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Wise Imaginations

It is difficult to put into words why it’s so important that our students hear and read old myths and fairy tales. I’ve never been convinced that a person’s ability to rattle off the names and preserves of pagan deities has much bearing on their ability to live decently, and while there’s much to be said for sharing a common cultural store of images and expressions, there are disappointingly few contexts in which crying “fee, fi, fo, fum” seems appropriate. Some ancient stories, it’s true, seem to have clear moral messages that a reader can extract and apply to the conscience like bumper stickers. But a great many old tales are so strange and unsettling that it’s hard to know just why they strike us as having some lasting and important significance. Perhaps George MacDonald explains the power of these stories best when he says that “a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.” While we certainly want our students to be able to think logically, surely we want them to respond to truth as whole people - to be guided, not simply by their well-ordered minds, but by their well-ordered hearts. Medieval writers like Dante and Augustine describe the process of acquiring virtue as being a matter of having one’s loves “set in order.” They understand that it is not only what we know, but what we love, that determines what we do and who we are. What we and our students glean from fairy tales are, as MacDonald says, “undefined, yet vivid visions.” The stories and characters are vivid, and yet their significance is hard to define. It is generally not difficult for our young students to love myths and fairy tales, and yet in exercising this easily acquired love, our hope is that they are becoming ever more capable of loving and desiring things that “eye has not seen nor ear heard.” Through myths and fairy tales our students learn to love the idea of a journey towards a true home. They learn the longing, not just to arrive, but to become fit to be where you belong. They learn the deep courtesy that looks beyond appearances, and the hope that enchantments might be broken. It is possible, of course, that the first easy love of myths can become disordered. The reader of fairy tales can come to crave nothing more than cheap thrills and sentimental storylines. The student of literature can become smugly satisfied with the ability to spot classic tropes and archetypes. But it seems to me that at St. Timothy’s we read in the hope that good food well prepared and carefully served will be properly digested. Perhaps at our best we read prayerfully, asking that what we read will be blessed and that our imaginations will become wise.

Emily Martin is the primary teacher for the grades 1-2 class. She is also the Professor of Literature at Augustine College. Miss Martin enjoys reading to her young St. Timothy's charges every day as they enter the worlds of Greek gods, princesses, and mythical creatures.

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