Watching the children at the church barbecue, for a moment everything was right with the world. Children do not notice the election posters hanging from the lamp posts all along the road, they are indifferent to the clamouring voices of the television news, they pass by the newspaper headlines and stories. Troublesome things have no place in their thoughts; if stories have to be retold in a way that makes them happy, then that is no problem for a young imagination.
I was in my thirties before I remembered what comes naturally in childhood days; that there is nothing that cannot be re-imagined in a different way.
Reading Hans Christian Andersen stories to my three year old son at night time, one night fifteen years ago, I remembered there would be no happy ending to The Tin Soldier. I remembered it from primary school, a story that I had found it very difficult to fathom. What was the point of the story of the poor tin soldier who had been through such experiences only for him to be thrown on the fire? I came to the closing paragraphs of the story:
At this moment one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and without rhyme or reason, threw him into the fire. No doubt the little goblin in the snuffbox was to blame for that. The tin soldier stood there, lighted up by the flame, and in the most horrible heat; but whether it was the heat of the real fire, or the warmth of his feelings, he did not know. He had lost all his gay colour; it might have been from his perilous journey, or it might have been from grief, who can tell?
He looked at the little maiden, and she looked at him; and he felt that he was melting away, but he still managed to keep himself erect, shouldering his gun bravely.
A door was suddenly opened, the draught caught the little dancer and she fluttered like a sylph, straight into the fire, to the soldier, blazed up and was gone!
By this time the soldier was reduced to a mere lump, and when the maid took away the ashes next morning she found him, in the shape of a small tin heart. All that was left of the dancer was her spangle, and that was burnt as black as a coal.
But I did not read the words on the page. I looked up and said, “The boy threw the tin soldier from the window and as the window was open, there was a gust of wind that caught the dancer and carried her out through the window as well. The wind blew and carried them upwards and far away until they landed in a wood together, far from anyone who could harm them and there they lived happily ever afterwards.” My son liked this ending; one day I must tell him that Andersen’s version was different, but ours was much better.
After a while, we dispensed with books altogether; we would imagine adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, or Postman Pat,or Fireman Sam, and sometimes we would put all three into the same story, and we would laugh, and everyone in the stories would be happy.
And who is wiser? The children at barbecue? Or the adults who watch the news and worry about the things that they cannot change? And whose story is the true one? The story of the children who can still imagine a world where anything is possible? Or the story believed by their parents who feel they know the truth, yet have little idea of what is really going on? If the choice is really between stories which are only partly true, is the happy one not a much wiser choice?