Saturday, April 01, 2006

Treasure Hunt

One of the most excellent ways to create a storytelling culture in the home is to act out stories together. Though I have explored this idea somewhat in my book on Tolkien and Lewis (Talking of Dragons), I’m no more an expert on this than anyone else, so it’s just a matter of trial and error with our family. We have several ways we have tried this with our own small children (ages 5 and 2). One of our household favourites is called ‘Treasure Hunt.’ This is a wonderful way to teach very young children about such virtues as courage, watchfulness, and loyalty.

It’s actually very simple, and can be played indoors or out. You can elaborate over time, especially as the children get a little older. The simpler, indoor version (great for rainy or snowy days) goes like this:

1. Draw a simple treasure map, based on the topography of your living room/hallway/bedroom/playroom, or similar. Name the various bits of furniture: our large recliner is The Green Mountain. We have a small, flower-shaped rug that has been dubbed The Western Gardens. Couches can be called The Red Mountains, or the Rocky Hills. Names can be as simple or as elaborate as you like: Tolkien, for all his Elvish unpronounceables, gave most of the place names in The Hobbit simple, descriptive names: The Misty Mountains, The Long Lake, The River Running, The Lonely Mountain. Name each locale on your map, and, Indiana Jones notwithstanding, X always marks the spot.

2. Get the ‘treasure’. If you can find a small toy treasure chest, great, but any box will do. Fill it with some kind of treat or goodies: we have used candy, raisins, nuts, etc. Bury it: under some pillows, under a couch, in a closet, under some blankets, or wherever your imagination carries you.

3. Plan for various adventures along the way. Hide five or six stuffed ‘mountain lions’ (or wolves, or dragons, or anything appropriate) that you can quickly grab along some mountain pass for a surprise attack. If you have a small, decorative suit of armour, this makes an excellent ‘evil knight’ for your young son to cross swords with. A white blanket can be used to simulate a snowstorm. Come up with ideas as a family.

4. Next, you’ll need one or two small children (or four, or six, as the case may be): outfit them with a variety of ‘travelling gear’: toy swords are a must for the boys; or toy riding horses (the ones with a horse head on a stick are perfect) for either girls or boys. Take along a few cups and plates for campfire meals. Roll up the gear in a blanket (except for swords, which should be placed in belts, ready for action).

5. Set out, but always begin and end each adventure with prayer. Have the children ride through the halls on their toy horses, or even march in place, for a minute or two. Point out the ‘sights’ of the countryside: hills and rivers, lakes and waterfalls, mountains and oceans. Help the children to begin to use their imaginations to see the wonders of the world, right in their own living room.

6. At the appropriate time, have the lions, or dragons, or evil knight, attack the little party. The boys should be taught to protect their sisters, and the sisters must not engage directly in the battle (they may be taught to pour arrows into the ranks of the enemies from a safe distance). Make sure anyone who fights with swords cleans their blade afterwards, as Aslan taught us. Another idea is to have a ‘Gate Guardian’: an old man, or a mysterious knight (the suit of armour, or another toy figure), who will not let the company pass until they have solved a riddle. Make up a simple riddle beforehand: the answer could be ‘grass’ or ‘stars’ or ‘trees’. Example: ‘I am the little light that shines at night; though I am far away, I bring light to the whole world’. Something simple that even young children will be able to figure out. Increase the complexity of the riddles as they get more adept at solving them. In general, try to have something important for each child to do on each Treasure Hunt: if little brother’s calling is to slay the dragon, big sister can solve the riddle.

7. Let the adventure last several ‘days’. After marching for a while, set up camp: have a pretend meal (don’t forget to feed the horses), and then go to bed. Everyone should sleep for a short time (thirty seconds to a minute, depending on the ages and attention spans of the children). Sometimes, you may want to have a surprise night attack: otherwise, sound the ‘Morning Horn’ (if you have a toy horn, use that, or just make a shofar-like sound). That is the signal for the day to begin. Have a march of several days, and plan a few adventures along the way.

8. When you reach the X, have everyone dig (toy shovels are great for this purpose). Let the digging last for a while (patience is one of the virtues). When the treasure is found, there should be appropriate rejoicing and thanksgiving: prayer, dancing, laughing, singing. Then, distribute the goods (the candy, raisins, or whatever).

9. You can also work a storyline into your Treasure Hunt: part of the mission could be rescuing a noble knight or princess from the dungeon of a wicked sorcerer. Use whatever toys you have around to set the scene.

10. Use every opportunity to teach Christian virtue and honour. Teach the children to look out for one another, to help out when someone is in trouble (a large floor rug has become our Red Marshes, and whenever someone falls in, the others have to help him out). Teach them to love the beauty of the ‘sights’ all around on the journey. Let the imagination see and hear birds, and splash in cold streams. This game can also be played, on a larger scale, in the yard, but even if you are starting small indoors, show your children what it is like to delight in God’s creation, and to sacrifice for one another in life’s great Treasure Hunt.

Dire Warnings

The next installment in this series of my older writings is a short story written about three years ago. Comments are welcome...

Dire Warnings

“The problem with this energetic exercise in imagination,” said Professor Durus, with a kindly smile, “is simply a lack of evidence.”

He was walking to the parking lot with his colleague, Professor Roth. They regularly engaged in various informal disputations, usually at the behest of Roth, a perpetual axe-grinder. Durus enjoyed their informal debates, wearisome though they often were—especially as Roth never managed five sentences without lapsing into insult and invective. But Durus was considerate and patient. Roth was ardently religious, a passionate believer in the supernatural, and Durus held a private opinion that this faith too often made a Zealot of him. Not surprising, Durus had sometimes thought. Hot ideology makes hot heads.

Durus himself was quite the opposite, renowned for a tolerant spirit, for facing life’s challenges with a cool-headed serenity that invoked the admiration of all who met him. Casual acquaintances thought him honest, pleasant, and charitable, and friends knew him to be so. His goodwill even extended to the few that, like Roth, actually disliked him.

“Come off it,” said Roth with an acrid tone. “Don’t make me drag out the theistic proofs. You don’t believe in the supernatural because you don’t want to believe.”

Durus considered that. One can never completely know one’s own mind, after all, but he sincerely did not think Roth’s assertion true. “I want only evidence,” he said. “I know the traditional arguments for God’s existence, and I find them unconvincing. Perhaps it’s true that I use my agnosticism as a shield against error, as a handrail to keep me from falling off either side of the bridge. Still, it seems to me that Reality, as we know it, can be accounted for apart from the existence of a superior being that made it all. A beautiful thought if true, but…

“However,” he added, “my objections are both philosophical and practical.”

Roth snorted in disgust. “What does that mean?”

“The supernatural is wonderful for mythology, but decidedly bad for real life. I object to your brand of religion—miracles, angels, and all the rest—because of the type of person it produces: either Crusaders, valiantly fighting to force belief on others—“ here he resisted the temptation to provide a convenient illustration—“ or Slaves, who sink from belief into delusion.”

“Delusion?” said Roth. “Don’t be a fool. Delusion is the legacy of atheism. Give me one example of real faith producing delusion. Not cultic sectarianism, mind you, but a major religion.”

They had reached Durus’ car. He turned to Roth and smiled again. “I’ll give you one, and then I really must go. You’re an historian, Roth: surely you are familiar with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

Roth rolled his eyes. “Of course. What’s your point?”

“Well, the Chronicle is a fairly straight-forward historical account of early Medieval English history. Yet what do you find in the record for the year 793?

Roth didn’t remember, but also didn’t let on. “What about it?”

Durus quoted the passage. “’Dire warnings were come over the land of the Northumbrians and sadly terrified the people. There were tremendous lightnings and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.’”

He looked at his colleague as if trying to determine his thoughts. “Dragons, Roth. In an otherwise sane, historical report. Matter-of-fact, as if recording the outcome of a battle. Why? It was a culture that believed in angels and devils, so why not dragons? Why not giants or fairies? And that’s my point: a strong belief in the mythological side of religion obscures reason, causing delusion in otherwise rational, sentient people.”

Roth snorted again, but said nothing. Durus clapped him on the shoulder, good-naturedly. “Don’t get me wrong, Roth. Religion has high value. It teaches us to be honest, to help the needy, to endure suffering with patience. That’s enough religion for me.”

“Oh, yeah?” retorted Roth. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend trying out your secular religion when you’re standing next to your kid’s coffin.”

That was a bit much, even for Durus. But he refused to let it draw him out. He sighed, sadly, and said goodbye to his intolerant acquaintance. As he drove home, Durus reflected on the conversation. Like Roth, he’d grown up in what he now called “fairy tale religion”—angels, devils, witches, giants—and had grown up a selfish cad. Only when he abandoned the mythical elements of faith, accepting religion’s moral teachings, had he gradually transformed into a man of compassion and tolerance.

But he recalled his closing words to Roth: “religion teaches us to endure suffering with patience.” That’s the hard part, he thought. Durus, in fact, had suffered little in life. Born to wealth, with a near genius I.Q., he had married the most beautiful girl at Oxford, and now enjoyed money, status, and two great kids. What would he do if suffering came, as it surely would? Endurance is the key. I can’t help what happens, but I can control my own response to tragedy, and not let it overwhelm me.

He turned his car into his own neighborhood, onto his own street. Instantly, he was offered a chance to prove the ethical and psychological superiority of his religion, for his house—his own home—was on fire. A wall of flame illumined the late afternoon sky with blazing light. He skidded to a stop in the driveway, breathing words of thankfulness, to no one in particular, that his family was away for the day.

He jumped from the car, fumbling for his cell phone, for no one had yet arrived on the scene. Panic and fear swelled and threatened to crush him, and he dropped his phone. But he took a deep breath, and began to calm himself, even briefly thinking how good it was that he would now have an opportunity to exercise his religion in real life. He would endure, and hold down the storm of emotions that were rising in him. Durus’ head was spinning, despite his valiant efforts to remain calm, and his senses were cloudy. But help would come. In fact…

A shadow passed overhead. A rain cloud, he thought. A downpour would certainly help. A roar of wind, and a frightfully loud noise, like thunder, boomed above him. Yes, it’s going to rain. He felt the ground move behind him, and heard a high-pitched, piercing noise, like a siren. The firefighters are here. They’ll save my house. He turned, and squinted in the glow of two bright, yellow lights. Vehicle headlights. The fire engine.

A blinding flurry of ghastly images assaulted his eyes—a gaping mouth; a face marked by malice, intelligence, and twisted pleasure; a burning, malevolent smile; huge, scaly wings; razor-sharp fangs. His final thought, as the fiery breath hurled him into the surprisingly real world of Supernature, was of Roth, his fanatical colleague.