Tending the Heart of Virtue

“Becoming a responsible human being is a path filled with potholes and visited constantly by temptations. Children need guidance and moral road maps and they benefit immensely with the example of adults who speak truthfully and act from moral strength.” – Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian

In Diane’s review of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, she confesses that she really enjoys reading books about books, readers, and/or the art of reading. Me too. As a foodie, I love reading about cooks, food, and cooking life, and as a reader I equally love reading about books, readers, and the reading life. Consequently, I read a good number of books on reading matters every few years. Most are interesting. Some are disappointing. Sometimes, one is exceptional. This is one of those exceptions. Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian is one of the most well developed books I have read on what it means to read with children.

In the Catholic world, books which have been found to be theologically sound have an imprimatur. It is a seal of approval from a bishop indicating that a theologian has read the text and found it to be without major errors and to be worthy of consideration. Getting an imprimatur is not easy, and it conveys a recommendation of safety that Catholic readers prize. In my experience, I have found that books published by Oxford University Press have something akin to an imprimatur of literary standards. The books I have read from Oxford University Press are either classics or have better than even chances of becoming classics. OUP is known to be highly selective in its publishing. When I was an undergraduate student participating in a two-semester Oxford exchange, I worked at the Oxford University Shop, and the ladies schooled me in the credibility of the OUP. When I saw that this very expensive book was published by OUP, I risked the high sticker price because I assumed that I was going to be in for a treat. I was right.

“Fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis, author of the popular Narnia Chronicles, wrote a remarkable little book entitled The Abolition of Man. In that book Lewis discussed these forces that starve the moral imagination and replace it with utilitarian rationality. He warned of a philosophy of education and childrearing that undermines confidence in moral certitudes and substitutes the dogma that morality is relative to individual desire and cultural context… Perhaps it is not surprising that someone who detected such things in the culture went on to write a series of remarkable children’s fantasy stories… that invite the modern child into a world in which the ‘old morality’ reigns and retains its compelling vigor. Lewis, of course, was heir to the Victorian retrieval of the fairy tale.” – Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian

In the last few years I have read a number of books on the virtues of reading with children. At the behest of many friends, I read Michael O’Brien’s A Landscape With Dragons and found it uninspiring. His observations are mostly good but his writing is stiff, his standards are formulaic, and I felt like he was throwing the baby out with the bathwater on some points. This year I read The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature by Mitchell Kalpakgian and was horrified by the terrible writing. While the first chapter was beautiful and compelling, the subsequent chapters were poorly written (run on sentences that never seem to end), condescending, and I nearly choked on all of the regurgitating of the fairy tales that he did for me. Getting through that book was impossible for me because it meant that I would be wasting precious reading time. I appreciate what both Kalpakgian and O’Brien attempted to do. I cannot pretend that I could do it better. But, someone has done it better. So much better.

Toward the end of the Introduction in this erudite masterpiece, Guroian extends to us an invitation to do what his college students did when he had them read Pinocchio. He invites us to reawaken our own love for fairy tales and to see those old stories with eyes that really see. Like C. S. Lewis’s famous quote, he invites us to become old enough to read fairy tales again.

“I have striven to help parents and teachers to find standards in these stories that they might not have seen on their own. But I have wanted also not to spoil the pleasure of reading these stories for the first or the tenth time. The deep truths of a good story, especially fairy tales, cannot be revealed through through discursive analysis – otherwise why tell the story? Rather, these truths must be experienced through the story itself and savored in the immediacy of the moment that unfolds with the impending danger of the quest or the joy of the reunion with the beloved.”

In each of five chapters, Guroian presents a deeply human theme and then draws our attention to two or three classic children’s stories which are ripe with good food for the moral imagination on that thematic point. Unlike Kalpakgian, he does not merely regurgitate the fairy tale for us. Rather he paints a picture in our minds with broad strokes from a palette of literary criticism, moral training, childish wonder, and key details in the story. Introducing first the theme and why it is important to children, he then works his way through each story helping us to see why that particular story is a treasure trove for our theme.

I think that the best thing I can do to invite you into Tending the Heart of Virtue by sharing some quotes which I particularly loved.

On Becoming Real – Pinocchio

“The notion that who I am is mostly what is done to me and what happens to me, rings true to a young child’s subjective experience. Pinocchio is a puppet. But being a young child is very much like being a marionette.”

“Just as the appetites require discipline that they may be directed toward their proper ends, so the imagination needs to be guided by reason, sound memory, and the common stock of human wisdom about the world and its possibilities. Pinocchio’s journey to real boyhood and sonship is dependent upon the presence and appropriation of these things that serve his deep desire to be a real boy and a human son.”

Love and Immortality – Little Mermaid & The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit, however, finds the path to this fulfillment. This is through no merit of his own but through his own desire to be a Real Rabbit, and by a Greater Love that cares for the toys in the nursery too much to allow them to be just thrown away after they are ‘used up.’”


“Now great harm can be done to the enjoyment of a story when it is treated like a container filled with symbol treats.”


“In the end, the life (the Little Mermaid) thinks she has given up and the promise of immortality she thinks she has lost are returned, in spite of her mistakes, because goodness and mercy and unselfish love conquer within her.”


Friends and Mentors – The Wind in the Willows & Bambi & Charlotte’s Web

“Complementarity and not uniformity is the spice that adds flavor to good friendships, with special needs and unique gifts mixed and matched to create strong bonds of companionship.”


“Grahame thinks of friendship as a calling. By grace and not just by chance are we sent forth into the world for fellowship and communion with others. Friendships even sound the call to a higher and transcendent communion with God. Mole and Rat hear this call in the wind in the willows.”


“The mentor, therefore, is someone who brings the student to self-knowledge and instills confidence in her charge to pursue a successful course in life… she is wiser than Wilbur and is able to give him far more than he can offer her in return, except his love.”


“Salten has depicted the real thing. The pure mentoral relationship is hierarchical and selective, and is always asymmetrical… a relationship of unequals increases affection, trust, and mutuality – all essential earmarks of friendship… in this manner, Salten illumines a form of relationship the conspicuous lack of which in modern society may also help to account for a crisis of morality and culture that we are facing.”


“Salten emphasizes how special and difficult this calling is to be a mentor: this is especially true in an age in which emotions are given free reign and friendships come easy and end just as easily.”


Evil and Redemption – The Snow Queen & The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

“Anderson seems to have believed that the good memories of childhood possess profound redemptive power and are capable of opening our hearts to goodness and love for the rest of our lives.”


“Andersen’s myth of the demons and the broken mirror illuminates the brokenness and discordancy of human existence.”


“At that moment Edmund wants nothing more than he wants Turkish Delight; and his inordinate love makes a god of Turkish Delight, a god that leads him on and controls him.”


“Physical appetite, combined with a strong sense of taste, can literally overwhelm a child with dizzying desire.”


Heroines of Faith and Courage – The Princess and the Goblin (Irene) & Prince Caspian (Lucy)

“(George MacDonald) endeavored to appeal to the childlike in everyone – not the childish, the childlike – and to feed the moral imagination.


“As the sensible mind needs eyes to see, so reason needs the imagination in order to behold mystery and to perceive the true quality of things.”


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