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Recapturing the Moral Imagination through Scotland

book cover imageThe Sporran by G. L. Gregg
(Butler Books, 2007, 275 pp.), $17.95.

David G. Bonagura, Jr.

In his work, Russell Kirk stressed the overriding importance of the moral imagination. The moral imagination, the dynamic interplay of the mind where ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, form through the inspiration of heroes and magnanimous deeds, plays a critical role in the development of the moral life. As a result, the moral imagination influences the conduct of individuals and, by extension, the community. Kirk himself was keenly aware of the connection between individual and social order: “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” Kirk spent his life in an effort to reawaken the moral imagination through humane letters, which he understood, following the giants of Western literature, as primarily an ethical task. Whether through history, literature, poetry, drama, or even the ghostly tale, men of letters must show what it means to be truly human.

Kirk’s thinking and example have inspired many disciples to reach the same end using their own individual gifts. One such disciple is G. L. Gregg, whose children’s novel The Sporran would have made his mentor quite proud. Set in the ancient mystique of Scotland, a place that long captivated Kirk’s own imagination, The Sporran will invigorate the moral imagination of its young readers to see that their lives have a specific purpose: to play their own unique role in good’s battle to vanquish evil.

The novel begins in suburban America, where sixth-grader Jacob Boyd and his two friends, Will and Jenny, discover that the dusty old sporran, which Jacob’s father sent him from Scotland, possesses some strange powers. (A sporran is a bag once worn around the waist by kilt-clad Scottish highlanders.) After a week attempting to solve the mysteries occurring in and around the sporran, Jacob travels to St. Andrews, Scotland, to join his father as he completes his business trip. Jacob, curious by nature, falls in love with his surroundings in the Kingdom of Fife, including the five hundred year-old Feddinch House in which he lodges, and St. Rule’s Tower, which once guarded the remains of St. Andrew. In this antique setting the full mystery of the sporran unravels. After narrowly escaping death at the hands of an evil man covetous of the sporran, Jacob follows the clues to an old scholar, Scottish Professor von Niblick, who reveals Jacob’s newfound destiny.

Jacob learns that sporrans originated with the ancient Celts. While all sporrans are magical, many fail to utilize their power. Because of his initial altruistic handling of the sporran, Jacob has proven himself worthy to serve as a Bearer of the Order of The Sporran; he is given custody of its magic for an allotted purpose and time before he must return it. His purpose is to discover the location of Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny, in the catacombs beneath Edinburgh Castle before the enemy does; no small task for a twelve year old boy.

Gregg masterfully weaves suspense, drama, and mystery through an ancient setting peppered with modern reminders and the typical exploits of middle school students. The novel proceeds briskly, with nearly each one of the small chapters containing a new twist that will draw the young reader further into the great thrill of the sporran’s mystery. But above all, Gregg’s novel properly develops the moral imagination by drawing it to the battle of good against evil, and, more importantly, by showing through Jacob that each person has his own role to play. As Professor von Niblick explains, “We are all part of a story much older and greater than any of us individually. To that story we owe our ears. To the storyteller, we owe our duty to play our part and play it well.” This encouragement for Jacob is directed toward the reader as well: you must do the right thing, you must try to save the world, lest in many years you “wonder if you had done any good for the world at all and who may have been hurt because you lacked courage.”

The implicit goal of stimulating the moral imagination is not the only allusion to Kirk in the novel; adult readers will sense his influence throughout. In fact, Kirk’s book A History of St. Andrews makes an appearance in the very first chapter. Of course the scenes at St. Andrews reminisce of Kirk’s own time there, but there is also an encounter with a mogul sword and a passing reference to “the permanent things.” Younger readers, however, will delight more in comparisons to Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the comparisons are apt, plentiful, and deserved; Jacob’s mission especially resembles Frodo Baggins’s own mission to destroy the One Ring. Since The Sporran is the first two books of a forthcoming series called “The Remnant Chronicles,” Gregg deferentially seeks to follow in their footsteps. But unlike the fantasy worlds of these two master storytellers, Gregg uses history as the spark for imagination, proving that the past can still enliven the present, even for the young of the modern age.

Parents may object to the co-ed though innocuous sleepover of Jacob, Will, and Jenny at the beginning of the novel, a minor flaw in a book that otherwise directs children toward the moral good. Through this fine thriller Gregg has invigorated the moral imagination by calling children to fulfill their vocation to bring good into the world, an accomplishment that would have brought a large smile to the face of his mentor.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an associate editor of The University Bookman.

Posted: January 22, 2008

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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