The Importance of Fairy Tales for the Lives of Our Children
by Vigen Guroian
These are troubling times for our children. The range of dangers that exist, both physical and spiritual, cannot be understated. Our children are in jeopardy. We are measuring a precipitous decline of morality among our youth and we have seen them commit chilling acts of violence. We also constantly hear of the abuse of young children at the hands of adult predators.
In Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination, I endeavored to show parents and teachers how they might begin in order to launch our children on the path of a life well lived…in a world that often scorns what that represents and to equip them with the virtues to better discern good from evil.
In these times, we as parents and teachers must find a means to address the whole question of character and virtue, despite the chatter of modern sophists who seek to persuade us that we wrong our children by instilling our own values in them…What kind of boat in which we cast off our children onto the sea of life makes a difference as to whether they sink into the abyss or reach the shores of Paradise.
G.K. Chesterton wisely and boldly observed: "The truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, and on shake invoice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child." Again, we mustn't hesitate to address the whole question of virtue, what are its sources and how we might embody virtue in the lives of children, through the offices we hold in our communities, especially the offices of parent and teacher. The virtues are like gems, each solid with its permanent color and shape. We can throw a gem into a pond and let it lie at the bottom for a long time among other stones. But if we should return to that pond years later and look for it, that gem will be the same and there will be no mistaking it for a common stone. This is how the virtues are. They are among the permanent things of human nature and they are of great value.
The virtues define character. They constitute character. They are precedent to the choices we make. They give directions to the will so that our actions serve what is good and right. They become our habits. One does not choose to be honest or courageous any more than one chooses to be false and cowardly. Either someone is courageous or he is cowardly. There is no in between. When we say a person is courageous, we mean that the virtue of courage belongs to the very essence of who that person is.
How do virtues come to be in a person? They come to be through example and exercise, so that they grow into habits. Moral character is a habitual orientation of the self toward the world that disposes a person to act from a sense of what is right and to do the good in every instance. Think of the virtues as the powers of habit that enable us to avoid evil and to do the good.
In Tending the Heart of Virtue, I have argued that in fairy tales and the great children's stories, children are invited to meet compelling role models. Children are introduced to characters with which they may identify in their own personal struggle to exercise freedom imaginatively and responsibly in relation to family and friends and the rest of their growing world. One of the points I make in the book about the moral imagination is that the moral imagination has to be formed early, and experience counts. We can give our children an important kind of experience to the stories we read to them. Stories bestow images to memory that become metaphors through which the child may perceive correspondences in his life and make judgments and evaluations.
We must show our children how to live in a world of metaphors and symbols, accessories of the moral imagination. That magnificent Victorian George MacDonald once wrote that if we wish to develop imagination in the young person, "no doubt, the best beginning… is an acquaintance with nature," by which the young person may be encouraged “to observe vital phenomena, to put things together, to speculate from what he sees to what he does not see." MacDonald continues, drawing from Carlyle, "[Even] the coldest word was once a glowing new metaphor in bold questionable originality. The very 'attention,' does it not mean an attentio, a 'stretching to'?... Take any word expressive of emotion - take the word emotion itself - and you will find that its primary meaning is of the outer world." The imagination works at the very heart of human knowing and speech, and it transforms them.
The moral imagination is that distinctively human capacity to conceive of men and women as moral beings, as persons and not as things, in other words, to recognize that the human face is itself a window into spirit, spirit which may otherwise be hidden from us. Fairy tales have a special power to cultivate this power to perceive spirit in the world, and thus to recognize and affirm truth itself. G.K. Chesterton once wrote about what he called the "test" of fairyland. This is "the test of imagination" and this test of imagination concerns moral truths. Moral truth is different from mathematical logic. "You cannot imagine two and one not making three," Chesterton explains. "But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit" and growing rock candy instead. The lesson of fairyland, however, is not that tomorrow morning I should expect to find growing in my backyard a tree whose limbs are weighted down with rock candy. The "magic" of fairyland is not a physical or biological science. A fairy tale may tell of an evil witch who possesses the mysterious power to turn a good prince into a stone and a fairy godmother with equally mysterious power to turn that stone prince right back into his true self. The veracity, however, of the moral truths represented by these two inhabitants of fairyland, the witch and the fairy godmother, does not belong to an explanation of their powers. If we look for such an explanation in the fairy tale, we are bound to come up empty-handed and disappointed.
The moral authority of the fairy tale lies in its peculiar power to enable us to see that we are ourselves capable of committing both the evil of the wicked witch in the good of the fairy godmother. Fairy tales test us and challenge us to examine ourselves and determine whether we are like the wicked witch or like the fairy godmother. The great fairy tales invite us to test within our imaginations how we would respond to a circumstance in which good and evil are in the balance. They invite us to make correlations between the imaginary characters in the world they depict and in the world in which we live. In this fashion, fairy tales exercise and build-up of a moral imagination, they add vision to our lives.
The moral imagination is a way of seeing. I have compared it to the light that enters the eyes and enables vision. Moral vision is the capacity to tell goodness from evil and respond imaginatively in each circumstance to bring goodness about rather than evil. The moral imagination engenders in us a conscience and a sense of responsibility. It fuels our capacity to use our talents and creative and not destructive ways, to seek the good of others and not just seek selfish gain, to act with honesty and decency and respect toward others at all times.
Moral rules and principles are not enough. Their application depends upon the character of the agent and the spiritual light of the moral imagination that illumines the landscape of our lives. If moral rules and principles are merely memorized and not supported by a moral imagination, they may even be used for all the wrong purposes. Likewise, law is not the heart and soul of morality, either. The old legalism that thinks it can cover every contingency of life with rules and sanctions is just as flawed as the reformist doctrine which prescribes that all one need to do is teach children to think for themselves and they will find a moral compass. Quite simply, "a child wants to know the fixed things, not the shifting ones. He enjoys the sea, not the tights… He cannot decently be expected to learn to respect humanity (which is often a hard thing to do) and at the same moment to learn to improve it," writes G.K. Chesterton. But Chesterton also believed that these "fixed" or permanent things of the moral life are taught and learned through stories. Of fairy tales, he opined, they are the best instructors in morality.
Plato argued that conversion to that which is moral, that which is just, that which is right and good is like an awakening - like remembering something long forgotten. Symbols, allegories, fables, myths and good stories have a special capacity to bring back to life the starved or atrophied moral imagination. Through dramatic depictions of the struggle between good and evil and the presentation of characters that embody and enact the possibilities therein, moral vision clears. Light comes into our eyes - and illumination of our darkened intellects and a warming of our frozen hearts. Fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living. They do something even better, however. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity. They possess the power to draw us into the mystery of morality and virtue. They enable us to envision a world in which there are norms and limits, and in which freedom respects the moral law or pays an especially high price. Fairy tales show us that there's a difference between what is logically possible and what is morally felicitous, between what is rationally doable and what is morally permissible.
In fairy tales the character of real law belongs to neither natural necessity nor rational determinism. Rather, real law is a comprehensible sign of a primal, unfathomable freedom and of a numinous reality and will. Real law, the realist law, can be obeyed or broken, and in either case for the very same reason - because the creature is both subject of and participant in this primal freedom. Fairy tale heroes are called to be free and responsible, thus virtuous and respectful of the moral law.
After a child has read Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, the Grimm's version of Cinderella, John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River, or Pinocchio, her moral imagination is certain to have been stimulated and sharpened. These stories offer powerful images of good and evil and show a child how to love through the examples of the characters she herself has come to love and admire. Such memories become the analogues that the moral imagination uses to make real life decisions, and these memories become constitutive elements of a child's self-identity and character. Such stories enrich the moral imagination and help children and adults to move about in the world with moral intent and ultimately with faith, hope, and charity.
*Vigen Guroian, is a professor at the University of Virginia and author many articles and books, including Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination.