Have We Forgotten the Monsters?

September 4, 2014

Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, as depicted by Peter Jackson’s films

My three year old son is nervous about monsters.

They frequently feature in the toddler TV shows he watches – not that real monsters are in the stories, but the characters often think there are monsters but are proven wrong.  So he knows they’re not real!  They aren’t even real in the shows he watches.  Yet, every time a monster-themed episode comes on, he edges away from the TV, murmuring, “I don’t like this.  I don’t want this.”

“Monsters aren’t real, buddy.”  I smile.  “It’s just a show, just a picture.  It can’t hurt you.”

He gives me a big-eyed stare or looks at the floor.  “I want a different episode.”

Every time I repeat the “monsters aren’t real” line, I feel more like a liar.

Because monsters are real.

We battle them every day.  Real monsters don’t hunt us down and tear the flesh from our bones, but they shred apart our souls and leave rents in our hearts.  Real monsters don’t roast us in flame, but they put our souls in danger of hellfire.  Real monsters don’t trample us under their feet, but they crush our spirits under their taunts.

Internet trolls.  The devil.  Mental illnesses.  Death.  Disease.  The sin in our hearts.  Addictions.  Bullies.  Abusers.  Eating disorders.  Racism.  Betrayers.

The world is full of real monsters, and they may not be as “scary” as dragons or zombies, but they should be!  They might not devastate cities, but they ruin lives.  We have all lost days to monsters, or sometimes weeks, months, years.

Sin is a monster!  Like God told Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door.”  It lies in wait to eat you up.

The monster holds me in its jaw for years
The monster leaves me bleeding grief and tears
And when I look too deeply in the mirrors
The monster’s looking out at me…

Made in the image of an almighty, all-powerful God but turned away from him toward our own worship, we are all monsters at heart.  Do we forget we have that kind of power, to bruise and to break?

I Tweeted this week about my son’s fear of monsters and my quiet woe that one day he will find out about the real monsters.  Another user, Brent King, responded:

“How so?” I inquired.

He said he thought the monster metaphors should be more clear, less understated, so kids don’t miss them.

I mulled over this a bit.  I don’t believe the drive behind stories should be to teach lessons, although that’s what stories often do.  So the idea of making metaphors more clear didn’t sit right with me.  Then I realized I was thinking about it the wrong way.

“Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave nights and heroic courage.  Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” – C.S. Lewis

Children’s experience is shaped by monster metaphors.  Monsters haunt their dreams, regardless of how carefully parents police their TV-viewing and their reading choices.

But often by adulthood we’ve forgotten about the metaphors.  We feel the weight of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but unlike the heroes of children’s stories, we feel powerless to resist…because we don’t see these evils for what they are: life-sucking, soul-crushing monsters.  We’ve grown brash, and bold, and think we know it all, so sometimes we don’t see what’s right in front of our faces.

Maybe children don’t need clearer metaphors – maybe it’s the adults who need the metaphors more in the first place!  We need to remember brave knights and heroic courage, just as much as the young children do.

Then we can see the real monsters more clearly for what they are, and they lose the element of surprise, the mystique, the untouchable “power” over us.  Knowing their true nature shrinks them down to size – puny, beside a Most High God.

Someday my son will see the monsters in his soul, and in the world.  And I want him to be prepared.  So sometimes I change the episode for him when he’s scared…but sometimes I leave it on, and hold him close when he needs me.  I’m going to keep showing him stories of brave knights and heroic courage – and most of all, the Brave Knight who came into the world to slay the monsters, once and for all.

Because of Him we can say with David…

“You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” – 1 Samuel 17:45

He has put His holy name on us and bought us with His blood.  No monster can stand up against that.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:37-39

What is the scariest fictional monster, to you?  Or the one that scared you most as a child?  Do you think that particular terror says anything about real monsters you dread?


  1. Good, deep thoughts! I have one child (the older one) who seems to realize reality very well. She’s almost never scared by fictional things – but I still guard the fictional things she sees, of course.
    The other, the younger one, is scared by all sorts of things, and I think her imagination might be a bit greater.

    I think one of the scariest “monsters” in my childhood was Fidget, the peg-legged bat from “The Great Mouse Detective.” I can’t even watch that movie now as an adult, because it leaves me blubbering and terrified on my couch. The bad guys in some of the Disney movies were really, really bad, without any sense of cause or redemption. I have come to really appreciate “monsters” in literature who start out as normal human beings, but who let sin rule their lives (think Gollum in Lord of the Rings). It’s even better when they’re redeemed, of course. When I can see a natural progression that would make someone turn so evil, I stop fearing and start helping, understanding, and build wisdom.

    And just, for your viewing pleasure :-P, a terrifying scene from The Great Mouse Detective. Why they do this to kids, I do not know…


    • Great thoughts, RJ!

      As a child I think I was more like your older daughter. I mainly recall being afraid of venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions…but those were actual creatures that exist. The only time I remember being truly terrified of something fictional was a brief glimpse of a sci-fi TV show as my dad was flipping through channels. It was some creepy alien light creeping over a terrified woman and entering into her to possess her?…I can’t even describe it well and I have no idea what was happening there. 😛 But it gave me nightmares and is still a creepy visual to me. Combined with the things I find scariest in TV as an adult (like the “bug” in the Matrix, the other similar bug in the new Star Trek – so much EEEEEW), and what I know of my own phobias, I see a definite pattern. Things that invade people’s bodies and/or go into them to hurt them from the inside are what scare me most. Not sure what that says about me, but it definitely shows in my writing (venom, venom everywhere…). 😛

      • Haha! How interesting!

  2. I enjoyed your take on monsters Bethany. We approach story telling and metaphor a bit differently, but I love what you said about adults being the ones who need metaphor most. That rings true to me.

    • Hello, Brent! You beat me to the chase – I was going to Tweet you and tell you I had written about our conversation, but you already saw it! 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed my post. And hey, it’s great that we approach storytelling and metaphor differently…if we all did things the same way, how boring that would be! 🙂 What do you see as the difference between our approaches?

      • This is my take on our difference of approach from the brief conversations we have had.

        I write because I have something to say, a desperate truth to teach. My story incarnates around the truth that burns in me, a truth I’m compelled to share. This is different than those who are inspired by a story and surprised by the truth that shines through it (the truth forms around the story).

        I don’t think either way is wrong. Tolkien wrote the latter way. He said that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters #142). However, Christ’s approached His stories the first way. They were designed to teach lessons.

        Making these possible distinctions between our approaches is not to say that I could not or would not write a story the way Tolkien did. Obviously, he is one of my heroes. Which is to say that I admire both kinds of story creation, both types of inspiration.

        • Yes, I definitely write the latter way, like Tolkien – and actually, on multiple revisions, I’m finally starting to see the messages that are in my book. As Tolkien said, religion was “[conscious] in the revision.” That’s true for me too!

          And it is definitely the case that Jesus told his stories around a message – good point. Both are valid ways to tell stories, and can be done skillfully!

  3. Brilliant. I have nothing to add. Just brilliant.

  4. I love love love this! So many good thoughts! Tolkien always said fairy tales aren’t for children but for adults. I know it’s terribly hard, but I think it’s better for children to face their fears and learn about monsters and heroes, than to be protected from them. Obviously you have to know your children, but we live in a world where parents protect instead of equip. We must equip heroes, not protect them.
    When I had nightmares as a child my parents always told me to Trust God and think about happy things. As I got older and the nightmares lessened they also darkened. It was no longer a giant wanting to eat me and my sister, but a serial killer in my house. I woke up and no amount of “happy thoughts” could make that fear go away. Why? Cause people who break into your home to murder and steal are real, and Christians aren’t exempt from that. It terrified me. How could I get over that fear? Because the trust in God isn’t that I will escape from real monsters, but that he will guide me through it and that it is all temporary with heaven on the other side. I had to place my fear in something fearful: Almighty GOd who can damn me forever instead of a serial killer who can destroy my soul. Heavy things. But important. We don’t face serial killers or dragons that often, but we do face many monsters. It is looking beyond them to our good and mighty Christ, our Captain, the one true Hero that saves us from them.
    Love this so much. Now off to write! Thanks!

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the post, Abby! And I agree, our job as parents isn’t ultimately to protect and shield, but to equip. We are raising a new generation of the Lord’s Army. That said, it is harder said than done to expose a child to something potentially frightening. That protective mom instinct kicks in and more often than not, I cave – if only to avoid a big to-do. I need to be more intentional in this area.

I love to hear your thoughts!

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