takes on a role- not a useless burden after all.
The whole of the “Dawn Treader” story can be seen as a journey towards the Father-heart of God. In fact, for the mouse Reepicheep, this is indeed what it is. There are dangers on the journey, enemies from without and enemies within, periods of darkness, where all hope is lost and Aslan is nowhere to be found. In the end the ship comes to the end of the world, where the water is sweet and Reepicheep lets go of his honoured role as knight of Narnia, to sail to Aslan’s country. Lucy and Edmund have to let go of Narnia, in order to discover Aslan’s other face in our world. With all battles done, here is true freedom.
So children, and in fact adults, need stories full of fun in order to experience joy and freedom. Children need play in which they can make sense of the world. And we all need ways to discover the joy in finding freedom in love. True freedom is a beautiful thing in which we learn how to love. Pippi Longstocking in her freedom, is also a very loving person. The Moomins are a loving and accepting family and in Narnia, after defeating demons, children and mice can discover the God who loves them. And I am going to keep reading on the
way to school for it does me (and hopefully the one who is listening) good, provided I stop reading when crossing roads.