Every October I told Grade 6 students stories. They wanted them to be scary.
A little boy found a nut with a hole in it. Just then he fell under the shadow of a dark figure. An alarm sounded in the boy’s head, one planted by parents who told stories. This was the Devil.
Stories are meant to entertain. But, in some, life-saving truths are embedded. The little boy knew he had to think quickly to save his soul.
“I’ve heard,” he said, “you can make yourself as big as a mountain or as small as an ant. But, I don’t believe it.”
The Devil was annoyed. “You’re a rude boy who needs a lesson!” he hissed.
Folktales like he Boy and the Devil warn about those who prey on others. Not all trolls hide under bridges waiting to clutch the legs of billy goats. Some are pleasant-looking, smooth-talkers who seniors might not see as scammers.
The voice on the phone claiming to be a grandchild needing money may resemble Scar, Simba’s (The Lion King) deceitful and evil uncle bent on theft and ruin, or even another Willy Pickton.
“One may smile and smile and be a villain,” remarked U.S. District Attorney, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Victims of the carnivorous hyenas among us can lose more than their money. One way to prepare kids for them is through a story. The message in Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs is not to be fooled by a wolf dressed like Granny, or open the door to strangers, even those offering free apples.
Tales of meeting the Devil peaked in the 16th Century with the German legend of Faust, a man who sold his soul for “magic power.” Faust abandoned all moral integrity, and thusly relinquished his bond with society. In forsaking love of his fellows, he became the original zombie, the walking dead, a Frankenstein monster. When he realized his sins could never be forgiven, Faust willingly accompanied the Devil to Hell.
It’s the theme of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851). Captain Ahab, consumed by hatred of the whale that took a leg, abandons responsibility for crew and employer to satisfy his revenge. Ahab tempts the crew of the Pequod with money to hunt the whale. They enlist in his willful insanity. When Moby Dick destroys the ship, every wayward man drowns except Ishmael. He alone retained some integrity, and thereby survived “to tell the tale.”
Breaking Bad, the widely acclaimed TV series, recently concluded similarly. Walter White, a modern day Faustian Ahab, sells his soul for wealth and supremacy in the drug world.
Walt has cancer. Medical treatment in the U.S. for that is often beyond the reach of an underpaid school teacher, while Republicans block Obamacare. Walt uses his knowledge of chemistry – a frequently helpful science – to make the best crystal meth on the street. It pays for his chemotherapy, provides for a son’s special needs, and spreads death on schoolyards.
This deal with the Devil destroys Walt. He murders people. His brother-in-law is killed by drug dealers because of him. Walt’s son learns to hate him. Walt is severed from an infant daughter he’ll never see grow up.
For what? Not the money, Walt admits, but pride. He loves his unsurpassed skill to produce a substance that enslaves and kills. When he dies violently, Walt knows that he’s unworthy of salvation. Only Jesse, a one-time student of Mr. White’s, emerges with any hope for normal life. He turns from the drug world, dreaming of beginning anew as an honest woodworker. Jesse is left, like Ishmael, to tell the tale.
In The Boy and the Devil, the worst of all villains made himself as small as an ant, and climbed inside the nut. Immediately, the boy plugged the hole with a twig.
“Let me out!” screamed the Devil.
Instead, the boy did what stories told him to. He took the nut to a blacksmith and asked him if he’d crack it for him.
The smithy tapped it with a small hammer. When the nut refused to break, he used a bigger one, hitting it harder. Frustrated still, he used a sledge hammer. This time the nut exploded with a boom that knocked the blacksmith off his feet.
“The bloomin’ Devil must have been in that nut!” shouted the blacksmith.
“He was,” said the boy. “He was.”
Grade 6 students always complained the tale wasn’t scary enough.
But it was.
Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.