Toward Understanding the Moral Imagination

I long (quite desperately, in fact) to give my children the tools they need to seek Truth always and everywhere. That is my utmost goal as a mother and as a homeschooler.

I suppose that may describe many of you, as well. If our chief priority is to help our children seek and know the Truth, then what we ought to discuss is how exactly such a thing is done. We ask the question: how do we form the moral imagination in our children?

What I really want to do here is have a conversation; that’s what I’m hoping this can be. I’m not an expert- I didn’t receive the kind of education I seek for my own children. I’m simply a mother, seeking.  I aspire to give my kids a formation that will strengthen their souls and nourish their minds. If you do, as well, then perhaps we can use this space for a discussion about how we might go about such a thing.

For this first discussion, I listened to Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination by Andrew Pudewa. (You can download it here. It’s worth the $3.00.)100812_121-10

What is a Moral Imagination?

Most of the definitions I’ve seen are a bit confusing (at least to my untrained, uneducated mind). I have to read them multiple times to really grasp what they mean.

My understanding of the Moral Imagination is this- you tell me if you think I’m on the right track:  

The Moral Imagination is the ordering of the soul rightly toward Truth. It rests entirely on the understanding that humans are reflections of the Divine Image- our value does not rest on our usefulness or utility, but on our very natures. It is, basically, the intrinsic knowing of God’s Truth in our souls.

And here I must clarify that I do not mean “truth” as our morally relativistic society uses the term. The idea “your truth may or may not match my truth” is a grave misuse of the term. For Truth itself is not subjective, it does not change, and it does not vary. It just is. God has revealed Himself to us as the source of all Truth. Our business, then, is to go about seeking it always and everywhere.


The Four Kinds of Knowing

In his lecture, Andrew Pudewa briefly outlines the four kinds of knowledge:

  • Scientific Knowledge (which can be proven physically)
  • Logical Knowledge (which can be explained philosophically)
  • Dialectical Knowledge (which can be argued, dialectically)
  • Poetic Knowledge (which is what we know, in our inmost being, to be True)

He goes on to say that until recent times, Scientific Knowledge was viewed as the most simplistic and basic, and Poetic Knowledge was revered as the highest form of knowing. In postmodern times, we have inverted these forms of knowledge, elevating Scientific Knowledge over all the other forms.

We have also reduced human nature to that of the lowest common denominator, which fits this model entirely. Poetic Knowledge rests on the firm Truth that we, as humans, are created in the Image of God. Scientific Knowledge rests on the very basal understanding of humans as conglomerations of cells performing a function. Our postmodern view of human life and divine purpose (or lack thereof) reflects this inversion quite predictably.


Cultivating the Moral Imagination

We feed the Moral Imagination by building up in our children a Poetic Knowledge- an innate understanding of that which is True, good, and beautiful. Historically, this has been done through the passing on of stories which enrich and enlighten. Specifically, we do this by telling our children fairy tales. Not modern, politically correct, or Disney versions of fairy tales, and especially not inverted versions of fairy tales- but rather the traditional fairy tales: Hans Christian Anderson, Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm.

The traditional fairy tales portray good as good, evil as evil, and good always triumphs over evil. Sometimes good triumphs in the obvious way (Cinderella), and sometimes in the redemptive way (The Little Match Girl). Either way, the traditional fairy tale orders a child’s senses toward truth and forms her imagination.

Traditional fairy tales are not the only stories which build up a Moral Imagination, however. Many classic stories (and very few modern stories) do the same. What we look for is a right ordering of good and evil and the triumph or redemption of good. These kinds of stories are, Pudewa says, “whole” or “healing.” They order our senses and affections rightly.

When we read a story that is whole or healing, we naturally interject ourselves in the story and ask questions like, “Would I have done that? Could I have done that? Should I have done that?” Even when the characters are doing bad things (think Pinnochio), we naturally develop our concept of what is right and what is wrong. That is to say, we naturally develop our Moral Imagination.

We are, all of us, struggling to kill the evil nature in ourselves. This is the human way. When evil is destroyed in a fairy tale, we relate and recognize that it is indeed possible to slay evil in ourselves. When good triumphs in a fairy tale, even when it comes through hardship (such as when the Little Match Girl dies at the end of the story, but has gained Heaven), we see the evidence of Christ’s Redeeming power. We are reminded of Truth. We behold beauty. We build up in ourselves a sense of goodness. This simply can’t be done on the same level with realistic fiction. Fairy Tales meet our souls where they are.


How to Destroy the Moral Imagination

Pudewa categorizes other literature (that is, all that is not “whole” or “healing”) into two other categories: “broken” or “twisted.”

Broken stories are those that high schools tend to cram into the curriculum- you probably read several during your own formative years- stories like Death of a Salesman, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and A Separate Peace. These kinds of stories can be beneficial by children of a certain maturity, but only with careful guidance and coaching, because good is good, bad is bad, and bad wins. This is not reality. Bad things happen, yes (and bad things happen in whole/healing stories), but in reality, bad does not triumph. In reality, God triumphs. Truth triumphs. Happily-ever-after is real in the form of Heaven. That teens are reading these existentialist stories in a secular environment without the careful guidance of mindful parents/mentors is somewhat frightening. Broken stories feed young people with a depressing and hopeless mindset. Their worldview is then nurtured (or rather, starved) by the very ideas we so desperately want them to reject.

Twisted stories are the worst of all, because they portray good as evil and evil as good- they actually glorify evil. Pudewa did not give any specific examples of children’s fiction that is “twisted”, but I would lump Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (the trilogy that includes The Golden Compass) into this category, as Pullman himself has said that these books are all about “killing God.”

Stories with inverted archetypes are an especially dangerous form of twisted literature, because they subtly disrupt the entire universe. An archetype is an idea that is represented in an image or a concept. For example, dragons have, since time eternal, represented evil. Stories wherein the dragons are “nice,” “tame,” or “friendly,” and who must win over the minds of closed-minded civilians whom just don’t understand them, are an example of inverted archetypal literature.  These stories abound in libraries, schools, and bookstores, and most teachers and parents who use them don’t have any idea that they are, unwittingly, undermining Truth by sharing such stories with children.

The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer are good examples of archetype inversions (vampires who really want to be good, but are trapped in their vampire bodies outside of their will). Look, I know. I read all of Twilight and I think I even admitted to that on this blog. I told you- I’m learning! I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else! That’s why I’m trying so hard to build up my own understanding of what literature does to our souls, so that I can build that up in my own self and in my children.

Pudewa says that literature is the most direct line toward forming the soul of a person. It reaches us in places where art and music do not. It stays with us. It literally forms us. That is why it is so crucial that we be selective about the literary fare we offer to our kids.



Phew! I think I’ve talked (more than) enough. I’ve gone on and on, but what I really want to do is have a discussion. What were your thoughts after listening to Andrew Pudewa’s lecture? How can we grab hold of this and use it to cultivate the Moral Imagination in both ourselves and our children?

Oh, and hey- I’m glad you’re here. :)

UPDATE: The next part of this series is here: The Moral Imagination, Part 2

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  1. says

    It was interesting timing (or simply Providential) when you started talking about this subject a few weeks ago. I had been having some conversations with my husband and a dear friend following the rape of that girl in Steubenville… We wondered at the comments of the friends of those boys who didn’t see anything wrong in their friends’ actions. We wondered how a child grows up to become the kind of young adult who sees nothing wrong with that kind of behavior. How do we ensure our children grow up with moral fortitude? The ability to recognize Right and Wrong, and to stand up and say that there is indeed Good and Evil, and not just so many shades of gray…
    And then you started posting links here to lectures and articles, and I found more links in those places, and this thread of “awakening the Moral Imagination” seemed to speak directly to that problem. The degradation of our society is so very complex, I hardly want to tackle it in this conversation, but I do think that the stories we tell (or don’t tell…) to the children is playing its part.
    I was particularly intrigued by the idea of the inverted archetype. I never gave thought to the harm of this kind of twisted story before, and I realized I had several of these on our shelves. And they are all by authors I otherwise admire–Tommy dePaola with his Knight and Dragon book–the knight and dragon end up joining forces to run a bbq joint in the end. I realized that this twisitng of archetypes so that what has traditionally been seen as evil is turned to good is a symptom of the relativism that pervades our society. (There can’t be good and evil, there’s only shades of gray and misunderstanding…) I immediately removed these broken books from our shelves, with some feeling of sadness, I’ll admit. We had enjoyed these books, and I felt betrayed.
    The other thing that struck me in this lecture was the discussion of letting kids wrestle with unpleasant subjects through stories…topics such as death need to be a part of the books they read so that they can wrestle with these in their imaginations before having to face them head-on in real life. By insulating kids from these kinds of stories (his example was Bridge to Teribithia. Interestingly enough, it was just that book that made me realize I LOVE reading when I was about 4th grade. Sure I cried. I bawled. But I was so touched at such a deep level by the story, that I was hooked on reading from then on out…) we are not doing our kids a favor. We are in fact not equipping them to deal with hardships that will most definitely come into their paths.
    I have so much more to say, but it’s naptime, and I will let someone else get a word in edgewise here.
    Thanks for this, Sarah. I appreciate so much the links you’ve posted here on this topic over the past few weeks.

    • says

      I have “Bridge to Teribithia” on my shelf, but have never read it. I think I’m going to very soon.

      I hear you on it being difficult to weed out the inverted archetypes. I remember the first time I realized that at the center of “My Father’s Dragon” was an inverted archetype. I was kind of sick about it. My kids really liked that book! I don’t think authors always (or even usually) use them intentionally. We as a society have become so disconnected from Truth and the power of story, that it is likely done accidentally in most cases. Still damaging, though.

      The idea of inverted archetypes is developed more fully in the book, “A Landscape with Dragons” by Michael O’Brien. Have you read it?

      Another thing I’ve noticed- in my adult reading, I often don’t recognize the inverted archetypes or other morally relativistic themes undergirding stories I enjoy. I was recently chatting with a friend about “The Snow Child,” which I thoroughly enjoyed, and during our discussion I realized that perhaps the underlying idea behind the book is that there is no reality- it’s all just our perception of reality. Eeeek.

      So I’m learning. And I figure all we can do is the best we can and pray that the Holy Spirit washes the rest in His grace!

    • says

      It was interesting to see you point out inverted archetypes in your own adult reading–I haven’t even begun to consider the “dragons” in my own landscape…but I wonder if they are as harmful to adults who understand what is being presented is indeed an inverted archetype as they are to children who don’t have that grasp? (Although I will say that I find it telling that every one of my sons was initially confused when we read a favorite around here–Droofus the Dragon by Bill Pete. They wanted to know how the dragon could possibly be good, because everyone knows dragons are bad…I should have listened to the wisdom of my little ones (and who exactly TOLD them all dragons are bad? It’s amazing how they just knew it to be true… Instead, I convinced them it was okay to have a good dragon.) So maybe they do understand deep within themselves that what is being presented in an inverted archetype is somehow unnatural.) But back to my earlier point–do you think it’s as harmful to our own moral imaginations? I do definitely avoid books for myself that reek of moral relativism or–worse–take something utterly awful and present it as somehow good and desirable (50 Shades of Gray, anyone?) Should we adults be keeping inverted archetypes out of our own reading? Just thinking out loud here.

    • says

      Well, I would certainly think that our children are more vulnerable (and so therefore yes, the literature would be more dangerous because they are so formative), but what shocks me is that I don’t always see the inverted archetype or the underlying relativistic message right away. In the case of “The Snow Child,” it took a lot of talking with a friend before I realized that the principle the book was based on flew in the face of Truth!

      On the other hand, I kind of want to read (to myself) some kid lit that is inverted, broken or twisted, so that I can better understand how it works and how to look for it. But that would be a conscience decision on my part to read it for a specific task. I would probably be careful to read too much of it, though.

  2. says

    I loved reading this and found so much food for thought … I think the ideas you’ve shared can be framed in a non-religious way also. With a teenaged daughter, I struggle hugely to find decent literature for her to read – entertaining, captivating, modern literature which does not encourage her to think only of hot guys and being a tough fiesty girl who needs no one to help her with her problems. (It’s common in teen books, if a girl has been hurt or molested, for her to stay silent about it because she’s tough and independent and doesn’t need help.)

    Lately books I’ve seen involve things like incest, assassination, murder, torture, sexual stalking (the latter would be Twilight) – and all these are perpetrated by the good guys!

    I’m going to bookmark your post so I can continue thinking about it.

    Also, the spammers are overwhelming at the moment, aren’t they? It’s such a shame. One little tip you may not know: if your word verification has a word and a picture of some numbers, you don’t have to enter the numbers for it to work. This is a relief since half the time I can’t even read them!

    • says

      I didn’t know that about word verification! Thank you. I can’t stand trying to decipher those dang-blasted codes. :P

      While I agree that (to a certain extent) choosing excellent literature can be framed from a non-religious way, I don’t think the Moral Imagination can. The very concept of the Moral Imagination is based on cultivating Truth within the child’s soul, and that cannot be done without God. Truth cannot be divorced from its Maker. This is really why I think a secular school simply cannot begin to properly nourish a child in the way a true education would- because it all starts with Truth-seeking, and that cannot be separated from God Himself.

      Of course I know you’ll likely disagree with me. ;) And I’m glad you commented. You have insight into the YA world that the rest of us don’t even have the slightest inkling about.

    • says

      No, I won’t disagree with you :-) I think you’re right. It’s only that I worry sometimes that some people shut out certain essential ideas because they don’t like religious terms – which I guess is why alot of people now use words like Spirit or Universal Truth, in order to reach more people. I am guilty of that. And I say “guilty” because there should be no shame or fear in using words like God. I personally believe God is Truth; it’s one of my main reasons for homeschooling, because I don’t think we can arrive at Truth with human reason alone – which is why I really loved your post. :-)

    • says

      Right, okay. Yes, I completely agree that pursuing truth (or even knowledge) with human reason alone cannot be done. We miss so much when we try!

  3. says

    Yay, another Andrew Pudwea talk to listen to! He’s my laundry folding buddy these days – so much so that when I fold laundry without listening to one of his talks, I find myself thinking about them anyway! :-)

    Even with your advance notice, I didn’t manage to download the talk until today (argh) but I will be listening to it soon and I’m looking forward to the discussion.

    Two things that already come to mind – someone gave us a book about The Three Little Pigs told from the perspective of the big bad wolf, with the wolf as the protagonist. Even at the time I thought it was strange – how can this book even make sense to a child, unless they are already quite familiar with the original fairy tale? It seems like the book is written more for adults than for children. As I look around at many of the newer picture books at the library, they seem to be written more for the parents than for the children – the sort of snarky way they talk about or portray children, the knowledge needed to even understand the basic plot or purpose of the book, the jokes that go over the kids’ heads. Are they assuming that the people reading the books are are so narcissistic that they won’t read to children unless they can be amused or entertained at a “grown-up” level as well?

    Another type of book I thought of which I think might be related is a book like My Brother Sam is Dead, or perhaps to a lesser extent, Across Five Aprils. Not that I feel like war should be portrayed as glamourous and wonderful at all times… but the ambivalence the books create about the war, no matter how just and right the cause or the outcome, concerns me. The way they put the personal happiness of the individual above all causes, all movements, all ideals seems like it strips all great historical movements and ideas to what’s in it for me. Yes, injustices can happen, and people can do evil things, but should that completely taint the overall purpose of the war? And yet I don’t want to sound like I’m saying, “The Cause! The Glorious Cause at all costs!” I can contrast these books against one like Reb and the Redcoats, which also deals with an unjust situation during a war, but yet handles it in such a way where the characters grow to greater understanding of the limits of humanity as well as the great character, courage, and loyalty people are capable of as well.

    Well, some perhaps rambling thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading more. And the more I think about this subject, the more concerned I get about reading anything written in, say the last 60 years or so!! I feel like my ability to discern (and read ahead of my kids!) isn’t as developed as I would like, and it makes me extremely suspicious of anything newer.

    • says

      It does seem strange that so many new children’s books take old stories and twist them so that we read from the point of view of the villain. You mentioned the Big Bad Wolf, and I’ve seen others like that too. Like we are supposed to be identifying with the villain? Isn’t that counter-productive to Truth-seeking, at it’s very core?

      I’ve never read “My Brother Sam is Dead” Or “Across Five Aprils.” That second one is on our spring reading list, though, so I think I’ll pre-read it before handing it over to my oldest daughter!

      (And I agree about books read in the last 60 years. I find it somewhat amusing that most schools are moving toward the most modern fiction they can get their hands on, while homeschoolers are hunting down the oldest fiction we can find! I think that shows that we are after different things in the choosing of fiction, yes?)

  4. Kim S. says

    I just heard Andrew Pudewa give this talk in Cincinatti a couple of weeks ago…it was AWESOME! Don’t you wish you could put him in your pocket to spout bouts of wit and wisdom throughout the day!?!

    Anyway, I have now spent a decent amount of $ purchasing his book recommendations (all are fantastic so far) and am giving serious thought to fairy tales and their importance in learning. When I taught 12th grade English (in my pre-homeschooling days), I asked my students to write their term papers on the meaning of truth, beauty, and goodness based upon British lit. we had studied. This was SO HARD for them to discern because they also had to analyze the opposites of those traits…moral relativism quickly became clear and made for some fascinating discussions! I have never forgetten this experience, and as my daughters get older it shapes the type of education – true learning – I want them to have.

    I never thought of fairy tales & myths as laying a foundation for this level of life-long wisdom, but the lightbulb has gone off! And I as I’m forced to look at the more “difficult” versions of these tales, as they were originally written, I see how much richer and authentic they are to the “Disneyfied” versions I grew up on. There is a reason these tales are still so popular hundreds of years later…I think because they speak to the universal themes of humanity in a rich & beautiful way. I’m also curious to see how using fairy tales to lay this foundation will impact my childrens’ understanding of the Bible. I hope it will help them internalize and understand God’s lessons more deeply, and lead to wisdom rather than smarts.

    Books I recommend include The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature (rec. by Pudewa), Tending the Heart of Virtue (ditto), and The Disciplined Mind by Howard Gardner. I can’t wait to see how this discussion unfolds…thank you for starting the dialogue!

    • says

      Hahahahahaha!!! No, I don’t wish that. :) Well kind of, but then every time I let my kids read twaddle or flick on the TV I’d hear Pudewa’s voice in my brain and who can handle that? ;) lol

      Thank you for the book recommendations- I am definitely going to try to get my hands on “The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature”- I hadn’t heard of that one yet. I’ll read anything recommended by Pudewa, though. :)

    • Anonymous says

      He recommends it in the Fairy tale talk. :) He mentions the Heart of Virtue book too, but said if you are only to buy one book on the matter, buy “The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Lit”. So, I did! But now I’m wishing I bought the other one so I can join your discussion in a few weeks!

    • says

      In the recorded version, he mentions that he’ll recommend two specific books at the end, but the recording cuts out before he gets there. I’m glad you pointed out which they are! I’m going to read both!

    • says

      Well dang- maybe we should have read the other one! Ah well.

      Thanks for the Touchstone article. I’ve bookmarked it to read later.

  5. says

    The moral imagination, and the importance of fairy tales is a subject I’ve thought a lot about in the past few months. So, well timed for me. :) Ill have to carve time to listen, I keep meaning to.

    I’m a little torn on your example of twisted archetypes, however. While dragons have been historically representative of evil the change seems much more drastic than just that to me. I feel like the “new” dragons have also become personified. So they aren’t just dragons…they are now dragon “people” for lack of a better word. Well, I’m Eastern Orthodox, so it may be differently angled in the Catholic faith, but we believe and uphold that people are made in the image of God, and literally walking icons of Him. Also, that in our creation we were declared “very good”, and therefor in our natures we are good and not evil (though we obviously have the ability to do evil things). Its important to me, therefor, to stress the inherent goodness of mankind.

    So when instructing my children should dragons be considered to represent purest evil (historically true) or should they represent people (since they are talking, and reasoning, and have the apparent free will of people) who, in my belief system, are always within means of redemption? It’s not necessarily a question for you, just what I’m pondering. In my most worked up moments I consider not allowing any personified anything in the house, because it muddies the water so much. :) Which may be just what this speaker is talking about, like I said, I haven’t had a chance to listen.

    It’s certainly a fascinating subject, and an important one.

    • says

      Wow. Lots to think about here. We come from the same view, as far as I can tell- people are walking images of God. Have you heard Andrew Kern’s talk, Contemplation of the Divine Image ? In that fabulous talk, Kern challenges us to teach our children as they are- that is, to approach them as reflections of the Divine Image, because that is what they are. To treat them as any less would be a gross disservice to both the child and his Creator.

      I had never considered before that if a dragon is personified, then should it be considered more as dragon (archetype of evil) or person (man with free will)? I guess my initial reaction is that the historical view of dragon=evil is stronger (because of the influence of time) than dragon as person. And anything can be personified. Why choose a dragon to resemble a person? Does that say something about the part of human nature the author thinks will/should win out?

      I don’t know. Interesting to ponder.

    • says

      This idea of dragons being personified and thus representative of humans who always have the potential to be redeemed made me think…
      But the serpent in the Garden of Eden could talk and reason, as could the devil who tempted Jesus himself…
      I think personification of evil, giving evil a physical form in a fairy tale, isn’t supposed to be a human representation, but rather, evil taking on a form. It needs to speak and reason in order to interact with the characters in the story. I think it starts to get muddied when we see forms that were traditionally saved for the embodiment of evil suddenly turned into misunderstood and good characters. I wouldn’t feel comfortable reading a story to my children where there was a good devil, so I think it’s probably safer to steer clear of books with good dragons, too. Dragon-slaying is a long-understood analogy for fighting evil, whether it’s an internal or external struggle.

    • says

      I think you make an interesting point here about personification being a way to try to use dragons as a different type. I think it likely that many authors who use inverted types might be doing so with that good intention. A common (post)modern theme (that has worth) is that people who have been vilified in the past are still people and we should overcome our prejudices and see them as people (instead of dragons). However, even if the intent is good, the choice is still unwise. Satan is the archetypal dragon, from the Bible on down. Think of it this way: think of one of those inverted stories where, instead of a dragon, it’s a red, horned, cleft-footed creature with a pitchfork: the current unmistakable cartoon representation of Satan. Would that be valid to personify that character and “redeem” him? That’s what a dragon *is*. A dragon *is* greed and envy.

      Now, there is Narnia, where a “good guy” becomes a dragon and is redeemed. In Dawn Treader, Eustace’s covetousness, envy, and greed grows until he literally turns into a dragon. Then Aslan (Christ) comes and tears his skin and painfully, slowly restores him into a human. It’s Eustace’s conversion. I think Lewis is correct. The only way to redeem a dragon is to un-dragon him, to transform him. A redeemed dragon would no longer be a dragon.

    • says

      That Narnia example is perfect here, Mystie. Correct me if I’m wrong (I certainly may be), but… Eustace is not a dragon. He is a human. A person created in the Image of God. When he becomes a dragon, it is because he has embraced evil and therefore is transformed by it (into a dragon). But his nature has not changed. Right? So by removing Eustace’s dragon-ness, Aslan recovers (redeems) Eustace to his original, God-given nature- that of a man, made in the Image of God.

      This seems quite different to me than taking a dragon (wicked beast) and giving him person-like traits. It is more an illustration of our ability to be transformed by evil, even though our created nature is meant to long for God.

  6. Belinda says

    This is a great blog entry. Seeking Truth and trusting in Truth is a crucial journey for all of us. It helps us to become spiritually mature. And spiritual maturity enables us not only to get through trials and suffering; it also enables us to receive Gods blessings without becoming overwhelmed by them.

  7. says

    Thanks for the link to Andrew P’s discussion, Sarah. I just downloaded it and I’m looking forward to listening. I’m excited because I get to hear him in person soon at our home-school convention!
    Thank you for starting this discussion. It’s such a great topic to delve into. I don’t have any brain cells tonight to add to the discussion, but I wanted to let you know that I’m definitely listening in and pondering ways that I can implement Truth more fully in the lives of my children.

  8. says

    Thank you so much, Sarah, for hosting this discussion! Its about as close to all of us getting together over coffee to discuss. :)

    I haven’t been able to get through all of Andrew Padewa’s talk yet (LOVE your idea, Amber, of listending while folding– I’d probably get through a LOT of his talks that way!), but I did start in on “Tending the Heart of Virtue.” It is striking how we view certain characters in literature at the “bad guys”, and when its turned on its head, we find it so unsettling. We have a version of The Three Little Pigs where the Big Bad pig is the protaganist, and the Three Little Woves are sweet, friendly and cute. It finally occured to me why this story bugged me so much– its twisting nature. Wolves are natural predators, known by man to be feared, and pigs (not feral hogs, but ones kids would encounter on a farm) are genearlly calm and docile, ambling along and rolling in mud. Is flipping the story essentially saying to our children, “see? You can’t trust your instincts. Those who seem safe are actually out to get you, and those who seem fearsome, are actually misunderstood.” Of course, this can’t be cut and dry. We all know the stories of children who are called “bad” by others, but in reality, are just deeply hurt and acting out, and those seemingly trustworthy adults who are actually dangerous to children. This might event tell children not to trust the Natural Law written on their hearts, and cause them to doubt what they feel they just “know” is right or wrong. However, are there situations or people that we’ve encountered where our first instincts have told us to stay clear, but we talk ourselves out of those instincts, and possibly put oursevels in harm’s way? I can think of several times in my teenaged years that would fall in that category.

    Another thought I had goes with the idea that “common sense isn’t so common any more.” It used to be that people just ‘knew’ what was right and what was wrong. They might not follow it, but they knew better. Nowadays, so many people seem to be confused as to what Truth really is. Moral relativism is so bad that those who are affected by it don’t even realize it exists. Its like living with chronic fatigue, not even realizing that there is a life of energy and vigor available them. I wonder if this is because people used to be fed a diet of good literaure as children, with thier parents reading to them what was read to them as children. Then, with the advent of more and more children’s literature being sold, parents who didn’t know better gravitated towards flashier stories, not knowing how detrimental it was to thier chilren’s mental, emotinal and spiritual health, much like the generation of parents who didn’t know that vegetables from a can didn’t hold the same nutritional weight as veggies straight from the dirt.

    “Paths,” you raise a really interesting question! As a Roman Catholic, I share your view on humanity, that man is made in the Image and Likeness of God, and that we are intrinsically good. It is through our sin that we pull ourselves further and further from God, but He never stops pursuing us with His Mercy and Love. Though I’m not sure which dragon characters you’re speaking of, I think its possible that dragons could be portrayed in both ways. There is the traditional version where they represent evil in life (whether it be a particular thing in the world that needs to be slain, say, abortion) or personal vice that one needs to conquer in oneself. On the other hand, a dragon character could be written in such a way that it represents a human, in which case, your insight fits well. On the third hand (or my left foot, whatever ;)) I think there are just “twaddle dragons”, like the ones in an Usbore book that my kids have, where the dragons are just bafoon-like characters. They serve no purpose- like empty brain calories.

    • says

      You say, “This might event tell children not to trust the Natural Law written on their hearts, and cause them to doubt what they feel they just ‘know’ is right or wrong…” and I think this is the heart of what we’re getting at here- you nailed it.

      When we cultivate the child’s Moral Imagination, we teach them to recognize the Natural Law written on their hearts. And what better gift can we give than that?

      Your account of parents unwittingly reading “canned goods” to their children instead of the high nutritional fare is exactly what Andrew Kern recounts in his excellent article, That Shriveled Grind. (Boy, I’m going Kern-link-happy today! You’re all going to hate me! You will dive in and never come back out! lol).

    • says

      God does write a Natural Law on a child’s heart–and I know I am guilty of convincing my children that there are gray areas when they are so adamant about Right and Wrong. I am beginning to realize how well the fairy tales of old present black and white morality, with very little gray in the landscape…and just how many modern children’s books do not. (Though of course, there are some gems of modern children’s literature, too.) I do think broken stories can do just what you say–to cause them to doubt what they know to be True. It all makes me want to take greater care in the literary choices we make as a family. Even though I think we’ve done a fairly good job weeding things out, I definitely fell for some of the inverted archetype books for my littles…

  9. says

    (sorry, it cut me off, and looking at part one, I wrote too much! :/ )

    As for the broken and twisted stories– yikes! I feel like I’m getting a clearer picture of the groundwork that I need to lay for my children, both doctorinaly, and with literature. Our children will encounter many broken and twisted stories in life, and without a good moral foundation, they won’t be able to navigate those waters well. In their adolescent and teenaged years, I feel we’ll get quite a bit of practice at helping them look at the brokenness and twisted around them, and having built a solid faith foundation for them, we can use it as a blueprint to help them make decisions and see what choices are compatible with thier faith, and which are not. Good liturature will only help to secure that foundation, like glue in the joints of well made furniture, adding those bonds that will help them make associations between the good.

    I can’t wait to finish listening to the talk, but then again, I might just come back and prattle off a bit too much again! I hope I didn’t go on too long! :)

  10. says

    Great post!! Thank you for all the links. I love the two Andrews. :o) I second the recommendation of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. Laura Berquist also touches on this idea frequently in her talks and articles. Another good read is an old Touchstone Magazine article by David Mills titled “Enchanting Children: Training Up a Child Requires a Well-Formed Imagination.”

    My parents weren’t as aware of the changes going on in children’s literature, so there were lots of Judy Blume-type books mixed in with Little House on the Prairie and Little Women on my bookshelf. And those are fairly innocent compared with what’s available now. I’m so thankful we decided to homeschool when our oldest was 6; I’m not sure I’d have been as compelled to seek out these ideas otherwise. She’s 19 now and has a much firmer grasp on right and wrong than I did at her age.

    I’m not saying good literature is a cure-all, but it’s a really big piece of the puzzle — at our house, at least — and when you’re helping form these souls God has entrusted to you, every little bit helps, right? :o)

  11. says

    Hi Sarah, I came over here at the suggestion of Sarah at Knitting the Wind. I don’t share the same opinion as you about inverted archetypes, but I hope you’ll hear me out as to why. :)

    I think our respective definitions of moral imagination depend heavily on how we view God’s ultimate justice being done. If, say, you believe good triumphs over evil, and, consequently that means all the evil people will be destroyed into oblivion or tormented in hell or what not, then it’s necessary to adhere to a certain archetype to teach that to our children.

    If, however, one holds the belief that eventually all people (including evil-doers) will be reconciled to God (as is my belief), and that every human being is worthy to God, it changes the entire landscape of what God’s ultimate justice will be, and thus, it is a much different ending than how fairy tales are told.

    Defining justice also depends on whether or not you view physical death as the end of the story—the line of demarcation as to whether or not someone is redeemable. I happen to think there will be more divine revelation beyond death, and that a just and fair God will reconcile even our enemies to us, and to Him.

    Many people are big advocates of free will, but I don’t believe we are as free to choose good or evil in this lifetime as some think. i.e., the Boston marathon bombers… Quite scarily, they have probably been indoctrinated from infancy into the belief that killing other people is what God wants. How in the world could we say “I would never do what they did” if we weren’t raised the same way as them? The power religion has over people is so strong, it can be impossible to rise above it. And I guess I just don’t think that’s fair.

    To me, the inverted archetype and misunderstood villain are essential to teach to my children, and I love that writers out there are imagining an outcome where the villain is one day understood—as it is my greatest hope that one day, even our worst enemies will be understood and redeemed (however God chooses to work that out). And as far as stories like the Golden Compass, at first I was scared to think of my kids reading something about someone wanting to kill God, but then I realized there is no place for fear in Love. And rather than shelter my children from hearing that kind of story, I began to teach them that this story is from someone who is at odds with God, for whatever the reason, and that we should try to understand where he is coming from. But also, to know that God’s love is bigger than any story, and that just b/c that author ends his story that way, it doesn’t mean God will end His story that way. I often wonder if, when we read the type of story like Golden Compass, maybe, for the first time, we truly understand what it’s like to walk in someone’s shoes who is disillusioned by God. And an important step in relationships is to validate another’s feelings. Storytelling is a beautiful way to achieve this.

    Sorry my comment is so long, and even so, I fear I’ve failed to explain my opinion appropriately. I just wanted to offer a different take on the matter, because I once saw it just as you do. But after years of soul-searching and Bible studying, I have come to believe that, there by the grace of God go I—and that has changed my entire perspective.

    Thank you for hosting such a wonderful and very important discussion. I haven’t yet listened to the podcast, but certainly will after this.

    • says

      p.s. I have to amend something I said… using the Boston marathon bombers as an example was hasty and premature, b/c I don’t know their whole stories and backgrounds yet, so I shouldn’t be making statements about their upbringing being a particular religion. My apologies on that. :)

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Barb. I’m not going to engage here, because I think the readership will be better served by sticking to the topic of how fairy tales in particular build up the Moral Imagination. I don’t want this to be a place to debate our differing religious beliefs.

    • Anonymous says

      Hi Sarah,

      I would like to add my support to Barb. I fail to see how her comment is off-topic. She specifically talks about developing the ‘moral imagination’ in children through the use of literature. You said that you would like a discussion, and really, Barb is the only person who has expressed a different point of view. I thought her comment was respectfully worded and well-stated.

      However, I will say that I once left a comment on Barb’s blog which expressed a point-of-view contrary to hers (I’m Roman Catholic), and her response to me was similar to yours: she refused to engage with me.

      Perhaps bloggers should post a disclaimer that discussions are open only to those who agree with the author.

      Regarding my own opinion about archetypes and the moral imagination, I think that children are more discerning than we think they are. My six year old son (I have five children ages 20 to 6) recently questioned why the mother in The Three Little Pigs kicked them out of the house. (Similar to Mystie’s son’s comment below.)

      Archetypes are given their form and function by storytellers. Why shouldn’t storytellers have the freedom to illustrate other truths using the same forms (by altering the function), as long as they do not distort the truth being presented? There is nothing inherently evil about the dragon form. In fact, in eastern cultures dragons are portrayed as good, kind and intelligent. Apples are a symbolic form used in various olden tales. They have been used to represent temptation and the loss of innocence, but also as the doorway to the Faery realm, health and prosperity, … The Apple of Discord determined the most beautiful woman and started the Trojan War. My point is that these types are not as static as Pudewa and some others would present them, AND that children are adept at distinguishing the nuances.

      For example: Children are not confused by Frank L. Baum’s use of good and bad witches in the Wizard of Oz. The way that Mr. Baum uses that archetype is not at all confusing: it is one’s motives and actions which determines which side she is on.

    • says

      Sarah can correct me if I am wrong, but as an observer to these proceedings, I think you are missing the point of her refusal to engage. Barb’s definition of the Moral Imagination is very different than the one that Sarah has used (which she expressed in the section “What is the Moral Imagination?” above). For the two of them to try to discuss how to form the Moral Imagination using fairy tales, is an exercise in futility. It is comparing apples to oranges. I have never known Sarah to be ungracious, but given the circumstances I can see her wanting to use her limited energies to discuss the topic in which she is most interested. No disclaimer needed. By the definition presented, the discussion is simply not applicable to the question at hand.

    • says

      Well, shoot. I certainly do not mean to shut down anyone who disagrees with me here. I should have responded at more length to explain why I wasn’t going to engage in this particular comment. I apologize for coming across the way I did.

      What I should have said (but didn’t) is this: We can’t really discuss how fairy tales do or do not build up Truth in the soul of a child if we don’t agree on what Truth is.

      Barb’s very first point is that she does not agree that good is rewarded and evil is punished. That renders the rest of a discussion on how such a Truth could be nurtured in the heart of a child impossible.

      That’s what Pam means when she says we are talking about apples and oranges. Barb’s apples are that a fairy tale in which evil is destroyed and good is rewarded is wrongly ordered; my oranges are that such a fairy tale is perfectly ordered. (At least, that is how I understood her post. Barb, please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t mean to speak for you.)

      We can’t really can’t move on to the next point if we don’t agree on the first.

      I guess what I didn’t intend for this conversation was a discussion of “What is Truth?” That wasn’t really the point of my post. I don’t believe Truth can vary from one person to another. It just is.

      I didn’t see where we could go next in a discussion without agreeing on the basic premise laid out.

    • says

      Oh my goodness, of course I believe good triumphs over evil, or, as your oranges say, that good is rewarded. I think our disagreement is primarily on where the end of the story is.

      If it is satisfying to a mother/parent to embrace the belief that the physical death of a villain means said villain will be permanently destroyed or suffering eternally for the evil they did on earth, then by all means, that is the archetype the parent will embrace for storytelling. But if one believes, as I do, that the story is not finished until everyone is redeemed, then there is room for alternate archetypes. I enjoy creative stories where this is this case. One example I can think of is Wicked. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the musical. The Wicked Witch of the West had reasons for acting the way she did towards Dorothy, but it was love that brought her to a change of heart in Wicked. And that is what I like to imagine as a possibility for our enemies, and therefore find it necessary to share these inverted archetypes with my kids.

      By all means, Sarah, I understand you not wanting to engage further if it appears we are at odds with our starting point and can’t go any further without an agreement there. Because yes, contrary to your thoughts that Truth can’t vary from one person to another, I believe, depending on the culture and religion one grows up in, it most definitely can. (There is an anonymous commenter below who points out the discrepancy of cultural archetypes [dragons and wolves] as well.) It would be an exhausting dialogue for both of us; I’d much rather leave it be. I respect your POV and understand this is your blog with a readership that is different from my opinion and, after you graciously ‘heard’ my divergent opinion, and gave me a chance to come back and explain further, I would just like to thank you for allowing another voice here for a couple of comments. :)

    • says

      I think Tending the Heart of Virtue might lend some clarification to this issue, and I know Sarah has a separate discussion planned for that book, but I was up late reading the first chapters and it’s on my mind at the moment. There are stories in every culture that are traditionally told to pass on virtue to the next generation. And here is where it’s important to note, I think, that there’s a difference between Virtue and values. Whereas individual and cultural values may differ, the Virtues are the Truths that are universally written on the human heart…For instance, courage is a virtue to which every culture attains. The stories they tell, the archetypes they use to demonstrate this quality may indeed by different, but the message that Courage is Good is universal. No culture intentionally sells cowardice as something to strive for. So the importance of telling stories in which Courage prevails can be readily agreed upon, yes? The problem with a broken story is that Courage does not prevail, Courage fails, and Cowardice is rewarded. These kinds of stories should be avoided because rather than build up the Moral Imagination with icons of Courage, it tempts the child’s imagination with the alternative–Cowards can win. It’s awfully hard to have courage in our world when faced with tough choices and dangers, and if we want to develop this Virtue in our children, we must fortify them with stories of Great Courage that leave no doubt in their minds that this is something True and Great and Good.

  12. says

    What a lively discussion with ample food for thought! I am late in chiming in since we spent the morning shoveling snow ; (

    Maybe it’s an archaic view, but I side with Pudewa here. Fairy Tales are a staple in our home, typically read on Fairy Tale Friday. We’ve read Andersen, Grimm, Aesop, and now we are on Howard Pyle. Not that we don’t see any Disney, but we only own and view a select few (like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians). In particular, I draw the line with The Little Mermaid, since the Disney version deviates to widely from the traditional story. So you won’t see our family saving up for a vacation to a Disney theme park, and we try not to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” either. But that’s a hard one!

    Barb has a point about redemption, and this is a theme pointed out to our children with a myriad of fictional and real life examples. But I don’t agree that reading dark books is prudent.

    My take is that children (teens included) are like young plants being sheltered in a greenhouse. Through homeschooling, formation, and good literature, I train and protect my children not so they will be weak, but so they will be strong enough to withstand evil and temptation when they are on their own. When they are young, we keep it simple: good is good, bad is bad.

    I talk about issues with them (the bombing, abortion, gay marriage, addictions), but don’t let them see much of it on TV news. And because of concupiscence, I realize that evil is sometimes tempting, especially to teens. To me, avoiding twisted literature with inverted archetypes is like avoiding the near occasion of sin. It’s there, we don’t have to turn a blind eye to it, but we don’t have to let our kids read dark, creepy books to learn to understand what others struggle with.

    I talk with my kids about why some people justify abortion or gay marriage. I want the older ones to start recognizing why people think the way they do instead of being so shocked by it. They are young enough to be in touch with the natural law upon their heart, but old enough grasp an understanding so they can begin to form their view, their reply, their own apologia if it comes up with friends or relatives.

    So, no, I don’t think we should deliberately spoil their innocence with dark books (Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games would be some titles on our banned list). Like they say, “If you don’t want to go to Minneapolis, don’t get on the train.” Better to stay away. I don’t even let me girls watch Downton or Call the Midwife with me.

    I am awed by your photos, btw, AND I think your post is helping out with the decision we have looming about sending our engineering-minded son to the STEM magnet school down the road. I’ve seen the kind of literature the kids read (on their own time) who go there. Perhaps it’s better that he is at home learning to sing the music from Les Mis with his sisters, “To love another person is to see the face of God” is a line I heard being belted out as they were making a snow fort today.

    • says

      Snow! In April! No!!!

      Pudewa mentions The Little Mermaid in his talk, discussing how the Disney version is probable the most disordered and twisted fairy tale of them all. In the Disney version, bad behavior is rewarded and the Mermaid acts selfishly (and becomes eternally happy as a result). In the real version, the story is about self-sacrifice and life-giving love. I can’t wait to get my hands on a real version and read it for myself. We hate that Disney movie anyway (although I admit there are others I’m rather fond of).

      I agree that avoiding twisted and inverted literature is akin to avoiding near occasions of sin. That we ought not turn a blind eye to the darkness in our world, but that we also don’t have to immerse ourselves in the minds of those who embrace that darkness in order to be sympathetic, understanding, or loving toward them.

      And I really like what you say about wanting older children to start recognizing why people with different beliefs believe the way they do instead of being shocked by it. So we build up and fortify that Natural Law written in their hearts, and then help them form their own apologia to take with them into the world. Just love that.

    • Cindy says

      Omigosh, Tracy. Thank you! I have been wrestling a thought in my mind for some time now about Harry Potter. I read the books, and watched most of the movies. I knew I didn’t want my children reading these because they are dark and scary. But I had trouble with the whole deal of witchcraft. The characters in the story are clearly good or clearly evil. Good wins. The only reason my husband doesn’t like them is because of the witchcraft. I needed a bit more of an answer.

      I think your description and reason for not reading them finally puts at ease that thought. Even though good wins, the dark nature is unsettling. It’s not the kind of win that will build my children up or nurture their moral imagination.

      I love this blog….love these comments. Food for thought. :)

  13. says

    What a great conversation to have!

    Here’s a few more quotes to ponder:

    C.S Lewis: Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.12 When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.13 Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful

    Chesterton: Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

    St George & the Dragon is a favorite at our house, and I do think it has gone a long way to helping my children understand in their bones (that is poetic knowledge) resurrection.

    Our 3 little pigs book (where the last pig boils & eats the wolf, no less), starts off with the sow sending off her piglets because she didn’t have enough money to keep them. I never thought about it, but once a 6yo son commented, “Does Daddy go to work so that you don’t have to send us off to seek our fortunes and be eaten by wolves?”

    • says

      I am amazed at how easily kids can see things that we can not. We have been reading The Princess and the Goblin and in my cynical nature I questioned whether the great big grandmother figure was really good or bad. My daughter informed me that she had to be good because she healed Irene’s hurt hand. Of course, why didn’t I think of that?

  14. says

    Fascinating discussion of which I will read far more than I will contribute. ;-) I, too, am new to all of this. I am currently reading The Abolition of Man and am reeling a bit from the idea that beauty is not subjective, but instead absolute. But it makes sense. In the lecture Pudewa talks about Senior’s integrated humanities program, and I find myself contemplating ways to make that idea into a reality in our homeschool. In addition to the fairy tales I am striving to add music, art, liturgy, and poetry that will also aid in forming the Moral Imagination. I am finding that it is not as difficult as I thought to determine what is worthy (written on my heart), but as a litmus test Pudewa mentioned at a recent lecture that art and music that has the purpose of worship is always a safe choice. It is only since society has separated the arts from worship that they have taken a turn from the true, good, and beautiful. Off to buy Tending the Heart of Virtue.

  15. Anonymous says

    This is a really interesting topic. One thing I wanted to comment on is that when you list traditional fairy tales, the examples you give (Hans Christian Anderson, Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm) are all European. But for those of us who have other roots, some of the archetypes may be different.

    One of your readers commented on a “twisted” version of the 3 Little Pigs and how the wolf was (wrongly) portrayed as the hero. One of my grandmothers is Native American, and wolves are a symbol of strength in her culture. One of my husband’s grandmothers is from Japan, and when we were married she gave us a beautiful carving of a wolf- which at the time we thought was a bit odd. Turns out it was traditional in her rural village, as wolves were symbols of protection and family.

    Likewise, with dragons- for Chinese, dragons symbolize good luck and wisdom.

    I mean, shouldn’t we be teaching our children that “good” or “evil” depends on what the person (or in children’s tales, the animal) does? Not just – here is a dragon. Dragons are bad. Why? Because they are dragons.

    Of course there are some archetypes that transcend cultures- babies and small children are innocent, mothers are nurturing, fathers are strong, etc.
    I think it does go too far when people are worrying about a wolf or a dragon portrayed as good. Millions upon millions of people in Asia were celebrating when their child was born in the year of the dragon (most of 2012). Because it’s a good thing in their culture!

    • says

      Dragons are bad because it is the form Satan took in the garden (snake) & in Revelation. The cultures you cite that have a different archtype are cultures that have not been influenced by Scripture and the Christian faith. I think it’s ok to share folk stories from other cultures, when it’s clear it from another culture and you talk about how the types are different (just like it’s ok to read preChristian myths – the stories of the Chinese & NA are also preChristian myths). But as far as the stories we read over and over again that shape the categories and story arch our children internalize, we should choose the stories that have been shaped by the Christian cultures.

      Someday, I believe, the NA & Chinese will have Christian cultures to tell stories from, also. So, someday, we will see (not in our lifetimes, but from the vantage point of the end of time) what Christianity does with those types from within their culture.

      It’s not that it’s the Europeans that are so wonderful, it’s that that is the direction the gospel went and the Bible & church transformed after Christ. And our first allegiance in our story-telling should be to Scripture. Adam and Eve is my 5yo daughter’s current favorite True myth, as C.S. Lewis & Tolkien would call it.

      And, speaking of Tolkien, any of his short stories, Hobbit, or longer LOTR is truly (and intentionally) a shaping myth. The Hobbit is a great place to begin, even as a read aloud for the whole family. Tolkien wrote it to reconstruct, in a way, what a mythology for England would have been like.

    • Anonymous says

      Thanks for that very thoughtful answer, Mystie. A lot to think about & talk over w/ my husband. We have been inclined to seek out Native American & Japanese story books b/c as these cultures make up relatively small bit of our heritage (one grandmother on each side) we don’t really have any other traditions (food, dress, etc) to honor these 2 very sweet ladies that we both loved a lot. Stories seem the best way, but perhaps a better way to introduce them or discuss them afterwards.

  16. says

    This is such a GREAT discussion. I’m late to the game here but I’m really enjoying it. Part of me wants to comment on every comment but then I’d be repeating a lot of what has been said. It sounds like Pudewa’s talk very closely adheres to what I’ve read in A Landscape With Dragons. I have yet to listen (the tab has been sitting open on my computer so maybe that counts for something?) but I have a feeling a lot of it will be a great refresher and perhaps be even a little better than Landscape.

    Something rings very true deep within me when hearing about the moral imagination. I’ve always tended to follow my instincts and weed out and reject literature in our home that is broken or twisted. But at the same time I sympathize with the concerns about certain images and ideas not being a universal archetype and the need to incorporate redemption. I’m not sure if I’ve gotten a convincing answer to that as of yet. I began reading The Wizard of Oz aloud to them and stopped after a few chapters because I felt it was confusing. We also just stay away from Disney this being one of several reasons.

    I think the following situation may be related. We’ve always allowed and encouraged our boys’ interest in the good fight (playing knights, reading Bible stories about Israel’s conquests, fighting dragons, etc.). However, my three year old is currently a bit TOO taken with violence and is a bit more motivated by the violence and the need to just punish rather than in defending something good. We’ve tried to redirect his declarations that he wants to kill all the bad guys into more of a desire to “change the bad guys into good guys.” But then, of course, I feel like we may be undermining his instinctual need to fight evil. Christ’s victory on the cross destroyed evil but his ultimate purpose in that was so that hearts could be converted and united to him. He was also unafraid to point out that the ones who appeared good were some of the biggest sinners. So I wonder if portraying evil archetypes as beyond redemption can be dangerous? Can a dragon find Christ? Is there room for “broken” if a strong teacher can lead the child in discerning the difference between an archetype representing sin and evil and an archetype representing a human soul? Does a homeschooling mom of a brood of children have time for that or do we just stick with what is known to be true and time tested (sort of my approach to Harry Potter…why risk it when people I respect have serious issues with it and there certainly isn’t a lack of other things to read…)? Or perhaps I am thinking too deeply and the moral imagination is more concerned with the need to enforce broader Truths (evil exists, virtue is not relative) and I am applying the archetypes too specifically? Wow. Does this make any sense? I’m sort of thinking out loud here so I hope this makes even an iota of sense to others :)

    Thank you for the discussion, Sarah! I’m hoping my thoughts aren’t too discombobulated. I find it hard to have great discussions in this format due to vocational distractions (that’s my fancy way of saying my children are screaming like banshees and running around the house right now) but I wanted to be a part of it anyway :)

    • Kim S. says

      I totally get what you’re saying and struggle with the same issue…redemption. Because really, don’t we ALL need, crave, and hope for redemption, grace, & forgiveness at the end of the day? I’m always telling my girls when then meet someone who’s not nice that maybe they just need to teach that person how to be nice & kind.

      As a Christian, I struggle a great deal with the judgement I see Christians throw at others…as though any wrong & sin is unforgiveable and a permanent statement of a person’s character. We all sin; we all evolve; and we all can find the grace of God…even those who appear evil, right??? Yet, there IS evil in the world, just as there IS falsehood and ugliness. I think it’s an important point that we can use these stories to form the moral imagination, but we must also teach grace and forgiveness…the redemption that Christ can give.

      P.S. Love the term “vocational distractions” :)

    • says

      Vocational distractions! I love it! My life is so very full of vocational distractions. ;)

      Interesting point, Mary. My gut says that this is largely a difference between redemption and destruction. God redeems man. In the comment above where Mystie talks about Eustace becoming a dragon in Narnia, we see that he has embraced evil and therefore is transformed by that evil into a dragon. He is still not outside of redemption, however, because his nature has not changed- he is a man, made in the Image of God. He can embrace evil without *becoming* evil.

      A dragon whose very nature is dragon-ness, however is outside of redemption because he is not man. Satan cannot be redeemed because he is the Father of Lies. He is evil, manifested. Men, however, can always be redeemed, because they are created beings who are born to crave redemption.

      Your thought about a mother being able to guide a child through understanding if a particular dragon represents evil or represents, man, though, is interesting and worth consideration.

      You also mentioned the Wizard of Oz, which Pam and I were just discussing last night. I always thought it was such a great read-aloud, but upon closer inspection of the storyline (and reading the introduction– wow! How did that get by me before???) I’m seeing it in a whole new light.

      Last night, Pam noted that “in the story, the characters go to the great, powerful ruler (who turns out to be a fraud — just a regular guy) and he gives them all the things they are seeking, except it is painfully obvious to the reader (if not the poor, blind and trusting believers) that he really doesn’t give them anything that they couldn’t find in themselves to begin with.”

      Eeeek! Right?!

      Anyway, I think your own moral imagination is better formed than mine- you stopped reading that book because it just seemed “off” to you. I read the whole thing to my kids and proceeded to rave about it here online! :P

    • says

      Mary, it does make sense and the question you pose is an interesting one. I am merely speculating here, but I wonder if some of our resistance to labeling something as evil and unredeemable stems from our own postmodern upbringing and the fact our own psyches have been steeped in political correctness. Are we reading these premodern stories with postmodern eyes and sensibilities?

    • says

      Just coming back here to point out that I emailed Dr. Guroian and asked his take on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He said he thinks that it is not nearly as excellent at feeding the Moral Imagination as the other titles he mentions in his book, but that it is generally harmless. Basically, he told me I was overthinking it. ;) (Who…me???) He says there is no harmful propoganda in the book.

      This has me scratching my head a little because I thought I was finally getting at least a little good at noticing anti-Christian views in literature. Guess not! ;)

    • says

      I think that maybe we misinterpret the genre of Wizard of Oz. I’ve done a little reading on the connection between Wizard of Oz and political symbolism, monetary policy, etc. Of course, children really were reading it for fun. That is true. But I think that to adults it was more of an allegory.

      Of course, that might mean I’m overthinking it now, too. :)

  17. says

    I love this post. Love, love, love. :)

    May I refine your definition of the moral imagination a little bit? You wrote: “The Moral Imagination is the ordering of the soul rightly toward Truth.” I have been thinking about this, and I think that maybe the ordering that you mention here is actually the result of *having* a moral imagination, not the moral imagination itself.

    The phrase “moral imagination” was first used by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, but I think it was Russell Kirk who really brought it into use because he pointed it out and elaborated on it in his essay. Burke speaks of the revolutionaries as stripping away the moral imagination:

    “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

    So the “moral imagination” seems to be the ability to conceive of morality in the first place–the power to conceive of even the *idea* of duties or ethics, of intangible things like manners and good taste.

    • says

      Ooooh! I’m really glad that you’re here, Brandy. I kind of shrieked with joy a little about it, actually. ;)

      Yes, refine away!

      So what you’re saying is… a *cultivated* Moral Imagination is ordered rightly toward truth. It is the ability to conceive right and wrong at a gut level. Is that right?

      I remember Kern reading aloud that quote of Burke’s in one of his lectures. Now I need to remember which one so I can go listen again…

    • says

      Yes, I *think* that is what I’m saying. :) I’ve been working on this definition for a while and as you know it gets bit tricky.

      I keep going back to Burke. He connects the stripping of the moral imagination to the violence against royals, for example. The person without moral imagination was very egalitarian–a king was just a man, a queen just a woman, etc. There is a sense, of course, in which that is absolutely true. But the thing that made a king or queen *more* than mere man or woman was intangible and it was only the person with a moral imagination who could see that.

      That means something. I’m just not for sure what. Yet. ;)

    • says

      I’ve been doing a bit of research and found this:

      This capacity to look upwards to The Truth was what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination.” To employ the moral imagination is to envision the world as it is meant to be, as it is revealed to be and, therefore, as it really is. The moral imagination creates within the perceiving individual an image of reality as ordered, transcendent, and moral. For the premodern exercising moral imagination, “The Truth is up there.”

      From here:

      Entire article is a good read.

      I THINK the Kern lecture is A Contemplation of the Divine Image which is still available here

      And one more quote:
      There’s an old saying that “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” meaning, of course, that the virtues given to young men at play determined the ability and virtues of grown men at war and at government. During Waterloo there’s no time to reason, to think, to ponder, to debate; one must act, and one must act from the habits one already has. Aristotle, rightly, teaches that the beginning given to a child doesn’t just make a difference, it makes all the difference, for the habits and imagination determine what will be done when it counts.

      From here:

      Which brings back the idea of habits and liturgy from Jamie Smith and Plenary 2 –

      And now that I have thrown a bunch of fuel on the fire, I will retreat to my quietly overwhelmed reading. That is all.

    • says

      Trying to wrap my head around the definition. So is the moral imagination something we innately know when we have been properly trained in the stock responses and are properly aligned people such as CS Lewis explains in Abolition of Man?

    • says

      I’m loving the Waterloo quote, Pam.

      And now I’m off to listen to Analytical Learning one (more!) time while I clean out a closet. Then I’ll be back to check out the rest of the links.

  18. says

    So is redemption too much for the wee ones to really understand? What are some good stories for the littlest (under five) set touching on transformative love?

  19. says

    I think the point about redemption is a good one to keep in mind. But there are types in traditional literature for a reason. I think as (post)moderns we tend to individualize characters more than the traditions that give us these stories. They were much more comfortable with general types (what we pejoratively call stereotypes) than we now are, for better and worse.

    In a Western traditional tale, a dragon represents greed and envy, a wolf represents hunger and evil, a fox represents avarice and cunning. And the point isn’t that we teach our children that people like that can’t be redeemed, but that those characters are temptations calling us winsomely and we have to slay the dragon within or flee the smooth talk of a fox. We are called to resist temptation, not reason with it and attempt to convert it by our own strength.

    • says

      But, shouldn’t we also be introducing the possibility of redemption? Obviously, we read fables and fairy tales, just looking to supplement.

    • says

      Mystie- this is really helpful to me! I myself get caught up in the individuals (forgetting that they are really types). It must be my postmodern habit. Anyway, your notes are helping me understand all of this at a deeper level-thank you.

      sbo- I’m glad you’re here. :) I’m still thinking on other good redemptive tales besides Beauty and the Beast…. What about The Frog Prince?

  20. says

    Me again! I felt bad for writing a comment and then deleting it.

    My point (with less words this time) is that I agree we have to be very concerned about what our children read and view. I also believe there is absolute Truth, Goodness and Beauty and we need to help our children to see those things and to avoid falling into the pit of “your truth” and “my truth.”

    However, I do not think the absolutes that Pudewa sets forth are all that helpful. In fact, they freak me out because it puts so much pressure on me! As a mom who already struggles with a desire to control things, this is just too much!

    When we really are not sure if something is appropriate, we can turn to others we trust and ask them what they think. But, I daresay that we know more about our children and our individual circumstances then we give ourselves credit for. I am all for absolutes in the right places. This does not seem like an area of absolutes.

    Some people have mentioned that they have stopped reading books that seemed “off” to them. Others have read the same books and not seen anything damaging in them. I do not think that those who stopped reading are “right” and others are “wrong” (and potentially damaging their children’s moral imagination). I think that the most important thing that we can do as parents is to seek the Truth in all things. What if we turn to God to be our guide and open ourselves up to receive his grace and guidance? I think the Holy Spirit will guide our decisions as to what is right for our family.

    • says

      Well, your first comment addressed your hesitancy to see Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as harmful, and it led me to email Dr. Guroian and see what he thought about it. He said he thinks that it is not nearly as excellent at feeding the Moral Imagination as the others he mentions in his book, but that it is generally harmless. Basically, he told me I was overthinking it. ;) (Who…me???) He says there is no harmful propoganda in the book.

      This has me scratching my head a little because I thought I was finally getting at least a little good at noticing anti-Christian views in literature. Guess not! ;)

      So I think you have a great point on absolutes. While I don’t agree with you that Pudewa’s talk is too absolute to be helpful, I do think you make a great case for parents needing to turn to the Holy Spirit to guide them in forming the Moral Imagination of their children.

      At the very end of this Touchstone article, David Mills makes an excellent case for reading books even as twisted as Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” with our children! He says that, “read along with someone who can lead them to understand it”, even broken/twisted stories can help to form the Moral Imagination rightly, and help children to notice wrong elements in literature when they read them on their own, down the road.

      I personally feel that I need a lot more practice in recognizing harmful themes and ideas in literature before feeling secure enough to guide my child through a broken or twisted story. But that’s what I can do now! Read and learn, so that when they are high school age, we can read the existentialist stuff and glean instead of shelter. It seems like the natural progression as a child matures, anyway.

    • says

      Oh dear, I did not mean to imply that Pudewa’s talk was too absolute to be helpful. I think the topic is an important one and his talk and your post are essential considerations we have to make. For me, the absolutes included in his talk were not helpful because they raised my anxiety level! More a case of choosing the best parts (of his talk) and leaving the rest. I am probably making this as clear as mud!

  21. says

    I would love tips on specific fairy tales for the very sensitive. My son cannot handle most fairy tales, they are too gruesome and scary. Any thoughts on a more gentle approach then the cutting off of toes and heals in Cinderella?:)

  22. says

    Here’s some more fuel for the fire. :)

    “Literature is dangerous—except when taken in large doses.” –

    “One of the most effective tools for developing the moral imagination is great literature. Reading wonderful literature rouses our students to think great thoughts and great thoughts inspire them to do great things.” –

    I think these articles might help lift the conversation toward what literature does for us rather than whether or not good dragons are acceptable. :)

    • says

      That first article is fabulous, and it actually addresses some of my gut instinct not to lump Harry Potter with other stories that might be deemed more harmful than helpful. I love how he says it can’t be that bad because, frankly, it’s not that “great.” Ha!

    • says

      I love his point about reading widely.

      “To a child who is not well-read, Harry Potter is dangerous—and so is any other book he or she may read. But the best defense against one idea is not fewer ideas, but more of them; and the best defense against one book is a whole host of them. Being widely read, in other words, is the best inoculation against the dangers of literature. Being widely read enables a person to not only see an idea, but, as Chesterton put it, to see through it.”

      This article made me consider whether the messages in Pudewa’s talk (and the books he mentions- which I am enjoying as well) are more directed toward the educators and parents who think that a steady diet of Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are sufficient.

      Is it possible that the arguments (and absolutes) are more of a reaction to those who are not willing to say that the Emperor is wearing no clothes?

      (Just to be clear, I find them valuable as confirmation that I am thinking about the right things and as guidance in the process.)

    • says

      I’m sure you are right- that Pudewa is directing those who view any reading as good reading, not those of us who already reject that idea and are seeking out the best the literary world has to offer.

      I’m not following your emperor analogy. I’m familiar with the story, but just not making the connection. Can you develop it a bit for me?

    • says


      I am referring to the fact that, led by some “literary critics” and “reading experts” many parents have fallen into the trap of thinking that as long as children are reading, it is good for them.

      Real clothes, in this analogy, are made of truth, goodness, beauty, virtues and morality. Just as the emperor was tricked into proceeding naked through the streets, parents and other unsuspecting “non-experts” think that they must be missing something and therefore they clap and cheer as their children pick up twaddle and morally questionable reading, unable to see that the emperor is not wearing any clothes!

      Does that make sense?

  23. Anonymous says

    I listened to this podcast three times last week as I went for my daily walk. It was so inspiring and uplifting that I decided to look around cyberspace for other people discussing it, as it’s a lonely feeling not to share it with others who get excited about these things. Anyway, I found this blog and I’m so impressed with Sarah’s wisdom and writing skills.

    Anyway, apart from the points that everyone else has brought up, I got a sense, after listening to this podcast, that ‘something’ is changing in this world, on a philosophical and ideological level. Anyone get this feeling? Or is just me?

    One snippet of information that intrigued me, around the same time as I was listening to The Moral Imagination, was Oxford University’s professor of Classical Studies, Richard Jenkyns, saying that: “never before in the history of the university has there been so many people taking up the Classics (Latin, Greek, the Great Books) … after a steady decline over the past 60 years, this is changing … we don’t know why”. (via podcast: quote is in last 5 minutes) Now, if Oxford is 1000 years old, and ‘began’ as a Classical Ed institution, what Jenkyns says is astonishing.

    We would never have heard Andrew Pudewa before the internet, or back before the 90s: no one would have been interested. So why are things changing? :-)

    • says

      That is interesting to me because I have seen that work out practically. We have a new used bookstore in our town. It is amazing–something like 40,000 volumes in the store! When we asked the owner how her new business was going, she said it was wonderful, but she was unprepared for how many people would come in looking for classics, antique books, and children’s books. She has shelves and shelves of…well, twaddle is a word that comes to mind…sitting there without buyers! A decade ago I wouldn’t have predicted that as a complaint in our town!

    • says

      Thank you for coming by and joining the conversation!

      Your note about there being a kind of renewed interest in Classical Education fills me with hope. I do think that technology can aid us in helping one another build up our homes and schools with ideas and methodology to build the up the Moral Imagination and cultivate wisdom in our children. I know that I have gleaned *so much good* from listening to lectures by Andrew Pudewa, Andrew Kern (Circe Institute), and Chris Perrin online. These are ideas I may never have grabbed hold of if not for the internet.

  24. says

    Have you ever read the story Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo? It had been a while since I last read it out loud to my children, and this time through, this bit stood out to me in a way it didn’t before I started thinking about this topic… Despereaux is sentenced to the dungeon, and when he is pushed down the dungeon stairs into that abyss, “He considered fainting…but then he remembered the words of the threadmaster: honor, courtesy, devotion, and bravery.
    ‘I will be brave,’ thought Despereaux…How best for him to be brave?
    He cleared his throat. He let go of his tail. He stood up straighter. ‘Once upon a time,’ he said out loud to the darkness. He said these words because they were the best, the most powerful words that he knew…”
    Now, doesn’t that just provide a perfectly wonderful example of how the reading of Fairy Tales can develop that moral imagination, even in a mouse?

  25. says

    Just wanted to add that you could also incorporate Monica Speach’s PACE program (available at Emmanuel Books and suggested by Laura Burquist) for suggestions on incorporating stories and activities to encourage the different virtues in your home. She has it organized by grade and by virtue so it is easy to find suggestions for the younger crowd if they aren’t ready for fairy tales. She also includes saints stories, bible stories and uses the The Book of Virtues and the Moral Compass along with other literature suggestions. I am not recommending every book suggestion, but it’s a great reference when something ugly starts creeping in to your household and you think a few reminders are in order. (Ahem).

  26. says

    What a wealth of thought, experience, and knowlesge here in this conversation! It’s a fascinating topic. I recall in an undergrad course on early childhood at the UW, the prof emphasised the importance of real fairy tales, rather than those watered down or softened aka disneyfied. How important it is for children to find in themselves both the good and the evil, and not fear it is them alone who live with the struggle bw the two. Story provides a safe place to explore important topics. Deep in the imagination. I hadn’t much considered inverted archtypes until our earlier convo.. and more so now. I’m still mulling that over. The reason why we find them delightful or funny (or shocking) is precisely because they are inverted, i think. But how much literature needs to be ingested first? Before that can have the intended effect?

  27. says

    I think I may now be more confused than before :) You have some awesomely informed and educated readers! Maybe soon we can see a Moral Imagination Part II for Dummies or the Chronically Sleep Deprived post, sound good?

  28. says

    What a great post! Reading quality stories to our kids is something I’ve always valued, and your post definitely affirms the importance of that (I write a blog solely dedicated to that, actually). Thank you for taking the time to lay all this out so well!

  29. Michele says

    This is an old discussion, but it was so interesting and edifying for me. I just found your blog tonight. I would love to read The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, but all the copies I have found are over $700. Is there a special place to find it that I don’t know about?

  30. says

    Thanks for this insightful reflection on the Moral Imagination, Sarah! You’ve cleared a lot of things up for me! :) I agree that this term can be confusing and difficult to define, but the bent/broken/twisted story idea really helps. I first became interested in the concept of the Moral Imagination after spending time at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, where Vigen Guroian often speaks. Russell Kirk’s ideas also help flesh out this concept…he contrasts the “moral imagination” with what he calls the “idyllic” and “diabolic” imaginations. The thing I sometimes have trouble with (and spend a lot of time thinking about!) is how the concept of the Moral Imagination works when it comes to older kids. I am a literature teacher at a classical high school and one of the things that really jumped out at me when I first started teaching teens is how skeptical some of them can be when it comes to simplistic “all good” heroes and “all bad” villains. These kinds of clear-cut archetypes seem to be crucial for teaching young children that Good and Evil do exist (e.g. fairy tales), but I often wonder if the Moral Imagination is “sparked” the same way in tweens and teens who are super aware of their own imperfections, and therefore relate better to stories where the hero isn’t always perfect, makes mistakes, and maybe even rebels. Perhaps the key element has to do with what you said about broken stories, and whether Good or Bad ultimately wins in the end. I definitely agree with you on Twilight, but are there any other books that jump out at you as good examples of stories for teens that promote the Moral Imagination?
    Ashlee Cowles recently posted…Are Your Children ‘Third Culture Kids’?My Profile

    • says

      Let’s see… the first books that come to mind are Regina Doman’s Fairy Tales Retold (have you read those? SO good!). I think Susan Wise Bauer said this in a recent conversation I had with her- that as children grow up, their need to read stories of humans who have both the capacity for good and evil is very strong. That, in fact, they need to see other humans struggling with a blend of the two.

      More classic than modern fiction, Dickens seems like a natural fit here, perhaps?

      But I would even go so far as to say that modern fiction like The Hunger Games would be a good fit here. Don’t tell anyone I said that. :P
      Sarah Mackenzie recently posted…Homeschooling with Toddler Twins (or: lifestyles of the overwhelmed)My Profile

      • says

        Thanks for the reply! It’s funny–Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” was actually the book I had in mind when I wrote my comment. The students in my class LOVED Sydney Carton (as they should!) because he starts out as an alcoholic and overcomes his flaws to become the hero of the story, but they never really warmed to Lucie Manette or Charles Darnay because they were (in the teens own words) “too perfect.” I think The Hunger Games is a good example, too. I try to keep an eye on what’s popular in young adult fiction, and while there are a lot of bent and broken stories out there, I find it interesting that many of the stories that are super successful (e.g. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings) do appeal to the Moral Imagination, which is encouraging…even in today’s culture, many kids instinctively know and love what is Good!
        Ashlee Cowles recently posted…Are Your Children ‘Third Culture Kids’?My Profile