Peter & Mowgli
A sidebar in Vigen Guroian's “Of Weeds & Fairy Tales”
by Vigen Guroian
For more than a decade, I have taught a course at my college entitled “Religion in Children’s Literature.” Each year, the young men and women say that in their childhood they were deprived of these resources of the moral imagination. They were not introduced to most of the stories and books on the syllabus, and their natural sense of wonder was starved.
I don’t have to persuade them that the tasty food of fairy tales and the classic children’s stories that we read in class is good for the soul. Books like Bambi, The Secret Garden, and The Wind in the Willows, and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde possess a richness, texture, and elevating quality accessible to anyone who reads them, whatever his age.
My students take advantage of these stories to revisit childhood one last time before they enter the adult world. It is a wonderfully satisfying experience. They find themselves not only looking back but also forward to their futures.
Interestingly, they especially enjoy James Barrie’s Peter Pan and the Mowgli stories in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, since they are about two children who don’t want to grow up and join the real human world. They are intrigued by how these stories dramatize the role of freedom in human development, its right use and its wrong use. The correct exercise of freedom perfects the virtues that serve a larger good. The misuse of freedom feeds the vices and engenders destructive behavior.
The stories of Peter and Mowgli turn out differently. Peter refuses to join the lost boys in the Darling household. He returns to Never Land and remains a child and a prisoner of his own passions, though he continues to think he is free. We come to see that his humanity is incomplete and malformed. Even his vivid and fertile imagination, of which we may initially be jealous, is stuck in irresponsible childhood and dangerous to others.
By contrast, the love and wisdom of his animal mentors enable Mowgli to mature as a moral being. He struggles with choices and takes responsible action to protect beasts and human beings he loves. His powers of memory, reason, and love grow as he takes responsibility for himself and others under the law of the jungle, and he re-enters human society a mature young man.
Vigen Guroian is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his books are the second, expanded edition of Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics (University of Notre Dame, 2002) and Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life (ISI Books, 2005). "Family Offices" was given at Touchstone's conference, "Praying and Staying Together," in October 2004.
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“Peter & Mowgli” first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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