Tragic Heroes in Children’s Literature

Peter Pan and WendyA little while back there was some discussion in the kidlitosphere about tragic figures in children’s books. Since then I’ve been thinking about the topic and I recently went back and read what everyone else had posted on it and decided I really should just write about what I’ve been thinking.  I think the best post on the subject was Brooke’s at The Brookeshelf. She stated that the place to find real tragic figures would require going “back to a time before modernism hit the kidlit world”, back to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”. I can’t help but agree with her that Andersen’s mermaid and soldier are tragic figures.

I also found more of these types of figures in kidlit past than in its present, since, as she says, most of today’s books end with an “ever-pervasive “sense of hope” that leads us to believe that something good still exists for the protagonist in the future.” But I’m not sure that a sense of hope necessarily excludes one from being a tragic figure. It certainly doesn’t help, but one can still be tragic in that moment even if the future might not be. Spiderman almost always hopes that the future will be better, but he is a tragic figure just the same. If he wasn’t hoping for a better future, and we weren’t hoping for it for him, he wouldn’t continue doing what he does (thus continuing the printing of his comics) and we wouldn’t continue imitating him, dressing up as him and buying those comics. Constant misery does not sell comics, so he has to have some hope – but he is still a pretty tragic figure when you look at his story in the bigger picture (I would look at his comic story here, not his movie story, in which things turn out much better much faster for Peter Parker and why he’s a hero is much clearer).

Maybe the rise of movies as a medium of entertainment, and the storytelling tropes that are accepted within that medium, are part of why tragic figures are either rarer or more undercover today, depending on how you define the term “tragic”. Movies are essentially short stories and don’t require much in the way of an attention span. As such, we don’t expect them to ask much of us, in general. While a good, thought provoking movie might be really nice once in a while, do you really want every two-hour movie to make you ponder life’s great mysteries for hours and hours after you see it? Probably not. A lot of the time, you really just want two hours of a good, entertaining story. Tragic heroes make you think, at least when they are done well. They are upsetting, exciting, and thought provoking. They raise conversation, even debate. I like that in a movie, but a lot of people don’t. I can’t think of a lot of tragic figures in movies either. And the few I can think of are mostly in trilogies based on books, which implies that it takes more time to tell the complex stories of a tragic hero. Perhaps because we are getting used to the storytelling in movies, the tragic hero is becoming less common in books as well (or perhaps more authors are writing books they want made into movies, but that’s very cynical and I hope isn’t the motivation of too many authors when they write). Just a thought.

It just seems that while tragic figures still appear, they are rarer and rarer and seem to almost want to hide what they are. Figures like Peter Pan, whose tragic nature is subtle and almost heartbreaking but right out in the open, are fairly rare these days. I don’t think it’s just children’s literature, but since that’s mostly what I read, I’m not the best judge. Maybe there’s a whole slew of tragic figures in adult fiction today that I know nothing about. Who knows? I just know that when I read a book with a true tragic figure, it gets to me in a very real way. It makes me what to get other people to read the book and talk about it. Tragedy is powerful and thoughtful and very human. I hope the art of telling tragic stories isn’t a dying art, because that would make me very sad.

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