Bibliotherapy. Never heard of it? Neither had I, at least by name, until browsing a lifestyle magazine a few months ago. Perhaps you are familiar with this term. For those who aren’t, PsychologyToday describes it as “facilitating psychological growth and healing through reading.” All kinds of books can be therapeutic, and counselors who use bibliotherapy will “prescribe” specific books intended to help a person struggling through a particular issue. I once had a friend tell me that her counselor had prescribed a modern retelling of King Lear in order to make her face dark and hard realities. Others tend to live too much in the dark and hard places of our minds and need happier works to lift us out of darkness. Fiction, poetry, biography, memoir, and even self-help books can fit the bill for bibliotherapy. It has been shown to ease the effects of depression, PTSD, OCD, perfectionism, and other disorders from childhood to old age. I have been reading fiction as a means of resetting my mind and heart for most of my life. I must say I felt very affirmed to know that I was engaging in a clinically-proven method to improve mental health, and not just an escapist trip to daydream-land!
PsychologyToday goes on to describe four therapeutic stages in bibliotherapy: identification, catharsis, insight, and universalization. Essentially, these stages help us to see our problem more clearly as we identify with one or more of the characters, experience a “safer, once-removed position [from our] emotions, struggles, and hope as [the characters] work toward the eventual resolution,” gain ideas or wisdom about how to move forward, and feel that we are not alone in our struggle.
Fiction is usually my genre of choice. I have some go-to stories that I often reread. As someone with a melancholy bent, I gravitate towards happy stories. The Anne of Green Gables series (especially the later books) have often helped me lift my eyes beyond present overwhelming circumstances and gain perspective. The Mitford series has encouraged me to stay the course as a person in full-time vocational ministry. I read A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 during infertility treatment. Although not fiction, it helped me to finally believe that God loves me in the midst of my unmet longing for children. I re-read The Lord of the Rings at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns and felt fortified to keep moving forward in spite of life as a brand-new adoptive parent in a pandemic. The Blue Sword helped me feel empowered as a female leader in a recent hard conversation. The list could go on and on.
Fiction often reaches into the deeper places of our souls more powerfully than straightforward statements of truth. We can often see characters’ inner thoughts, struggles, and sacrifice more clearly than we can see in most people’s real lives. We see the consequences of actions in a beginning, middle, and end format often missed in our own lives, lives that wander somewhere in “middle” most often, forgetting the beginning and ignorant of the end. In this sense, good fiction is simply a more complex morality tale.
Our culture balks at the idea of a morality tale. It feels too simplistic in a world that is painfully complex. But the purpose of a morality tale is to help someone become a better person – to paint a picture of the benefits of good actions and the consequences of bad actions. And that is often the reason why we read fiction. It helps us untangle the knot of complex relationships, painful grief, or bewildering circumstances by boiling things down to their core. It strips away the layers surrounding our emotions and helps us reframe a situation in new light through a story, one related, but not connected, to our own story.
There certainly are many stories out there that encourage immorality instead of morality. There have been times in history when religious folks frowned upon fiction. Imagination was considered fallen, too dangerous to be indulged. Novels and plays were simply falsehoods that encouraged a disreputable lifestyle. The Bible or other religious works were the only acceptable reading material. But I would argue that good fiction engages with hard things in a way that makes the reader close the book at the end of the story and want to be a better person, a better friend, spouse, son or daughter, parent, a better member of society. Even a better Christian. And that goal is exactly the point of a morality tale.
Sometimes we need straightforward stories to reveal simple ways we need to adjust our attitudes; other times, we need complex stories to meet us in our own complexity. In both I have come to appreciate Elizabeth Goudge, a 20thcentury British writer, the bulk of whose work was written between the 1930s and the 1970s. Goudge is best known for one of her children’s books, The Little White Horse, which won the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books in 1946, cited by J.K. Rowling as one of her favorite books and one of the few books that directly influenced Harry Potter. Yet Goudge is also known for wonderfully deep and complex adult novels, my favorite of which is The Scent of Water.
In these two works, we see why simple morality tales are beautiful and helpful, and why complex stories that engage dark emotions, thoughts, and even mental disability and mental illness can also serve as helpful and beautiful morality tales.
The Little White Horse tells the story of an orphaned girl, Maria, who goes to a previously-unknown-to-her ancestral tract of land where she finds herself immediately at home. She slowly unfolds a generational familial story of lovers’ conflict, stealing land from monks (and therefore God), and a long-standing family feud. She must right these wrongs to see her little valley thrive. It sounds rather dark but remember this is a children’s book. The cast of characters is lovable; the girl has help from several humans (including a dwarf), as well as several very intelligent animals; and the setting is cheery and beautiful. It is one step away from fairyland. In the end, of course, [spoiler alert!] all is resolved with happily ever afters for all the characters.
“But!” the more cynical among us may protest, “life does not end with a happily ever after!” True, mostly. But it ispossible to have joy in the midst of pain, peaceful relationships that are also healthy, and happiness even in a broken world. The path to the happily ever after is not painless for Maria any more than it is painless for the rest of us, but it is there, laid out before her. Therein lies the beauty of the story. A good morality tale does not simply shake a finger at us and tell us to be good. It gives us hope for something better than where we currently live, mentally, emotionally, or physically. Maria is not just a naturally good person; she must learn not to repeat the mistakes of the generations before her so she can bring peace to the valley. What are those previous mistakes? Simple things that we all struggle with — stubbornness, pride, greed, unforgiveness — attitudes we could choose to change in the moment to have love and peace, or attitudes to which we could cling and thus create mountains of separation and grief. With a simple but beautiful children’s story like this, we can see the choices clearly.
Goudge paints the choices into the story in ways to which most people can relate. One is the lovers’ quarrel. Every generation has a “Moon Maiden” and a “Sun Merryweather”. The family motto springs from the first such union, birthed in love but separated in hatred: “The brave soul and the pure spirit shall with a merry and a loving heart inherit the kingdom together.” Every generation, a moon princess (the pure spirit) appears in the valley. The sun personality (the brave soul) and the moon princess fall in love, but some quarrel always separates them.
Fortunately for Maria, she has wise counselors who become part of her life and help her to see clearly. Why do the soulmates quarrel and spend a lifetime separated from each other? Because the woman intentionally provokes and aggravates the man, and the man easily loses his temper! Ouch. Aren’t so many marital fights around dynamics like this, whichever gender plays each role? Moving beyond these dynamics is both easy and hard; it has the ability to strip us down to the core of what causes friction (often something petty!), yet we resist giving up our “right” to provoke or to get angry.
Yet the beauty of a story is that we also see the soulmates’ longing to be together, even when they fight. Our own hearts feel joyful when they do make it and refuse to allow their own pettiness to mar it. When they act petty, Maria and her soulmate learn to repent and forgive instead of holding a grudge in pride and being forever separated. This repentance, forgiveness, and movement towards each other is such a beautiful picture that I close the book and find myself being kinder to my own husband, more thankful for him and more in love with him. Clearly, this is a part of the story that resonates with me and where bibliotherapy meets me.
But there are two other challenges Maria must set right, and perhaps they are the parts that resonate with other readers. Maria must decide to give back to God the land that her ancestor stole from the monastery, the land where her family has kept their flocks for generations. When she gives back the land, she must also give back the money the family makes off the sheep’s wool, a significant financial cost. Going forward, the money is given to the poor. And finally, she must face the generational enemy who lives in the neighboring woods. She must show the courage to look conflict in the face – rather dangerous conflict, at that – and choose the way of peace. It is not easy. She requires help from her “brave soul” soulmate and their team of animal helpers. On their first attempt they fail and flee for their lives. Maria is woefully discouraged, but then she finds a coveted treasure and goes back alone to deal with the enemy. She walks in courage and humility, calling him to repentance even as she herself has repented for her family’s sin and inviting him into relationship. She offers forgiveness, restitution, and peace instead of pridefully demanding his submission.
What makes The Little White Horse a simpler morality story is that there is no wrestling with God. The sins are straightforward and clear, and likewise the remedy, though hard, is straightforward and clear. Humbling oneself, repenting, making restitution, and extending forgiveness are not easy, but they are part of the recipe for a beautiful life. The story makes me want that for myself. It offers me hope for change in my own heart that will make its way into my words and actions in the immediate future, as soon as I close the book.
Goudge’s The Scent of Water takes us down deeper paths. She engages relationships with not only those living, but also with those who are already gone, and with God Himself. Mary, a competent and successful middle-aged single woman, unexpectedly inherits a house in a country village. She surprises herself by leaving her successful London life and retiring to life in the quiet village of Appleshaw. She can read people with insightful accuracy, and finds that the people she encounters in Appleshaw challenge her in deeper ways than she has ever experienced.
Mary humbles herself to learn to love (although the book is not a romance, and her path to love is more about a personal, internal journey), and is surprised to find one day that she believes in God. The Gospel is never openly proclaimed or discussed in the book; rather, faith in God is mysterious, hidden, revealed slowly like the petals of a flower opening up. Not every character engages in faith, and not all characters reach a “happily ever after” ending. Life is complex and painful and hard, and some just do what they can to keep going.
The clearest and most astounding expressions of faith surprisingly come from characters who are mentally disabled, mentally ill, or physically disfigured. For one mentally ill character and one physically disfigured character the struggle is long and deep; hence the meaningfulness of the journey to faith. Meanwhile, the expressions of faith from two mentally disabled characters are simple – a trust in God that is both childlike and deeply courageous. The book was written in the 1960s, so there is no terminology of “mentally disabled.” But the way Goudge simply describes her characters – their facial expressions, their struggles, their responses to the people around them – gives me a love for them that the label of “mentally disabled” would never bestow.
What Goudge describes is different for each of her characters, yet profound. I am drawn to their courage and faith. One, an old vicar, is only in one scene of the book, yet his influence is felt throughout and has impacted me deeply. Goudge so masterfully develops his character over just four pages that I know, deep down, that I can trust him. He has suffered, and he has come to an internal place of quietness with God. He has put his reason in God’s hands and knows it is safe there even when he loses it. So, when he tells the mentally ill character the following at the start of her journey to find peace, it sticks.
“My dear,” he said, “love, your God, is a trinity. There are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these, ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.’ Not difficult to remember. If in times of distress you hold to these you will do well.” Then he lifted his hat and turned around again. I stood at the door and watched him go. He had a queer wavering sort of walk. He did not look back.
The other mentally disabled character is an older woman, one so easily overstimulated that a harsh word, a loud noise, an unknown person, or the sacrifice of one of her chickens to the altar of the dinner table sets her trembling with tears overflowing. She is constantly fearful and overwhelmed, but has a childlike disposition and an internal awareness that the people around her would have found surprising. She lives with her brother, a definitively unsensitive person, but a man who has given up his very comfortable life as a professor in Oxford in order to take a quiet village vicarage so his sister can thrive as best as possible.
Again, perhaps the label of “mentally disabled” would not warm my heart to her struggle, but the description of how she experiences the world gives me great compassion for her. In some ways, I see myself in her fearfulness. In other ways, I deeply admire her. She gets out of bed in the morning as an act of obedience to God. She gets distressed trying to tie her shoes, takes a deep breath, asks God for help, and starts all over again with renewed mind. She walks out the door with trembling and a prayer to visit someone her brother asks her to visit. Every act that she does is an act of obedience – all the more courageous because it is done in the face of fear. And in that obedience is an act of trust in One who is good.
Is The Scent of Water a morality story? I would say yes, and here’s why: morality simply for the sake of morality is empty. Life is hard; relationships are messy; people will betray you; your body will deteriorate. As someone who proudly lived a very moral life, but detached from love, I can tell you honestly that it is hollow, dead. To bring any satisfaction to the human heart, morality must be attached to love. Yet I cannot manufacture love. I cannot make my heart feel it. I must receive love before I can give it.
The mentally ill character is the cousin from whom Mary inherits the house in the village. Mary only met her once, as a small child, so when she finds her cousin’s diaries in the house, Mary gets to know her and her story through her own words. Early in her diaries, after she encountered the old vicar and when she has just moved to Appleshaw, she writes this:
“I shall live and die here. Perhaps I shall never be well, but this place will give me periods of respite that I would not have found in any other, and though I am able to do nothing else in this life, except only to seek, my life seeming to others a vie manquée, yet it will not be so, because what I seek is the goodness of God that waters the dry places. And water overflows from one dry patch to another, and so you cannot be selfish in digging for it. I did not know anything of this when I began this diary, and I don’t know how I know it now. Perhaps it has something to do with the old man.”
The expressions of faith in this story come amidst pain. When I close the book, my soul is quieted. My heart is awakened. Morality is not merely action; it flows from a changed heart – from a heart that once was dry with bitterness, pain, and struggle but has been watered by the goodness of God and “overflows from one dry patch to another.”
Mary’s cousin is never healed of her mental illness. Yet God reveals Himself to her in her darkest moments of mental breakdown. She finds peace. She can accept her condition and live for someone other than herself. This morality is not grounded in “be good,” but rather in a slowly, quakingly growing trust in a Person who is good.
This more complex morality tale inspires hope for long-term change. Characters who struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, PTSD (the book is set post-World War II), self-righteousness, competence but lovelessness, general shadiness, and insecurity are offset by a beautiful, peaceful setting wherein healing is offered. While redemption does not look like a “happily ever after” ending for most of the characters, it does look like something more real and more satisfying.
Both the simplicity of The Little White Horse and the complexity of The Scent of Water scratch a therapeutic itch. Morality tales help us as humans make sense of the world. Sometimes we need a simple picture simply painted to help adjust our attitudes; sometimes we need a complex story to engage the places where we deeply wrestle.
Every culture has some method to determine morality and then teach that moral code to its people through stories. It has been ingrained in us to try to discern right from wrong ever since Eve ate the forbidden fruit. And every culture has a source for its moral code. What is the source for our surrounding culture’s moral code? And what are the morality tales we are told to reinforce that code?
As Walker Percy famously said, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” True morality tales bring hope. They move people towards love. They hold out a story of beauty and life in the midst of the brokenness and mess because they are tied to the beautiful Life-Giver, the One who created all things good.