A Pedagogy of Imagination

I design my Introduction to Literature course as an introduction to the history of imagination as a craft and mental ability that can be improved with dedicated, rigorous study and mental focus. This is a version of my concluding remarks, which change slightly every time because I talk from the top of my head and try to cover topics of concern to the students in my class.

Before I let you go, I want to try and put a period on what we have been trying to accomplish this semester. I want to impart to you some of the purpose behind what we have been doing. I do this, teaching Literature, because I really do think it is important. I assure you it is not because of all of the money I make as an adjunct professor. It is because I think taking the time to develop our ability to imagine is a legitimately and inherently good thing for everyone to do. There is no one who cannot benefit from having a richer imagination.

Think of it in the most obvious, practical terms. When have you ever said, “I have decided I am going to do this thing I have never imagined”? When have you established a goal, for a day, a year, or your life, without an act of imagination? It simply isn’t possible – goals cannot happen without the imagination. So if your ability to imagine is dimmed and left undeveloped, your ability to envision your future is not given the same opportunity. Reading, viewing, or otherwise engaging artistic literature literally makes it possible for you to have a wider imagination; it strengthens the mental muscle by which you strive for the future or look for satisfaction in the present.

In your every day life, acts of imagination will be a necessity. You have to imagine the new concepts your teachers present before you; you have to imagine ways to solve problems your employer puts in your hands; getting the job in the first place will require you to help your employer imagine you as a valuable employee, and to do that, you will have to have imagined yourself in a clear and positive way.

People’s imaginations shape our lives in so many different ways, we often take it for granted. We are just barely still aware that laptops, smart phones, Google Maps, and Siri are products of human imagination engaged with the physical world; even more basic niceties, like refrigerators, dish washers, sewer systems, and plastic cups are possible because of an act of imagination. When innovators like Steve Jobs or original thinkers like Einstein are praised, it isn’t for their practical knowledge or dogmatic assertion of the apparently given nature of reality, but of their ability to engage with that exciting world imaginatively.

But it goes beyond finding useful things to do with the imagination, as important as that is. Our ability to be satisfied with good things and comforted in hard times depends and will depend on our ability to imagine. Appreciation for the stars in the sky cannot be sustained without the realization that things didn’t have to be this way. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that if the stars only appeared once every 1,000 years, history would never forget it because of the incredible impression they would make on the human imagination. The particularity of the natural world, and the peculiarity of it, requires a reflective imagination aware that things could be otherwise, but they are this way – the butterflies, birds, and babies, and their coccoons, nests, and cribs, the trees and flowers and creepig and flying things and the cosmic balls of fire and mud on which they depend – are quite the surprise, and a cynical lack of appreciation for this surprising world is the result of the failure of our imaginations when we suppose ourselves now to be sophisticated, informed adults.

In your personal life, too, imagination will be essential. The emotion of love and its matrix of complicated emotions cannot be directly seen – they can only be inferred by the imagination’s ability to see patterns in words, actions, and facial expressions. Love between family members, romantic love, and the love of friendship all require sustained, focused imagination if those relationships are to be truly engaged with real intimacy. Just think of the romantic comedies you have seen – they all depict drama arising out of a failure of one or both of the love interests failing to imagine each other, and from that failure arises great pain. Successful love is in many ways always the result of successful imagination.

I hope for this reason that, even if you have not enjoyed all or even most of the literature we have read this semester (though I hope you have), you have begun to see how your imagination has greater potential and greater purpose in your life. I hope you can see the value of taking literature a little more seriously. Whether it’s a novel read on vacation, a movie seen on the weekend, a Netflix binge or a song on the radio you sing to in the car, I hope you will invest a little more energy in contemplating how this human creation of something beautiful stirs you and awakens your mind to greater thoughts than just “I have to be here at 7” or “I need to make this money and spend it on this car.” Not that those thoughts are by any means bad, but they will not be the memorable thoughts that satisfy the longing you will have for real meaning as you progress through this life. For these reasons, I encourage you to strive for real, lasting, quality experiences of imagination – at the very least, you will never regret having had a beautiful and moving literary experience, of that I am certain.

“If the whole power of pedantry should rise against her, the imagination will yet work; and if not for good, then for evil; if not for truth, then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death; the evil alternative becoming the more likely from the unnatural treatment she has experienced from those who ought to have fostered her.” – George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture”

Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King

“Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”

So wrote C.S. Lewis, and I found it to be true as I revisited at long last this concluding volume of Tolkien’s epic imagination. Why does it ache to near the ending of a story I have already read, and which I know I might reread yet again? Anchored in my imagination and prized in my library, why do I feel as if something slips away, or slipped away long before I knew it could be had? Many times I come to a line that I must stop over, set the book down, pick it up again, and read the words, as if they long to be spoken. “It has to be said” is a phrase more mysterious than “I have to say it,” and yet more clearly communicates the weight upon the soul as it longs to hear beautiful truths, however cold or sharp or piercing they may be. When Sam hears Gandalf laugh, he must himself weep before he can laugh:

“and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed” (283).

And when he hears as he had hoped the song of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, “he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: ‘O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!’ And then he wept” (286).

There is a place, somewhere in the highest of divine imaginations, where all weeping becomes laughter, “regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” (286). Meantime we must deal with the petty evils of Sarumans who wish to set up their aristocracies and their little tyrannies, but we know now that if Sauron’s was a Shadow that could pass, these mimicking Powers cannot touch the wellsprings of our ennobled imaginations. And how different Aragorn’s vision of the world from Sauron’s: where Sauron’s mind worked poison into the very air and water, where even in his dying moment he becomes but a ghost of his desire for domination, Aragorn passes rod and crown back to Faramir, one for Faramir’s keeping and one for Aragorn’s crowning to include Frodo and Gandalf. He calls Eomer his brother; he puts first those who had been least, the Hobbits of his company who had proven foolish the counsels of the wise. He sets free the prisoners of war from Sauron’s fallen empire and gives land and sovereignty to those deserving; he frees Beregond from the wicked law of Denethor’s stewardship and into service of his beloved, recently elevated Faramir, who brings a wizardly quality to his new authority. He dignifies Eowyn’s betrothal to Faramir with grace, and in so doing shows in one point why he is the true King: “I have wished thee joy ever since I first saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.” It is the sympathetic imagination of the King that gives his healing hands and the fragrance of the athelas their sympathetic magic.

If Faramir is the Steward of Aragorn, Sam is of course the Steward of Frodo. I am struck by the moment where Sam loses hope that he will survive the quest; it is this very moment when he becomes the hero he has been the whole story: “But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.” What false hopes to we cling to in our timid imaginations, the small condolences of little steps that collect to burden us from our larger purpose?

I remember now, in this beautiful ache, why I was so slow to go back to Middle-earth – I feel again the sluggishness of directing my sight to other things when this world, so full of meaning, is just one page away. But I am mindful of the moment when Sam “thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed,” where finding some drinkable water and a little natural light is enough to make him exclaim, “If I ever see the Lady again, I will tell her!” Frodo tells Sam that in his imprisonment and despair he tried to remember “the Brandywine, and Woody End, and the Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now” (239). The atmosphere of Sauron’s imagination had stolen away Frodo’s memory of those abundant waters at home, and here I am, with bottled water and running taps, and am I still greedy and audacious enough to order an Iced Capp from Tim Horton’s?

As I long for Middle-earth, I learn again the value of reality – the surprising joy of the presence of basic gifts of our own Earth that many in our world lack. Where Sam had once met Elves and longed for he knew not what of their world, he now remembers his own, and it is his perseverance for the simple, wholesome good things that remembers on Frodo’s behalf the basic need to carry on in the Shadow’s illusion that goodness can fail. But even in the land of the Shadow fresh waters run, and in the war-torn Gondor the trees of Elves grow in secret. I remember again  the sanctity of the every day ache, the mud of life from which we gaze on those stars, and that the beauty which pierces Middle-earth flows in the same waters and the same Earth over which Treebeard says, “and all that I hear is good, very good.” Can the grief and the sad, still music of humanity, to say nothing of the apparently pointless every day grind, steps in Saruman’s Shire if not Sauron’s Morder, be conquered by so slender a thing as imagination? Gandalf thinks so:

“Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder. And Aragorn himself waits for a sign.”

King as he is, Aragorn knows that he is in truth yet another Steward. (For a discussion of how I use this term in more explicitly theological terms, see my companion piece discussion of Plato’s Republic from a Christian point of view). Faramir and Sam, in their stewardships of Gondor and the Ring, are heroic in their ability to glimpse beyond the Shadow and see those glimmering lights, and Aragorn in his reflective kingly splendor does not forget that he is not the source of that light. We are the keepers of our own imaginations, and we have a choice between Palantirs and Rings or Hobbits and Kingdoms. Stewards can turn to blessing or to abuse all things; in the wrong hands, even The Lord of the Rings can become a curse. We are beset with dangers, as Gandalf says, for even we ourselves are dangerous, for when the time comes, which of us will cast away our Ring of Power?

As you announce that you have returned from your journey into the imagination, Treebeard asks, “You have proved mightiest, and all you labours have gone well. Where now would you be going? And why do you come here?” (317)