Formation in Faery

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Edmund Dulac - Cinderella

Imagination is twofold, retentive (reproductive) and creative (productive). The object of the first is a sensible reality, which we have previously perceived as such. The creative forms its object by combining elements which were separately perceived. The analysis of the creative imagination is of considerable importance for the psychology of invention, and of artistic and intellectual initiative.
— “Imagination”, New Advent

The lesson for us, as parents, in this analysis of Tolkien’s Catholic imagination, is that our child’s formed imagination influences how he pictures reality. The Catholic character of their lives, the inclusion of the good, the true, and the beautiful in their environment, is going to have a profound effect on how they imagine what they imagine.
— Laura Berquist, “The Importance of the Imagination”, Catholic Culture

Man’s soul is rational, and that means he has both an intellect and will. The intellect desires truth; the will desires the good. But the imagination is something other. The imagination serves as a database of mental images stored by sensory experiences, and therefore, the intellect recalls images from the imagination which present it to the will as something to be desired. For this reason, it’s important to flood the imagination with the “good, true, and beautiful”, as St. Paul says in Philippians.
— Bryan Gonzalez, “Why We Must Form the Imagination of Our Children”, Those Catholic Men
Edmund Dulac - Cinderella
“Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother” by Edmund Dulac, in Picture Book for the Red Cross

As a child in sunny Singapore, I was brought up on a rich diet of Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Robert Louis Stevenson, Philippa Pearce, Oscar Wilde, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and many other authors and transmitters of fantasy and mystery. I eagerly imbibed these tales of old (and not so old) which furnished the chambers of my mind, charging the world around me with wonder and beauty. When I wasn’t reading, I was watching Mother Goose videos and Shakespearean stop motion films.

One day, speaking with good friends in school, I realised that not everybody had been taught the nursery rhymes which I took for granted, the rhymes which had formed the foundation of my lifelong addiction to reading and poetry.

Later on, in Australia, I met homeschoolers whose strict parents had eliminated fairytales from their childhoods. One had no idea who Rumpelstiltskin was, and thought Pinocchio was just a character in Shrek. Another had avoided Enid Blyton, thinking her books were just for girls. These homeschoolers had been thoroughly schooled in Catholic teachings, but they struggled to see the point of some lessons in our liberal arts degree, like the philosophical exploration of possible worlds, and the latter woke me up at 3 a.m. one All Saints Day having a meltdown over his Philosophy essay.

I found echoes of this deprivation in an atheist mathematician whom I met admiring the gothic majesty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As we walked the streets of Melbourne, I inquired as to his favorite stories. He had somehow laid his hands on Dante and Crime and Punishment in his teens, but he never had fairytales in childhood. He said, “I read books about things like jellyfish and dinosaurs.” In high school, he chose to study science and mathematics, because he could not see the point in the humanities. He scoffed at Shakespeare and Chaucer.

I found these young people spiritually malnourished. They lacked a balanced educational diet. On one end, the Catholics had drunk the milk of Christian doctrine; on the other, the atheist had fed well on the meat of hard science and mathematics. But they both had not tasted of the sweet fruits of literature, the leafy vegetables of fairyland (Rapunzel, anyone?), the nourishing mythic roots of their own civilization. They turned their noses up at what they had never been taught to appreciate.

Why are fairytales so important? Many European fairytales have gruesome origins, but over the centuries they have been embedded with Christian virtues, as with Cinderella and Snow White. Even without the Christian content, these stories are important in teaching children basic morals and lessons about the perennial human struggle to triumph over selfishness, cruelty and misfortune. They provide basic human formation, building empathy, rewarding courage, affirming sacrificial love in the face of death. They broaden the mind, enlarging it to admit mysteries and other points of view. When you can place yourself in the shoes of a lowly kitchen maid or a young stowaway, you can begin to appreciate the value in every human life.

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

In attempting to understand why intelligent young men and women were occasionally unable to grasp the significant human experiences treated by the Great Books, an American professor by the name of John Senior, who jointly founded and taught in a hugely successful Integrated Humanities Program based on the Great Books, concluded that a man cannot truly comprehend the 100 Great Books if he has not first had the soil of his imagination prepared and nourished by the thousand good books. Only in a mind enriched by the good books, Senior believed, can the significant experiences and truths of the great books take root and grow.
By the “good books”, Senior had in mind everything from the rhymes of Mother Goose, the Fables of Aesop and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, to works such as Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, Wuthering Heights and The Virginian. Senior recognised that just as in the spiritual life we must become as little children before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so it is in the intellectual life.
— “Dr Stephen McInerney: fairy dust needed if Great Books are ever to take root”, The Catholic Weekly

“We need to keep being told fairy tales because we need to keep being reminded that fairy tales are always true — more true than mere fact because were this story merely factual, it would apply to one person at one time. But because it is fiction it applies to all of us, all throughout history, before and beyond.”
— Ross Lawhead, “The Truth of Fairy Tales: Gaiman’s Ocean and Chesterton’s Giant”, ABC Religion and Ethics

The most charming fairy tales spring out of the common events of everyday life.
— Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Elder-Tree Mother

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a Singaporean living in Australia. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after university. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She has also written at Aleteia, MercatorNet and The Daily Declaration.

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1 thought on “Formation in Faery”

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    If you haven’t read the 1001 Arabian Nights it is virtually impossible to understand the mind of a Muslim. To get
    the full drift of this culture it is only necessary to read the tale of the ‘ first ‘ night. Most Americans who grew up
    without formal exposure to the works you mentioned were inoculated, however crude, by watching Walt Disney
    and Loony cartoons. Books are naturally the best way.

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