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Vigen Guroian

Pinocchio on the Damascus Road

It's not so easy getting over woodenness.

In Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination, Vigen Guroian confirms with theological insight what generations of parents have intuitively known: that the classics of children's literature not only delight and divert and reassure children but also provide deep and abiding moral instruction. Guroian's fresh readings of beloved stories such as Charlotte's Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, and the Chronicles of Narnia will stir memories among many readers and prompt them to take these classics down from the shelf, while others will be introduced to these inexhaustible riches for the first time. What follows is an excerpt from Guroian's chapter on Pinocchio.

In the 1943 Disney animated film version of Carlo Collodi's 1883 classic, The Adventures of Pinocchio, the woodcarver Geppetto wishes upon a star that the marionette he has made might become a real boy. In the end, Geppetto's wish is granted by the Blue Fairy because the woodcarver has "given such happiness to others" and because Pinocchio has proven himself to be "brave, truthful, and unselfish." The contemporary children's writer Maurice Sendak judges that Disney's Pinocchio "is good; his 'badness' is only a matter of inexperience."1 Sendak likes it this way, as he also dislikes Collodi's Pinocchio because the puppet "is born bad" into a world that is itself "a ruthless, joyless place, filled with hypocrites, liars, and cheats." According to Sendak, Collodi created a character who is "innately evil, [a] doomed-calamity child of sin" who "doesn't stand a chance; … a happy-go-lucky ragazzo, but damned nevertheless."

I strongly disagree with Sendak's reading of Collodi. Yet his remarks raise profound questions about the meaning of childhood and about the nature of moral perfection. These matters pertain to Collodi's story and, as I will show, contrary to Sendak's opinion, make it one of the great works of literature for children.

What is meant by "growing up"?

In the essay by Sendak that I have cited, he goes on to explain that he likes Disney's version of Pinocchio because Disney establishes the puppet's desire to grow up as the central concern of the story, rather than emphasizing the imperative to be good. "Pinocchio's wish to be a real boy remains the film's underlying theme, but 'becoming a real boy' now signifies the wish to grow up, not [as in Collodi] the wish to be good." I agree with Sendak that "growing up" is a primary concern in the film, as it is in the book. But his contrast between this desire to grow up and the imperative to be good is troublesome. Surely, Sendak would agree that normally when we say to a child, "It's time you grow up," we mean that in order to become a mature human being a person must also be morally responsible.

What kind of a story would Pinocchio be, after all, if all that was entailed in the fulfillment of Pinocchio's (or Geppetto's) wish is that his wooden frame be magically transformed into human flesh without the accompaniment of an increase in his moral stature? Actually, neither the Disney film nor the Collodi story portrays Pinocchio's transformation into a flesh-and-blood child this way. In both stories Pinocchio wants to be more; he wants to be a real boy, a good boy, a genuine human son.

All children, excepting Peter Pan, want to grow up. And, in fact, all healthy children will grow to be adult individuals whether they want to or not. Pinocchio certainly has a special problem that Collodi casts as an allegory about moral growth. Pinocchio is a wooden puppet, and as the blue-haired fairy says to him, puppets never grow: "They are born puppets, they live puppets and die puppets." The deeper meaning belongs to the metaphor of "woodenness."

Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination
by Vigen Gurolan
Oxford Univ. Press
176 pp.; $22

This woodenness of his mind and will, and not the matter of being physically made of wood, is Pinocchio's greatest obstacle to "growing up." Sendak has this part right at least: Collodi's Pinocchio is no mere innocent, and the wrongs he commits are, more often than not, not merely the mistakes of ignorance but the consequences of a hard head, undisciplined passions, and a misdirected will that resists good advice.

In the Disney version, real boyhood is bestowed on Pinocchio as a reward for being good by the Blue Fairy with a touch of her magic wand; or, as the Blue Fairy herself says, because Pinocchio has proven himself "brave, truthful, and unselfish." In Disney's imagination this is magic. In theological terms this is works righteousness.

By moral description, the Disney story presents the virtues as the completion and very essence of Pinocchio's humanity—once he has proven himself "brave, truthful, and unselfish" he is transformed into a real boy.

Collodi views things differently. In his story, Pinocchio becomes a real flesh-and-blood human child after he awakens from a dream in which the blue-haired fairy forgives him for his former waywardness and present shortcomings, while she also praises him for the good path he has taken by showing a son's love for his father. For Collodi, real boyhood is not so much a reward as it is the visible sign of a moral task that has been conscientiously pursued, a task that even at that moment when Pinocchio is transformed from wood into flesh and blood is not yet wholly completed. Pinocchio's filial love, obedience, truthfulness, and self-expenditure for the sake of others ultimately triumph over his primal propensity to be selfish and self-centered. His good heart with its innate capacity to love finally dominates over his wooden head.

The flesh he acquires represents a significant stage in the perfection of his humanity—that is, childhood—when filial love and obedience toward parents are appropriate. These and the other virtues are the preconditions for becoming a real human being, but they do not constitute our humanity as such. Collodi is clear that Pinocchio's good heart is the source and substance of his humanity and that responsible relationships with others are humanity's path to perfection. Grace assists but does not compel the moral maturation of the puppet, since the puppet, despite Sendak's opinion, is essentially good, and since grace is not the same as Disney's magic.

Tin soldiers and marionettes

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis asks this hypothetical question:

Did you ever think, when you were a child, what fun it would be if your toys could come to life? Well suppose you could really have brought them to life. Imagine turning a tin soldier into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh; all he sees is that the tin is being spoilt. He thinks you are killing him. He will do everything he can to prevent you. He will not be made into a man if he can help it.

In the Disney film, Geppetto wishes that the wooden puppet would become a real boy. In the Collodi fairy tale, Pinocchio makes the wish and not Geppetto; and what Pinocchio actually wishes for is that he become a fully grown man. The blue-haired fairy then explains to Pinocchio that he has to "begin by being a good boy" and that this involves obedience, truthfulness, and education, and consoling one's parents.

Collodi wants his child readers to understand that being a good boy or girl means being in a proper relationship to one's parents. This is the real genius of his story. Pinocchio refers to Geppetto as his father throughout the story. Some of the first trouble he gets into is prompted by his at least half-innocent desire to bring back to his father a fortune that will make Geppetto's life easier. When Pinocchio is separated from his father, his intention is to return. When Pinocchio "loses" his father, his intention is to find him. Over and over, however, Pinocchio is sidetracked by the allurements of quick gain and easy pleasure. He is tested and tried and repeatedly fails to resist temptation. His wooden head, his laziness, selfishness, and rebelliousness, in no small way compounded by his inexperience, overrule his good heart, his innate capacity to love and act responsibly.

Lewis continues, "What would you have done about the tin soldier I do not know. But what God did about us was this. The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself." In this way God not only has called us into the full maturity of being human, but he has shown us the way and given us his own strength to see us through.

Collodi sends the blue-haired fairy to Pinocchio, and at critical moments in the puppet's journey back to his father, she comes to his assistance. Early in the story, she appears as a young maiden who saves Pinocchio from death by hanging on a tree (a clear allusion to the crucifixion of Christ); and she adopts him as her brother. But he is lured away from the fairy child by the wicked fox and cat. Later in the story, when Pinocchio returns, he finds that the little house in which the child had lived is no longer there. "Instead there was a little piece of white marble on which these sad words were engraved: here lies the blue-haired child who died of sorrow on being deserted by her little brother Pinocchio." Poor Pinocchio is devastated. He drops to the ground, "kissing the cold stone a thousand times." He counts the fairy child's death as the loss of a sister, now added to the loss of a father. And he blames himself for both deaths.

This is a turning point in the story. The fairy child's mysterious death and the inscription on her gravestone are signs of a grace that does not coerce but, nevertheless, insists that the wooden puppet become a responsible person. Although Pinocchio lapses again and endures some of the worst consequences of his misbehavior, including being turned into a donkey, something is stirred in his heart, and a memory is lodged there that ultimately contributes to his conversion and transformation into a real human child.

The blue-haired fairy is an immortal who does not abandon Pinocchio. She appears again in the story, for, as Pinocchio discovers, she is yet alive and grown into a young woman. This reunion occurs immediately following an episode in which Pinocchio fails to rescue Geppetto from the sea and has been carried to a place named Busy Bee Island by a friendly dolphin. Pinocchio is desperately hungry, but he refuses to work for a meal until he comes upon a young woman who offers him bread if he will carry a pail home for her. At first, as he accompanies her home, Pinocchio does not recognize who the young woman is. Later, as he has finished eating, he looks up at her with "eyes wide open as if he had been bewitched."

"What is the matter with you?" asked the good woman laughing.

"Because, it's … " stammered Pinocchio, "it's … it's … you are like … you remind me of … Yes, yes, yes. The same voice … the same eyes … the same hair. … You have blue hair too, just as she had! O dear fairy, O dear fairy, tell me, is it you? Is it really you?"

Collodi has recast Saint Luke's post-Resurrection story about the encounter of two of the disciples with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31). There too, at first, the disciples do not comprehend who it is that is walking with them. But when the resurrected Christ invites them to break bread with him, their eyes are opened. And so it goes in Collodi's story also.

This episode of hidden and revealed identity clarifies the providential and nurturant role of the blue-haired fairy. The fairy subsequently asks Pinocchio how he was able to recognize her, and he responds, "It was love for you that told me." Having lost a sister, and, as he believes, a father also, Pinocchio asks if he might have a mother. "Now I am a woman, nearly old enough to be your mother," she says. "I like that very much," he says, "because instead of calling you little sister, I shall call you mother." He adds, "a mother, as other boys [have]" (my emphasis).

The theme of filial love and responsible relationship with parents and siblings is thus at the very core of Collodi's story. Being a real human child means being a responsible and beloved son or daughter. Being good is not a means to gaining boyhood or girlhood as a reward. Rather, being good is a quality of respect and responsibility toward others you love, firstly and especially one's parents and siblings. This, insists Collodi, is essential to becoming a complete human being. A status as son or daughter, brother or sister, and mother or father deeply defines our humanity.

Vigen Guroian is professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore. He is the author of a number of books, including Life's Living Toward Dying (Eerdmans).

1. Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Noonday Press, 1990).
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