George MacDonald’s Wise Imagination

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George MacDonald wrote during the Victorian Era when scientific reasoning was taking hold as the predominate means of knowing. The Victorian mind often disregarded God and rejected the imaginative function as a way to understand the world. Many Victorians distrusted the imagination and treated it as a lower and irrational way of knowing, while accepting rationalism as the superior way of reasoning. In his essay, “The Two Worlds of George MacDonald,” Stephen Prickett observes that MacDonald faced a culture that was predominantly concerned with “rationaliz[ing] and where possible demythologiz[ing] the long record of man’s awareness of the [spiritual]” (19). Prickett describes the age as “probably the most profoundly self-critical age in English history” (qtd. in Hilder, “George MacDonald’s” 177), one full of religious doubt that created a “spiritual vacuum” (The Romantics 116) filled by skepticism. Gilliam Avery writes, “George MacDonald was born in one of the bleakest periods of children’s literature . . . [where] imagination in itself was held to be evil, and all that was not actual fact was a lie and therefore damnably wicked” (qtd. in Hilder, “George MacDonald’s” 176). In spite of this adversity, MacDonald believed that rationalism was in fact irrational because it sought to separate human reasoning from the imagination. MacDonald once wrote that imagination “is the faculty which gives form to thought” that helps us “to inquire into what God has made” (Orts 2), and invites us to take part in the greater nature of our inquiries.  MacDonald then views our imagination as the primary epistemological approach that guides us to a theological end. In other words, imagination has the ability to teach us to recognize the wonder of God in all of Creation—MacDonald refers to this as the “wise imagination” (Orts 28). He writes:

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.  (Orts 28) 

The Victorian mind was besieged by waves of skepticism, materialism, and nihilism, and Victorian-Era-imagein an era where rationalistic discourse was privileged over imaginative discourse, MacDonald asked his readers to embrace imagination as the spiritual faculty that bridged the gulf “between that which makes in its own image and that which is made in that image” (Orts 3). He stressed the use of such symbolism because it refutes the reductive nature of rationalism by asking readers to look beyond the materialistic world.

The term moral imagination originated with Edmund Burke (Schakel, Imagination 163), and describes the theoretical position that any life-shaping education must include the imagination. MacDonald’s own understanding of the imagination was largely shaped by the thinking of Romantic writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis. These Romantic thinkers helped MacDonald form his belief that Nature is a symbol that points people to the divine, and that these symbols are understandable with the help of the imagination.

 

MacDonald trusts the symbolic nature of his writing to carry his message of the moral imagination, and believes that some truth that comes from intuitive experiences cannot be grasped by mere rationalism. In contrast to rationalism, with its wariness of emotional and experiential understanding, MacDonald regards the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom.  He thinks of the wise imagination as being open to the divine: “The imagination is the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding” (Orts 14). This is imagination and reason collaborating for the purpose of holistically directing the gaze of all humanity to a transcendent God.  MacDonald explains:

Man is not divided when the manifestations of his life are distinguished. The intellect “is all in every part.” There was no imagination without intellect, however much it may appear that intellect can exist without imagination. What we mean to insist upon is, that in finding out the works of God, the Intellect must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect, Imagination. (Orts 11) 

George MacDonald writes, “the best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him” (Dish of Orts).  Our “wise imagination” then proceeds from and therefore reveals our divine likeness, and opens our eyes to the vision of the divine in both nature and humanity.

Favourable Mention: OK Go “The One Moment”

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This week’s favourable mention isn’t an album but a single music video. Of course, the video is from the Indie pop band OK go—also known as the makers of the world’s most intricate and insane music videos—so we know it’s amazing.

The video for their song “The One Moment” actually only lasts 4.2 seconds in real time, but when slowed down, is a four minute masterpiece.

Prepare to have your mind evaporated!

If you are new to OK Go, and want to see more amazing videos, then start with these two:

George Saunders On Story

“A bad story is one where you know what the story is and you’re sure of it…”

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Watch this fantastic 7 minute video about writing a good story (WARNING: Mild Profanity)

George Saunders: On Story is part of an ongoing series created by Redglass Pictures and executive produced by Ken Burns, courtesy of PBS. Saunders’s new book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, is out now. The first short film, Ken Burns: On Story, can be seen here. To see more from this interview with George Saunders go to the Redglass Pictures website.

Pixar Understands Storytelling with Piper

In case you had any doubt, Pixar understands our insatiable desire for good storytelling, and this can once again be seen in it’s latest short film Piper. I have always loved Pixar’s ability to engage viewers through subtle colour choices and well-timed cues in the soundtrack, but I am truly impressed by Pixar’s deep understanding of the human need for story.

In light of some of the most recent Pixar successes such as Inside Out and Finding Dory, I feel that some of Pixar’s greatest storytelling comes before their feature films even begin–I am referring of course to the mastery of the Pixar short films. And while there a number of noteworthy Pixar shorts that I could highlight, I want to draw attention to the most recent Pixar short called Piper (showing before Finding Dory). If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch it below (it’s only 6 minutes…you can spare 6 minutes!).

Pixar’s storytelling is masterful because it helps its audience forget that the main character is actually a bird–a character I’m assuming most of us can’t identify with. Yet, as I watched this short film, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the story in spite of the fact that I don’t have feathers, I love the water, and I don’t eat food off of the sand (or at least I try really hard not to). This got me thinking: What can I learn about storytelling from this experience? How can I engage a larger audience who may not be able to directly relate to my situation? Here are three things that I think Pixar’s Piper teaches us about storytelling

3 Things Piper Teaches Us About Storytelling

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1. Focus on the Theme

Far too often I have been guilty of getting my stories stuck in the boggy bottoms of descriptive mire. How often do we launch into stories trying to give our audiences a mental image and actually forget to communicate something more complex than the colour of the autumn leaves? Yes, stories need to include setting. And yes, we should spend sometime giving our characters a soul. But really, the connecting force that will engage and connect audiences to our stories will be the themes we choose. After all, it seems that more than just ornithologist are delighted by Piper. 

2. Focus on a Universal Theme

I know, I know, themes are generally in and of themselves universal, thus making them “themes,” but some themes are generally more universal than others. Themes that involve identity, love, courage, and fear get a lot of traction because these are issues that people of all races, religions, and creeds struggle with. In our own storytelling, it’s important to clearly communicate the theme, but we also want to make sure we are getting at the heart of the theme. The success of a film like Piper is in its ability to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie about a bird. After a few moments, we tend to forget the bird and focus on the plight of the bird–overcoming fear–which is a universal theme of the grandest order.

3. Communicate Themes Using Metaphors

This one can be a bit more difficult if you are not familiar with the structure of stories or the literary devices that good stories often use. With that in mind, we often use metaphors without even realizing it. Case in point–the whole story of Piper is actually a metaphor for our lives. The bird’s fear of water represents our fears. So, when Piper overcomes his fear of the water, we are caught up in the delight because we see ourselves in Piper’s success. When we use universal themes in our own storytelling, we are giving others the opportunity to connect with and be caught up in our stories. Don’t overlook opportunities to tell stories about trees, birds, dogs, fish, or the like if they are connected to a greater theme.

These are just a few of my thoughts after watching Pixar’s Piper. If you would like to know more about how to engage and connect people with your own stories, please read more articles about storytelling on The Wise Imagination or connect with The Wise Imagination page on Facebook.  You can also check out my online storytelling class Ten Story High: A Storytelling Masterclass.

 

Guest Post: The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Fantasy

The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Fantasy


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By Dave Berry

The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Vol 9, No 3 (2005)

Introduction: Fantasy stories trace their roots back to far older tales: the myths and legends of various cultures, which grew from oral storytelling in the days when myths were the only explanation for the mysterious workings of the real world. To a fantasy author mythology is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the themes and characters of myth have enthralled audiences for hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are likely to retain their appeal for many generations to come. On the other hand lurks the problem of creativity: how can a writer come up with new variations on stories that already exist in hundreds of different versions?

In the present day, when readers place great emphasis upon originality, fantasy stories distinguish themselves by the degree to which the author employs or abandons the conventions of mythology. Writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien closely adhered to the tradition of European myths. Catherine Anthony Clark followed the myths of another culture, that of native North America. Welwyn Wilton Katz set off in another direction altogether: turning the Arthurian legends upside down, rewriting the stories instead of building on them. All these approaches create fantasy from the same ingredients, but according to different recipes. The resulting variety of flavors keeps readers coming back for more.

A fantasy author’s first decision is also the most important. What rules govern the work? Should the fantasy world be a charming, lighthearted place like Neverland or Oz? Should it be grimly realistic and touched with tragedy, like Middle Earth or Prydain? Should it intrude upon the real world or remain separate from it? Fantasy runs by its own internal laws, established by the author. Tolkien and Lewis largely allowed tradition to set the rules for them. Tolkien followed the guidelines of ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, mingled with a bit of provincial English folklore (for the hobbits) and Christian doctrine (for Sauron, the great destroyer). Lewis used the medieval English and French romances—Narnia itself springs almost directly out of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France—with a strong twist of Christian symbolism. This English literary tradition rises with Beowulf and continues to the present day. Other, more modern writers sought out mythology from other sources: Ireland (O. R. Melling), Wales (Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper), and North America (Catherine Anthony Clark), to name a few.

Click here to read this article from La Trobe University

Imagination and Creativity

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There are many aspects of creativity that I find fascinating–the relationship between creativity and innovation, the history of creativity, and the definition of creativity, just to name a few. In spite of all the acclaim that surrounds creativity, I believe that the concept of creativity would not be nearly as important if it didn’t connect with people in a meaningful and significant way. I believe this connection is the imagination.

Molly Andrews, a Professor of Political Psychology and the Co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, has this to say about imagination and creativity:

Imagination is in fact the life blood of one of the most fundamental human inclinations — that of storytelling. We tell stories all the time, about everything, to everyone, including ourselves. What we tell and why and how we tell it are strongly influenced by the contexts in which we as narrators operate. But one only needs to think for a moment of what it would mean to have no story to tell, or to have forgotten one’s story — as depicted in some of the wonderfully rich books by Oliver Sachs — to realize that we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.

Narrative and imagination are integrally tied to one another; that they are so immediately clear to anyone who stops to think about stories — real and imagined, about the past or in a promised, or feared, future. Why and how this is so are questions that direct us to ruminate on what it means to be human. Narrative and imagination are combined, not only in our most elevated thoughts about the world as it might be, but also in the very minutiae of our daily lives. Although we do not often talk about the role of imagination in how we approach each day, carrying out and evading those responsibilities to which we have committed ourselves, and simply being ourselves in the world, negotiating our sometimes troubled paths between competing desires of our own and those of others, its importance cannot be overstated.  (Entire article)

I believe Andrews makes a very good point when she writes that “we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.”  Simple put, we are a people of story. We tell stories. We listen to stories. We identity with or reject the stories in which we are a part of. And these stories are not independent or static–they are dynamic and intersect with other stories like an intricately woven tapestry. In many ways, we tell stories to identify with humanity: our own and others’. Yet the connection between imagination and creativity is not intrinsically clear.

In Mineko Honda’s book The Imaginative World of C.S. Lewis, he explains how Lewis saw the connection between imagination and creativity:

The imagination he thus sees in himself appears to be the same things as the ‘creativity’ that we expect of good writers and artists.  In fact, however, this ‘imagination’ means a lot more than mere creativity.  For Lewis, it is also a power of intuition into the metaphysical reality of this world and heaven, and a power of communication of that reality.  It perceives the meaning of the world, expresses that meaning, and enables us to participate in the metaphysical Reality (Pg. 1). 

Creativity is not the equivalent of imagination, yet the two are not completely separate of one another. Creation without imagination is just the creation of idols—representations of what is true, but themselves are not true.

So, if imagination leads to creativity, and the two are distinct yet cannot be separated from one another, where does that leave us with the question of how the two are connected? I believe the answer to that question lies in the word “metaphor.”

The use of metaphor employs the imagination to give an image to a truth that is difficult or impossible to understand in and of itself.  A word such as “love” is difficult to understand by itself, so artists use metaphors to explain that love is like “a red, red rose.”  Likewise, trying to understand the meaning of words like beauty, honor, and friendship is nearly impossible without using images that are attached to those words.

Words which we could scarcely grasp are expanded and burst into reality through metaphor. Elusive nouns such as “anger” and “joy” are connected to objects like the color red or sunflowers in a field; thus we can continue to communicate these abstract concepts with images.

Whether it is a story, a photograph, or a painting, a powerful image can communicate both meaning and value. In his book Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis, Peter J. Schakel gives a concise explanation of Lewis on this matter:  “Images are seen through imagination, and the moral of the story must be embodied in the images” (Pg. 169). Lewis feels that the use of images and metaphor by the imagination is not only an exercise in critical assessment of a work of art but actually nurtures a person’s “moral imagination.”  The images are metaphors themselves of greater virtues such as loyalty, courage, good vs. evil, and the like.

To quote George Macdonald, “the Intellect must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect, Imagination” (“Imagination,” Pg. 11). Creativity is the natural outcome of a working imagination. Creativity that endures hundreds of years and thousands of miles is melded and fired from the metal of Reason and Imagination in the kiln of Diligence and Truth.

But imagination won’t be nailed down. It is like the wind, the rushing river water, and tiny grains of sand.  It manifests differently, and never looks the same way twice—but it does feel the same. It gives a feeling of smallness yet the hope of greatness.  It destroys self, but introduces that self into a world where he/she can grow into something much larger. Thus, creativity is a byproduct of the great architect Imagination.

 

 

Favourable Mention: Future of Forestry

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This week’s favourable mention is by far one of my favourite albums of 2016! I have been a Future of Forestry for quite awhile, but Awakened to the Sound is simply magnificent. With a strange blend of majestic and haunting, FoF has created an absolute masterpiece. I think their Facebook page sums up the album when it says: “It is cinematic, orchestral, and goes places that Future of Forestry has never gone before.”

Future of Forestry website

Future of Forestry Facebook

What is Education?

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by Thaddeus Kozinski

“When we look, with the eyes to see it, education is seen as soul-craft. Classical and medieval man had twenty/twenty vision in this regard, as well as in regard to another important fact, that politics is educational. Through obedience to good laws and customs, and through the practice of prudence and deliberation with an eye to the commonweal, the citizen was educated, with his soul formed in virtue and ordered to the Good.”

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