Dr. Vigen Guroian - The Child’s Moral Imagination

Orthodox Institute 2012 - Culture, Morality, Spirituality

A conference to survey cultural viewpoints, beliefs of the Church, and the moral challenges facing our youth. Held at Antiochian Village, in Ligonier, PA, November 1-4, 2012. Keynote Speaker is Dr. Peter Bouteneff, podcaster of “Sweeter than Honey” on Ancient Faith Radio, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, and author of the book, “Sweeter than Honey”. Featured Presenters include Dr. Vigen Guroian and Dr. Philip Mamalakis.

November 2012

Dr. Vigen Guroian - The Child’s Moral Imagination

Dr. Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia, and a leading voice in contemporary Christian discourse about morality and ethics. He spoke about the moral imagination and the fairy tale. At the end of his talk, he distributed the Grimm version of Cinderella and discussed it. A pdf of this version is available for download on this page. We would encourage you to pause the recording at this point and read the Cinderella story before listening further.

November 3, 2012 Length: 1:14:02 View Attachment





Dr. Vigen Guroian: By my count, this discussion will fall into four sections. I’m never that precise, but in this case that’s exactly how I want it to go anyway. Initially, I’m going to give you a talk which I hope will not run more than 20 or 25 minutes, something in that vicinity, which is really a summary of my thoughts about the power of classic fairy tales and children’s stories and the nature of the moral imagination and the virtues that they can inculcate in our children. Then I think there may be room for 10 or 15 minutes of discussion with regard to what I had to say.

This is sort of the prolegomena way of preparing ourselves to look into one of the great classic fairy tales, and this particular case, the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, which is not the one that most of you remember, because Disney took Perrault’s version, and they contrast considerably, and the Grimms were profoundly Christian in their imagination. What they did with these classic fairy tales was reconstruct them in a way which reflected a Christian imagination and heart. You’ll see that, I think, when you read through the story, because I will then [have] the third part of this [which] would be to have us all read, silently, the story itself.

That’ll take maybe 10 or 15 minutes, max, and then I will sort of take you through the story that you’ve just read. I will try not to be so mechanical. It does harm to a story when it’s dissected that way, but to a certain extent I want to, first of all, show you how to read such a story, for yourself and in preparation for presenting it to a child. Then nextly, to look into this story for its very power to form the imaginations and hearts of our children. That’s a little bit different matter than our coming to an understanding of these stories ourselves at an adult level. That is to say, I would not take a ten-year-old through the story the way I’m going to take you through the story.

In 1998, I published a book called Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. It came out of my own reading to my children, and frustration that they’d grown to the age when they’re not so interested in [our] reading to them any longer. So I went to my dean and I asked if I could have a small grant for the summer, which they would give routinely, to prepare a new course on religion and children’s literature. I called it at that time, “Religion, Morality, and Children’s Literature.”

He was a chemist, and he basically was a flat planet. He could not conceive of how such a course would be of any value in a theology department, and suggested that perhaps if I visited the department of education that we could work something out together, to which I responded, “Most of them don’t have the imagination to read the stories the way I do.” To which he looked at me as if I were some arrogant you-know-what, but I knew what was going to happen, because I had a couple of friends in that department, so I knew this was not going to work. So I said, “Okay. Very fine. I’ll do what I need to do.” And I taught the course anyway, and I taught it for many years at Loyola, until I left Loyola.

When I got to UVA and my principal responsibilities would be in Eastern Orthodoxy, I was not able to teach this course as frequently as I did—I would teach it every year at Loyola, pretty much, as a seminar—but I have taught it once, and I’m going to teach it again this spring, and it’ll fill up in about two minutes. I’m limiting it to 30 or 35; the classroom won’t hold more than 35, so I have an excuse to say no, but it’s the kind of course that if you craved student attention, you could probably bring hundreds of students into a course like this. I know this for a fact.

This talk that I’m going to give you is in some way a summary of what thoughts went into this course, what thoughts came out of this course, and what eventually led to the writing of a book, which I joyfully wrote, which my editor at Oxford joyfully received, and out of that grew a friendship. She’s a fantastic editor in theology and philosophy, [having] been there many, many years at Oxford in the States. But I just happened to contact the right person at that moment, because she was also, in her earlier years, an actress, and loved children’s stories. So when I told her what I was writing and began to explain it to her, she begged me to send anything I had on paper already. She put her own hand to it, and for a senior editor at Oxford to put their own hand to a manuscript is an honor, particularly since they have not done anything with you before. It’s out of that work that I want to speak for the next 20 minutes or so.

We’ve been speaking with one another for a day and a half now. Last night it was clear that all of us are worried about our children and in a not unfounded way, because these are troubling times for our children. A response to this book I wrote, even as long ago as it is, testifies to that, because it keeps selling, and I’ve promised a second edition, along with a book of marriage, to Oxford, and if I didn’t have the editor that I had, she’d be all over me, because everything is late.

The book alone has told me this, the response to the book. That range of dangers that exist are physical, they are moral, and they are spiritual. I don’t think there’s any way to understate or underestimate them. We as Christian parents and teachers are then especially called upon in these times to address and reflect upon the great moral question of character and virtue, because this is what is at the heart of it. And we should do this in spite of all the chatter of our modern sophists who would have us believe that in morality there is nothing absolute or permanent, that even right or wrong are situational and relative.

As Christians, even as Orthodox Christians, we believe that we live in a moral universe governed by a gracious God. One of my favorite authors, whom I’ll cite several times over the next few moments, is G.K. Chesterton, that great apologist of Christianity, whose writings I go back to repeatedly just to experience the rhythm of the prose, leave aside the content of the prose. He once wrote, “The truth of our human tradition and handing it on with the voice of authority, an unshaken voice—that is the one eternal education: to be sure enough that something is true to dare to tell it to a child.”

This is a challenge, and it is a rallying cry for Christian parents and educators, for the kind of ship we cast off our children into the sea of life makes a difference as to whether they sink into the abyss or reach the shores of paradise. I did some considerable study of John Chrysostom some years ago, and I’ve written a couple of pieces on his views of children and education and parenthood, and if you take anything away from John Chrysostom with regard to those sermons and reflections and addresses that he gave on such subjects, it is that we as parents have been given a sacred responsibility to nurture and cultivate the souls of our children.

Education is not just about learning skills; it’s about making virtuous persons. It is about cultivating the child’s soul so that she is a temple fitted for the Holy Spirit. It is about the virtues, even those of which Christ speaks in his beatitudes. The virtues are like gems, each with its solid color and shape. If we throw a diamond into a pond, let it lie there for a long while, and return years later, the diamond will not have changed or diminished in value, and there will be no mistaking it for a common stone. That is what the virtues are like.

They are among the permanent things in life, and they are of great and lasting value, and every culture and religion has had a name for them and has named them. These are: love and justice, faith and courage, hope and temperance. They lead to holiness. We should not be ashamed to say this out loud, that they lead to holiness. We should not be ashamed to say it even in the company of those who have forgotten what holiness is or are so jaded that they no longer believe in it.

The virtues define and constitute character. They are precedent even to the choices we make. They are not of our own invention. They belong to human nature, and human nature is not whole without them.

They lend direction to the will, so that our actions serve what is right and good. No one chooses to be courageous any more than he or she chooses to be cowardly. One is either courageous or one is cowardly. There is no in between. When we say a person is courageous, we mean that the virtue of courage belongs to the very essence of who that person is. Courageousness is what that person is; courage is what that person is.

How do virtues come to be in a person? They come to be through example and by exercise, and they grow into habits that define the will, even before volition occurs. Moral character, a virtuous character, is a habitual orientation of the self toward the world that disposes a person to act from a sense of what is right and to do the good in every instance. Think of the virtues as the powers of habit that enable us to avoid evil and to do the good.

Good stories are important in children’s lives, particularly in children’s lives, because they make up for the lack of life experience that they have and for which they are not prepared. They introduce children to the virtues through characters with which they can identify as they themselves struggle to exercise their own freedom imaginatively and responsibly, especially in their early years in relation to family and then friends and the rest of their growing world.

Stories have that capacity to bestow images to memory, even in the youngest child, that become metaphors for the moral imagination. They are seeds planted in the mind, the intellect, and the imagination, which grow into greater images that we act upon in our lives, that we recall, not even deliberately, that we recall when we are faced with certain situations, which are analogous, perhaps, to what is already planted in our minds and imaginations, those images. With these images and metaphors, the moral imagination draws these correspondences in life that enable us to make judgments, to choose good over evil, to do what is right.

So we can think of the moral imagination as a way of seeing. It is like the light that enters the eyes and enables one to see. Moral vision, then, is the capacity to tell goodness from evil and respond in each circumstance to bring about goodness rather than evil. When we get to the story of Cinderella, even the animals have that capacity. Even the animals, and that was genuinely intended by the Grimms, because they had a rather cosmic sense of the Christian faith, that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just abide in us, but in the world as a whole.

The moral imagination builds up in us a conscience and a sense or responsibility. It fuels our capacity to use our talents in creative rather than destructive ways, to seek what is best for others rather than our own selfish ends, and to act with honesty and decency and respect toward others in every instance. It enables us to see others as persons.

Moral rules and principles are not sufficient. We’re tempted to think so, but they’re not. They’re secondary. Their application for good or for ill is, again, dependent upon the character of the agent and the spiritual light of the moral imagination that illumines the landscape of one’s life. If moral rules and principles are merely memorized and do not have the support of a well-fortified moral imagination, if they are not in some way storied in our imagination and in our minds, then they may be used for all the wrong purposes, these moral rules and principles.

Much moral failure may be attributed to a failure of imagination and not even a deliberate aim to do wrong. The older we get, I think, the more we recognize that to be the case. One great, profound Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Buber (Buber: B-u-b-e-r), tells a story of his experience teaching a course on ethics and how he fell into the fatal mistake—this was early in his years—of merely giving instruction and rules and principles rather than attending to the formation of his pupils. He writes in his brilliant essay, “The Education of Character,” contained in his book, Between Man and Man, the following. It’s a recollection of his experience.

I tried to explain to my students that envy is despicable, and at once I feel a secret resistance of those who are poorer than their comrades. I tried to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I tried to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens: the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying.

That’s what we call the demonic, really.

Q1: What was the name of the chapter again?

Dr. Guroian: It’s an essay entitled “The Education of Character” in Between Man and Man.

Whether or not a carpenter is a good man does not necessarily determine the effectiveness of how he handles a saw or a hammer or the quality of the cabinets that he constructs, but morality is different. Moral rules and principles are not just like tools, like the carpenter’s saw and hammer. The correct use of moral rules and principles is dependent upon the character of the agent and his or her ability to envision the good in every place and circumstance of living. Likewise, law alone is not the heart and the soul of morality either. The old legalism that imagines it can cover every contingency of life with rules and sanctions is just as flawed as the reformist doctrine which prescribes that all one need do is to teach children to think for themselves and they will find a moral compass. Quite simply—and this is again quoting Chesterton—

A child wants to know the fixed things, not the shifting. He enjoys the sea, not the tides. [...] He cannot decently be expected to learn to respect humanity, which is a hard thing to do in any case, and at the same time learn to improve it.

But, he continues, these fixed or permanent things of the moral life are taught and learned through stories. Chesterton was a great, great lover of the fairy tale. Moral truth, Chesterton observes, is different from mathematical truth, for example. He writes:

You cannot imagine two and [one] not making three, but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit.” And I added, “but rather, rock candy.” I was thirsting for rock candy when I wrote this. The lesson of fairyland, he adds, however, is not that tomorrow morning I should expect to find in my backyard a tree whose limbs are weighted down with rock candy. The magic of fairyland is not physical or biological science. The magic of fairyland… Well, I put that in quotation marks for a reason.

A fairy tale may tell of an evil witch who possesses the mysterious power to turn a prince into a stone, and a fairy godmother, with the equally mysterious power to turn that stone prince back into his right self, but the veracity, the truth, of the moral truths illuminated by these two inhabitants of fairyland does not depend upon an explanation of their powers. They’re never explained in a fairy tale. Fairy tales, again, are not science. They are, however, a way of knowing that is every bit as important to human knowing as scientific knowledge, even more so.

If we expect the fairy tale to explain the transformative power of the fairy godmother in the same manner as science explains how liquids turn to solids, we are, in fact, bound to come up empty-handed and disappointed. The magic of the fairy tale lies rather in its capacity to make us see that each and every one of us is capable of committing both the evil of that wicked witch and the good of that fairy godmother. The great fairy tales enable us to see what is the difference between good and evil and call upon us to judge whether we ourselves are like the wicked witch or like the fairy godmother. This is the great joy that children take in reading fairy tales. Is she good? Is he bad? That’s the first question they ask. The great fairy tales challenge us to test in our imaginations how we would respond to circumstances in which good and evil lie in the balance, and a child can grasp this. A child clings to it.

I don’t understand the analogy between a two-year-old human being and a dog. Have you heard this, that a two-year-old human—maybe you can comment on this—that a dog has the intelligence of a two-year-old human being. I have now a granddaughter, the first of my grandchildren—I hope I’ll have more; in fact, my daughter announced she’s pregnant two days ago—and she’s 16 months old, and I have two dogs, and they’re old dogs and they’re smart dogs, but they’re not as smart as she is. They’re not going to become a human being; they’re not going to become a person, but my granddaughter is. I don’t know how you make the comparison.

What I’m saying is even this 16-month-old can grasp things far beyond what I think we even measure. I’m convinced of this. As a parent, I was too anxious to observe things that I can observe as a grandparent, and I watch this and I work with it and I’m absolutely stunned and amazed at what’s going on that isn’t being articulated yet, but it’s going on, and it’s a lot more than is going on in my dear Lilypad’s head. (That’s my English setter.)

I wrote in Tending the Heart of Virtue about Plato, who argued that conversion to that which is moral, that which is just, that which is right and good, is like an awakening, like remembering something long forgotten. The symbols, the allegories, the fables, the myths, and the good stories that we have at our disposal, that we’ve forgotten so many of, have this special capacity to bring back to life the starved or the atrophied imagination. Precisely through their dramatic depictions of the struggle between good and evil, and the presentation of characters that embody and enact the possibilities therein, they define—can help define—our moral vision.

Light comes into our eyes, an illumination of our intellects, a warming of our frozen hearts. Yes, fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living, but they do something even better. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity, that is, the best of the fairy tales and the best of the children’s stories. They possess that power to draw us into the mystery of morality into virtue, because it is a mystery. They enable us to envision a world in which there are norms and limits, and freedom respects the moral law or pays an especially high price. And children love to see people pay the especially high price.

You might get bored by my favorite story, which is Pinocchio, because it’s so repetitive—the original—but children don’t. The repetition of that character, falling into a ditch every which way, and actually hurting for it, is a reward to a child. It is.

Fairy tales tell us there is a difference between what is logically possible and what is morally felicitous, between what is rationally doable and what is morally permissible. In fairy tales, the character of real law belongs neither to natural necessity, biological, physical laws, nor to rational determinism. Rather, real law, as it is exposed to us and introduced to us in the fairy tales, is a comprehensible sign of a primal, unfathomable freedom and of a numinous reality and will. It taps into something very deep and profound, the best fairy tale does.

Real law, the realest law, can be obeyed or broken. It presumes freedom, and in either case, for the very same reason, because the creature is both subject of and participant in this primal freedom. Fairy tale heroes are called to be free and responsible. That’s clear, and that’s what so good about it. That’s clear that that’s what they’re called to be, even if they don’t get it at first. If they’re called to be free and responsible, they’re called to be virtuous and to be respectful of the moral law.

Thus, after a child has read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”—that is his best story; it’s a short novella, really—or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles—I mention that because C.S. Lewis stole a character from “The Snow Queen,” namely, the Snow Queen—her moral imagination is sure to be stimulated and sharpened. These stories, like Andersen’s and like Lewis’s, they offer powerful images of good and evil. The skeptics, the sophists of our age, will scorn that, but that’s their virtue; that’s what makes them so powerful, is these images of good and evil, and they show a child how to love or act with courage through the examples of the characters that that child can learn to love and admire.

These memories, again, of these characters and their actions, they become the analogs that the moral imagination employs to make real-life decisions, and these memories become constitutive elements of a child’s self-identity and character. That is a powerful truth, if it’s true, because it is the case that many, many stories are being presented to our children. More and more of them, and they’re mostly bad. They’re mostly bad.

Now, my brother never allowed a TV in his home. I did. He thought I was, you know… I’d fallen, you see, because I allowed it, but I understood why he didn’t, and I understood why I allowed it. I didn’t permit it to be on all [the time]. I didn’t have it on all the time just to keep my children quiet, and, as they got older and I saw what foolery was going on, even in an ad, I would comment. It got to the point where they were waiting for me to comment, and they would ridicule me for it, but I would continue to do it, because if I didn’t do it, they would have been disappointed. But what I was doing… No, seriously. What I was doing was telling them, in my own manner, “You’d do the same. You’re going to have sort this out. You’re going to have to sort out the peas and the lentils from the ashes the way Cinderella does,” or, rather, in this case, in the story that the Grimms state, the birds do, which might be little children.

More than twenty years ago, I taught a course called “Religion and Children’s Literature,” as I mentioned to you, and I keep teaching it. It’s not that I teach the same books and stories all the time, but it is essentially the same course. It’s essentially the same reaction I get from the young men and women who come into the seminar. It hasn’t changed. Mostly, they tell me firstly how the majority of the books and stories on the syllabus they’ve never read, and some never even heard of. When I claim that these are the great ones, they’re that much more disturbed, because they know I’m in earnest, but that’s a commentary, again, on what stories our children are learning and carrying around in their imaginations during the entirety of their lives.

They say that not only were they not introduced to most of the stories and books on the syllabus, but that they also recognized that their own natural sense of wonder had been, in one way or another, starved. They’re most anxious for me to get Disney versions on the screen so I can discuss with them how the Disney version of Pinocchio might differ from the original Collodi version. I have to stop at certain moments and say, “You relish to see this. I know you’re familiar with this, but it’s not all that good in some instances; not all.”

It’s just telling of why I’m teaching this course. In some ways, I’m loath to show film, but I think it needs to be done for pedagogical reasons, because you’re much more familiar with reading images than you are with reading books, and you’re better at it than I am in many ways.

So it’s not hard to persuade them to read Bambi or The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows or the fairy tales of the Grimms or Hans Christian Andersen or George MacDonald. They go right into it, and it’s actually a joy to teach that course. In fact, I’ve often commented that it’s perfectly ridiculous that I’m in a classroom doing this, but it’s so much fun.

The administrative aide who’s also administratively in charge of undergraduates is a wonderful fellow. He cooks for our students. He brings [things] in, bakes bread for them, and so forth. He heard so much about this course the first time I taught it that for the second half of [the] course, every time the course opened, a young woman would be sent down with a basket of candy—I’m serious—so that we could further enjoy what we were doing. Kind of fun.

Now, in the book that you’ve seen, there are some fairy tales that I intend to include in the second edition one day. Two of them are Peter Pan and The Jungle Books, particularly the Mowgli stories, because they’re about two children who don’t want to grow up or to join the real human world, and the juxtaposition of these stories really intrigues 20-year-old men and women, because they’re at a point at which they know that they have to leave childhood for good, and in some ways they take the course because they know that, also.

What is it that we learn from the juxtaposition of these stories and these characters? They end differently, to be sure. Peter refuses to join the Lost Boys in the Darling household. He returns to Neverland, and remains a child and a prisoner of his own passions, though he continues to think that this is freedom. By contrast, the love and wisdom of his animal mentors help Mowgli to mature as a moral being. He struggles with choices and takes responsible action to protect the beasts and human beings whom he loves. His character’s refined, and he reenters human society. The description of it is very good at the end of the Mowgli stories. The sun is shining on him; it’s golden. He’s a king, in a sense. His character’s refined, and he enters human society, a mature young man.

As I said, my favorite story, I think the best ever written was Pinocchio, though I know that things are lost in translation. I was privileged to have an Italian nun at a class I taught at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute some years back, and she compared the Italian to at least two or three translations, including the one we were using, which I still use. She told me, showed me two things which I later tracked down when I had my own copy of the Italian into English. One was that a number of references to Christian feast days are left out, even in these translations, and that secondly the humor—you just can’t get the Italian humor to work in English. The idioms are just untranslatable, as good as the translation might [be]. We know this; all translations are like this. But the fact that certain passages are left out, that very much have to do with Christian identity, is more disturbing, but not surprising, because they’re making choices about audience, among other things, on the one hand, and a lack of value given to those references themselves.

In chapter one, or two, I guess it is, of Tending the Heart, I discuss Pinocchio, and title it, “Becoming a Real Human Child.” In that chapter, however, I did not emphasize as much as I would have—I had to make a choice here—the brilliant way in which Collodi integrates into this tale of a puppet great themes and narrative elements from classical literature and the Bible. In his own education, Collodi imbibed and took to heart Homer’s Odyssey—he couldn’t have gotten through school without having read it—Vergil’s Aeneid—he couldn’t have gotten through school without having read it—Dante’s Divine Comedy—he couldn’t have gotten through school… This is serious! I mean, I know our children don’t get to read these things. They’ve been swept out of the curriculum, but he read them. Nineteenth century Italy? Absolutely read them, as a youth. And I suspect he may have had in mind The Pilgrim’s Progress, though I wouldn’t expect that he had read it as a child in school.

Collodi was theologically educated, though he became a journalist. He attended an Augustinian seminary as a youth, and into Pinocchio he poured these motifs and themes from the Bible, especially Genesis and the Book of Jonah, as well as Jesus’ parables, such as the story of the Prodigal Son, and the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus and Galilee, they’re all there. More than this, Pinocchio recapitulates the story of the Passion. He gets hung in the original, and effectively dies, and then is brought back to life. He doesn’t really die, but, you know. And the hope, also, of salvation and the sacraments, of baptism and the Eucharist.

Here’s a quick one-and-a-half page reading of Pinocchio in a way that I did not read it in a book, as an allegory of the Christian life. We all start out as puppets, marionettes, do we not? Isn’t being a child something like being a puppet on a string? Collodi’s puppet is made from a troublesome and trouble-bound piece of wood. You wouldn’t know this from the Disney version, which in itself is a very well-done movie, but it’s not the Pinocchio of Collodi’s book. The Pinocchio of Disney is the American innocent who’s victimized and kidnapped many times. I wonder if it could have been done today. Boy, there would have been objections to it. Go back and look at it.

Collodi’s Pinocchio is a devilish little boy. He’s not merely innocent. There’s innocence in him, but there are other things working in him. Good and bad, mind you. He’s capable of some profoundly deep feelings for others, and we know that in the end, as the blue-haired fairy states to him, when she transforms him into a real boy, “You have a good heart.”

This stubborn, wooden-headed puppet may well be an allegory of our fallen human nature, that is, the wood that he’s made out of to begin with. He resists the counsel of his father and other wise counselors. He does away with the cricket, mind you, very quickly by taking a hammer to him and crushing him on a wall. Now, the cricket does reappear in a ghostly form, but he’s not Jiminy Cricket and he doesn’t sing very well. He’s struck with wanderlust and wanders from home, and like Odysseus he wants to return, but is hindered by all kinds of external powers. He’s confounded by inner conflicts. He yearns for his father, but must learn how to love unselfishly in order to rescue his father from the belly of a great Leviathan—not a whale; it’s actually a shark.

He suffers for his innocence and his misbehavior—a paradoxical mix of childhood—and is hung on a tree to die. But for the intervention of a mysterious blue-haired fairy, that is his sister and his mother, this would all have been his end. Without her guidance and discipline, he surely would remain, as he’s called a number of times, including calling himself this—a vagabond. He’d remain a vagabond and never become a true pilgrim, or find his father, for that matter.

In the end, Pinocchio risks his own life to save his father’s life, as we’re all familiar with in the Disney version. He sacrifices his own needs later to care for the aging Geppetto and to assist the blue-haired fairy, who has fallen ill, and for these deeds and his good heart—his virtuous heart—Pinocchio is made a real boy, with true flesh and blood, though surely even before this physical transformation, he had gained his humanity.

Or is all of this really an allegory of immortality? Think about it. Aren’t we all puppets, made of wood, wanting and struggling to become real in the kingdom that knows no end? And what does it mean to become real? Why, to be formed into the very likeness of God, the same likeness which we saw in the divine Word and only-begotten Son, who did not think it a dishonor to become one of us.

There’s my quick reading of the Pinocchio as a Christian allegory, which I think it is. I also think in many ways—and I did treat this more like that, an allegory of immortality—is true of The Velveteen Rabbit, which I learned from students in the Ecumenical Institute is often used in homes for the elderly. The elderly relate to The Velveteen Rabbit.

All right. I want you to read “Cinderella.” It’s not that long. It should take you 10 or 15 minutes, depending on how quick you are. You don’t have to read it real, real carefully, because I’ll take you through it again, but I want you to be familiar with it so that you aren’t puzzled by what follows.


Okay, I think we can start. This is not the “Cinderella” that most of you are familiar with. Disney took Perrault’s version. The Grimms didn’t like Perrault’s version. Basically, I think they thought it was much too moralistic and sentimental. Just to point out a few important differences… Let me say first, where did the Grimms get this version? Well, it really is a bringing together of many versions that they either heard orally or read. The Cinderella story, in its kernel, goes back to ancient Egypt, and we find it even in China in the 7th or 8th centuries A.D. It crosses cultures. They were aware of some of this; perhaps not all of it.

By the time the Grimms were writing and collecting their fairy tales, others had done the same, Perrault being one of them, already. This was going on in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. The Grimms basically were working from roughly the beginning of the 19th century, although they were born in the 18th century, through the middle of the 19th century. Many of their stories went through several versions, including “Cinderella,” so that the original “Cinderella” that they published around 1805, you didn’t have that ending, but Wilhelm stated in his notes to the edition, “I know of another ending.”

Where did they get these stories or hear them? Largely in Germany itself, particularly in the Hessian areas, but, again, like I said, they were aware of an Italian version that they liked very much. That Italian version—let me check my notes—was, yes, done in the 17th century, Giambattista Basile, and they took from that in their final version of “Cinderella” that episode of the father making a journey to a fair or to some place, another country, and then coming back with gifts.

They were compiling these stories and reediting them and reforming them with their own imaginations. These are in many respects original works, even though you would recognize others that are very much like them, that have their origins in oral storytelling. But Perrault—what’s the difference? Take some note here, because these are not some unimportant differences. In Perrault’s version of “Cinderella,” the two stepsisters are ugly, and Cinderella is—beauty cannot be hidden, even by the ashes. Remember that, because in this story, the stepsisters are beautiful.

This begins to distinguish their behavior toward Cinderella, one from the other. [In] Perrault, their meanness is largely credible to envy, but these sisters in the Grimms’ Cinderella certainly cannot be envious of Cinderella’s beauty—or is she beautiful? We’ll come to that. Their meanness is much deeper and wicked than the sisters in Perrault’s version. Of course, at the end of the Perrault version, Cinderella forgives her sisters and finds them husbands. At the end of this version, you know that doesn’t happen.

The animals do it. These are not pigeons; they’re doves. In many languages, [there is] one word for “pigeon” and “dove,” but a dove is a pigeon and a pigeon is a dove. But you see how this is illustrated. Those are doves, aren’t they? It should be translated “doves,” and for more than incidental reasons, because we know what we associate with the dove. These are choices of translation which are unfortunate. Another one would be, for example, in this particular translation, the prince is always spoken of as “prince,” but never do they use the word “Prinz,” the German “Prinz.” They, in fact, use the word “Königsohn”—the son of the king. The Trinity is in this story, and so is the Christian soul, or the Church.

Q2: When she’s going down to the graveside and the tree she has planted has grown. Is she at the altar? Do you suppose?

Dr. Guroian: Yes, she is. She plants a tree. There’s already a cross there. If you look at this image, you see there are three crosses at least in this image. The tree itself has been drawn as a cross. There’s a cross on the grave, and there’s even a cross in the window, and it’s very readily apparent. You’re drawn to it by her face, right? You’re absolutely right. Let’s keep that in mind.

This story is not unlike the story of Cupid and Psyche. I don’t know if all of you know that story, [an] ancient Greek/Roman tale. Cupid, the son of Venus, falls in love with Psyche, the human soul. She becomes pregnant, and Venus is outraged and tries and tests her by having her do precisely the same thing that Cinderella is asked to do by her mother, to sort out seeds or germs of wheat and so forth from the ashes. It goes all the way back to that, but Christians have read the story of Cupid and Psyche religiously also. Psyche represents the soul or the Church, wedded to the son, you see?

The Grimms were very good at bringing together three traditions. They brought together the Greco-Roman tradition—and it’s in almost all of their stories—they brought in the Germanic tradition—the hazel tree is a Germanic image, and it represents purity, etc.—and [they brought in] the Christian tradition. The dovecote… Again, a pigeon-coop is not good. It’s really a dovecote, and it’s an elevated dovecote, and we know that because in this translation she steps up. It should read, “She stepped up to the dovecote.” It’s a dove-house in a tree.

There are three trees in this story. There’s a Germanic tree. There’s a classical tree. What’s the classical tree? The pear tree. It’s also biblical, because that’s the golden apple in the garden. And there is a Christian tree, and that’s the dovecote. Somebody destroys these things, as he destroyed his own family: the father, who disappears from the story. He’s dealt with; we don’t know how. He just disappears, because he’s nobody. He’s the man. He’s not even called a husband or a father after what he does, which is neglect his wife’s grave, not accompany his child to that grave as she does every day, doesn’t protect her, and, note what they say: “The man—the man—took himself another wife,” and what else? That’s a mockery, in some ways, also, of the Adam and Eve story. There’s all kinds of stuff going on here, believe me. I’m not inventing this.

Q3: My question is: the way this story unfolds, particularly at the end, reminds me a bit of the Spiderman kind of motif. If you know where Spiderman comes from, the author of Spiderman was someone who actually watched his dad’s store get robbed by two thugs. So what he lives out in fantasy is “If I had superpowers, I could stop this injustice.” When we see here a tree, the tree here is not necessarily turning to Christ and the Resurrection, which is what the Jews wanted, right? They wanted a king to kick ass, but he didn’t. But in this fantasy, it’s turned around, and the good guy wins, which sounds a little bit like that fantasy that “If we’re good, we will win. We will not suffer” Protestantism. I’m just wondering how much that takes, because if we fantasy-spin to get our heart’s desire, that this girl is vindicated at the end.

Dr. Guroian: She is vindicated, but she’s Aschenputtel. She’s the ash-...

Q3: She lives happily ever after.

Dr. Guroian: Yes, she does, but she suffers. She suffers, and she’s humiliated. She sleeps in the ashes. What is that resonant of? Job, right? Also, for that matter, Odysseus spends some time in the ashes. And Lent, lentils, and so forth. This is a Lenten story. The Triduum is here: three days. And let me tell you something else. They don’t translate the feast correctly, either, because they’re the only [ones] of the Cinderella stories in which the king actually calls a wedding-feast. He’s going to marry his son. That’s not what Perrault says. He finds her and then the prince chooses to marry her. No! The word that’s used almost in every case—but not every case—in this story is the word for wedding in German, not “feast.” Yes?

Q4: Does that mean this is the presaging of the medieval imperial practice of the bride-fair, where they bring the girls out and the prince gets to pick the one he’s going to marry?

Dr. Guroian: Yeah, I think that they certainly… That’s resonant here. It must be. I’ve not seen a study of that, in which that’s discussed, but it must be. It must be.

Q4: It was commonplace. That’s how the imperials [wed off their sons].

Dr. Guroian: It’s “Hochzeit.” That’s the word that’s used and translated here as “festival.” Initially it’s called a festival. There are one or two places where it’s “festival,” but three-quarters of the times where you see “festival,” it’s the wedding. That tells you something, too. The wedding of the Lamb.

Now, the third day. The wedding-feast at Cana, which is, by count, in John’s gospel, the seventh day. You’re into the seventh day in John’s gospel, and three days hence—four days have preceded it—that’s the seventh day, the wedding-feast. The transformation of the water into the wine takes you into the first day of the new creation, and that’s what we’re being brought into in this story. I’m not kidding! Think about it.

Q5: Do you think when we’re reading this story with kids we should bring it up?

Dr. Guroian: No, not necessarily. I mean, you don’t want to be overly didactic, but here’s a suggestion: read it alongside Biblical stories and passages. Now, let me give you some of the resonant passages in here, which are not all of them. I want to take you through the story linearly to some extent, but maybe it won’t be needful.

All right, so you have: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I want to also say something about the fact that Wilhelm, particularly, was very endeared to the Apostles’ Creed and the communion of saints, and that’s what this is about. It’s diachronic, love is, so the mother begs her to be pious, to be devout and good, because we can be in communion, then, with one another. We can be in communion, and this communion extends to the rest of creation.

The animal kingdom knows the goodness of this character, Cinderella, and they come to her assistance and they pick out the good grains from the bad grains, even, and they know whose eyes to pluck out. And watch those eyes be plucked out, because that is representative of their false seeing, their incapacity; their moral blindness will now be symbolized by their physical blindness.

The blood in the shoes. Bettelheim, in his enchantment—oh, the title of that book; it’s a classic—The Uses of Enchantment, reads this story in Freudian terms, particularly with regard to the blood in the shoe. A young woman, coming of age. Okay, if you want to read it that way, you can. Seriously, I mean, that’s what he does, and back when he wrote that book, when I went to college, and so forth, you were reading Freud. Everything was Freud, Freud and Marx. But I don’t think this is what they had in mind, to be sure. This is like Flannery O’Connor, whose stories get read in Freudian terms; she just said, “This is profound. You really think that I was thinking of a phallic symbol here? Come on. Please.” In any case, I don’t think that—

No, this is a false sacrifice; this is idolatry. They’re shedding blood, but not for the right reason, and sacrificing, but not for the right reason, and it will be rejected by the Lord, as the blood of the bull. Isaiah 1:15, I think it is.

Q3: They sacrificed for such a false image.

Dr. Guroian: Exactly.

Q3: A false image is rejected.

Dr. Guroian: Precisely.

Q3: And, for Cinderella, the true image cannot be [hidden].

Dr. Guroian: No, and also remember it’s the doves who recognize the falsity, the lie.

Q3: All creation.

Dr. Guroian: Yes, that’s right, but they’re also doves, mind you. They’re also doves. There’s no holiness here.

So the beatitudes, [but] not just the beatitudes. Job [2:8]: “And he took himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes.” Daniel 9:3: “And then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplication, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” We go on to Matthew 11:21 with Chorazin and so forth; I won’t even quote that. These are all resonant.

There was a Jesuit who wrote a very fine book on the Grimms, from which much of this is stolen, mind you. I had the privilege of reading the original manuscript for Oxford. When he did his research, he found two Bibles of the Grimms’, with underlinings, and the Bibles were filled with flora. They loved to press flowers and mementos into the Bible. But the underlinings: more than half of them are from the gospel of John. The gospel of John, from the first miracle on, is about the first day of the new creation. We’re living in eternal life.

Now, wedding-feasts. “And the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king, who arranged a marriage for his son” (Matthew 22) or John: “And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” Well, there’ll be a wedding on the third day of this story once the feast begins.

The story is broken up into three parts: first you learn about the family, then there’s the visits to the palace, and then the son descends from the palace and comes to find his spouse. Those are the three parts.

Or Revelation: “Let us be glad and rejoice and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his wife has made herself ready” as Cinderella does. What does she [do]? Almost in a priestly act, she washes herself, cleans herself, cleanses herself, to receive the prince, the son of the king. Yes?

Q3: What’s striking is at the foot of the cross she offers her suffering and she’s given this beautiful garment, prayed for a beautiful garment.

Dr. Guroian: Yes, but she’s more than prayed. She’s shed holy tears, and those tears give life, don’t they? They bring the tree to life. You have a wooden cross, and then you have a cross that’s blooming. It’s the tree of life.

Q3: Nurtured by her suffering.

Dr. Guroian: That’s right, and her devotion to her mother. Filial love. That’s all there.

Those are some of the passages that absolutely come to mind, but there are others. There are others that are resonant in this story. For example, just to give you an example… Oh, and biblical resonances. Here’s an example of how… See, I have the German with me. They were imitating the biblical cadences, so, for example, you have—I’ve got everything mixed up here; hold on one second so I get my text back together—“Now it happened that the king proclaimed.” The better translation in the German is “And it came to pass.” It’s the gospels. Or, translated this way, and it’s okay this way, but I think it would be better translated somewhat differently: “They danced until the evening” or “And the evening came.”

This was quite deliberate, but [what] I wanted to go to was in fact another passage that is resonant here.  Let me get to it here. Yes. I guess it’s on the first day. Yes, because she hides in the dovecote, and then the father, who treats his… Here’s another interesting little thing. Very quickly, in the third paragraph or so of this translation, time soon grew very bad for the poor stepchild. It is “stepchild” in the German. Why should she be the stepchild? Because that’s what she’s been turned into, in a sense. Her father, her blood father, has demoted her, in a sense. After all, this is of his body, and that’s why she asks him to, on his travels, bring back the first twig or branch that brushes up against him. It’s an admonition; it’s “Remember your own branch.”

Q3: The branch that hits you upside the head.

Dr. Guroian: Exactly: remember.

Getting back to this first episode where she returns, flees from the castle. Ah, there’s so much going on in here: the sisters, the way they make fun of her and call her a princess. What is this? The scourging of Christ. They take off her robe, her dress, her good dress. So you have in this particular instance: he had them bring him an axe and a pick so that he could break the—I’m going to call it the dovecote or the dove-house—but no one was inside, and when they got home, Cinderella was lying in the ashes, dressed in her dirty clothes and a dim little oil lamp was burning. What is that reminiscent of?

Q3: The foolish and the wise virgins.

Dr. Guroian: Of course! We know. You think that’s mistaken? They tended to these stories for fifty years! They went over them, over and over again! They weren’t going to make it obvious, but it’s there. It’s planted in the story. So she’s the wise maiden who prepares for the wedding, as in the parable. Matthew 25.

Q6: What do you make of the fact that the father of Cinderella keeps wondering?

Dr. Guroian: He doesn’t recognize her. They’re blind. It’s very questionable. I don’t think that… Do you really think that the sisters see those birds? I don’t think so. They’re spiritually blind. They will become physically blind.

[Inaudible question]

Dr. Guroian: Neither does he, but, okay, if you’re talking about not recognizing her, why don’t we—how much time do we have now? About ten minutes? Five?

Why don’t we take a look at this? Not recognizing her. After the three events, in which every case, he says, “This is my true dancing-partner, my dancing-partner.” He insists: she is the one. He goes looking for her. Now he’s got the shoe, and what does he ask of the father? “Don’t you have another daughter?” Who’s that? 1 Samuel? Don’t you have another daughter? Don’t you have another son, Jesse?

“No,” said the man. That’s interesting. He doesn’t have another daughter, no, but then he describes her. “There is only a deformed”—and the word is verbuttetes, which means “retarded” or “stunted”—“little Cinderella, from my first wife, but she cannot possibly be the bride.” The choice of this word indicates a literal speech, not as in the case of Venus, who calls Psyche a whore, a slut, actually, is what she calls her. It could very well be that she is this way, but the prince sees something different. The Lord sees something different. Think about that one. That’s very different from Disney.

“No, this is only a deformed, retarded, stunted, short and fat, it can mean, little Cinderella, from my first wife, but she cannot possibly be the bride. She couldn’t possibly be the bride of the Lamb. It just doesn’t look that way to me.” And the prince told him to send her to him, but the mother answered, “Oh, no, she is much too dirty. She cannot be seen.” The German is more like, “It is not something you want to see.” It’s that bad! But the prince insisted on it, that is, the king’s son, and they call to Cinderella, and she first washed her hands and faced clean, and then went out and bowed before the son of the king, who gave her the golden shoe, and she sat down on a stool and pulled her foot out of the wooden shoe and put it into the slipper and it fitted her perfectly, and he recognized the beautiful girl—to be contrasted with what was said above—and cried out, “She is my bride.”

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