The Importance of Fairy Tales for the Lives of Our Children

Dr. Vigen Gurcian reveals why fairy tales are especially important for developing a child's character.

These are troubling times for our children. The range of dangers—both physical and spiritual—that exists cannot be understated. Our children are in jeopardy. We can measure a precipitous decline of morality in our youth, and we see them commit chilling acts of violence. We also constantly hear of the abuse of young children at the hands of adult predators.

In my book, 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, to live a godly life 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, Christian parents and teachers must find the 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. Christians, however, believe that we live in a moral universe governed by a gracious God. We believe that the Father who loves us and sent his only Son to redeem us from sin and death also holds us accountable as parents for how we raise our children and what kind of persons they become. The 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.

You are educating your young charges in the rich soil of faith and the great tradition of classical learning. G. K. Chesterton wisely and boldly observed: “The truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority — an unshaken voice — that is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true to dare to tell it to a child.” So I congratulate you.

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 ever return to that pond years later and look for it, it 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 direction to the will so that our actions serve what is good and right. 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 in every instance. Think of the virtues as the powers of habit that enable us to avoid evil and to do good.

In Tending the Heart of Virtue, I argue that, in fairy tales and the great children’s stories, children are invited to meet compelling role models. They are introduced to characters in whom they may identify 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 through 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. George MacDonald once wrote that “if we wish to develop the imagination in the young,
no doubt, the best beginning. . . is an acquaintance with nature,” by which he 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, “[Even] the coldest word was once a glowing metaphor and bold questionable originality. Thy 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 knowledge and speech, and 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 the 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 a firm truth itself. G. K. Chesterton once wrote about what he called the “test of fairyland.” It is a test of the imagination, and it concerns moral truth. Moral truth is different from mathematical logic. “You cannot imagine two and one not making three,” Chesterton observes, “but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit.” 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 hard 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 the equally mysterious power to turn that stone prince right back into his true self. But the veracity of the moral truths represented by these two inhabitants of fairyland, the witch and the fairy Godmother, does not reside in an explanation of their powers. If we look for such an explanation in the fairy tale we will be 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 ourselves are capable of committing both the evil of the wicked witch and 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 and the world they depict and the world in which we live. In this fashion, fairy tales exercise and build up the moral imagination.

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 builds up in us a conscience and a sense of responsibility. It fuels our capacity to use our talents in creative and not destructive ways, to seek the good of others and not just seek selfish gain, and 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 were merely memorized and not supported by a moral imagination, they could 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 awed as the reformist doctrine which prescribes that all one needs 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. He enjoys the sea, not the tides. . . . 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,” wrote 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 forgo en. 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 – an 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: they resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity, they possess the power to draw us into the mystery of morality and virtue, and 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 is 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 realest 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.

A er a child has read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the Grimm’s version of Cinderella, or John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River her moral imagination is sure to have been stimulated and sharpened. These stories ofter powerful images of good and evil and show a child how to love through the examples of the characters she 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.

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