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The end of a chapter

Four Christmases ago, I wrote a piece about watching my four-year-old prepare for Santa Claus at a time when the world seemed to be falling apart. Now, at the age of eight, my daughter found out the truth about Santa.

“I heard you on Christmas Eve, Daddy,” she said gently, as though wondering if I would be angry. “You were putting things in my stocking. I closed my eyes so you would think I was asleep.”

We knew this day would come, I thought. I had waited until two in the morning to fill the stockings, but in vain.

What do you think about that? I asked her softly, putting my arm around her.

“Daddy,” she said. “Is Santa Claus real?”

I thought for a moment about doing the “Yes, Virginia” speech, but neither I nor anyone else remembers anything but the one sentence, and she deserves better than some pat recitation.

There’s not just a single Santa, I said, trying to delicately skirt the issue and give her time to digest this. People over the world act as Santa.

Tears welled up in her eyes. “So the stories aren’t real?”

Not exactly, I said – not the best answer ever, but the best I could do in a second, and she sobbed quietly in my chest for a moment.

“What about all the other stories we talk about?” she said after a while. That covers a lot of ground, I thought; on any single night I might talk to her about mycelium, the Nativity, the First World War, Buster Keaton and The Borrowers. Her world, like yours and mine, is made of stories fastened together like Legos.

Honey, I said, every story has some truth to it. Remember The Hobbit?

“What about it?” she asked.

You understand that the Hobbit was made up, I said? There aren’t real dragons or dwarves, right?

“Right,” she said.

But there were things like that, I said. Dinosaurs were big things like dragons, and there really were little people that we call hobbits.

It might seem strange to have jumped from Santa to J.R.R. Tolkien, but it redirected her thoughts and acknowledged her new maturity; she loved reading The Hobbit, and looks forward to reading Lord of the Rings when she is old enough.

“I remember,” she said. “The men were smaller than I am. But they weren’t real hobbits like Bilbo.”

The man who wrote The Hobbit based people like Bilbo on people who lived on these islands, I said. 

He didn’t know that on a different island, on the other side of the world, there were real little people. So hobbits are real from both ends, just not at the same time and place.

“And there were Haast’s Eagles in the book,” she said. “And dire wolves, and Irish elk.” That’s right, I said. All those things were real, and there were things like dwarves and elves too.

These are inside references for my daughter and I, so let me give a bit of background: Since she was a baby, almost every night, I told her stories about the natural world that existed until recently – trees so large many men could not form a chain around them, sloths that could look in her second-story window, beavers the size of cars and dire wolves like fairy-tale villains.

All those were in the now-USA, but these islands used to have the Irish elk, whose four-metre antlers negotiated the great forests here. In Australia she knows there were kangaroos taller than men and thylacines – giant marsupial predators – like wolves with baby pouches and tiger stripes. In New Zealand, she knows – the one place where birds took over from dinosaurs rather than mammals – birds the size of cattle ran from Haast’s Eagles that hunted like airborne tigers. I tell her, at bedtime, how Scotland and Missouri and China all looked like the Serengeti or the Amazon – and except for some people, they still would.

I caution her not to bring this up with the other children at school, so she is not ostracised. Few people I know have even heard of such animals, or associate them somehow with dinosaurs. But they existed only a short time ago – the last mammoths coexisted with the first pyramids, and the last thylacine with the first televisions.

I brought her up with those stories so that she would be one of the few who saw the army of clamouring ghosts around us, who recognise the missing pieces of the world. This is a lot to weigh on a child, of course, so I introduced this slowly, as you do when talking about death and sex, and balanced those stories with that of the little victories – for example, the one man who brought the black robin back to life from the edge, or the few who saved what she calls “parrot-bunnies” in New Zealand.  I’ve told her stories of people around the world who are rescuing pieces of the World Gone By, and she wants to be one of them – for Christmas, she asked to adopt an Amur leopard.

So we incorporate that knowledge into what we read – I explain that the oldest story, Gilgamesh, began with the felling of the great trees, and that the land turned to desert.  When she heard the story of Noah, she understood that floods happen in lands where the trees are cleared away, as happened here in Ireland. When we read the story of Samson, she instantly saw what most children would not – that he lived in the desert left by Gilgamesh’s people, and fought an animal that was endangered even then, and extinct in that part of the world.

In the case of the Mabinogi or Genesis, the writers might have remembered a time when the landscape looked very different, but recent writers like Tolkien, and the vast shelves of fantasy he inspired, rejuvenated the elements of those myths for later generations.

When we read The Hobbit, she instantly recognised dire wolves and Haast’s Eagles, even though Tolkien didn’t call them that. She understands that elves and dwarves and orcs were not exactly real, but there were many different kinds of humans once; Neanderthals were not as small as Tolkien’s dwarves but shorter and tougher than we are. There were humans who seem to have been faster than we are, or had bigger brains, or tiny bodies. I want her to know enough about the World Gone By to see its traces in folk memories around the world.

I suspect this is the reason such stories resonate with us, because they tap into a folk memory, or a sense that something is missing, in the same way that we recognise the missing pieces of a jigsaw. Fantasies about office jobs and high-rise buildings are called dystopias; the stories we fall in love with – old myths and the modern fantasy they inspired-- begin with “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” or about a time “before the coming of men.”

They have forests of giant trees and people who have watched them for ages, whether Enkidu or Elves or Naavi. They have wizards who remember the world before it became strangely empty, and the characters often comment on ruins, giant bones, and bloody events in ages past. Many show the first men cast out of a paradise, or behaving so wickedly that God sends a flood to destroy the world, from which a single good man must save as many animals as he can.

Santa’s story, though, fit less comfortably in this pantheon, and I knew he was running his final lap – the more you talk about the Haast’s Eagles wingspan and hollow bones, the less plausible flying reindeer seem.

“Even if those things in The Hobbit were real,” she said sadly, “Santa is just made up.”

I took her face in my hands. No, no, no, I said. I’ll tell you a secret, something not even all grownups understand, and if you understand it, it will change everything.

She looked almost frightened. “What is it?” she asked.

Nothing is ever just a story, I said. Every story is part-real – every single one that’s ever been told, because we spin them all out of threads of this world. Some are just mud-common real, but some are a lot more than that. People that would never help a hungry man will live and die for a story they can believe in.

“But they’d believe in something that’s not there,” she said.

People all over the world give up things they want so they can give things to others, I said, and they are all being Santa. You adopted a leopard, and you’re doing the same thing. Having millions of people doing that – isn’t that better than having just one? They believe in the story because it’s true, even if it’s not a fact -- even if there’s not a single old man on an ice cap.

As time goes on, though, I thought, Santa might be able to join these other legends. We love stories of great forests and wolves without realising they were real; children generations from now might do the same with the North Pole. They might not realise that Santa’s improbably solid landscape was the real part of the story, and that there was once a time you could walk to the North Pole. They might simply accept such details even when there is nothing in their lives to relate them to, as I once accepted references to chimneys and mangers.

“When stories are partly true, is it like Kate the Royal Wedding Fairy?” she said, smiling. She loves a book series about fairies, and one was written to capitalise on the royal wedding that was such ubiquitous news here this year.

Um … yes, I said, it’s like that. There was a real Kate in a real Royal Wedding, but the goblins in the book were….

“I’m just messing with you, Daddy,” she said smiling, her eyes dry now.

Okay, I said.

I think she’ll be all right.

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