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Practical Fantasy

Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 198 pp., $22.00 cloth.

Gilbert Meilaender

ON ONE OCCASION when he had given a talk on children’s literature to a conference of librarians, C. S. Lewis was asked about the worth of such books. His questioner noted that it had become common to offer children more practical books than those by Lewis—such as, for example, a book on how to build a boat. The proceedings of the conference record that the questioner wondered therefore

what practical use fantasy, such as Dr. Lewis advocated, would have for the child. Dr. Lewis agreed that practical things were first class, but that although fantasy might not help a boy to build a boat, it would help him immensely should he ever find himself on a sinking ship.

Something like that might be said to be the point of Tending the Heart of Virtue.

How should we describe this book? It gives evidence of serious scholarship but wears that learning lightly. It is a quite personal book, yet it treats issues of general significance for any father or mother. It affirms the significance of stories for the moral life while engaging in the necessary task of "abstracting" meanings and lessons from those stories. It attempts to teach morality, but not, for the most part, by imparting a code of conduct. Instead, Guroian’s emphasis is on "the virtues as the qualities of character that we need in order to steer our way through the complicated and mysterious sea of morality into which we all have been placed." It is a book in which G.K. Chesterton is often cited, and, indeed, Chesterton’s sense of the importance of fairy tales provides some of the underlying inspiration for the book.

Vigen Guroian, who teaches theology and ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, has already written several books that treat topics in Christian ethics. A reader of his earlier work would be aware, I think, of his belief that stories are more important for morality than ethicists have sometimes supposed. But what has been implied in earlier work is made explicit here in a book that is clearly written for a general audience, not just for scholars in the academy.

The core of the book is five chapters in each of which just a few children’s stories are discussed, each chapter using the stories under discussion to develop a particular theme. Thus, Pinocchio provides the occasion to discuss growing up and becoming truly human—as well as the way virtues such as love, courage, and truthfulness are essential to that process. The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Mermaid draw us into what Guroian calls the longing for immortality. The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, and Bambi are books about friendship—a subject of great importance in the lives of children. But the last two of these books are about friendships between unequals (Charlotte/Wilbur; the old stag/Bambi); hence, Guroian reads them as finally teaching us about the importance of those who are not only friends but also mentors to children. Guroian believes most children in our world lack such mentoral friendships, which lack, he suggests, may "help to account for the crisis of morality and culture that we are facing." Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are avenues for the exploration of evil and redemption in our lives. Yet, they do this in different ways. Andersen focuses more on the inscrutability of affliction and suffering, Lewis more on sin and the evil we bring upon ourselves through our disordered loves. Finally, Princess Irene in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and Lucy in Lewis’s Prince Caspian are heroines who provide us with images of faith and courage.

The stories treated in these chapters are, then, either fairy tales or "the more modern genre of a children’s fantasy story." But in a brief concluding chapter Guroian suggests other children’s stories to which we might turn to think more about the themes he has discussed. In his first chapter, "Awakening the Moral Imagination," before launching into discussion of the stories themselves, Guroian also discusses the point of such a book and the use of stories for moral instruction. It may be a flaw that he presents no developed theory about how stories accomplish this, but, then, to try to do so would have required quite a different sort of book. Central to his discussion, however, is the claim that transmission of a way of life involves more than just instruction in morality. (I suspect, though, that—in order to make his point—he may underrate a little the importance for young children of the inculcation of rules and commandments. One might point, for example, to the importance of remembering the signs in Lewis’s The Silver Chair.) What he thinks parents should seek in stories is "a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness" presented in "a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination." Stories transport their readers into other worlds. Without dispelling the sheer mystery of life, they train our imaginations so that we become people who may be able "to steer our way through the complicated and mysterious sea of morality into which we all have been placed."

Although his treatments of the stories focus chiefly on the narratives themselves and the lessons they teach about how to live well, in the course of doing so Guroian sometimes discusses and dissents from alternative readings. Thus, his interpretation of Pinocchio is offered in direct opposition to Maurice Sendak’s stated preference for the Disney version of the story rather than the actual book by Carlo Collodi. Against literary critic Roger Sale, Guroian defends the religious character of the story of The Little Mermaid. He also takes up—admittedly in brief compass—significant questions along the way. His chapter on friends and mentors interacts with perhaps the most influential discussion of friendship ever written—that in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. His discussion of Princess Irene reflects upon the nature of courage and whether it can or should entirely do away with fear.

Along the way there are moments when one is struck by a particularly insightful reading. My own personal favorite is when Guroian reflects on what Bambi teaches about the nature of the "mentoral" relation in its depiction of the old stag and Bambi. There is a point in the story at which Bambi chances upon the old stag in a clearing. He wants to approach him, but the old stag seems utterly indifferent to his presence. Lacking any encouragement, Bambi fears to take the initiative. Yet, when Felix Salten puts the stag’s thoughts into words, the reader learns that the stag himself—for all his wisdom—is unsure what to say or how to approach Bambi. And so, he simply walks off. There is pathos in such a moment—of a sort that perhaps every parent has felt at certain moments in raising his or her children. Guroian wants to defend the stag’s aloofness though. Had the stag simply appeared as needy for companionship, "his role as mentor might have been compromised." The hazards of the bond between friend and mentor are wonderfully captured.

This is a book written primarily for parents, though it may be read with profit by others. It builds upon and answers to current interest in moral education and the rearing of children. And certainly, for parents looking for ideas about where to start in reading to their children, Tending the Heart of Virtue will prove a good place to begin.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. This review appeared in the Spring 1999 Bookman.

Posted: March 29, 2007

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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