I tell my son, who is conveniently named Jack, two different versions of that classic story, Jack the Giant-Killer. The first is known to most of us as Jack and the Beanstalk, and it follows the traditional storyline: a tumbledown shack, a cow, some magic beans, a beanstalk, fee-fi-fo-fumming, bravery and derring-do, and, at the end, a very dead giant.
The second story, one of my own devising, is called Jack the Giant-Hugger, and it follows much the same plot except for the ending. The original story is too crass, I thought, too bloody, too hateful. It’s too black-and-white and far too modern for the morally graywashed world we live in. Who says giants have to be bad? In this world, the real world, Jack’s true enemy isn’t the giant, it’s his ignorance of the Other.
No, what we need is a story in which Jack tries to understand the giant, tries to empathize with him. Above all, we need a story in which the power of love and understanding overcome the cruelty of this oversized bully in the clouds.
So I tell Jack (my son) a different story about Jack (the heretofore slayer of giants). Where the original Jack felled his towering foe, my new postmodern Jack instead extends the olive branch of peace. It goes something like this:
Jack hid in the cupboard as the giant came THUD-THUD-THUDing down the hall, sniffing his horrible sniffs and shouting at the top of his giant voice:
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!’
[Note: Always include the line about grinding bones for bread. My son cowers in fear every time.]
The giant burst into the room and began snuffing around for Jack. First beneath the table, and then—getting closer and closer all the time—behind the chair. He was fast approaching the cupboard when Jack, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, bravely stepped out and shouted, as loud as he could, “STOP!”
The giant stopped. He looked down at this brave, small boy. No boy in the long history of boyhood had ever done something like this before.
Jack spoke: “Why does it have to be like this? We could be friends, if we just took the time to get to know each other. Look, here’s an idea: Why don’t you put some tea on, and we can have a nice chat.”
And the giant laughed and reached out and took Jack in his sweaty fist and lifted him off the ground and—crunch!—bit off his tasty little head.
Sometimes, depending on my mood, I add an epilogue in which the giant grinds Jack’s remaining bones in the gristmill, bakes a delicious loaf of bread, enjoys it with butter and honey and a tall glass of milk, and lives happily ever after.
It’s a morbid story, yes, but that’s hardly my fault. Really, I tried. It’s just that giants eat small boys. Try as I might, there’s precious little I can do about it. That’s the nature of the giant.
“Ah,” you protest, “that’s where you’re wrong. Fictional characters can’t have natures. Sure, scorpions sting and snakes bite, but they’re real and your giant is only make believe.”
“Ah,” I reply, “that’s where you’re wrong. Giants are real.” Sure, they don’t have flesh and blood, as you and I do, but they embody for us, and especially for our children, something deeply true. A giant is shorthand, a symbol that conveys immediately to the imagination what can’t be readily explained by other means. This symbol puts hands and warts and jaundiced teeth on an otherwise invisible truth.
Giants are real, then, because evil is real. And Jack climbs his beanstalk to teach our children the only proper response to evil: “Giants should be killed,” Chesterton wrote, “because they are gigantic.” Anything less would turn the world on its head.
Yet our culture has inverted these timeworn symbols, and to the extent that we mix up our symbols—that we take a giant, which has always meant evil, and call it good instead—we risk mixing up our morals.
I’m concerned that we’re raising a generation of kids who believe that giants can be hugged, or that dragons should be trained, or that vampires could be loved, or that monsters do nothing more frightening than teach the alphabet while eating fresh organic greens instead of tasty chocolate chip cookies. Believe me, I’m not a purist about this: I like How To Train Your Dragon and Monsters, Inc. as much as the next person. But I do worry that we’re telling too many of these stories and that, in the end, the giants will eat our kids.
In the real world, there are only two choices: Kill the giant, or the giant will grind your bones to make his bread. That’s precisely what giants have done since the beginning of time, and, despite our efforts to tame today’s monsters, that’s precisely what they will continue to do until Christ returns in glory to single-handedly slay all of our giants and dragons and monsters—including that worst of all bogeymen, death.
The Christian world is one in which good and evil are real and knowable, and each demands a particular and very different response. Slay your dragons, Jack, or your dragons will slay you.