A defence of classic stories for children
Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination
Vigen Guroian | Oxford University Press, 2023, Second edition, 208 pages
The world of children’s literature has grown increasingly formalised and lucrative in recent decades. In the publishing industry, it represents a unique market in its own right. Universities even offer seminars on the genre. And, for the lucky few who hit the right notes, it is highly profitable. J.K. Rowling, surely the wealthiest author in history, made her fortune writing primarily for children, not adults.
Prof. Vigen Guroian, however, eschews the humdrum of popularity and profitability in favour of the transcendent. In Tending the Heart of Virtue, he attempts to reappraise and re-centre the notion of a moral framework in literature for children.
This book is the second, expanded edition of the original, first published in 1998. That Guroian and Oxford University Press considered an updated edition worth the investment attests in itself to a hunger for the ideas and guidance contained therein. In western nations at least, education policy has evolved significantly since the nineties, sometimes in questionable directions.
In Ireland, the increasingly centralising tendencies of the Department of Education have led to flashpoints on various curricular fronts, one of the most recent being the government’s attempts to substantially revise the relationships and sexuality programme for primary and secondary schools, for example.
Despite the outward legitimacy of the rhetoric of consultation in the Department’s missives, however, news reports have indicated that some parents and school associations did not find their values reflected, and even found them undermined, by government and curriculum overreach. In this light, Guroian’s book is more relevant than ever.
Guroian is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. Despite his own academic training and day job as a theologian, the present book’s content deals very much with the literary rather than the religious. Nevertheless, it would be true to say that a Christian inflection predominates in Guroian’s readings of his chosen texts throughout.
While carefully researched, with plentiful endnotes, Tending the Heart of Virtue stems from personal encounters too. Guroian shares his experiences of raising and reading stories to his own children, to some of their classes at primary school, and eventually to his grandchildren. Thus the arguments made and texts discussed are not rooted in a simplistically high-minded idealism, but have been “focus-grouped” and “peer-reviewed” by generations of children in Guroian’s own life.
With words like “virtue”, “classic stories”, and “moral imagination”, the book’s title could strike some readers as stuffy and old-fashioned. Sure, you will not find critical readings of David Walliams or even J.K. Rowling among these pages.
However, there is a lesson in not judging a book by its cover here. Many of the stories Guroian examines are still culturally significant, and have even gained for themselves a certain timelessness or transcendence with age – fairytales from the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen, or stories written by C.S. Lewis, for example.
Some have even been retold (not always accurately) by Disney and others: Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance. In some ways, the very act of retelling a story serves to reinforce its reputation as a classic. And it remains a classic because the principles of the moral life it transmits are themselves transcendent and timeless.
Certainty and faith
In setting out his rationale for the book, Guroian observes children’s natural desire for moral clarity. He criticises some “well-meaning educators and parents” who want to undermine this “rather than use it to shape their character.” He comments, “We want our children to be tolerant, and we sometimes seem to think that a too sure sense of right and wrong only produces fanatics.”
Guroian is assertive, describing this as “a false freedom” and a “deeply flawed notion of individual autonomy.” His book represents an attempt to address this, an attempt to swing the pendulum away from its current extreme of utilitarianism and subjectivism in literature for children, by not being afraid to present and tease out stories with a moral purpose.
In many cultures, including our Judeo-Christian one, despite trends towards secularism, morality is inextricably intertwined with religion. Guroian reaches the crux of the matter here, criticising the tendency among “contemporary writers and critics [who] have avoided these religious themes or discussed them with embarrassment, if not outright antagonism. Thus, I have taken up the challenge to explore seriously some of these religious topics.” The stories selected by Guroian are all refracted through this prism, and in this regard, his book serves to address a significant scholarly blindspot.
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There remain compelling reasons for fostering the virtues despite the moral relativism of contemporary life. Morality, Guroian argues, is not merely about instruction, and ethics is not a “how-to manual for successful living.” Rather, stories can model vivid and memorable examples of virtue to children, awakening a “moral imagination” in them, helping them to adapt and apply the principles they have encountered in the less predictable and far messier reality of everyday life.
This can seem counterintuitive to the disenchanted modern mind. There is a certain clarity and certainty to the “how-to manual” approach – ethics as a mathematical function, rather than glinting truths woven among the mundane, complex, and unknown of the everyday. This has found its way into adulthood in the dull triumph of proceduralism that has conquered the workplace, for instance.
Consequently, good literature can serve as an antidote to the dull, disenchanted uses to which we put language in modern life. Enchantment brings complexity, and complexity is not a decorative accretion to be stripped away, but something humans must engage with not only as children but in adulthood too.
Fairytales are particularly enchanting stories, and they feature heavily in Guroian’s book. Unfortunately, grown-ups tend to treat the term dismissively. However, Guroian argues that paradoxically, for all their seeming circumlocutions, these stories make it plain that virtue and vice are opposites, and not a sequence of enigmatic moral gradations. Clarity and complexity go hand in hand in fairytales. Unfortunately, our modern tendency toward aesthetic minimalism has led to the sidelining of these stories, and in turn, to an unhelpful and reductive moral minimalism.
The imagination – particularly the “moral imagination” – is therefore an important concept in Guroian’s book. It is the vehicle with which we “experience” characters’ moral muddles and work through their complexities to find points of clarity. The human imagination is immeasurably flexible and adaptable.
A well-nourished moral imagination, given good stories and built on solid first principles, can help children to encounter the ups and downs of life without either giving in to the world, on the one hand, or retreating to cold and inhuman aloofness, rigidity, or proceduralism, on the other.
Guroian describes how he has encountered many who are “perplexed when reading a novel or short story because they have not learned how to find and follow the inner connections of character and action, the narrative itself, and the moral meaning that is communicated.” This, he believes, represents “a failure of [moral] imagination, not of knowledge that can be tested.”
A real boy
Each chapter offers readings of select texts on various themes: friendship, courage, goodness, obedience, self-sacrifice. Guroian’s reading of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, for instance, draws out the rich moral strands woven within it, which contemporary scholarship has repudiated as overly dogmatic.
According to Guroian, the Disney version neutralised the story by emphasising Pinocchio’s desire to grow up as central to the narrative, rather than the importance of being good, which Guroian considers central to the original. While this variation is not necessarily bad in itself, Guroian finds the original richer in its appeal to the reader’s moral imagination:
“In both stories [i.e. Collodi’s and Disney’s] Pinocchio wants to be more. He wants to be a real boy, a good boy, a genuine human son.”
The longing of a wooden puppet to be more like its creator is rich with Christian allusions, to have its heart of stone (or wood, in this case) exchanged for a heart of flesh.
Children (and grown-ups) are fascinated by transformations: witness the enduring success of the Transformers franchise, or superheroes such as Spiderman or Batman who must conceal their identities beneath the plainness of civilian life. But I could not help being reminded of the less enduring and far less coherent Barbie movie that hit cinemas worldwide last summer.
Somewhat like Pinocchio, Barbie leaves the unchanging world of Barbieland behind to assume the fallen, mortal world of humans, with her real-world owner assuming a sort of maternal role for the grown-woman Barbie in the concluding scenes (itself an interesting, if unintended, comment on the extended childhoods of many young adults today).
By the end, despite her metamorphosis to flesh and blood, it is not clear how her character has matured by leaving behind the plastic life of Barbieland for the material and moral plasticity of modern California. In contrast, Pinocchio’s journey toward becoming a real boy is marked by a journey of moral and spiritual self-discovery.
Guroian finds echoes of the prodigal son and Jonah and the whale in Collodi’s story, as the wooden puppet must learn to transcend the subjective and narcissistic tendencies of childhood, undergoing an inner “conversion” that is mirrored exteriorly in the transformation of his wooden frame to flesh and blood.
Tending the Heart of Virtue is a meaty volume, and Guroian takes his time to work through the readings of the texts he has chosen. While it aims to address scholarly blindspots in the critical readings of certain classics of children’s literature, the book’s argument and tone have a much broader appeal than the ivory tower.
Parents and teachers wishing to nurture children’s “moral imaginations” and gain more profound literary encounters in areas such as friendship, self-sacrifice, or courage (to name a few themes covered) will appreciate the insightful readings of some of the enduring classics of children’s literature from the past century and a half. Truth and beauty are never far apart, so even if the moral content might be complex for a parent or teacher to discern and impart, the stories themselves are rich and vibrant enough to appeal to the fertile mind of the child.
There is always a danger with a volume like this that its argument will be perceived as preachy at best, or pessimistically grumpy at worst. Although Guroian laments “the moral crisis of childhood in our culture”, the book is far from a platform for self-indulgent or curmudgeonly melancholia.
On the contrary, the readings are peppered with fleeting personal anecdotes and recollections of telling these stories to his own children and grandchildren. This has the added benefit of making his chosen stories and their readings “real”, rather than abstract or merely academic.
Moreover, Guroian leans into the practical realities of such moralising – that some things are clearly right and others clearly wrong. Eschewing any handwringing or equivocation, he asserts that “[w]hether we admit it or not, education is bound to indoctrinate and bound to coerce.” Some will prickle at the bluntness of this statement.
However, when one peels away the ambitions of contemporary educational policy toward a sort of amoral universality, one inevitably detects baseline principles of some form or another underpinning the worldviews and knowledge it seeks to convey.
From Pinocchio to The Wind in the Willows and the Narnia books, the stories chosen by Guroian will appeal to younger minds who might need stories read to them, as well as older, more independent readers who are happy to take the initiative themselves. But what about more recent classics?
Roald Dahl will not be found in these pages. Nor will Julia Donaldson, for younger readers. These are only two among many popular children’s authors. The beguiling stories and lush illustrations of Donaldson’s books, and the sharp wit and glinting mischief of Dahl’s, perhaps lack the penetrating moral depth that Guroian is eager to highlight as central to the formation of a child’s character.
However, it would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on more recent classics, especially since the present volume is a second edition, and a lot has changed in the field of children’s literature since the original edition was published in 1998.
Overall, however, Guroian does important work developing our understanding of the moral imagination, and presenting a robust corpus of texts with which to nourish this important faculty.
David Gibney is a school teacher in Dublin. He holds a PhD in English literature.
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