The Bogey-Man and the Hyena, overcoming our fears

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow. – Mary Anne Radmacher

Over the holidays, I had the chance to spend some time with one of my younger grandsons. The first night, when he was ready for bed, he asked me to read him a story. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to tell him one instead, and he happily agreed. The tale I chose was a favourite of one of his older cousins, it’s called, The Hyena and the Seven Little Kids (Best Loved Tales for Africa).
As I told him the story I noticed how straight he was sitting up in bed, and how wide his eyes got. When I was finished he told me it was “a scary story”. Not wanting to leave him feeling uneasy, I offered to tell him another, and chose something lighter, funnier and with cute animal noises. As soon as it was over, he fell asleep.

What better place to practice being brave, than in the world of the imagination?

He fell asleep but apparently was so affected by the story that he told his dad (my son-in-law) about it the next day. After hearing that, I was concerned that maybe it was too much for him, and I planned not to tell it to him again, at least not until he was older. So at nap time, when he asked me to tell him a story, I said, “You want the one about the monkeys right?”

He surprised me with an adamant, “No.”

“Are you sure? I thought the other story was too scary for you?”

“No” he insisted.

And so I began again, embellishing it, painting word-pictures for him, but always keeping a close eye on his reactions to be sure he was okay.

When I say “scary” let me explain. It’s not the kind of story teenagers tell around camp-fires to terrify one another, where blood is mysteriously dripping from the ceiling or ax-murdering ghosts haunt the woods behind the cabin. No, it’s a version of a Grimm’s fairytale titled, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats. It is typically Grimm in its lack of sugar coating and yes goats or “kids” are eaten by the villainous hyena. Thankfully the villain is overcome in the end, with the help of the youngest child, and his Grandma Go Go. Grandma knows just where the beast siestas and how best to make life difficult for him.

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed. – G.K. Chesterton

This isn’t about how or even when to tell that type of story but rather to show the value of allowing children (and adults) to use a story as a vehicle for overcoming thier own fears.

So often in European fairy tales, the youngest child is the wisest and the victor. In many Anansi stories from West Africa, Anansi the spider (one of the smallest creatures) uses his wits to overcome his most ferocious adversaries, like Snake and Tiger. In North America folktales, Brer Rabbit has that honour. Somewhere inside these stories lives the theme of the small, the weak or the disadvantaged overcoming great odds, with clear thinking, kindness, courage or all three. Who better to teach a child that courage does not require large stature or physical power to manifest? What better place to practice being brave, than in the world of the imagination? As my grandson contentedly drifted off into sleep, I imagined him dreaming himself a hero.

Thinking about it later, I remember Celia Lottridge, a very well respected storyteller in Toronto telling me of her experience telling a story with a bogey-man type character at an elementary school. When the teacher questioned whether this was too hard for the children to listen to, Celia asked the students to tell her more about the “bogey-man”. One of the students raised his hand, then gestured, creating a space about an inch high between his thumb and his index finger and said, “The bogey-man is this big”.

It’s my belief that good stories, told with integrity, have the possibility of making our fears small enough to manage.

“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” – Leslie Marmon Silko

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