Child-Size Dangers: A Training Ground for the Young

Child-Size Dangers: A Training Ground for the Young

Jabberwocky illustration by John Tenniel, via Wikimedia Commons

Part One: A Training Ground for the Young

In the Dresden Files short story collection Brief Cases there is a short story titled “Zoo Day” in which Harry takes his daughter Maggie to the zoo. The story is divided into three parts, the first narrated by Harry, the second by Maggie, and the third by Harry’s magical dog, Mouse, who has taken on the role of Maggie’s guardian. In true Dresden Files fashion, each of the three goes head to head with an enemy. Harry confronts a young warlock. Mouse confronts a magical foo dog, one of his brothers, who has been taken by the enemy and turned to dark purposes. And Maggie confronts a group of children who have been possessed by “creepy” entities, haunts, who make them into soul-sucking bullies.

I’d eaten maybe three French fries when the chair across from me scraped on the floor, and the haunt sat down across from me. It looked like a girl, maybe a year older and a lot bigger than me. She had blond hair and a nice school uniform and her eyes looked like outer space. ‘No one likes you,’ the haunt said. ‘They make people be your partner at school.’ Mouse growled, and the saltshaker on the table rattled a little. I tried to ignore what the haunt said. They all did this. They stared at you and read all your terrible memories like they were a cartoon strip. Then they talked to you about them. ‘No one likes you,’ the haunt repeated. ‘You’re weird. You’re different.’

This is the first time haunts and creeps have been introduced into the Dresden Files mythology. Maggies explains them thus:

That was what haunts did. They followed you, sometimes for days and days, and they stared and their empty eyes made you relive the bad things from your life. If they did it long enough, you’d just wind up in a ball on the ground— and when you got up, you’d have big black eyes and the haunt would be telling you what to do from then on.

Curiously, grown ups can’t see the “creeps;” only children can. Maggie debates telling her father but decides not to: 

I thought about telling my dad about them, but . . . he may have been nice and a wizard, but he was also a grown-up. If you started talking to grown-ups about things they couldn’t see, let’s just say that you didn’t get to go chase fireflies near dark very often.

Instead, she decides to confront the haunts herself, using the techniques she learned from the Book, a compendium of information about the creeps that only kids can see compiled by her foster siblings, the Carpenter children: 

It’s okay. They’re in the Book. I know how to handle them.’ Mouse made an unhappy noise. He’d read the Book, too. Molly had started it, back before she’d become a grown-up and forgotten it all, and her little brothers and sisters had added to it. Harry Carpenter, who was kind of my big brother, had passed it on to me when the underhide had come into the house.

The Book is pretty specific about haunts. They feed on fear. That’s why they dig up all the scary things from your past. It’s like their mustard. They want you to marinate in fear, and then, when you’re soaked and dripping in it, they move in and start eating you like some kind of gross bug. All the kids these haunts had taken? The invaders would eat them up from the inside, taking bites out of their minds, keeping them focused on fear. When they ate their fill, they would start looking for someone else to move into. The kid would wake up, like from a bad dream, but the Book said that the kids the haunts had gotten wouldn’t ever be right again.

Anyway, the Book says that there’s only one way to deal with fear, and only one way to deal with creatures who thrive on it. You face them. You go, alone, to the darkest and scariest place around, and you face them. It has to be alone, nothing but you and yourself facing the fear. It has to be scary, because you have to face the fear on its own ground. Otherwise, the haunts just . . . follow you. Endlessly. Nibbling at you until you just collapse on the ground making bibbly noises.

So Maggie lures the haunts into a dark basement, turns off her phone’s flashlight, and faces down her fears. She realizes that they are picking on her because she is small and weak and has a huge store of traumatic memories. In short, because they think she is defenseless. They are afraid to pick on someone strong. Realizing they are afraid allows her to conquer her own fear and laugh at them. The haunts leave and the children they were possessing are freed and Maggie leads them back to safety. 

But what was most interesting about the episode is not Maggie’s fight but Mouse’s explanation about why he doesn’t get involved:

It was not my place to fight them. I knew that from my nose all the way in my tail, the same way I knew how to use the power that had been given me. It was my duty to defend and protect the home, and these creatures were meant to be a training ground for the young. Humans forgot them as they aged, but the lessons taught by facing such predators lasted for life. It was not my place to interfere in Maggie’s learning. Unless they came in the house, of course. That was simply unreasonable.

“These creatures were meant to be a training ground for the young.” That’s really fascinating. Mouse’s understanding is that the reason only children can see these creepy entities and adults cannot is that they provide a child-sized challenge. Scary, but not too scary, dangerous but not too dangerous. They require a child to face her fears, to be brave and to take a stand. But they do not require special skills or talents or training. They themselves are the training. And while the stakes are high, they’re not Harry Dresden’s, “save Chicago” (or later, “save the world”) high. The only one Maggie is trying to save is herself– though in the end she saves the other children who have been possessed as well.

I’m also curious… “meant to be” by whom, exactly? Who created these rules? Did someone in fact make the creeps intending them to prey on children? Perhaps the reader isn’t meant to look too closely at the implied cosmology there. 

Nevertheless, what this scene shows is that in the Dresden universe children are seen as worthy of needing special protection, but are also in need of learning how to stand on their own two feet. The lessons they learn in childhood will last for life. Children must have a certain amount of freedom, which is not without risk. If Maggie fails, she will be possessed by a haunt and possibly damaged for life. It’s possible Mouse and/or Harry would be able to free her from the haunt and to undo some of the long-term damage it could do. But still, there is real danger from the predatory spirit. And Maggie’s victory is likewise genuine. 

Mouse again:

I had read the Book as much as she had. I knew the course it recommended to confront haunts, and its reasoning was eminently sound. Evil left unconfronted only grows stronger. But to do that, she would have to face them alone—entirely alone. I would not be able to defend her from the haunts and their terrible thoughts. She would have to face them, and while the proper course was always to confront evil, victory over it was never assured. This was her path. She had to walk it on her own. But . . . She could be hurt. Perhaps even destroyed.

My Maggie is clever and quick and brave, but she was also lying. She didn’t know if she could do it. But, then, if she had been certain, it wouldn’t be an appropriate challenge for her.

The danger Maggie faces is real danger, yes; yet there are limits. Children in the Dresden universe are not meant to save adults. Nor yet are they meant to save the world. They aren’t coddled, but they are protected and given only limited challenges. Contrast with the world of Harry Potter. Like Harry Dresden, Harry Potter is also orphaned at a young age, he also has abusive guardians, he also comes into his magical power at around the time of puberty and must learn to use it. But something has always bothered me about the Harry Potter universe: the stakes are too high, the dangers are too drastic, the adults too powerless to protect the children, and there is a fundamental lack of trust between children and adults. Harry Potter must confront and defeat the single greatest evil of his time. It does not seem like an appropriate challenge. It’s as if one of the hobbit children were being sent to take down Sauron and the Dark Tower. Or sending children to kill Hitler and dismantle the entire Nazi regime.

In Harry Potter the plot necessitates Harry lying to his teachers and other adults. He never fully trusts them, and that’s with good reason. The adults in the Harry Potter universe are largely untrustworthy. Even the good adults like Dumbledore and McGonigle and the Weasleys are a little too comfortable with what I consider inappropriate challenges for the children in their charge.

The very structure of the story “Zoo Day” makes it clear that Maggie is being protected from danger. Harry and Mouse are actively defending her from evils that are too strong for her. And she is aware of their protection. The novels about Harry Potter and his friends doesn’t have that same sense that the adults will keep them safe while they meet their own challenges. At the same time the story does allow Maggie her own autonomy. Mouse is aware of her fight with the creeps, but Harry never even knows what she has done. She is allowed to live in a child-sized world, to fight her own battles that adults are unaware of. That seems fitting somehow.

I know it can be argued that Harry Potter does come into his powers gradually, that he doesn’t face Voldemort in the first book. But while Rowling’s series makes a nod to the idea of development, I don’t think she takes it as seriously as Butcher does. My arguemnt is about proportionality and in my book Harry Potter comes up lacking in that department.

Meanwhile, Harry Dresden begins his adventures as an adult– although we do later get the backstory of his adolescence filled in in various ways. But even as an adult he starts fairly small, confronting lesser evils. As the series progresses his foes become more and more powerful. He learns, he grows, he gains strength and knowledge before he is ready to take down the Red Court. He must defeat the vampires before he is strong enough to begin to take on the role of Winter Knight and to confront the Outsiders.

And now in Maggie we see a child who is in no way expected to be the savior and the “chosen one”. Rather, she is given child-sized dangers. While she is fighting her child-size creeps Harry and Mouse are both protecting her and the rest of the zoo-goers from much more formidable foes. 

Maggie’s task is a child-sized one because she is a child. It is an appropriate challenge. And that seems like a very good lesson to teach children. While it is important for children to have models of children with courage facing down evil, it is unjust for us to put vulnerable children into a position where they are expected to try to right the enormous wrongs of a broken world. Even in fiction.

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