C.S. Lewis suggests that while reason is the natural organ of truth, the imagination is the natural organ of meaning. Together, reason and imagination work to provide us with a full and meaningful picture of what the world is like. But what is the imagination and why is it so important to human knowledge and understanding? In particular, what role if any does the imagination play in the cultivation of Christian hearts and minds? This is the first in a 3 part essay based on a presentation given by Tabor Adelaide’s Dr James Cooper at the recent School of Humanities & Social Sciences Symposium of Ideas.
Imagination, Myth and Meaning – Part 1
Some time ago, my wife and children and I drove to the Victorian High Country from our home in South Australia. To break up the journey, we stopped half-way at Echuca, a picturesque country town located just where the Murray River traverses the Victoria—New South Wales border. It’s a beautiful spot, and the caravan park at which we stayed was also right by the river, just a little way out of town in an attractive bush setting. With such a pleasant place to layover, making the trip in two days instead of one seemed eminently worthwhile.
The next morning, while my wife packed the car, I took our two boys – Jacob (8) and Hamish (5) – for a walk to find the river. We began making our way through the bush along a narrow sandy track. The cold autumn air was beautifully still, broken only by the plaintive cry of an occasional carrawong, or the warbling of magpies heralding the sun. And as we walked we chatted, mostly about the day ahead and what our holiday had in store, but also about our beautiful surrounds. Eventually, Jacob (the eldest) steered the conversation toward his recent school study of Indigenous culture. ‘Do you think there are any Aborigines living here now Dad?’ he asked eventually, picking up a stick and throwing it like a spear into the bush.
‘No,’ I assured him. ‘Not nowadays. Probably not for many years.’
And that, I suppose, might have been the end of it. No need for elaboration. That had all happened in the past and the world had since moved on – here endeth the lesson. But the question was charged with such an innocent and inviting curiosity that neither of us could quite let it rest. Instead, we began to think aloud what it might have been like to live in the bush like those first Australian people, fishing the river for callop and cod or hunting kangaroos (we’d already disturbed a few), or building humpies from the fallen branches and lining them with the eucalyptus bark that hung like long sheets of dead skin from many of the trees we passed. ‘And can you imagine,’ I said at last, ‘what the people who once lived here would have thought when they saw the very first white explorers come sailing around that bend in the river?’
It’s a scenario I’ve often imagined, and it felt good now to invite my children to consider it too. To my delight, Jacob seemed quite captivated by the idea, suggesting the tribesfolk might have thrown spears in anger or else hid among the trees to watch and wait, not quite knowing what to do. Hamish, on the other hand, remained completely quiet, which struck me as odd because normally he’s the talkative one. Boys being boys, however, the conversation inevitably took a more fanciful turn, with Jacob suggesting next that we keep our eyes peeled for bunyips – those mythical monsters of the Australian bush. At this, and for the first time, Hamish piped up, his high voice wavering with a note of apprehension:
‘But bunyips aren’t real, are they Dad?’
Now, I hate to dismiss such things outright: bunyips, ghosts, yetis, what-have-you; and I’d rather my kids also kept an open mind. I can’t claim ever to have seen a bunyip, but that hardly settles the matter. Surely, at some point, someone somewhere must have seen or heard something, to which the name ‘bunyip’ was originally ascribed. Whether it was, or is, some unfamiliar creature – maybe a freakish hanger-on from the Pleistocene epoch, or something equally marvellous – seems to me an open question. So I did my best to dispel Hamish’s anxious scepticism, in terms I thought he’d understand – he’s a pretty bright lad. Whatever he made of my answer, however, he kept it to himself.
Eventually we emerged from the bush onto a small beach along the riverbank. Patches of morning mist still hung low over the wide brown Murray, which, apart from a few intriguing swirls and eddies, appeared in no great hurry to be going anywhere. We stood there for a while, simply admiring the scene, and nobody spoke a word. But then I was struck by a delightful thought:
‘Hey, you know what that is?’ I asked, pointing to the opposite bank.
‘What?’ Jacob and Hamish replied together.
‘New South Wales.’
‘Really!’ cried Jacob, impressed as always by my father’s repository of trivial facts (I pray he’ll keep humouring me as he gets older).
‘Yep,’ I assured him. ‘The river runs right along the border here. Say, here’s an idea – how about we throw a rock into New South Wales?’
Jacob was all for it – ‘Yeah!’ he cried, scrambling for a suitable missile. Hamish, on the other hand, clearly had concerns:
‘No Dad… don’t do it!’
‘Really?’ I asked, taken aback – if anyone would be up for rock-throwing it would normally be Hamish. So I tried to gee him up a little: ‘I mean, it’s probably too far to make it all the way across, but we could give it a try, see how close we can get. C’mon, let’s throw a rock at New South Wales!’ And so saying I reached down for a rock of my own. But wresting the stone from my hand, Hamish again voiced his protest:
‘No Dad! Don’t throw any rocks, whatever you do.’
I could tell from his face he was serious, but had no idea what was troubling him. Anyhow, not wanting to upset him before another long day on the road, I called a ‘ceasefire’ and suggested instead that we walk a little further along the river, to see what we could find.
Hamish clung close as we walked, even holding my hand now and again, which was also quite out of character. Jacob, on the other hand, went scouting ahead. We hadn’t gone far down the river when something caught my eye – something vaguely blue, washed up on the opposite bank. It might have been a plastic barrel, or possibly a deck chair, or any number of things really. I don’t suppose it matters what it was, but at the time it had me intrigued and I thought to mention it.
‘Now what’s that over there?’ I asked, more to myself than to anyone else.
‘What? Where?’ asked Hamish, stopping in his tracks.
‘Oh, I can see something blue stuck in the tree roots on the other side of the river. Can you tell what that is?’
‘Where is it?’ I noticed Hamish had lowered his voice to a whisper now, as he peered nervously through the trees towards the other side of the river.
Crouching down to his level, I pointed the way to the opposite bank and the mysterious blue object: ‘You see over there, under that great big gum tree, something blue half sticking out of the water? Can you see where I mean?’
‘Well, what do think that might be?’
And then suddenly the reason for Hamish’s anxiety became clear, as clasping my hand and looking at me askance, the poor boy whispered, ‘Maybe it’s one of those new south whales.’
I start by telling this story because it clearly illustrates the human imagination at work – something we never see more vividly than we do in children. So what is the imagination and why does it matter? That’s what I want to survey in this essay, but at a glance we could say that ‘imagination’ refers to the power of the mind to form, to recollect and to rearrange images of things formerly seen or otherwise perceived. Further, our ability to form and reform images in this way depends partly on our personal openness to the world, to the unknown as much as the known, and is of course part and parcel with our creative ability to see and respond to the world through art, our ability to envision and to fashion new possibilities, including as yet unrealised futures, secondary worlds of characters and events, and artefacts and technological innovations of every kind.
For the creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the power of the imagination begins with adjectives and adverbs. In his classic essay On fairy Stories, Tolkien marvels at the thought of the imaginative leap that was the very first adjective, writing:
‘The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power…’
We can detect in Tolkien’s description of this primeval, magical awakening, the foundations even of modern science and technology. It’s also possible to foresee – in case we needed reminding – that the imagination is not infallible, but is just as susceptible to sinful distortion as any other human faculty. Indeed, Tolkien stresses this: ‘It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror, we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine… Not all [fantasies] are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen man.’
So the imagination, while a basic and vital human faculty, needs constant tending if it is to function properly and serve us well. But serve us well, it surely can.
To return to my opening anecdote, there was something in little Hamish’s imaginative response to that place by the river that seemed entirely appropriate. ‘Ignorant as a child is,’ observed G.K. Chesterton, ‘he knows more than he can say and feels not only atmospheres but fine shades.’ That bush setting by the river had an air of mystique, a timeless quality and spirit that seemed to warrant a kind of fearful respect. You may have experienced this too – the way the Australian landscape speaks of people and events gone by, of our limited and temporal existence as seen in light of something more permanent and enduring. In other words, Hamish’s imaginative response to the place was not simply fanciful, and therefore mistaken. To be sure, his thoughts about bunyips and ‘New South Whales’ would be considered wayward as science – as an attempt to provide a strictly naturalistic account of the observable facts. But his imaginings were, I am certain, serving to disclose glimpses into the personal, the sublime and even the divine in nature. Of course, Hamish wasn’t thinking about his experience in such terms; nevertheless, his imaginative response was clearly a rehearsal of what, I believe, is an important mode of thinking.
In Part 2 I will explore this imaginative mode of thinking in more depth, with a particular focus on the importance of images as supplied in ancient myth, and through metaphor in poetry and other literature. We shall see that images are indispensable in the human quest for understanding, and hence the cultivation of a healthy imagination is a crucial educational priority.