God has written two books. He wrote the Good Book and the Book of the World; and men cannot understand either one without reading the other. This familiarization and formation begins in childhood through exposure to reality—both the good and the evil. While the Word is good, the problem of evil is too large of a problem to ignore. Much less should it be sugar-coated. Grounding children in reality requires gravitas.
What happens to Otto is grounding because it is grave.
Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle challenges young readers to face the darker regions of history and humanity, and does so with the ardent yet unrelenting hand of a father—for it is a tale of fatherhood. Otto’s experience is the most traumatic that could happen to any child, which is precisely why it is dramatic; and precisely why every child should share the experience. It is a straightforward story about a young boy living in the Dark Ages who “saw both the good and the bad of men.” His tale is shocking for it deals with “the thunder and the glare of the world’s bloody battle,” as Pyle removes the sheen that chivalry usually boasts, and allows the cruelty that chivalry must face to show its face. Children, like knights-errant, must confront hardship, fear, and pain. Otherwise, they will never be able to conquer them.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The account of Otto’s ordeal is not blunted. It is blunt.
John Keats famously wrote, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” The same can be said of literature. Much of children’s literature has a palpable design, imposing moralist medicines that are rightly nauseated—especially by children. Youngsters know when they are being inveigled; and so the whole point of children’s literature is not to force any design upon them, but to allow them to encounter things as they are and on their own. Otto of the Silver Hand presents an honest and unrestrained representation of the holy and the horrible, providing both the glorious and gritty elements that allow children to decide for themselves what is desirable and what is not without preaching to them for a moment.
What Otto undergoes is pitiless, and thus his story is prophetic for children—even apocalyptic—foretelling one of the hardest realizations in life: that the universe is not as nourishing as the nursery. Otto grew up in a cloister before being caught up by the brutes that ringed it. He quite literally goes from being monkish to being mangled. The monastery was a place of peace, of learning, of prayer, and divine friendship that prepared Otto to suffer at the hands of savages. Otto discovers suddenly and painfully that there are two sides to existence so that those who share his adventures can discover it gradually and painlessly. Howard Pyle ingeniously utilizes the Middle Ages as a symbol of the childish revelation that the human experience is torn between beauty and barbarism, culture and chaos, life and death. This solemn little father-and-son tale captures the paradox of life through a feuding robber baron, a wise old abbot, a kindhearted little girl, a skittish swineherd, and a muscle-bound, one-eyed mercenary whom folk say drank beer with the Hill-man.
What Otto suffered was the most severe thing a young boy could suffer; and he could not have endured it were it not for a fool. Otto’s chief companion at the monastery was a monk named Brother John, who was dropped on his head as a child and was ever after a child as a result. But since Brother John is a child, he is also a visionary. Brother John constantly sees angels moving through the workings of the world, and spends long hours in the belfry sharing his wild apparitions with young Otto, which are laced with an uncanny profundity. A lunatic essentially raised Otto, but nevertheless, it is Brother John who teaches him the strange sanity that comes of being eccentric—the comfort of being assured that we are not alone. It is perfectly reasonable that faith should surpass the bounds of reason; so why should a madman not be a man of faith? Without the peculiar education in these mysteries, Otto would not have learned to see “wonderful things with the eyes of his soul;” and would have been unable to trust that angel choirs surrounded him when he was beset by a demonic hoard. Without the visions of the simpleton Brother, he would not have survived the violence of the psychotic Baron.
What happens to Otto is unheard of, which is fitting since he is also a very unique protagonist. Otto is unusual as a leading figure because he makes no impact—he is just impacted upon. Otto is merely a passive victim of the violent world that tramples him underfoot. “Poor little Otto’s life was a stony and a thorny pathway,” Howard Pyle writes in his Foreword, “and it is well for all of us nowadays that we walk it in fancy and not in truth.” It is, notwithstanding, well for children to walk it. Otto of the Silver Hand introduces children to the fact that the blameless often suffer for the crimes of the blameworthy. Otto’s lack of character development makes him even more of an innocent to a reader’s mind because of the undeveloped character of youth. He is a child that cannot yet be known intimately, which makes his trails even more sobering because they are perpetrated on a mere babe. But perpetrated they are, and they must be dealt with and lived through as surely as the pages must be turned.
What happened to Otto makes his story one that prepares children to bear with wickedness without throwing them to the wolves as Otto was. Whether or not Howard Pyle intended this function is unknown. Certainly he did not foresee the extent to which his fellow Americans would surpass the evils of medieval Europeans. Now more than ever before perhaps are children forced to come to grips with assaults on the guiltless and the defenseless. Not even the brutalities of the Dark Ages compare with the brutality of abortion. No robber baron committed anything as heinous as online pedophiliac predation. To destroy a castle is one thing; to destroy innocence is quite another. Our young ones can learn through books on the world that the Book of the World has some dark chapters—and they ought to have some means to cope with that soul-shaking realization. Books like Otto of the Silver Hand subtly prepare for that awakening with its honesty and its rough, fatherly affection.
Hope lies in the balance.
Just as the monastery was the hope for the Dark Ages by being a haven for truth, goodness, and beauty, that same Catholic culture remains the hope for the modern Dark Age, largely bastioned in good literature. Otto of the Silver Hand offers at least one step toward enshrining this reassuring truth in young hearts—even though what happens to Otto is truly terrible.