Our Imagination: The Playground for Moral Growth



Are fairy tales back for good?

TV series such as Grimm and Once Upon a Time drew in significant audiences this past season while movies like Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, and Beastly did fairly well at the theater.

Does this suggest that the fairy tale is once again in vogue in popular culture?

There are more projects on the horizon which suggest they are. Movies like Jack The Giant Killer, Maleficent, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Pinocchio are all due out in the coming year. In addition, new shows such as Beauty and the Beast, and the League of Pan, the adventurous stories of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, will be coming to a television near you in the not-so-distant-future.

And, of course, there is the recent surplus of fairy-tale inspired fiction including Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina,  Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, and Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories.

The reason for the resurgence of the “happily-ever-after” genre is rather unclear at the moment. There are some who would argue that it is nothing more than Hollywood’s greed while others point to the fact that perhaps “we’ve exhausted some of these other types of fairy tales and so now we’re going back to the original.”

But no matter the reason why fairy tales have returned in big ways to pop culture, there are many benefits to be enjoyed, especially those related to the moral imagination. In his article entitled “Awakening the Moral Imagination: Teaching Virtues Through Fairy Tales,” Vigen Guroian (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia) pointed out that “fairy tales remind us of moral truths whose ultimate claims to normativity and permanence we would not think of questioning.”

Guroian says that the great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of struggles 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.  He argues that as we read or watch these tales, our imaginations are being supplied with “symbolic information about the shape of our world and appropriate responses to its inhabitants.”

However, it is not simply the biological imagination that is being supplied  by these tales; rather, according to Guroian, it is our moral imagination that is being fed. A term first coined by Edmund Burke, an 18th c. political theorist and philosopher, and then further expanded by the likes of theologian G.K. Chesterton and moralist Russell Kirk, the moral imagination is that faculty of “principled insight that observes and embraces things such as truth, goodness and beauty, all of whose end is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.”

Described by Guroian as more of a process than a faculty, the moral imagination is that which “makes metaphors out of images given by experience and then employs these metaphors to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience.” It is something that is active at every moment of our lives, whether sleeping or awake. Furthermore, like a muscle it is something that needs attention and exercise; otherwise, it will atrophy or weaken considerably.  Ultimately, the moral imagination is at the heart of moral living, and as a result, it requires a kind of moral education.

Unfortunately, however, modern education has come to see moral education as a discipline not unlike math, history, reading or grammar. According to Guroian, the only difference is that children are given the opportunity to “discover and clarify” their own values—something that is not permitted in the other disciplines. A student cannot invent his own math, his own alphabet, or his own scientific table. Why then, should he empowered to “invent” his own values? But the problem of value vs. virtue is for another post.

To understand the role of moral imagination is to realize that simple instruction in morality is not enough. This is where the fairy tale comes in. Inviting an analogy between the real world and the fantasy world, the fairy tale provides children with what is needed to build moral imagination. Why fairy tales? Because through them children and adults alike are transported to worlds filled with great danger. In these worlds one is allowed to not only take risks without enduring consequence, but he is allowed to  taste of the joy that may come from such risks—happiness found in living out ideals such as valor, honor, sacrifice, and courage.

Upon returning to the real world, virtues are no longer dry and theoretical. The sharpened moral imagination, having been stimulated by images of good and evil, awakens within the reader or viewer a desire to live like the heroes he has seen or read about.

Guroian suggests that parents and teachers alike yearn for resources to use in nurturing the moral imagination of children. With the sudden resurgent interest in the fairy-tale genre, it may be argued that a fresh smorgasbord of virtuous fare lies waiting to be sampled and digested.

That is not to say that everything with a fairy-tale title or Grimm Brothers-based plot will be appropriate for such noshing. However, there just may be some creative new fare that is fit for use in stirring the moral imagination of our children, and, dare I say, ourselves.

But just how do we go about doing that? How do we use fairy tales (old and new) to awaken and exercise the moral imagination?

For that discussion, stay tuned for Part 2 of Our Imagination: The Playground for Moral Growth


The featured image for this post is entitled “Imagination”. It was created by digital artist Archan Nair. For more of Archan’s brilliant artwork, please go to www.archan.net. Thanks, Archan!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *