Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Chapter Five

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy’s blog.)

Method 4: Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Clichés and Fads or, Vote Early and Often

I must admit that while I appreciated the the comparisons of various stories Esolen made in this chapter, I don’t think he made his case at all. Like several other bloggers have mentioned, I was convinced before I began the chapter, so I’m going to write about why I’m convinced for the sake of those who may not believe that fairy tales are good for anything, or who may believe that Christians ought to avoid fairy tales and fantasy of any sort.

Before I do that though, I want to say that while I believe that parents ought to teach their children to be kind, patient, courageous, and so forth, I’m not making that case right now. Also, I do not think that virtue is the same thing as saving faith in Christ, and again, I’m not talking about the necessity for our children to have faith in Christ.

The importance of the imagination in the life of virtue

In his essay, “Men Without Chests,” C.S. Lewis says that

no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism…. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. (The Abolition of Man, pp. 24-25)

When a child reads a story he cares what happens to the characters. He’s frustrated with Lootie for not believing Irene’s story about her grandmother. He laughs when Curdie makes up silly rhymes to keep the cobs away, rejoices in his bravery, and worries (but not too much) when he is caught and imprisoned by them. He hates the goblins’ plans for Irene and rightly hopes they will be defeated and is glad when they finally are.

His interest in the characters engages his emotions, and that’s a big reason why it’s so important for parents to be careful what books their children read, and what movies they watch, during the formative years. The child’s taste in literature is being formed and this taste is a large part of the health of his soul, just as his taste in food is a large part of the health of his body.

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. (p. 16)

When a child has been brought up on a diet of stories that encourage him to love what ought to be loved, to hate what ought to be hated, and everything in between, he is being trained in virtue. So, the best way to show our children what virtue looks like and how it behaves, and to encourage them to be virtuous themselves, is through the imagination, by means of stories.

Fairy tales as a means of instilling virtue

In Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian says:

The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds. The great stories avoid didacticism and supply the imagination with important symbolic information about the shape of our world and appropriate responses to its inhabitants. (pp. 17-18)

Building on Lewis, Guroian says that

[m]ere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the congnitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium for this kind of moral education—that is, the education of character. (p. 20)

Here’s is G.K. Chesterton’s take on the matter:
Now, the little histories that we learnt as children were partly meant simply as inspiring stories. They largely consisted of tales like Alfred and the cakes or Eleanor and the poisoned wound. They ought to have consisted entirely of them. Little children ought to learn nothing but legends; they are the beginnings of all sound morals and manners. I would not be severe on the point: I would not exclude a story solely because it was true. But the essential on which I should insist would be, not that the tale must be true, but that the tale must be fine. (The Illustrated London News, 8 October 1910, found at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

If we grant that the imagination must be engaged in order to teach virtue, it still doesn’t follow that fairy tale or fantasy must be used, does it? Why not any of the many wonderful realistic stories, like biographies of great men, or stories of fictional characters who are worthy of emulation?

Douglas Jones supplies the best answer I’ve read. “Fantasy,” Jones says, and by extension I’m including fairy tales,

offers a much more accurate picture of the oddness of Christian reality, a reality packed with weird invisibles and interlacing graces and dark evil. These are a large part of the world around us, but they are precluded from “realistic” stories; they can’t be measured. (“Most Real Fantasy,” Credenda/Agenda, Volume 14, Number 2)

As an example of that reality, Jones offers the story of Elisha’s servant who was so worried about all the enemy soldiers he saw surrounding their city. “Doom was sure. The facts were all in. They were grossly outnumbered. The reality was visible.” But Elisha knew that what they saw was not the full extent of what was real, and he prayed that the Lord would open the eyes of the servant, and when the Lord did so, the servant saw that “[t]he world was crammed with beings—flaming chariots—that a surface scan couldn’t begin to see. The servant’s scientific vision was utterly unrealistic and narrow. The reality was far more fantastic.”

But if a storyteller wants to include that “larger reality” in his work, doing so can create problems.

The problem is that we can’t just start putting dialogue in the mouths of angels and demons at whim. Their reality and psychology is beyond us; it would be backhandedly blasphemous to write a tale that dictated where these great beings went and said, what God did next, and how the Holy Spirit answered a particular prayer. In short, we can’t write about real reality without degrading it. (ibid.)

I think it’s convincing―your mileage may vary.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

I also have some thoughts on types and clichés, and on the flattening into political cliché I’ve seen in recent movies made from beloved books, but I think I’ll save that for a later post, if it seems like there’s a need for it.


  1. Kelly,
    I think this is a great post and I appreciate that you took the time to draw from so many worthy sources. Maybe we should skip the chapter and just blog about this post.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful, Kelly! Thank you not only for saying this, but for saying it so well.

    It was fine. :)

  3. Thanks, ladies, and you're welcome.

  4. Another thank you, Kelly. You did a great job drawing from others and clarifying the issues.
    You also touched on one of Lewis's themes about children's literature and the dangers of giving them 'real' stories where they can imagine themselves into the situation rather than fantastic stories which avoid the temptation to distort reality.

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  6. Yes, Kelly ~ your essay definitely undergirds the case for reading fairy tales, adventure stories, and folklore in a way that Esolen did not.

    And sometimes it's fine to understand them at face value, no?

    Just enjoy them for the storytelling.

    Is everyone convinced that the GNAC is the television (or electronic games)?

  7. Dana, I think that understanding a story at face value is essential -- it's not only the place to start, but I'd say if a story can't be understood that way, if the only way for it to make any kind of sense is to figure out the theme or the author's message, then it's not a good story.

    I don't know if I'm being too strict in that, but I can't think of a good story that's like that.

    Poetry can be like that, but in that case the sounds and the imagery are fundamental, so there doesn't have to be a narrative at all for it to be a good poem, though it seems to me that a good poem will tell a story of some sort, even if it's the same way a snapshot tells a story -- by capturing one brief moment.

  8. "Is everyone convinced that the GNAC is the television (or electronic games)?"

    Yes, or the computer/internet. =8^o

    Actually, I think it can be a lot of things -- for some people it's their jobs, or their personal troubles. It could be romance novels or comic books or alcohol.

  9. I really think you made a case much more persuasively and clearly than Esolen did. I loved reading this.

  10. Great post! I especially like that last point about fantasy being a more accurate type of Christian reality - and I've always loved that story about Elisha's servant. :)

  11. Wonderful quotes and so well woven together!

    Yes, I think GNAC is anything that distracts you from thinking. Newspapers, magazines, even.

  12. I totally agree. I recently wrote a short article for our homeschooling newsletter titled "Why Science Fiction should be part of a homeschoolers diet"


What are your thoughts? I love to hear from you!