Forming the Moral Imagination with Fairy Tales

I recently received a wonderful question from one of the listeners of my new podcast. I include it here, because it gets at the heart of what I’m trying to show you by retelling you these stories. For reference, here is the episode where I tell the story of Finist.


Here’s the question:

Regarding the pattern at the end [of Finist], where the beautiful girl has endured much hardship, she manages to win back her beloved from his new wife. We see a phenomenon here: if you take the storyline literally, the morals exhibited are not good. But if you read the same story in a more ‘spiritual way’, then the morals are very good.

Let me explain. so this girl comes back to her beloved and steals another woman’s husband. In fact, the last fairytale where I heard this same pattern, the king even cuts off the head off his wife once his beautiful old love returns. This doesn’t make sense.

However, if you read the story in a non-literal way, and this is the journey of a soul towards achieving the good, then it is a moral achievement that she “gets her boyfriend back.”

I have often wondered how this phenomenon works in fairytales. I wonder about it also from the perspective of telling such stories to my very young children. Am I giving them an obviously bad moral, or a pattern for a spiritual truth?

There are two wonderful things in this question that I’d like to get address. They have to do with this interesting idea that I’m going to discuss in more detail in future posts called the moral imagination.

The Moral Imagination and Bad Stories

First of all, I have a confession to make. Yes, not all stories are good for you. The official description of my new podcast puts bluntly: “Is fiction dangerous?” Well, actually, yes it is! Stories speak a visceral language of the heart, and if our heart is unformed (or badly formed), we can be easily swayed by stories that have a bad heart.

Theologian and writer Vigen Guroian reminds us of this in his essay “On Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination,” where he says,

Our society is failing to cultivate the moral imagination because very often the stories we live by–the stories we read ourselves or read to our children, the stories we watch on television or at the movies–are not stories that grow the moral imagination, but stories that crowd it out.”

One of the worst kinds of story that we often tell ourselves is the story of the supreme good of self- actualization, of finding your one true love, of finding your passion and making your mark in the world. This is a compelling story to the imagination, because it speaks directly to the heart. Take this passage from the synopsis of a recent bestseller called Untaming, which has been chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club, ensuring it immediate bestseller status:

There is a voice of longing inside each woman. We strive so mightily to be good: good partners, daughters, mothers, employees, and friends. We hope all this striving will make us feel alive. Instead, it leaves us feeling weary, stuck, overwhelmed, and underwhelmed. We look at our lives and wonder: Wasn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this? We quickly silence that question, telling ourselves to be grateful, hiding our discontent—even from ourselves. 

For many years, Glennon Doyle denied her own discontent. Then, while speaking at a conference, she looked at a woman across the room and fell instantly in love. Three words flooded her mind: There She Is. At first, Glennon assumed these words came to her from on high. But she soon realized they had come to her from within. This was her own voice—the one she had buried beneath decades of numbing addictions, cultural conditioning, and institutional allegiances. This was the voice of the girl she had been before the world told her who to be. Glennon decided to quit abandoning herself and to instead abandon the world’s expectations of her. She quit being good so she could be free. She quit pleasing and started living.

Never mind what this “untaming” could do to the woman’s immortal soul. Never mind what it might do to her husband and children. Oh yes, she was married with a family when this “untaming” happened!

The World of Story and the Real World

So at first glance, it might seem that the story Finist has a bad heart, because it seems to suggest that true love can simply disregard the conventions of marriage. Sounds like a pretty bad moral, and one that we often encounter in the stories we see on TV and the movies.

But no, not at all. And the listener started answering her own objection when she suggested that there might be a “spiritual reading, not literal reading” of the fairy tale.

There is neither a literal nor a spiritual interpretation of a fairy tale. There is simply the fairy tale, its language by its very nature the language of symbol and of imagination and of transcendent ideals.

Vigen Guroian writes:

Plato 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. Good stories have a special capacity to bring back to life the starved or atrophied moral imagination, to bring back to mind what we once knew… Fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living. They do something even better, however. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humility. They enable us to envision a world in which there are norms and limits, a world in which freedom respects the moral law or pays an especially high price.”

So when our children listen to Finist, do they think “Finist is a bad character because he chucked his lawful wife for his one true love”? No. They are much more likely to think: “Perseverance and self-sacrifice can overcome even the worst injustice.” Because children are wise enough to know, even without being told, that marriage to a sorceress is no marriage at all. It’s us parents who need to have our moral imagination restored, sometimes.

Simply put, it is absolutely true that we must encounter the right kinds of stories, at the peril of our very lives. Much of the madness of the current political and cultural moment is a result of the proliferation of the worst kinds of stories.

If you’d like to hear me analyze other stories and talk about their capacity to warm our heart up for virtue, be sure to listen to the rest of the episodes in my new podcast, In a Certain Kingdom. 

I also talked a bit about this in a recent video:


  1. This is excellent. Thank you! It is something I’ve always known. Something my wife (the Dean of Academics and a British Literature major) discuss a lot.

    The second quote from Vigen Guroian I may use in my review of “Joker.” I don’t watch movies anymore really. Long story. But based on the review Jonathan Pageau did I watched “Joker” last night. Within the opening scene I could see why Joaquin Phoenix won the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was brilliant. The whole film was brilliant. Also terrifying.

    I had someone who heard I’d watched it tell me there was “nothing redeeming” in the film. He said he didn’t like “all these films making evil look glamorous.” I disagree. In fact I don’t think it made the Joker look anything but sad and broken and nothing you would want to ever be.

    The film humbled me. It enabled me to envision the world Joker lived in as a world in which there were norms and limits, and his abuse of freedom and disrespect of that moral law showed him paying an especially high price indeed.

  2. The first time I read The Iliad I thought: “!!!! This is BRUTAL!’’ Then later: this brutality lies in the heart of every man and woman. A mistake would be to venerate the characters of these stories as paragons to model oneself on (secular culture). A more tempered way would be to place these stories in our soul and see how we would be any different in these scenarios. Would we? I want to think so, but I don’t know. My point: most men would see Achilles as fearless and brave and intoxicatingly reckless. But he is narcissistic, despondent and bored. Jealous and without mercy. Those very real qualities to him are often conveniently overlooked so that pop-culture can capitalize on putting forth the former.

    My favorite canon of fairy tale are the Hellboy graphic novels. Bear with me because it is completely antithetical to the Reese Witherspoon garbage. He is literally the son of the devil, destined to rule the earth. Yet he is raised by a good man of faith who teaches him the humility of service and sacrifice. Of denying yourself indulgences. Of fighting his very nature.

    All through the canon he has fanciful and evil creatures trying to manipulate him into ‘being who he was born to be’ (self-actualization) and he wrestles mightily with himself to live as his adoptive father taught, to deny his nature and be merciful, charitable and kind. He carries a cross that burns him to hold (he’s half demon) and relics of Saints to fight monsters. His work never leaves him ‘happy’ and often he is drunk talking to literal ghosts because he is sad and the path is confusing, without witness, reward or gratification. . His duty is awful and heavy.

    In the end of the canon he gives up his life, his legacy, all of it to save a humanity that despises him.
    Sounds familiar.

    It is is bonus that through the comics he encounters almost every major fairy tale personality one could fit, flooding the ontology of the story with real/imaginal and the interactions are often witty and funny. A find blend of humor over the morose. But good seeds for the imagination

    1. The idea of the devil’s son being a figure who seeks redemption is of course a very compelling idea in terms of the story. But I’ve read too much theology to be able to accept that story as possible 🙂 And it’s hardwired into me to recoil at the red-skinned, horned, tailed monstrosity. But that’s just me 🙂

  3. Great article! I just want to nitpick about your Glennon Doyle anecdote (though I agree with your critique of the spirit of the age). It’s REALLY easy for traditional Christians to blame her for destroying their family, particularly if you haven’t read her first memoir.

    See– her husband betrayed her. Not just with pornography, but with straight out adultery. And she really tried to forgive him and stay with him. Her first memoir was all about the hope she had for forgiveness and reconciliation after being destroyed. It was just sadly premature— published within two years, when infidelity experts say give it at least 5. So, really, it was the husband who destroyed the family. (An Orthodox response to the Doyle phenomenon must look at the whole picture, not just the gay part.

    With that in mind, I think I’m a little on the fence about “old wife/new wife” fairy tales. My own children have reacted with offense to those kinds of endings, and have needed the spiritual interpretation to make it palatable. And I am wary about any story that suggests an *obligation* to suffer under abuse– though I agree that we need stories to show us that such suffering has the potential to be both voluntary and redemptive. But this is problematic at best, and one weakness of the old stories is that they did not challenge abuses such as adultery (in which the adulterer can *always* find something wrong with the spouse to justify such behavior– she was an evil princess, you know).

    I might have to sponsor some transcripts so that I get to engage with this new podcast! 😉

    1. Hi Laura! Its’ interesting that nothing about the first memoir shows up in the wikipedia page for the author. I made sure to read it just in case I was missing something, so I feel a little peeved 🙂 And I accept your criticism of focusing on her new-found gayness. I’m less making a point about that than I am making a point about the lie of the “one true love.” If she had looked across the hall and seen a MAN and thought, “There. He. Is,” the end result would have been the same, as far as I’m concerned. But I agree with you, her story is mitigated by her husband’s adultery. Thank you for setting the record straight.

      As for the old wife/new wife thing, I’m taking specifically about Finist. In that story, there’s a strong suggestion that the first marriage isn’t real at all ,that the entire thing is orchestrated by a witch. So Finist is actually as much victim as his beloved. That’s my point about “marriage with a sorceress is no marriage.” I meant it literally, in the specific case of the tale that I told. I don’t presume to generalize about old wife/wife stories. Of course there are probably bad ones there as well.

      Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by the obligation to suffer. Everything you’ve said I agree with. And all the stories I’ve told so far have not in any way excused the abusers. In Finist, the main character takes on a podvig, but that’s in response to her own mistake of not appreciating her love in the right way. I wouldn’t ever recommend a story that excuses adultery, for the record. Like I said, there are old stories that are bad. Being old doesn’t automatically make you good.

      1. Point taken about romance being the be-all-and-end-all, though I am a romantic at heart and think our world could use a few more starry eyes. I’d say the culture’s obsession with falling in love actually has to do with a lack, and not an abundance, of eros.

        I had to ask my kids where we had been reading that had a two-wife pattern, and they reminded me that there were a few in the “Tales of Ancient Egypt”. So it made me think that perhaps this is a difference between pagan and Christian influenced myth. The morals of the stories were not always so clear cut in the Egypt myths, even to my children with relatively healthy imaginations.

        Regarding the obligation to suffer, I was thinking about your listener’s question and his/her initial assessment of the myth, coupled with the Doyle anecdote. I sympathize with the reaction, and was thinking of other bad patterns I’ve seen, like the “beauty and the beast” type that is used so frequently to justify situations like Doyle’s. I didn’t mean to imply that the Finist story fit that model— clumsy writing on my part. 🙂

        Though I think you bring up an interesting point about “podvig”—it’s such a foreign concept to most people in our culture that we absolutely need stories to illustrate it in its healthy forms.

        1. Thank you for that response, Laura, and for this stimulating conversation. I never liked beauty and the beast for that reason, by the way. But the Russian beauty and the beast is quite different. I might fit it in this season on the podcast. And your point about eros is just spot on! The science is backing it up, too. Some scary statistics out there on the loneliness of young people especially.

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