On Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination


The moral education of children must engage the heart as well as the mind. These troubling times excite concern for the safety and protection of our children — but merely securing their physical well-being does not address the root of their peril. The moral imaginations of our children have been neglected and are being crippled.

These are troubling times for our children. We have witnessed a precipitous decline of morality in our youth and experienced chilling outbreaks of violence committed by them. Yet raising issues of safety or protection alone does not get to the root of what is the matter — the moral imaginations of our children have been neglected and are being crippled.

Often human beings, children and grown-ups alike, do the morally wrong thing not because their reason has failed them but because they lack the imaginative powers to relate a particular circumstance to the whole scope of their lives. If the Jewish and Christian scriptures are even halfway true, our lives are involved in a drama that decides our destiny — the loss of a sense of that drama obscures the truth of our existence and diminishes our humanity. The twentieth century Southern writer Flannery O’Connor captured the implications of a withered moral imagination when she wisely observed: "Where there is no belief in the soul there is very little drama."

In his famous essay "On Fairy-Stories," J. R. R. Tolkien takes up this subject of the relation of reason, the moral imagination, and truth. Tolkien observes the following:

Fantasy is a natural activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary, the keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or did not perceive truth . . . then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become a Morbid Delusion.

For creative fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun, on recognition of fact, but not slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-tales about frog-kings would not arise.

Children find frog-princes interesting because they know themselves as incomplete and not entirely whole. And they are attracted to the story of "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Lame Prince" because reason tells them, based upon simple observation, that they too are in some sense "handicapped" or disadvantaged with respect to adults. When children long for the day that they will be equal in strength and capacity to grown-ups, however, more than reason is at play. The imagination is at work. Children want and need to explore just what it might be like to turn out finally "whole" and all right — to be a good child, a good parent, or the best of rulers. In this respect Pinocchio is the quintessential child.

And isn’t this yearning to be whole and wholly real what also attracts even adults to fairy kings and queens who are not frogs, to Prince Caspian in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, or Princess Irene of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin? These literary sub-creations possess the power to move the will far beyond what reason alone indicates. They feed the moral imagination and, finally, the religious sense of awe before divine mystery and reverence for what is good, beautiful, and true.

Our society is failing to provide our children with the kinds of experiences that nurture and strengthen the moral imagination and the religious sense. Now we are paying a devastating, tragic, and costly price for this neglect. For more than a decade, I have taught a course at my college on "Religion in Children’s Literature." Each year, young men and women speak up to say that they were deprived of these literary gems in their childhood. Not only were they not introduced to most of the stories and books on the syllabus but they also recognize that their natural sense of wonder was starved. Though their portions have been to this point meager, I don’t have to work hard to persuade them that the tasty food of fairy tales and the classic children’s stories that we read in class is also good for the soul. Books like Bambi, The Secret Garden, and The Wind in the Willows, or the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde boast a richness, texture, and elevating quality accessible to any one who reads them, whatever his or her age. My students seize these stories as an advantage to revisit childhood one last time before they enter the adult world. It is a wonderfully satisfying experience. They find themselves not only looking back but also forward to their futures.

These young men and women especially enjoy Peter Pan and the Mowgli stories in Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But these stories about two children who don’t want to grow up or join the real human world have distinctly different endings, and those differences are especially instructive. For his part, Peter Pan refuses to remain with the lost boys in the Darling household. Instead, he returns to Neverland, and remains a child and a prisoner of his own passions — though he continues to think of this as freedom. The love and wisdom of Mowgli’s animal mentors, on the other hand, move him to search beyond his familiar world. Like Peter Pan, Mowgli struggles with his choices and takes action to protect those beasts and human beings whom he loves. Mowgli, however, is refined by his social commitments and re-enters human society a responsible and mature young man.

The book of proverbs says, "Where there is no vision, the people run wild." The people may even become captives of the idolatrous and the diabolic imaginations. For as I have suggested, while imagination is an innate human capacity, it needs proper nurture and cultivation. The tea rose if not properly attended withers and thistle grows in its place. If the moral imagination is not nourished by religious sentiment and supported by reason it will be replaced by the idolatrous and diabolic imaginations.

We see the heavy footprints of the idolatrous imagination everywhere in our society. The media constantly fixes on false gods whose stories and lives displace the lives of the saints and real heroes. One needn’t look any farther than the popular magazines, music videos, television talk shows, and cable celebrity channels to get a measure of how pervasive the purveyors of the idolatrous imagination are. Our schools and public libraries are in the business as well. I am not just talking about movie videos and DVDs, either. When I was a young boy, books about great scientists, explorers, and statesmen dominated the biography shelves. Today, poorly written books about athletes and rock and movie stars predominate. The idolatrous imagination flourishes in youth culture, to say nothing of "adult culture."

The diabolic imagination is a terrestrial and cultural descent into the symbolic world of Dante’s Inferno. The coordinates for tracking a fall of culture into the diabolic imagination are the loss of the concept of sin and the rise of popular therapeutic justifications and excuses for things that were once thought to be perverse. People become persuaded that moral norms are relative, that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that good and evil are matters of perspective. We even begin to condemn persons who make moral judgments.

People enthralled by the diabolic imagination have outgrown Shakespeare’s bawdiness or Hawthorne’s irony because they have shed a sense of sin and shame. Now the raw stuff of bodily functions and untrained desires is trotted out and viewed as legitimate entertainment, sport, or recreation. But portrayals of sex and violence are just the flash points, the first indicators that something has changed, that the moral imagination is being replaced by the diabolic imagination.

The people’s sense of the drama and struggle of good and evil that is played out in every human heart and in history is dulled and reduced to the triviality of the afternoon soap opera. Trivial though they may be, we should not underestimate the power of soap operas and prime time situation comedies to shape character–or, more accurately, malform character. Yet as disturbing as this truth is, they may teach us a lesson. Even in times when moral norms are flagrantly ignored or ridiculed, stories are told and listened to, for good or ill, because the moral sense and deep human desire to find meaning in life cannot be drummed out of people. People go on telling stories because they want to find and clarify the significance of their lives. It matters to every human being, deep down and within, that there is such a meaning and purpose. Thus it is not surprising that more and more parents and teachers are trying to reclaim the best stories in the treasury of human wisdom. That is what led me to write my book on the moral imagination and children’s literature. The search began while raising my own children and continues in the college classroom.

Plato argues 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 forgot. Symbols, allegories, fables, myths, and good stories are especially capable of restoring to life the atrophied imagination. They help us to see that we live our lives against the backdrop of a moral order and transcendent meaning. That is what I have discovered in raising my son and daughter and in teaching. 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–light that is both illumination for our darkened intellects and warmth for our frozen hearts.

Fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living. They do something even better, however. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity and our relationships to others. They enable us to envision a world in which there are norms and limits. A world in which freedom respects the moral law or else pays a heavy 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.

After a child has read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, his moral imagination is sure to have been stimulated and sharpened. These stories project powerful images of good and evil and show a child how to love through the examples of characters he has come to love and admire. These memories become constitutive elements of a child’s self-identity and character. The moral imagination uses them as analogues with which to make real life decisions. A well-fortified and story-enriched moral imagination helps children to move about in their expanding world with moral intent and ultimately with faith, hope, and charity. As Flannery O’Connor once said, "Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held a knife over Isaac."

"The truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice," writes G. K. Chesterton, "that is the one eternal education: to be sure enough that something is true to dare to tell it to a child." What more is there to add? None of us are perfect parents. None of us are perfect teachers. No one of us is perfectly wise. No one of us is the ideal model. Our ability to transmit moral truths is limited — we cannot make our children good. But we can help them learn to love what is good. When we do this faithfully, we love them as perfectly as imperfect human beings can. That is what God asks us to do. And, as Jesus said, "As you do unto these little ones so you do unto me."


Vigen Guroian. "On Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination." Breakpoint Online.

Permission to republish this article was granted by Vigen Guroian.


Vigen Guroian is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his books are the second, expanded edition of Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics (University of Notre Dame, 2002) and Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1998), and Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening (1999). "On the Moral Imagination & Fairy Tales" appears in his book Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life, published by ISI Books.

Copyright © 2001 Vigen Guroian. All Rights Reserved.

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