Challenged by his father’s directive to stop running around “like a madman,” my grandson abruptly stopped in his speed and stood tall, his chest puffed up and his head angularly cocked. He announced: “I am not a madman; I am a man of steel and I have come to protect and defend you from the enemy!” With that, he thrust a tightly fisted hand wielding an imagined weapon of destruction high into the air. Dancing with Ninja lightness, he adroitly quartered the illusionary enemy.
In his mind, my little Harry was not a child of six but a hero of myth. Unlike most adults, he lives in two worlds: the world of family and school and the world of imagination. Embedded in this daily collision of worlds is his journey to adulthood. As long as I can remember, Harry has been influenced by literature’s patterns, by heroes’ quests, by journeys of formidable characters into dangerous territories wherefrom they emerge having changed as individuals and having changed the world around them. In my own mind, I’m not sure which world I hope will be the more influential.
The Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy ask teachers to challenge students of the fourth grade to understand literary archetypes: “Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures (Common Core State Standards, RL.4.9, p. 12). Although some criticize the standards for their lack of developmental appropriateness and would list this particular standard among those cited, I counter that what we have thought of as developmentally appropriate is in part due to a lack of knowledge about the nature of literature itself. Most elementary teachers with whom I talk no little or nothing about the quest pattern or other archetypal patterns in literature. What or who discerns whether instruction in the elements of literature are developmentally appropriate or not? Children as deeply vested in the stories of superheroes and cartoons as are our children today are children ready to take the next step in thinking about the messages that surround them.
In his mind, my little Harry was not a child of six but a hero of myth.
I was taking Harry to the theatre one afternoon. We were going to see a dramatic performance of the book, How I Became a Pirate. I wasn’t familiar with the story, so I asked Harry to retell the story. Without prompting, he began at the beginning, telling me how the story started, with a little boy on a beach who is lucky enough to be taken by pirates on a grand adventure. When he finished his story-telling, I asked Harry if he wanted to be a pirate when he grew up.
“No Gramma! You know I want to be a super-hero! I want to be just like Spidey!”
From there, we began to compare and contrast the nature of main characters in the stories he loves. How are pirates and Batman and Superman and Spiderman alike? He quickly told me that they all fight with weapons, but that their weapons were different. And without prompting, he was able to tell me that the pirates are more like the bad guys because they steal from others at sea. But superheroes are good guys who fight those who take what isn’t theirs.
Later that day, I asked his pre-school teacher if she had worked with the children on comparing and contrasting the characters of stories they had read. I wanted to compliment her on the skills she had taught them. But she answered, “No. We read the story four times, but we never went any farther than just being sure they understood what the story was about.”
Children understand the concept long before they possess the terminology.
What most impressed me about Harry’s ability to think beyond the text was when he told me that “a real important difference between Superheroes and pirates is that pirates live on ships but Superheroes live in houses. So, when Superheroes fight battles–they go away from home. But pirates always have their ship right there, so they fight from their ship. ” And then so sweetly he said, “So Superheroes go away to fight but they come home to their mamas at night.”
Yes, a bit naive, but Harry understands the pattern of the quest. In the classic quest pattern, the main character becomes removed from the safety of home and is placed in a setting of trials during which the character is tested and from which the character returns having undergone personal change and perhaps, having changed order around them. This pattern is seen in the myths of ancients as well as in mythic story lines of modern-day superheroes, in canonical medieval romance and popular modern fantasy, and in the adolescent literature of coming of age stories.
The quest pattern is ubiquitous because it is the pattern of our lives
The quest pattern is ubiquitous because it is the pattern of our lives: we are born into a family; we are challenged to create autonomous identities; we struggle with the challenges of life and school to gain knowledge and self-understanding; we become adults, independent thinkers in the community. daily, he lives that pattern, in his own imagination he lives the role of the hero. Though kindergarten Harry does not yet know the language of literature, he already understands the concepts of literary themes and the patterns of literature that illustrate those messages. His constant play and vivid imagination are proof of his intellectual ability to understand the concepts of literature that before the Common Core Standards were instructionally postponed until later years in education.
The standards ask that college and career ready students are able to comprehend as well as critique. In Harry’s preschool reading of How I Became a Pirate, he clearly comprehended the events of the story, but what school didn’t engage him with was thinking about what the author was really saying. However, in play and imagination focused on the characters he reads and rereads or views and re-views (considering reading in a broader context), he is coming to understand the underlying messages of the texts. Given this evidence about a child’s independent thinking and the depth of thinking with a bit of prompting, don’t we owe them the opportunity to stretch beyond the simple events as depicted in a text with the challenge of connections and analysis?
Looking for more information on the quest? Check out Web English Teacher’s Website: The Archetype of the Hero’s JourneyShare Online