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Michael O’Brien on dragons, Harry Potter, and story-telling

Voices May 2, 2019

A habit of nightly story-reading to children will continue long into adolescence, says author Michael O’Brien, helping them become story-tellers with vivid healthy imaginations – what Tolkien called the “baptized imagination.” (Deborah Gyapong photo)

Is it really 20 years since I read Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, by Michael O’Brien? I think about how much this story of a humble priest, called by God at the beginning of the end of times, has become a part of my life. I mean, my third son is named Elijah, so you know that it was powerful. Now, 20 years later, his newest, Apocalypse: Warning, Hope, and Consolation is on my bed stand. I wish that all Christians would read this book.

Michael O’Brien is a Canadian writer of 30 books, and the resident artist at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario. (Your parish may have one of his paintings, since several hang in various churches in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.) I met him once at a talk he was giving and made a fool of myself gushing. Alas.

This April, O’Brien received the St. Catherine Drexel Award from the Catholic Library Association and the John Cardinal O’Connor Award from the Sisters of Life in New York City. With or without his many awards, O’Brien’s works have a large place in my heart, and our home.

I don’t know that I had much of an exposure to good literature in school, so I feel such joy to see inspiration grow within my kids as they experience the art of story. I believe that a good writer has the ability to create new wonders for a child. Those wonders draw a child to the visible and the invisible in a deeper way, and this leads him to become more alive, more human. But I wasn’t always sure what made a writer “good”.

O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind has been a major tool for Scott and I as Catholic parents. O’Brien is passionate about literature and how the art of storytelling has the power to form our children, for good or evil.

I recently had the chance to ask him a few questions, and as I share his answers with you, I pray they may give you reason to join me in walking with our children towards happiness, wholeness, and holiness.

Two years before writing Father Elijah you wrote the non-fiction book A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind. Can you share a little of how this book came to be?

In the early 1990s I was the editor of a Catholic family magazine and frequently received letters from parents asking for my thoughts on the phenomenon of occult themes entering more and more into fiction for young readers. The same questions came from other parents in our circle of friends and family. As I began to read extensively in the field of fantasy, I discovered we were culturally in the midst of a tsunami that sought to overturn the basic Christian truths of Western civilization. It was doing it primarily through redefining good and evil, through the corruption of symbols, and by pushing forward a new kind of heroism for the young – more accurately anti-heroes. This, to my mind, was a significant marker or symptom, which could have long-range negative effects, and I wanted to examine it with more attention and thought.

After reading A Landscape with Dragons, I truly understood there is a very real battle for children’s minds. Can you describe the issue of dragons in children’s literature, and how it is a sign of a bigger spiritual reality?

The role of the dragon in folklore and mythology across the centuries, among practically all races and times of history, has been that of an absolutely malevolent deceiver and destroyer. Outside of Asia, where the dragon is sometimes seen as a mixture of good and evil, it is the metaphor of diabolic malice, and of Satan himself. For example, the nature of the subtle seducer, the “serpent” of Genesis, is finally revealed in the final book of Scripture as the “Great Dragon” unleashed. That is why fiction for the young that tries to “tame” the dragon, or befriend it, or master it by turning it into a powerful steed which the fictional characters ride, is on the wrong track.

The spiritual war in which we are all immersed is very much connected to the signs and symbols in material creation and in men’s conscious minds. We live in an incarnational universe, in which spiritual realities flow through every form of “language.” We must never lose sight of the truth that symbols are among the most potent of human languages – a truth known to all peoples and cultures and all religions until our own times. Only in the secular age has this awareness faded, or disappeared altogether, reducing the world of symbol to the logos of advertising marketers and corporate monograms.

Symbols in our minds exercise a certain power over us (often subconsciously), and this is especially so in the minds of the young. Symbols are keystones in the architecture of thought, indeed in our perceptions of the structure, if you will, of reality itself. If we lose symbolism, we lose our way of knowing things. If we destroy symbols, we destroy concepts. If we corrupt symbols, concepts are corrupted, and then our ability to understand things as they are is weakened, rendering us more prone to deformed perceptions and actions.

What has been the general reaction to the book, and your other, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, by Catholics? I have sensed a defensiveness by some Catholics when favourite books are criticized as being spiritually dangerous.

Most of the reaction has been very positive, because the book was not simply critical; it was about how we as parents can develop tools of discernment regarding cultural influences that are shaping our children. There has also been some negative reaction – almost always angry, even outraged – demanding to know why I dared question a book, or series of books, that readers had fallen in love with. My second book, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, elicited even stronger reactions. The anger is revealing, I believe, because it indicates some level of reader identification with the fictional characters, as well as a strong emotional attachment, a visceral gut loyalty.

Can you talk about the physical act of storytelling, the simple, but often forgotten, act of a parent sharing stories with their children?

One of the most bonding and loving things we can share with our children is to read aloud to them. Families can begin doing this while children are very young, beginning with picture books around infancy, and then with increasingly rich material from then onward, appropriate to their ages and stages of development. By establishing the habit of nightly story-reading aloud, it will continue long into adolescence. In our family it always took place after supper and evening Rosary. The children looked forward to it eagerly every night. It also provided plenty of stimulation for discussion with them. And they also became story-tellers, with vivid healthy imaginations – what Tolkien called the “baptized imagination.”

In what ways do we fail our children when we rely solely on media for entertainment?

Among the most worrisome factors in contemporary life is the speed at which we live, the way we cram more and more activities and stimuli into our daily lives, adults and children alike. In our overloaded, stressed way of living, it is very tempting to make electronic culture a substitute for the real presence to each other. Too easily the entertainment industry, with all its flaws, becomes the babysitter or nanny. As children become young adults they then become even more addicted to e-culture and a host of media, including virtual relationships. In the process, something crucial is weakened, if not lost. I would ask, is this a truly human way to live? Do we come to know and love each other better because of it? Are we capable of quality communication, or just an increase of the quantity of noise?

Adolf Hitler is quoted as saying, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Would you say there is a connection in thought when it comes to the power of secular writing (i.e. the power to form a child against the will of a parent or church, etc.)

Yes, the connection is undeniable. As with nutrition, we become the food we eat. We are being changed by the cultural materials we “consume” – often subconsciously – which is especially true for children and young adults who are in the stage of formation.

What book has been a family favourite for the O’Briens?

Our family has enjoyed C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, but we have a special love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I have read them aloud to our children three times over the years, since there is a range of ages in our six children. Now, years later, they are all avid Tolkien fans, and are reading his books to their own children.

In your latest book Apocalypse: Warning, Hope, and Consolation you write, “(storytelling) can take a multitude of forms, yet all of them arise from the Natural Law instinct within us, a profound sense that there is a story to be told, and that we are part of a larger Great Story.” How can storytelling connect us with our Storyteller?

True stories, those which integrate Truth, Beauty and Virtue, expand our understanding of the great adventure of existence, including the ultimate drama of salvation history. They help us to know our own value and identity, and they do so while being faithful to the moral order of the universe. While culture alone cannot save us, life-giving art can point the way. It gives us opportunities for reflection. It brings us to a state of attention or inner listening, and from that can come wonder; and then from wonder can come reverence.