Old Enough for Dragons

By Bob Hiller

Last week, I took my kids to see Pete’s Dragon. I remember loving that movie as a kid. I was excited to share this one with my kids, especially with all the fancy, new digital capabilities. But I have to tell you, there was something about the movie that rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t that the story was set in a forest instead of fishing village like in the 1977 version. It wasn’t that soundtrack was entirely melancholy (I actually liked that). It wasn’t even that the movie started with little Pete’s family dying in a car accident (kinda heavy of a start there, Disney!). It wasn’t any of that. There was something about the way the movie ended that didn’t sit right with me.

As I was driving home with my kids and we were casting judgment on what we liked and disliked in the film, we began to discuss characters. One of my favorite characters was played by Robert Redford. He played a man many considered to be a little crazy because he claimed to have seen a dragon in the forest years ago. He shared his dragon stories with the town children, who sat in awe and belief of his accounts. Predictably, the adults all thought he was nuts until they saw the dragon. I won’t recount the whole story here, but Pete is brought up by Elliot the dragon in the forest, gets found by some foresters, and is brought back to normal society. Of course, a great attempt to capture Elliot takes place and (SPOILER ALERT) they find a way to set the dragon free. Young Pete, however happy that his friend had been saved, decides that it is time to leave the dragon in the forest and move in with his new found forester friends. Redford’s character then narrates how he no longer tells dragon stories and how there comes a time to move on from such things. The implication is that Pete has to move on to a real family in the real world, away from his dragons. Though he never forgets his friend, the message is clear; there was a time for Pete to grow up and leave dragon’s behind.

This is where things started to go sour for me. I told my kids I didn’t like how Pete left his Elliot behind. It wasn’t just because it was the necessary separation from a friend. There was more to it. As I thought about it, it struck me that this was a coming of age story. Pete’s Dragon is really about leaving childhood and the old fantasies behind and entering the “real” world. Pete’s Dragon isn’t the story of a boy and his friendship with a dragon but about leaving behind old myths for adulthood. Pete learned that there comes a time when we are too old for dragon stories.

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To my mind, this is a moral lesson of the worst kind. To be completely honest with you, ever since I’ve had kids and begun reading the old myths and stories again, they don’t read as books I should grow out of. No. In fact, I finally feel like I am old enough for dragons! After recently reading through The Hobbit with my kids, I found myself anticipating book time at night as much as they did, if not more. It didn’t take much convincing to get dad to read another chapter with that one. The story transcended age and my kids and I were captivated. One does not grow out of good stories. Rather, my kids and I grew into the story together.

 As usual, CS Lewis is our guide into such joyful truths:

It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called ‘children’s books.’ I think the convention a silly one. NO book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative work we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not care for crème de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey.  (from On Stories in Essays Presented to Charles Williams).

I don’t know if have the chops to explain why I find such reading to be so virtuous and beneficial (though, you must read this piece by Dr. Rosenbladt for a more edifying engagement on the subject). Entering into fantasy worlds of dragons, wizards, and fairies certainly can come off as a childish escape. But, as Lewis says in the same essay, “This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.” I’m not articulate enough to explain that renewed pleasure (I write a bizarre theological sports’ blog, for Pete’s dragon’s sake!), but I can tell you it is there. Now that I am old enough for dragon stories, I truly have found greater pleasure in the actual.

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4 comments

  1. I am so with you Bob! I have to confess here and I know it’s going to sound funny, but I only enjoy reading “children’s books”. It’s probably because I didn’t enjoy reading as a child. I wasn’t taught to love books. So when I had my own kids I surely didn’t want them to miss out on it, so I bought and read to them everyday, all day if we could sometimes. Now they are grown, and all of them very much have a love for books in extraordinary ways. Our daughter wants to be a classical book restorer even! But I have recently missed reading, well to them. And the birth of our grandchild has rekindled that love. I read to her all the time and have picked up some new books for me in the meantime; Roald Dahl books are being conquered slowly one by one. The Hobbit is on my list and also my daughter suggests The Jungle Book for me too. Keep loving to go where our minds and imaginations can and our bodies can’t. It’s a gift from God and a trip no one else can go on in the exact same way as you.

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  2. I definitely know what you mean, but the Jungle Book does it for me. Kipling’s original short stories are much more frightening and mythical than the Disney movie.

    In the beginning of Moby Dick, the narrator talks about getting that melancholy, existential, anxious feeling from time to time, so much so that he desires to walk through town knocking people’s hats off their heads just for giggles. I get that feeling quite a bit. I think a good fantasy helps us escape the monotony of life a bit, and it excites our imagination so that we can enjoy the world again. It’s a way to refresh and reset.

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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  3. I love all of those fantasy stories, but for me it makes me want to escape from this world all the more and stay in the storybook lands where relationships and people are of utmost importance. It is the journey that the character takes and the change that his soul undergoes that makes me yearn for a time and place where those things are still valued. And if I have to fight monsters and dodge a few goblins in order to find that magical world where fairies can play with time and dragons can roast me a couple of apples, then take me through that wardrobe and don’t let me ever come back!

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