The topic for this post is…shall we say, dark?
Considering its morbidity, it might be concerning how excited I am to talk about it.
It’s by no means a nice subject. But it crops up in books and movies all the time (maybe I am just drawn to dark stuff like that, who knows?) and I have been thinking about that a lot recently, wondering why this is and what implications it has for our culture.
(I’m not actually going to go much into that, but let’s just say I think it has a lot of implications for our culture.)
Well, let’s dive in then, shall we?
What are we even talking about here
First off, what do I mean by “child sacrifice?” Are we talking creepy rituals and chanting and golden altars and sacred knives??
There are many instances in mythology, folklore, literature and even (most regrettably) actual history, in which people literally kill their children for bizarre reasons, and some of the examples in the stories I am going to talk about today include these types of scenarios, but for the purposes of this post, I mean the term in a broader sense than that. We can sacrifice our children by actually murdering them (like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who slaughters and eats children), or by murdering their innocence– essentially robbing them of their childhood (like Fagin and Bill Sikes using the boys and Nancy to commit various crimes in Oliver Twist).
Basically, really bad things happen when we stop seeing children as children and start seeing them as tools.
This is true of all people, actually. So why are we talking about children specifically?
Well, aside from the obvious “because I want to”, it’s because children are vulnerable. They are easy to take advantage of. If you are in a tight spot- say a fanged monster is stalking you- and your only thought is self-preservation, you might not care how you appease the beast. You might have the inclination to sacrifice a grown person to it, but then that grown person is highly likely to object and just as likely to fight back, and probably cause more grief for you than you want to deal with. Children symbolize a truly vulnerable, even helpless, stage of life.
If you are looking for something to toss to the monster to calm it down, a child is a prime option.
Child sacrifice on a societal level
Individuals commit both types of child sacrifice (literal and figurative) in a multiplicity of ways throughout all of literature. In this post however, I am going to be focusing on the idea of child sacrifice as a societal function, something that a given society needs to maintain itself.
In what ways do fictional societies sacrifice their children to the proverbial “monster”? And how do they get to that point?
These societies don’t all look the same. From the battle school in Ender’s Game to the tranquil community in The Giver, on the surface these things don’t appear to be terribly similar. Some of them openly proclaim their practice of child sacrifice, while others deny that it is happening at all, by repackaging it as something else and/or hiding it completely from the public eye.
As for how they get there, it really comes down to priorities. In the previous scenario, what if you were doing everything you could to protect the child from the monster, rather than trying to save yourself? What it comes down to is what you value the most. Because we all have to sacrifice something. And what you (or a society) chooses to sacrifice is indicative of priorities.
Let’s look at some examples (I will do my utmost to avoid spoilers for these stories, but, spoiler, they all include some form of child sacrifice).
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
In this story, we have a very traditional form of child sacrifice. The village has been told that in order to keep a destructive witch at bay, they must once a year leave the youngest member of the village (I am pretty sure it’s always a baby) in the woods for her to devour. As long as they make this sacrifice, the village will be allowed to live in peace.
Fear drives the villagers to follow through with this appalling ritual year after year. No one is happy about it. But what else can they do?
The Elders perpetuate this custom to control the village. They don’t even believe there is a witch. But this nice little custom helps keep the village subdued and manageable. One dead child a year is worth that, right?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In the country of Panem, there is an annual event in which twenty-four children between the ages of twelve and eighteen (tributes) are thrust into a hostile arena and ordered to kill each other off until only one remains (the victor).
Unlike the previous example, this form of child sacrifice not only involves killing the children, but robbing them of their innocence as well by forcing them to kill each other.
The tributes chosen to fight in these gruesome games are treated like celebrities leading up to the mass slaughter. They are practically worshiped by the people in the capitol (whose own children or exempt from being chosen, naturally) and given the finest food, clothing and accommodations.
Fear, the need for control, and entertainment value all drive the system in this story. The capitol uses the games to control the districts by keeping them in a state of fear, while simultaneously creating a sadistic form of entertainment that is lapped up by the rabid fans in the capitol, who look forward to the Hunger Games each year and make the previous years’ victors their celebrities.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The most important thing is protecting the world from alien invasion. The government will do whatever it takes to ensure that they are prepared. Including weaponizing children.
The children in this story are trained to fight the aliens from an extremely young age. They are not seen as children, but as assets, and they are not treated like children either- they are treated like high-functioning machines.
Unlike the first two examples, they are not literally slaughtering children. But like The Hunger Games, they are murdering the children’s innocence and doing cruel, twisted things to their minds.
Again, fear/the need for control drives the system. The fear of being unprepared, of being out of control, of being overpowered by the alien species, etc.
The difference between this and the previous two examples is the way that the children function in the scenario. The children are not a symbol, as they are in both previous examples. The sacrifice here is not ritualistic. It’s brutally practical. The children have been turned into tools, essential pieces in the machine of the society.
While one could argue that the children in The Girl Who Drank the Moon and The Hunger Games are also tools (and I wouldn’t disagree) there is a distinction to be made between a symbolic tool and a practical tool. The first is about the tool itself- about the children– about the sacrifice. While in the second, the tool is a means to an end- the children are not themselves important- the sacrifice is merely a byproduct of what has to be done.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Since this story unfolds so slowly, I can’t really say much without giving anything away. The fact that I’m including this in the post is already giving something away. But I couldn’t not include it.
Unlike the previous examples, the child sacrifice in this story is not happening openly. It’s not televised. It’s not talked about. The society is very clean, very humane, and very tranquil on the surface. You don’t have ritualistic sacrifice or brutal gladiatorial games or children training to be bloodthirsty killing machines. Everything about this society is polite.
But in order to create this perfect life, the society has to make sacrifices.
Since there is nothing symbolic (from the society’s standpoint, that is) about the child sacrifice in this story, we can conclude that it is practical. It is a byproduct of achieving a certain lifestyle. The thing that drives the sacrifice in this society is the need to maintain safety (which is kind of ironic, if you think about it). Everything about this society is informed by its need to be safe.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This book bears much resemblance to The Giver actually, in that it unfolds slowly enough that I don’t really want to tell you exactly how this society is sacrificing children, as well as that on the surface you wouldn’t know that anything was happening. Part of what makes it work is that the society does not think about what it is doing. It doesn’t want to.
Again, the sacrifice is brutally practical. Like the society in Ender’s Game, the children in this story serve an essential societal function that would have catastrophic consequences if the sacrifice were to stop. Because society knows that it needs these children and doesn’t want to see itself as a monster, it does everything it can to rationalize what is happening, and then ignores it as much as possible.
An important lie that this society tells itself is that the children they are sacrificing are not human.
The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu
Like both The Giver and Never Let Me Go, the horror of this society’s reality is hidden under an idyllic facade. Again, I don’t want to tell you exactly what’s going on here. But judging by the fact that I’m including it in this post, one might guess that it’s something excruciatingly awful.
Fear and self-preservation cause some of the people in this society to do truly horrific things.
Like Never Let Me Go, the dehumanizing of the children is a prevalent theme. While some form of dehumanizing is actually present in all of these stories (because really, now, once a person is a tool, practical or otherwise, you are robbing them of at least some portion of their humanity), in these two it is openly a part of the discussions that characters have. Part of how they make the habitual child sacrifice work is by denying that these children have any right to live in the first place.
Well. I am just glad that I don’t live in any of these places.
But the thing is, literature reflects real life in sometimes deeply unsettling ways. (Maybe) the versions of life that we see in the stories is more extreme, but the root of the issue is very real. Throughout history we have seen societies in which child sacrifice plays a functional part, in one way or another. These are societies in which the priorities have shifted away from protecting the innocent and the powerless, and turned towards maintaining safety, power, and convenience.
It’s complicated. Sure. We don’t always see the monster, which makes it easier to forget that it’s there. And usually we have an arsenal of excuses for why things have to be the way they are. I mean, what happens in all of the societies I mentioned if they stop sacrificing the children to the monster? Are the children worth the ensuing chaos? Do we want an angry monster? Or is it better to keep the monster fat and lazy, gorging itself on the blood of innocents?
How do we sacrifice people to the monster? Specifically, how do we sacrifice the weak and vulnerable, the children? What does the way we treat people indicate about our priorities? Do you see reality reflected in literature? Have you read any of these stories? Do you agree or disagree with any of the points I have made in this post? I would love to discuss this morbid topic with you in the comments!