We teach literature at CCA because of its unique ability to make a profound impact on a reader. The best stories prepare students for the great, life-long battles they will face as they strive to live righteously. They also give memorable encouragement to persevere in the fight.
The Development of the Moral Imagination
Preparation for battle begins by cultivating a student’s moral imagination. Moral imagination is the mental preparedness required to fight against sin and vice and for goodness and virtue. Being prepared for this battle requires an understanding of that which we are battling. How can we teach children about sin and evil without exposing them to it? How can we grant them knowledge of sin’s consequences without experiencing sin’s pain? Great stories! Stories allow students to repeatedly enter into other worlds and observe as good conquers evil, virtue overcomes vice, and sinful behavior receives its just reward.
J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this phenomenon in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” describing fairy-stories as the windows in the nursery or the school room in which children get their first glimpse of the adult world. Tolkien defines fairy-stories in this way:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”
These fictional tales, or “fairy-stories,” prepare children to courageously engage with and overcome sin and evil in the real world. A world where dragons may not be fire-breathing and scaly—but where they are unquestionably real and arguably more dangerous. Preparation for such a fight is essential.
The Consolation of the Happy Ending
Stories not only prepare us for the fight, they encourage the battle-weary. In his essay, Tolkien divides a fairy-story into three parts: (1) recovery, (2) escape, and (3) consolation. Recovery means that, through literature, we see things as they are—or as we were meant to see them. It is possible that a fairy story is more true than what we see in real life, so far as it correctly displays the truth of God and human nature. Escape refers to the relief we get from the ugliness of modern life, which often distracts us from the truer beauties in life. In fairy stories, evil is evil, good is good, the beautiful is truly beautiful and these things are not so convoluted and confusing as we are led to believe here in our world. Consolation, the most important part, refers to “the Consolation of the Happy Ending,” which Tolkien calls “the turn” or “the Eucatastrophe” in stories:
In its fairy-tale setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and insofar is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart.”
What Tolkien describes here is the real gold we give to children through literature. These moments in stories have the power to stay with children their entire lives, but they are only possible if you let the story do the heavy-lifting. Do not bog the student down with busy work or parse a story to bits to place it into boxes with neat labels. We discuss each story in class; we seek to understand the context, the writing styles, and even the emerging themes that drive the narrative, but not at the expense of the story as a whole. By immersing students in the story itself, literature teachers allow this inevitable “turn” from sorrow to joy to fall on a student with greater weight. We want students to feel that weight. What are these “turns” if not shadows of the greatest story – the Gospel? We persevere in an arduous, exhausting, impossible battle with sin and evil because Christ is our conqueror, He purchased our victory, He turns our sorrows to joy. Each story we read together in class, every climax that reveals a glimpse of “Joy beyond the walls of the world,” strengthens our resolve that this ultimate victory is possible.
Our Literature Curriculum
We read books that tell the truth about the destructive nature of sin and vice, display the attractiveness of virtue, and beckon students to pick up their arms for battle. Our favorite books enter us into fantastic, wild, and terrible adventures and best of all, lead us to the “joy of deliverance.” This past year, our Kindergarten class read Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Frog and Toad, Little Red Riding Hood, Johnny Appleseed, St. George and the Dragon, The Nutcracker, Chanticleer and the Fox, and The Velveteen Rabbit. Our 1st-2nd grade class read Peter Rabbit, The House At Pooh Corner, Br’er Rabbit, The Adventures of Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Fairy Tales, American Tall Tales, Sarah Plain and Tall, and Aesop’s Fables. Our 3rd-4th grade class read Treasure Island, Little House on the Prairie, A Christmas Carol, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Rip Van Winkle, The Wind in the Willows, and The Children’s Homer. Our 6th grade class read Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, selected works of poetry, A Christmas Carol, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Rip Van Winkle, and Tales of Shakespeare.