Comments 14

Children and Environmental Tragedies

My last entry touched briefly on the appropriateness of exposing children to environmental tragedies and injustices. Today, I came across a gem of a passage in an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. Titled The Child and the Shadow, it explored the importance of myths, fairy-tales, and coming of age stories in confronting the shadow in all of us, represented by the other side of the psyche and is the dark brother of the conscious mind.

The particular passage that caught my eye came as Le Guin ruminates on ways to effectively convey difficult and mature subjects to children. She focuses on the notion of evil, which she describes as “all the pain and suffering and waste and loss and injustice we will meet all our lives long, and must face and cope with over and over and over, and admit, and live with, in order to live human lives at all.” The following are her thoughts; I bolded the parts I found most interesting:

“But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem – something neither the child nor any adult can do anything about at all? To give the child a picture of the gas chambers of Dachau, or the famines of India, or the cruelties of a psychotic parent, and say, “Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it?” – that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a “solution” to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

The young creature does need protection and shelter. But it also needs the truth. And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself. He can’t do this if he feels the task is hopeless, nor can he if he’s led to think there isn’t any task. A child’s growth will be stunted and perverted if he is forced to despair or if he is encouraged in false hope, if he is terrified or if he is coddled. What he needs to grow up is reality, the wholeness which exceeds all our virtue and our vice. He needs knowledge; he needs self-knowledge. He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something he can face, his own shadow; and he can learn to control it and to be guided by it. So that, when he grows up into his strength and responsibility as an adult in society, he will be less inclined, perhaps, either to give up in despair or to deny what he sees, when he must face the evil that is done in the world, and the injustices and grief and suffering that we all must bear, and the final shadow at the end of all.”

– The Child and the Shadow, p. 60, in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

Given the nature and scope of environmental problems, we cannot simply offload them onto the next generation and expect them to be able to handle them; they will shut down in despair and hopelessness. What we can do, as Le Guin says, is to show them the truth: to tell them the reality and extent of the situation, to honestly admit our mistakes and shortcomings, to showcase the beauty and wonders that exist in the world, to teach them healthy ways to coping with grief and tragedies, and to help them develop the necessary mental strength and awareness to grow up to be resilient and sustainable individuals, capable of dealing with the challenges of the future.

What do you think?


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on fantasy and science fiction. New York: Berkley 1982.


  1. I couldn’t agree more. We are trying in our own small way to educate our children about the real problems we are all facing, and which will define their future, but also working with them to come up with solutions and to give them a strong sense of self reliance. It’s hard to know exactly which tools are best, but I love the thinking in the passage that you have shared.

    • I’m glad to hear that the passage clicks with you; sometimes I’m not sure my posts make sense to anyone other than myself. Thanks for reading!

  2. Nice article. I think this highlights something in story-telling that is being lost. All over the world great mythic stories were told to people of all ages, stories that had violence, humor, sex, slap-stick, philosophical questions, and ethical dilemmas built into them. As you grew older, you would realize new depths to the stories, picking up on themes and ideas within the tale as your own maturity grew and your mind asked new questions.

    Now we simplify too much, we compartmentalize and say, “this is a child’s story, this is an adult story, and we have to keep them separate.” I think this does an injustice to both the adults, and, more importantly, the children. Disney is a classic example of this dumbing-down and simplification of stories that originally had depth and that were aimed at a wide audience.

    Fairy-tales were fantastical, grim, sexy, disturbing, and ludicrous all at once, often with endings that were not, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Even if they did end that way the protagonists had to suffer to reach that ending.

    I’ve heard many people say that they would never show Pan’s Labyrinth to their child, but if you read the old tales from around the world, Pan’s Labyrinth is far more true to the old fairy-tales than anything Disney makes.

    We injure ourselves by simplifying the world.

    • Excellent points, I really wish I could share the whole piece, because Le Guin specifically explores genuine fairy tales in their full bizarreness and complexity. If you ever get a chance, I would highly recommend reading it in its entirety.

      I completely agree with you on the sanitization and compartmentalization of modern stories, especially ones specifically catered towards children. We take what are essentially timeless and incredibly helpful, imaginative, and life affecting tales, take them through the grinder, and reduce them down to saccharine, moralizing, simple lessons that have little relevance on how to grow up to become mature and emotionally healthy individuals.

      Life ISN’T stranger than fiction, if the fiction we are exposed to are works that help teach us about life, true stories that span the full breadth of the human experience.

      Getting a little ranty and passionate about this. Whew.

      • i empathize with your ranting and appreciate your passion. Ambiguity in stories is critical. That is what life is made of and opens the door for discussion, debate, learning, and inquisitiveness.

        Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors and fairy tales (ancient and modern) are (along with science) my favorite genre to read. I will definitely hunt down that book.

        if you are interested I’ll send you a brief list of some excellent collections of myth, legend, and fairy tales.

        • Another passage from the essay, on fairy tales:

          “All explanations are partial. The archetype is inexhaustible. And children understand it as fully and surely as adults do – often more fully, because they haven’t got minds stuffed full with one-sided, shadowless half-truths and conventional moralities of the collective consciousness.” (The Child and the Shadow, in Language of the Night, p. 56)

          This discussion has definitely revitalized my interest in fairy tales, so I would be happy to receive a list!

      • Some of my favourites that are on my book shelf are:
        The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland – this is a more-or-less chronological retelling of Norse myths. The presentation and structure allows you to see how the mythic history and relationships amongst the gods evolves and includes really interesting lays, sort of lists of important knowledge.

        The First Sunrise, The Dawn of Time (and several others) by Robets & Mountford – An Australian artist and anthropologist working together. The Anthropologist presents various myths in a simple, one page format while his artist friend successfully attempts to paint one image per myth combining western artistic techniques with what the two of them understand of the Aboriginal outlook.

        The Mahabharata and the Ramayana by William Buck – William retells the Indian epics in a very approachable form while retaining much of the depth and character development. William tries to capture the oral story telling aspect to the tales and read the books out-loud to his family as he wrote them and edited according to feedback from the oral presentation.

        The Hollow Tree and Deep Woods Book by Albert Bigelow Paine – a collection of American fables written in the 1920s. It’s a set of stories within another loose story, the Storyteller is telling the Little Lady stories of the anthropomorphic animals that live in the Deep Woods. The tales are interesting and have a uniquely American taste to them. The 1927 printing can often be found for not much money.

        Old French Fairy Tales by Segur (?) illustrated by Virginia Sterrett. This may be impossible to find, unless a library has a copy in special collections. The copies I’ve seen online cost at least a thousand dollars. It’s uniquely French flavoured fairy tales long enough to be short novels illustrated in an astounding art-Deco style. The only printing I know of is from 1920.

        There are a few others that are great or interesting (not the same thing by any means), but some of them have everything but the story text in Russian and others are told by people who have no idea how to tell a good story.

        The Firelight Fairy Book by Henry B. Beston is also great, but the stories lack some of the depth of the previous entries.

        I hope you can find some of these and that you enjoy the ones you read.

  3. Even though it’d be belittled by many conservatives, I’d love to see mandatory enviromental impact, food literacy, and other social justice/awareness courses be required for students in public schools.

    • I’m not American, but working in the environmental field, I’m exposed to the same type of polarizing and toxic resistance against improvement on a frequent basis.

      It shouldn’t be hard to treat the world, the foods we eat, the people we interact with like they’re worth something. Caring about these things shouldn’t pigeonhole one as being a bleeding heart liberal (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s just about applying the ideal of the Golden Rule in our dealings and interactions with the world.

  4. LeGuin knows where it’s at. Her ideas on storytelling seem to suggest that storytellers best serve children by simaltenously exposing them to reality and cultivating those qualities that will enable them to respond to reality in ways that are creative, courageous and compassionate. This reminds me of the kind of ‘coming of age’ rituals and preparations that are so common in indigenous societies around the world but are largely lacking from so many industrialized, Western countries. Older generations complain about the aimlessness of today’s youth, but can anyone blame them? Young people have no narratives, aside from the ones urging them to fulfill their desires through products and brand names and to get a job that pays well enough to allow them to do this. This is a cultural failure, and it’s directly linked with the industrialized world’s innaction on issues of climate change, resource depletion, etc.

    An alternative to sanitized Disney fantasy that I would reccomend to children and young adults is the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (who, incidentally, cites LeGuin as one of his major influences). His work, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, deals with themes such as coming of age, environmental destruction and humanity’s relationship to nature and the world of dreams and spirits in a way that is whimsical, humorous, beautiful, and deeply honest. His characters are complex and do not easily fall into a good/evil dichotomy. They are great stories for children.

    • Thank you for your insightful post. I’ve been reading a book titled Guyland; it explores the increasing directionless years, from ages 16- 26, for American men. They are reluctant to grow up because the prospects of being an adult is not attractive to them. The fact is that the primary narrative of our modern society – work a dull job, get money, acquire stuff, keep up with others – is ringing increasingly hollow and false as a path for happiness.

      I agree with you on the Miyazaki recommendations. His works have majorly influenced my own thinking that goes into this blog. I’ve covered My Neighbour Totoro with respect to children, nature, and place in a previous entry, and I’ll definitely be examining some of his other works as works of myths later on.

  5. I’ve read so much of Le Guin … but so little of her non-fiction work. But I’ve come across so many fantastic quotes now (one of them right here in this post) that I think it’s high time to get my hands on her essays!

    • Yeah her books of literary criticisms are extremely insightful. Her essays are well written with a wry sense of humour that just clicks for me. Your mileage may vary.

      I would recommend starting with Language of the Night plus the much more recent Cheek by Jowl, which explores the role and portrayal of animals in literature.

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