"A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Children" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a lot of things. It's a great story, it's a satire on organized religion, it's a perfect example of magical realism, and - to be brief - much more, but one thing it is not is a conventional tale for children.1
When one thinks of children's tales, what does he/she think of? Perhaps the images that are conjured up are princes and princesses, magic castles, big bad wolves, etc. What doesn't come to mind is a very old man with enormous wings, who is "dressed like a ragpicker" (Marquez, 1955, p. 337). And as Marquez (1955) tells the reader in further detail, "There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in mud" (p. 332). These are not the typical characteristics one would find in a children's story, particularly with regards to the protagonist in. What Marquez is describing is not a beautiful maiden in distress or a gallant knight off on a chivalric quest, rather he is giving the reader a tactile rendering of an invalid with "dirty, half-plucked" wings, a geriatric shitbird, or my favorite description, a "senile vulture" (Marquez, 1995, p. 337). While the very old man with enormous wings is not an anti-hero per se, he is certainly an iconoclast with respect to children's literature.
If the description of his physical appearance isn't enough to convince a reader that he is the antithesis of a children's story protagonist, then one should turn to his behavior, which is erratically animalistic and downright bizarre. What conventional children's character is so lazy and indolent that it requires an external prompt to get it to react? Consider this lovely insight into the very old man with enormous wings' behavior, "The only time they succeeded in arousing him was when they burned his side with an iron for branding steers, for he had been motionless for so many hours that they thought he was dead. He awoke with a start, ranting in his hermetic language and with tears in his eyes, and he flapped his wings a couple of times, which brought on a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust and a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world" (Marquez, 1955, p. 335). Well, I suppose one could argue that his behavior is other-worldly and therefore could be relatively congruent with role-playing wolves and scrupulous bears2, but overall in children's tales one doesn't see the irreverent and slothful nature of the old man with enormous wings. For a protagonist, or central character, he is palpable different than anything one reads in children's fiction.
Now, if his pathetic appearance and codger-like behavior aren't enough evidence to suggest this is not a typical children's tale than one should closely examine the conclusion of the story where he flies away in an unglamorous and banal manner, "She kept watching him even when she was through cutting onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea" (Marquez, 1955, p. 337). What's great about his departure is that nothing miraculous happens in its wake. He doesn't cure this sick or feed the hungry or restore sight to the blind. He performs no miracles during his stay. In fact, after the citizens become inured to his presence he is merely looked upon as something that occasionally needs to be tended to, a menial annoyance. He is certainly not the harbinger of good will and blessings that the citizens once wished him to be. He is not angelic at all; he is an old, decrepit pain in the butt. And that's what makes this story wonderful. It plays against the reader's expectations of what they would find in a conventional children's tale.
To expand on the notion of "playing against the readers expectations," it is important to recall that Marquez is setting this up from the very beginning by appending the "A Tale For Children" label. Clearly, this is not a tale for children, as I've shown, and as T.C. Boyle writes in his intro to the story in his short story anthology, Doubletakes, "Clearly, though, while the stories do display both the tone and psychic ambience of the fairy tale, they are far too complex to be meant for children, and it is interesting to attempt to define the limits of the conventional children's tale in contrast to Garcia Marquez's take on it" (TC Boyle, 2003, p. 331). Two things regarding this passage, the first is that while I disagree with notion that these are far too complex for children I accept the premise that this story (and the second TC Boyle is referring to, "The Handsomest Drowned Man") was probably not intended for children. And, second, I think while this is not a children's tale in the conventional sense, I do believe it would resonate with children. That is to say, although I've pretty clearly demonstrated in the prior paragraphs how it is different than conventional children's narratives, the way in which the protagonist is physically described, the irreverent behavior the protagonist exhibits, and the un-fascinating way in which the story concludes; I also believe that due to his3 atypical nature, it actually makes for a very compelling read for children. The question then becomes, why are atypical narratives good reads for children? Why shouldn't children stick with conventional stories and storytelling?
To answer this question one should reflect on that term that is bandied about so frequently in college classrooms, you know the one I am referring to, the one that every Lit student dreads to hear, "critical thinking." And what is critical thinking, "Critical thinking generally refers to higher order thinking that questions assumptions. Critical thinking is 'thinking about thinking'" (Brookfield, 2000). Well, to think critically means to question assumptions. And to give an example of critical thinking in a sort of self-referential way, would be to say that the second part of the definition "thinking about thinking" is too narrow in its description, that one could argue that metacognition is "thinking about thinking" or "knowing about knowing" (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994) and that critical thinking implies more than just metacognition, but this is thinking, perhaps, too critically about critical thinking.
So back to Marquez and his tale for children that wasn't necessarily crafted for children, but why it is, indeed, appropriate for children. In my opinion, a story like "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," challenges children and adolescents to think critically about the things (trite characters, insipid tropes, happy endings) in which they suspend their disbelief for, and the conventionality associated with these conceits and devices.
At some point along the way of a child's mingling with books and stories he/she is going to become disillusioned with some of the nonsense society and academia has spoon-fed him/her when he/she was a child, an adolescent, and a young adult, and sooner or later they're going to realize that thesis statements and topical sentences and transitional sentences and works cited pages and the 3-paragraph evidence-based arguments are not the way the world works, that all this stifling structure and coherence to arbitrary rules dictating what something should or shouldn't say and in the order in which it should say it is just complete and utter convention.
And assuming this is the inevitable fate of many children, what better…