Into the Land of Imagination

EVERY NORMAL PERSON is blessed with imagination. Imagination operates ceaselessly and is capable of tying together even grotesque elements of matter and spirit. The apple which is said to have fallen on Isaac Newton’s head launched him into a set of meanings which culminated in his laws of gravitation and motion. In his theory of relativity Einstein combined complicated mathematical equations with images of trains rushing into distant space. The best scientists know that great discoveries are not made simply by experiment and reason but sometimes in mental gyrations as great, even as delightfully humorous, as Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole.

There is hardly one of Lewis’s expository works in which he fails to allude to the imagination. Lewis defined reason as the natural organ of truth and imagination as the organ of meaning.

The whole enterprise of art—music, sculpture, literature, even architecture —is particularly dependent upon consistent imagination. And is not life itself also, at least in the portions of it which seem really to live? Owing to the Great Mistake of Eden, life tends habitually to settle into the prosaic and ordinary. Indeed, is it not symbolic of fallen man that a steady smell of roses leaves them odorless? Imagination is necessary to the worthwhile life.

Imagination in the Bible

Some devout Christians fear imagination is inevitably evil, yet the Bible is almost embarrassingly imaginative. Lewis insists that the reader of the Bible, without losing sight of its primary value, must always remember that it is literature. “Most emphatically,” he says, “the Psalms must be read as poetry.” We remember such highly imaginative passages as “Let the floods clap their hands, let the hills be joyful together,” and Christ as a great storyteller describing a man who built his house upon sand and a sower who went forth to sow. He compared the kingdom of heaven to a grain of mustard seed and described Himself as “the true vine.” God, the greatest of imaginers, gives all men power to imagine, just as he gives them free will. Either can lead to steady and joyful devotion to Him or else to everlasting misery.

Lewis believed that the modern imagination has fostered more than the usual quota of villainy. having too often searched out the devious and febrile in all the little corners where sin lurks. In the final chapter of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis describes hell’s view of our times. At the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils, Screwtape speaks his gratitude for the abundance of souls now entering hell but bemoans their quality, souls “hardly worth damning,” and harks back to periods of more substantial sinners such as Henry VIII, Farinata, or even Hitler. Lewis also believes that people in our time have, for whatever cause, tended to avoid the great positive potentials of love and holiness. “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing … it is irresistible.”

The “Christian Novelist”

In the one meeting I had with C.S. Lewis, we discussed the Christian novelist. When I mentioned the term, Lewis instantly responded with a comparison to the Christian carpenter. Each is simply a Christian doing his particular work, doing it well or badly. “If a man who cannot draw horses is illustrating a book, the pictures that involve horses will be the bad pictures, let his spiritual condition be what it may,” he said. Of course the Christian writer should avoid “mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography” and “aim at edification insofar as edification is proper to the kind of work in hand.” If the story is about Jack and the beanstalk he dare not allow Jack to stop on the way up and recommend high-growing bean seeds. A story must be true to the known rules for successful composition: content from one sentence to another requires not trickery but honesty and wisdom.

Take an instance from the beginning of the Narnian adventure, The Silver Chair. Jill Pole has played the egotist and gotten her friend Eustace Scrubb into trouble. Shortly afterwards she comes upon a Lion (the capital is Lewis’s) which turns and moves slowly back into the forest. Jill then hears running water and finds herself very thirsty, whereupon she plucks up her courage and steals carefully from tree to tree in its direction. She comes upon an open glade from which the sight of the enticing water ahead mightily increases her thirst. Ready to rush forward, she suddenly checks herself because there, between her and the stream, is the Lion lying quietly with its head raised and its paws out in front. It is looking straight at Jill. The two face each other for a long time.

Jill’s thirst is now so persistent that she must have water even if the Lion catches her. In a “heavy, golden voice” the Lion finally asks, “Are you thirsty?”

“I’m dying of thirst,” Jill promptly responds.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

Hesitantly Jill suggests that the Lion go away while she drinks, to which a low growl is the only response. Then she says, “I daren’t come and drink.”

“Then you will die of thirst.”

Taking a step nearer, Jill says, “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream.”

Now frantic with thirst, Jill proceeds to the sparkling stream and drinks “the coldest, most refreshing water she has ever tasted.”

Apart from “no other stream,” this whole episode is simply good narrative. Yet we can imagine the many Scriptures which ran through Lewis’s mind as he wrote: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink … none other name under heaven whereby we must be saved … whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst … Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him … The wages of sin is death,” and more.

We must not of course suppose that the manner in which Lewis presents this episode is the only possible way. What it does infer beyond question is that The Silver Chair is a story and therefore must above all keep literary faith. At the same time the record is abundantly clear that Lewis’s Narian stories have conveyed the Christian way to millions of children and adults. One of my friends wrote me at some length of how, over a period of some ten years, he had slowly lost total contact with God, and how one day while reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his children he was suddenly overcome with remorse and tearfully recommitted himself to the Savior.

Meaning and Myth

Even one consummate value may redeem an otherwise poor writer. Lewis joyfully spoke of George MacDonald as his literary “master” despite a whole array of faults he found in him. One such fault was the quite common one of unnecessary sermonizing. What Lewis found valuable in MacDonald was “fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic.” Lewis believed that ultimate meanings tend to fall into metaphor, allegory, and myth, types in which a Christian writer should feel he is on “home ground.” Lewis calls myth at its best “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” He had such an ideal in view in all his creative works, particularly in what he considered his best story, Till We Have Faces. Myth, he says, “deals with the permanent and inevitable.”

The scope of Lewis’s imagination, if not as profound, is as wide as that of Dante and Milton. He tells how happy he was, after dwelling imaginatively on the infernal motives and intrigues of hell in The Screwtape Letters, to return to normalcy. Not only does he present for us these supernatural characters but also devilish-minded, even devil-possessed ones, right here on earth. In That Hideous Strength Belbury’s destructive might is set against the quiet Christianity of St. Anne’s, one feverish with bustle and trickery and the other calmly, even in the threat of world insurrection, awaiting the will of God. In The Great Divorce people are allowed to go up from the murkiness of hell and stand warmly welcomed into the permeating glory of heaven and yet, with only one exception, they refuse heaven and return to hell. The thing they will never let go is their “proper pride.” They continue, even after the pains of hell, to choose self over God. The painter urged to come inside rejects heaven when he learns it is without coteries and the worship of Big Names. Even the bishop, who has grown to love questions better than answers, rejects heaven in the interest of his little theological society in hell where he is admired for his papers on the speculative aspects of religion.

The Imaginative Process

Though many have tried, no one has ever been able to explain the imaginative process, no doubt because successful creativity is as large as life itself. Lewis gives a fragmentary sketch of how The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of his Narnian stories, came to be. It began, as his stories generally did, with a mental image, this time of “a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” This initial bit first lodged in Lewis’s imagination when he was about sixteen, long before he became a Christian. Years later, he says, he sat down to see if he could make a story out of it. Had he not in the meantime given himself completely to God. it would probably have become a good story as such, but now “Aslan came bounding into it.” Not only that, Aslan “pulled the whole story together.” Would the story become a Christian tract? Amazingly, Lewis in this book tied narrative interest and profound theology together and we experience not only a multitude of details related to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but note that He died on a stone table representing the Law of Moses.

Lewis accepted imagination as one of the great and varied gifts of God. As a Christian he saw it a worthy avenue of spiritual witness. He believed, however, that it should never become a “device” or frame on which to hang a sermon. For Lewis, the principle on which we must daily operate is a simple honesty which takes its life and its liberty from a living experience of the triune God. CH

By Clyde Kilby

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #7 in 1985]

Clyde S. Kilby is former curator of the Marion E. Wade Collection at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, a library of C.S. Lewis's original papers, manuscripts, and letters. He is author of Images of Salvation in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis and The Christian World of C.S. Lewis, editor of A Mind Awake, a Lewis anthology, and coauthor of Brothers and Friends: An Intimate Portrait of C.S. Lewis and C.S. Lewis: Images of His World.
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