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The Mystery of Goodness in Children’s Literature


By Mitchell Kalpakgian | July/August 2000
Mitchell Kalpakgian, formerly Professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa and as of this fall a Tutor at Magdalen College in New Hampshire, is a frequent contributor to the NOR. This article is excerpted and adapted with permission from his new book, The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press, 800-746-2521).

There are books that present mysteries to be solved. The question they pose is, Whodunit? And finding out the answer can be fun. But the best books present mysteries of a different kind, mysteries that are not solved, that do not vanish. These are mysteries that endure, mysteries of life, which the reader does not puzzle out like a detective but into which the reader enters, as a participant. Among these enduring mysteries to which the right book can introduce a young reader is the fathomable mystery of goodness.

Again and again the great stories we read — or should read — to our children explore the mysterious forces that are set in motion by secret, humble, unknown deeds of goodness and kindness. The folk stories and fables and fairy tales we put — or should put — on the bookshelves where children will browse, explore entertainingly but deeply the strange and wonderful consequences of generosity and humility. There is the cheerful doing of small favors for strangers, the generosity of giving without expecting to receive, the charity of doing good by stealth, and the outpouring of hospitality and love without measure, all illustrating the proverbial truth that frequently appears in Aesop’s fables: “A good deed is never lost.”

Goodness in children’s stories is usually a simple deed of kindness: doing a favor for a stranger, sharing one’s bread, helping with the housework. Goodness consists in performing small, humble, unnoticed gestures that escape public attention but bear great fruit. Goodness never exhausts or depletes itself, the loving heart proving that the source of love is boundless and limitless. Although generous hearts give without expecting to receive, they frequently find, at the story’s end, that they have received twofold or fourfold or a hundredfold. Pure hearts that deliberately seek anonymity are surprised when their good deeds come to light. A small, forgotten act of kindness may possess the power to change dramatically the course of a life. And the more love one gives, the more love one has to give. These are some of the wondrous mysteries of goodness illuminated by the classics of children’s literature.

Aesop’s fable “The Lion and the Mouse” portrays a mighty lion disturbed in his sleep by a mouse scampering over him as he dozes. The king of beasts catches the mouse but condescends to release him. But after the lion is captured in a net by hunters, it is the mouse who — out of gratitude for the lion’s mercy — “with his sharp little teeth soon gnawed through the ropes and set the Lion free.” Hence the moral attributed to this fable: “Kindness is seldom thrown away, and there is no creature so small that he cannot return a good deed.” In “The Farmer and the Eagle” a farmer, marveling at the beauty of an eagle caught in a snare, frees the bird. Later the eagle returns, snatches the farmer’s hat, and drops it some distance away. The man is puzzled at the bird’s strange and ungrateful behavior — only to discover that by going to retrieve his hat he has escaped being buried by a wall that was crumbling and about to fall. Once again the moral states, “An act of kindness is never wasted.” In “The Dove and the Ant” a dove pities a drowning ant and throws a stick in the river to rescue the insect. Later, as a hunter is taking aim at the dove, the ant stings him in the foot so that he misses the shot. The moral is that “One good turn deserves another.” The mystery of goodness in these stories is that one can never underestimate the powerful consequences and far-reaching effects of an act of kindness. A good deed is a tiny but potent seed which may disappear, yet will ripen and bear fruit at some unknown, mysterious time.

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