A fairy tale from a Christian minister. A mystery story from a famous Catholic convert and apologist. A tragic novel from a troubled revert. Three great stories with one common theme: the hand of Divine Providence.
Do you ever try to see the workings Divine Providence in your life- and fail? I certainly do. God’s wise plan for the universe can seem mysterious and opaque to our limited human intelligence. Many different symbols and analogies have been used over the centuries to help us grasp this challenging concept. But three very different stories over the course of three quarters of a century have used the same powerful imagery of an invisible thread to help us envision and contemplate God’s hand in our lives.
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The Princess and the Goblin
In 1872, George MacDonald wrote The Princess and the Goblin. A Christian minister of loosely Calvinist beliefs, MacDonald consciously wrote this fairy tale to illustrate Divine Providence in our lives. In the story, MacDonald uses several symbols for Divine Providence such as a lamp, a grandmother’s love, and pigeons. But his most powerful image is the invisible thread.
Princess Irene receives a ring with an invisible thread attached from her grandmother. Irene’s grandmother tells her that if she is ever in peril, she must place the ring under her pillow and feel the invisible thread with her fingers. By following the thread with a trusting heart, she will find her way to safety. Throughout The Princess and the Goblin, Irene trust in and follows the invisible thread when she feels afraid. By so doing she not only finds personal safety from the goblins but also rescues her friend Curdie. Obviously, the thread is an analogy for trust in God’s providence. As long as Irene trusts in God’s plan and follows it with childlike confidence, all things work for good in her life.
George MacDonald’s fairy tales were an inspiration to one of the most beloved writers and prodigious intellects of the 20th century: G. K. Chesterton. It’s little surprise to see Chesterton repeating MacDonald’s invisible thread motif in his Father Brown stories. In the story “The Queer Feet” in The Innocence of Father Brown, Father Brown describes his calling as being a fisher of men.
Father Brown has found a repentant thief. Explaining how the thief was caught, the good priest uses the analogy of a fisherman with an invisible thread: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
In 1945, Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited, the seemingly dark story of a Catholic family tragedy. On the surface, this book which portrays a dysfunctional Catholic family with an overbearing mother, two rebellious children who flee from God towards homosexuality and adultery. But paradoxically, Brideshead Revisited is in essence an apologia for the Catholic faith.
In the second half of the story, which Waugh titled “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” the various members of the Flyte family are called back to their childhood faith by circuitous paths. In the novel, Waugh doffs his hat to Chesterton’s influence by using the image of the thread to describe the Flyte children’s reversion to Catholicism. Cordelia even repeats the quote about the invisible thread from The Innocence of Father Brown at one point in the novel.
Life Lessons from Literature
In all three of these books, the imagery of Divine Providence as an invisible thread is used as a tangible, familiar image to describe the hand of God protecting and guiding all back to Him. When the Princess is in mortal danger, when the thief flees with his plunder, when the Flytes have rebelled in every imaginable way, we wonder how this can possibly be part of God’s plan.
Similarly, when we experience suffering, loss, misfortune in our lives, our faith in God’s good plan can waver. The imagery of the invisible thread can steady us in troubled times and help us trust in God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” We can believe that, like the Princess and the Thief and the Flytes, we too will find our way to safety and peace one day.
Needless to say, these are three of my favorite stories, all of which I highly recommend!
When the days are dark- whether from winter dreariness or a period of suffering in life- some light, comforting fiction can do wonders to lift the spirits. Or at least push back the darkness for a little while!
“Where there is darkness let me bring your light.”
St. Francis of Assisi
Here are a dozen or so of my favorite “cozy” fiction books for the days when your spirit feels weighed down!
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James Herriot takes the blue ribbon for cozy in my opinion. The lovely Yorkshire Dales, the friendly country people, the memorable animals, and the never-ending cups of English tea create a comforting picture of a calm, peaceful world to escape into.
For sheer comedic genius, it’s hard to beat P. G. Wodehouse. The Most Of P.G. Wodehouse is a great introductory volume to this master writer. You get a little Jeeves and Wooster, a little of the Blandings crew, and some other short stories. Wodehouse’s eccentric characters are guaranteed to lift the spirits with their hilarious escapades.
D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book is another cozy English country novel. In the lethargic village of Wandlebury, Miss Buncle writes a book about a girl who writes a book about a girl who writes a book. Yes, really. It sounds confusing, but is quite humorous in quiet, soft-spoken English fashion. This is one English village novel which doesn’t involve a murder!
However, if an engaging, light mystery is your cup of poison, I mean tea, then you can’t beat the Golden Age of Mystery writers! Dorthy Sayers’ charming Lord Peter Wimsey series begins with Whose Body? Agatha Christie has some lighter mysteries, particularly her Miss Marple Short Stories. Marjory Allighham’s Albert Campion stories and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries are also great choices in this genre.
To leave England for a moment, the international bestseller from Spain, The Awakening of Miss Prim is a Catholic book lover’s delight, full of references to great literature. Read my full review here!
L. M. Montgomery excels at drawing amusing, poignant, and memorable characters. Nearly everyone has read the Anne books, but her other books are charming too. Try The Blue Castle, The Complete Chronicles of Avonlea, and The Story Girl. Or just re-read the Anne books because, what can beat Anne of Windy Poplars for a cozy book to curl up with?
Jane Austen is another great choice to revisit for a comfortable reading experience. If you haven’t read some of her lesser works, Northranger Abbey is hilarious satire, while Mansfield Park has a likable quieter heroine. You can rest assured everyone lives happily ever after in Jane Austen. Well, the likable characters do anyway.
The vibrant blues and greens of this Mediterranean paradise leap straight from the pages of the Corfu Trilogy into your imagination. Gerald Durrell’s awe-inspiring descriptions of the antics of the abundant wildlife on the island is punctuated by laugh out loud memories of his eccentric family’s life.
The Club of Queer Trades, like most of Chesterton’s fiction, is rife with flights of fantasy, paradoxes, and an exuberant affirmation of the sheer interestingness of life. My other Chesterton favorites for comfort fiction and general hilarity include Manalive and The Flying Inn.
Georgette Heyer is known as the Queen of Regency Romance for a reason. The Grand Sophy is one of her best loved and hilarious novels, filled with characters both charming and devilish, romantic entanglements, and misunderstandings.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is such a sweet, calming read about a famous Catholic family. Maria Augusta Trapp’s story of meeting her husband and children is only the beginning of this family’s adventures. She recounts their escape from the Nazis, immigration to America, and determination to create a home in the New World in the most charming prose imaginable.
I don’t love many of Gene Stratton Porter’s books, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is simply too sweet and appealing a story to miss. This semi-autobiographical novel is told by Little Sister, the youngest in a large family. Little Sister’s fierce family loyalty, delight in God’s creation, and inspiring faith will charm you.
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon is a slow-paced, engaging small-town story about an Episcopalian minister and his “ordinary” congregation. But is any person really ordinary?
Warning: given the Protestant author and protagonist, there are some obvious clashes with Catholic beliefs (i.e. married priests).
What is the real magic in fairy tales? Why are they timeless and what do they teach us? Literature professor Mitchell Kalpakgian sets out to answer these questions by analyzing some of the themes repeated throughout classics children’s literature with a particular focus on fairy tales. The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature is a wonderful book for parents to read. This book clarifies so many of the enigmatic themes in children’s stories, empowering you as the parent to point out these themes to your children in stories from Cinderella to Pandora’s Box. It also helps Catholic parents understand the importance of exposing our children to these classic stories as a type of faith formation in shaping their hearts and imaginations.
What is a children’s classic?
Kalpakgian believes that a classic explicates one of the mysteries of life for children (and adults). A great story illuminates the connection between the spiritual and physical. Kalpakgian writes: “Dreams and fairy tales are as useful and necessary as windows which join the outside realm to the inside world, which bring heaven to earth and draw the human world to the divine world.”
The themes in children’s literature can sometimes seem mysterious and contradictory.
For example, what’s the deal with wishes in fairy tales? Why do they sometimes come true, and sometimes don’t? Why are the consequences of wishing in fairy tales sometimes positive, like Cinderella receiving fairy help and a happily ever after, and sometimes negative, like Midas’ daughter turning to metal?
Kalpakgian classifies wishes in stories in four distinct categories: whims, fantasies, temptations, and true wishes. Whims are random, thoughtless wishes. Fantasies are “excessive, uncontrollable desires for gold or power that reflect the sin of pride, the worship of money, and self-delusion.” Temptations in children’s classics are false promises of excitement which entice innocent children to disobey. But true wishes begin in the deepest longings of the heart and reflect desires associated with genuine human happiness such as true love or the blessing of children.
Children’s classics help form an appreciation and desire for the transcendentals.
Kalpagian devotes three chapters to the Mystery of the Good, the Mystery of Truth, and the Mystery of Beauty. The transcendentals- the good, the true, the beautiful, and the one- are attributes of God. Each transcendental is intimately connnected to the others and points us to the others. For example, true beauty draws are heart and mind to truth and goodness. Kalpagian writes, “The mystery of beauty in children’s literature evokes a love and desire for knowledge.” Beauty drawing the beholder to truth and goodness can be seen in many fairy taeles such as Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.
Looking at the connection between the transcendentals from another angle, inability to appreciate beauty correlates with blindness to truth and goodness, as in Anderson’s Swineherd. These chapters on each transcendental and also the inextricable bond between them were the best in the book in my opinion.
To quibble a bit, I found Kalpagian’s chapter on The Mystery of Luck slightly lacking.
Of course, I didn’t agree with every part of this book. To nitpick, I wish Kalpakgian’s treatment of “luck” had a more overtly Christian tone. He treats luck or fortune as a mysterious force that brings gifts to some and ruins others. I found this treatment not so much incorrect as incomplete; as Catholics we believe that all events are part of God’s plan. What agnostics call luck, Catholics call Divine Providence or blessings from God. In The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, Arthur Ransome uses this Christian understanding of luck: “This is a story that shows that God loves simple folk and turns things to their advantage in the end.”
Kalpakgian actually does have a wonderful chapter on Divine Providence in children’s stories. He points out the mysterious yet very real motif of Divine Providence seen in the form of fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and mysterious elves in books. His explanation of Irene’s grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin is really exceptional as an example of Divine Providence as that invisible thread also seen in Chesterton’s Father Brown. But for some reason, Kalpagian doesn’t also see Divine Providence as represented by “luck” in children’s literature.
Classic stories help children develop a strong moral compass.
By reading or listening to classic stories at a tender age, children’s imaginations and hearts are formed to accept simple truths about virtue and life. Goodness, when done out of a generous heart and without desire for reward, is exalted and repaid twofold. The simple folk with no deviousness in their hearts are blessed. True wishes for genuine human goods are granted. Beauty leads to truth, which leads to goodness. Divine providence is a mysterious, but real and powerful force.
Not only are the pure of heart rewarded, the wicked or selfish are punished. Fairy tales and fables teach that ultimately good does triumph over evil. Often good triumphs in this life, but sometimes not until the next. For example, in the original Little Mermaid tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get to marry the prince and dies, but she is lifted up by the sky fairies at death and given the opportunity for immortality, which is the real desire in her heart.
The great writer G. K. Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy that the lesson he retained from fairy tales and stories from his childhood had a profound effect on his eventual conversion. I conclude that as Catholic parents we can not do better than to nourish our children’s minds, hearts, and imaginations with truly worthwhile stories that impart the lessons Kalpagian writes about in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature.
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Teens and Romances
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What type of romance should teens be reading?
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
Themes in true romances
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
This list would be incomplete without some Louisa May Alcott! Though Little Women focuses mostly on sister-relationships, other Alcott books like Rose in Bloom and An Old-fashioned Girl are about finding love, sometimes in unexpected places. Rose and Polly learn to remain true to their beliefs and wait for a man wiht a pure heart.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting historical fiction novel about a fiery teenage girl who becomes deeply involved in palace intrigues, caught between two rivals for the Egyptian throne. Oh, and of course there is romance too. I love how this story shows Mara’s growth from utter selfishness to understanding the sacrificial nature of love.
Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is another book that fits many genres. I call it a romance for two reasons. First, because it teaches the reader that everyday life is romantic. Second, because a third of the book is about two characters falling in love and fighting in court to be allowed to marry.
Here are some novels with romantic plots I recommend for teens over 14.
Funny and memorable, My Heart Lies South is a true story about a young American journalist who falls in love on a trip to Mexico and ends up staying. Readers will love this amusing love story that also touches on the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture and family.
Do not assume all of Gene Stratton-Porter is appropriate for teens, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is really a charming story told by Laddie’s Little Sister, who explores themes about family, nature, redemption, and forgiveness. She also recounts how Laddie fell in love with and won the heart of a Princess.
Freckles is another great book by Gene Stratton-Porter. Similar to Laddie in many ways, a simple lad must win the heart of a high-born girl. A charming romance, and a great story of personal growth and overcoming disability.
The Robe is the story of one man’s quest for love and truth. He finds it in Christ. But he does also find love with a special young woman, which teen readers will enjoy.
The James Herriot Books are the funny and endearing stories of everyday life as a country veterinarian. James Herriot weaves his story of wooing and winning his wife into his animal anecdotes.
[Parental warning: mild language]
Everyone knows that teenage girls should read Pride and Prejudice, but don’t stop there. Read The Jane Austen Collection for more classic stories about finding love, with a side of social commentary and comedy.
[Parental warning: mentions of out of wedlock relationships, illegitimate children, mistresses]
The Virginian is a classic western full of cowboys, shoot-outs, and true love. With his quiet humor and gentle nature, the reader is rooting for the Virginian to win the lady.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as I mentioned above, a stellar example of how true love is sacrificial. No-good Sydney Carton never does get the girl, but his pure love for her ends up being his redemption.
P. G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he also wrote some hilarious romantic comedies such as the Adventures of Sally. Many of his Blandings Castle novels also include a strong romantic plot, such as in Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a love story, which is kept carefully PG. Strong female heroines abound in these novels. [Parental warning: one of the girls is wilder and does break some of the rules, occasionally is described as dressing in a more risque fashion, etc. There is also mention of someone keeping a mistress, which is portrayed negatively.]
[Parental warnings: one scene of attempted date rape in the very first book]
Older teens (16+) will enjoy these more difficult novels.
A classic mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is driven by a romantic interest. The protagonist and narrator must solve the mystery of who the woman in white is in order to gain a happily ever after with his wife.
Suffering. We all experience little sufferings on a daily basis. And sometimes, we experience great sufferings: when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a baby is lost, when a marriage crumbles, when a hurricane destroys one’s home, when a child falls away from the faith.
In moments of intense pain, we find ourselves confronted with the age old question: how can a loving God allow His children to suffer such pain? We ask, “Why, God? Why me? Why my child?” Or we meet friends who have fallen away from the Catholic faith because, “God let bad things happen to me.”
Fortunately, as Catholics, we have thousands of years of the human race’s most brilliant minds to look to for answers. Here are some of the books which have helped me come to terms with “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it.
To begin with a little philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is a particularly powerful tool in dialoguing with agnostics and atheists. Boethius relies solely on natural reason and Hellenic philosophy as he explains why bad things happen to good people.
Historically juxtaposed to Boethius is the Book of Job, the Hebrew look at the problem of evil and suffering. Although much of the Old Testament seems to imply that God inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins committed by individuals, the story of Job offers a completely different perspective. Job is the innocent, good man who still loses everything he loves and undergoes intense suffering. Look it up in your Bible if you’ve never read it. Also, if you enjoy fiction, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday explores many of the same themes found in Job.
In a personal favorite of mine, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis contemplates suffering and human pain with his usual lucidity and conciseness. I find his way for harmonizing a good God and the problem of suffering particularly helpful. He also has a fascinating chapter towards the end of the book in which he speculates about animals and heaven.
Another favorite author of mine, Peter Kreeft, takes on suffering in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Kreeft’s book is an apologia for the Catholic understanding of suffering as meaningful.
Sheldon Vanauken lost the love of his life to a terminal illness after a far too short marrigae. A Severe Mercy is both heartbreakingly tragic and breathtakingly beautiful. This is a powerful true story of how the death of a loved one can lead to a greater good.
Another powerful personal testimony, in Man’s Search for Meaning Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes his soul-crushing experience of spending three years in concentration camps during World War II. During his imprisonment, Frankl had to watch his pregnant wife and family all die from hardship and starvation. Yet Frankl’s book is full of hope and a message about finding meaning in suffering.
Dragons have historically been associated with evil by western tradition, but in recent years a spat of books have appeared featuring friendly dragons. Is the traditional view of dragons superstitious? Or is there a certain inherent evil in dragons? Should our children be reading books that reverse the evil dragon stereotype?
DRAGONS IN THE BIBLE
There are a couple mentions of dragons in the Bible. In the original Hebrew, the author of Genesis uses the word worm to refer to Satan in the Garden. In Hebrew, worm would mean serpent or dragon. The more well known Biblical mention of a dragon is in Revelation 12, where a dragon waits to devour the child the woman is about to bring forth. Thus there are at least two place sin the Bible where the dragon is equated with the evil one.
DRAGONS IN WESTERN LEGEND
Throughout western mythology and legend, dragons are closely associated with serpents (harping back to the Hebrew Biblical word), evil, and Satan. Catalan Drac and German Lindworm are examples of snakelike dragons. The Hungarian Zomo, was a giant winged snake. In English legend, dragons are often referred to as worms. In Albanian legend, Bolla is a serpentine-like dragon that wakes once a year on St George’s feast day to devour the first human it sees. In nearly every European country, one finds legends of this sort linking serpentine dragons to evil.
A number of popular books in recent years have portrayed a very different dragon than the evil serpent of western tradition. For example, Tomie De Paola, whose work I usually like, has a picture book, The Knight and the Dragon, in which a cute chubby dragon and young knight are at first mutually terrified of each other and end by becoming good friends. Similarly, a well loved early chapter book called My Father’s Dragon is the engaging story of Elmer Elevator, a young boy who rescues a friendly baby dragon. The Eragon series, which stars a young man who hatches a friendly dragon, has gained popularity in recent years in Catholic circles. These books and others in a similar vein, while engaging stories, are in complete contradiction to centuries of oral and written wisdom concerning dragons.
DRAGONS AND DEMYTHOLOGIZING
Michael OBrien’s A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind is, in my opinion, the definitive guide to understanding the intricacies of dragons, magic, fairy tales, paganism, and a plethora of other tricky topics in contemporary children’s literature. In regards to dragons, O’Brien explains that western Christian legends and myths about dragons “refer to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” He describes recent pro-dragon literature as “demythologizing,” and explains that the devil actually would be thrilled to see us forget the traditional narrative of the good knight fighting for his King
“The dragon has a vested interest in having us dismiss the account of the battle as make-believe. It is not to his benefit that we, imitating our Lord the King, should take up arms against him. He thinks it better that we do not consider him dangerous. Of course, the well-nourished imagination knows that dragons are not frightening because of fangs, scales, and smoke pouring from nostrils. The imagination fed on truth knows that the serpent is a symbol of hatred and deceit, of evil knowledge and power without conscience.” ~ Michael O’Brien
Imagination Forming Fantasy
If your children love fantasy, the good news is there are plenty of books that depict dragons in an appropriately fearsome manner, respecting their traditional symbolism as evil. I recently read The Squire and the Scroll to my 5 year old. This awesome picture book reinforces purity of heart and has a satisfyingly evil dragon for the young squire to slay. Margaret Hodges’ retelling of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is another awesome picture book. For older readers, Tolkien’s The Hobbit has a wonderful depiction of Smaug as the evil dragon. Fairy tales and Arthurian legends are also rife with traditional themes about dragons.
A CHESTERTONIAN CONCLUSION
When it comes to dragons, I find myself thinking of G. K. Chesterton’s wisdom about fairy tales. Since tiny children instinctively imagine dragons and monsters as a visual symbol of the evil one, the best course of action as a parent is to give them hope for victory over that evil through stories which end with the dragon defeated.
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” ~ G. K. Chesterton