Friday, May 23, 2008

Tending the Heart of Virtue by Guroian

I just finished Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian in which he makes the case for awakening a child’s moral imagination through fairy tales. I know there are two schools of thought on this among Christian parents. One group discards fantasy and fairy tales as dangerous and untruthful; any mention of witches, goblins, wizards, etc. is considered evil. The other group contends that the presence of fantasy and “unreal worlds” in stories reinforces the “mysterious” and opens the child’s heart to truths regarding the supernatural (i.e. realities beyond our visible universe). Guroian says that “Fairy tales lead us toward a belief in something that if it were not also veiled in a mystery, common sense alone would affirm: if there is a story, there must also surely be a storyteller”. (p. 39)

The book was worth the purchase price alone because I finally saw in print a phrase from C.S. Lewis that I’ve heard quoted (and misquoted!) for many years. The idea presented to me has been, “If it’s not good enough for an adult to read it’s certainly not good enough for a child to read. But the actual quote is: “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” (From Of Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis, p. 24)

Guroian decries the sterilized teaching of “values”. It is one thing to tell children it’s bad to lie, but quite another to show them the awful consequences of it in a story. Guroian also makes an interesting distinction between values (basically subjective in today’s culture) and virtues (unchangeable).

While I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure it would have converted me to “fantasy literature” if I had belonged to the aforementioned “anti-fairy tale” group. Guroian leads the reader through several of his favorite books, pointing out the virtues (or lack thereof) of the lead characters. I resonated with his favorites that were also mine (The Princess and Curdie , The Wind in the Willows , and Charlotte's Web ) and remained skeptical about some of his other favorites that I’ve considered too dark. (Once when I tried to read the original Pinocchio  story to my boys they begged me to stop!) The only book he influenced me to get out and read was Prince Caspian , but my sudden enthusiasm for the book may also be because the film arrives in Brazil next week and I can’t bear to see a movie without reading the book first.

Here are some great resources for book lists that build the heart:

Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong by William Kirkpatrick
Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson
Books That Build Character by William Kirkpatrick
Children of a Greater God by Terry W. Glaspey
Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt


Ken Brown said...

Have you read G.K. Chesteron's defense of fairy tales in Orthodoxy - excellent! Anyway, I like your (and Guroian's) point about the necessity of presenting virtue through story, and not merely through rules.

As for Prince Caspian, you may prefer to read the book after watching the movie; otherwise you'll spent the whole time bothered by everything they changed in the film.

Anonymous said...

I was just having this type of discussion with some women who were very wary of anything that had to do with fantasy. So as you said, I am not sure if it would persuade those in the "other" camp but rather reinforce those of us who enjoy the stories of all sorts. Thanks for presenting a timely book that buttressed my own thoughts.