Friday, January 13, 2012

Killing Jack

A critic once wrote, “the hero must triumph over his enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale. If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story.” (The Times, 13 September 1968) Why is this? Why must the hero triumph?

Stories are about encouraging people to understand and to do what is right. When we look at a story like Jack and the Beanstalk, we see a good for nothing character who turns his life around by accomplishing something amazing. That is what we want to encourage men and boys to do. We want them to strive to be the hero. We want them to strive to overcome their imperfections. If the giant had killed Jack, then we wouldn’t be encouraging boys to try but we would be causing them to fear to make the effort.

I believe the exception to that is in a call to arms story. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the bad guys won. In other words, the giant killed Jack, but what makes it different is that it was clear that the mostly white readership of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the giant rather than being Jack. The call was for people to realize that unless people took action, the giant would continue to kill Jack. But in most stories we want the character the readers identify with to accomplish what we want to encourage our readers to accomplish.