Meet A Wise Guide To Fairy Tales That Can Help Illuminate The Meaning Of Life

One of great literature’s living guides includes Vigen Guroian, a now-retired professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. Earlier this year, Oxford University Press released his second edition of “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination.”
. . . In the updated “Tending the Heart of Virtue,” Guroian unlocks the stories of others. He focuses on fairy stories that seem ancient in heart even when written in the last century. He often takes issue with prominent scholarship on these stories but focuses more on the stories than their would-be interpreters.
. . . Technically, Guroian is Armenian Orthodox and at U-Virginia taught Christianity specifically. But he is also small-o orthodox, as in an adherent of the universal Christian creeds. In this, his analysis transcends what some would call “denominational” ties, and bears the commonality of other beloved Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis, whom he cites at several appropriate points.
The book is a master class not just in literature, or fairy tales, but in the universal archetypes that animate the deepest and best stories. Guroian does this without overly psychologizing the tales, a welcome relief from today’s story-murdering post-Freudian, post-Jungian, and post-modern crit-lit “analysis.”

Guroian’s analysis shows what’s inside the stories in a way that heightens the wonder of reading them, rather than killing the literature with analytic dissection, identity politics, or nihilism. He shows his command of the critical literature on the tales he’s illuminating without diverting attention to them from the main topic. He brings them up to add or shape their ideas into his own, which always return to the story itself.

. . . Throughout, Guroian pays close attention to how the stories we listen to shape our habits, into either virtue or vice. Fairy tales, he argues, illustrate virtue and its opposite, and thus can teach morals in a way that reaches deep into the heart, not just the intellect.

“Fairy tales and modern fantasy stories project fantastic other worlds, but they also pay close attention to real moral ‘laws’ of character and virtue,” Guroian writes (p. 35). “These laws ought not to be high-handedly shoved down the throats of children (or of anyone else). More accurately, they are norms of behavior that obtain in patterns of relation between agent, act, other, and the world. . . . [These norms] become habit, however, only when they are lived, or, as in the case of fairy tales, experienced vicariously and imaginatively through the artful delineation of character and plot in story. Thus, while fairy tales are not a substitute for life experience, they have the great capacity to shape our moral constitution without the shortcomings of either rigidly dogmatic schooling or values-clarification education.

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Joy Pulliam | “Meet A Wise Guide To Fairy Tales That Can Help Illuminate The Meaning Of Life” | May 24th, 2023


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