C.S. Lewis created enduring works of brilliant imagination. What sparked this imagination and allowed it such free play in so many areas? While many influences helped shape his surprising imagination, here are three important ones.
1. Medieval cosmology: Lewis found great imaginative viability in the medieval model of the universe. He wrote The Discarded Image to describe it and to help readers better understand the literature of this period. This worldview was ordered and repetitive and brought great delight to the medieval mind. One of its primary characteristics is that it harmonized disparate elements, making them cohere and thereby enriching the whole. Lewis believed there never had been a model of the universe so satisfying to the imagination: beauty in the crowded and strange making a home together. In his own work, he blended disparate traditions to enrich his imaginative output. For example, Prince Caspian contains both Christian and pagan elements from Greek mythology.
2. Landscape: The interaction of perambulation and landscape helped shape Lewis's imagination. Author Robert Macfarlane writes about how maps, what he calls "pure cartography", are dream-proof and impervious to the imagination because they inscribe on the landscape the details our imaginations would otherwise supply. This functions to eliminate wonder. While Lewis and his circle often went on long walking tours across the British countryside (and undoubtedly used maps), Lewis retained an imaginative approach to landscape. In his autobiography, he writes about walking in Surrey and how the complexity and unpredictability of its landscape accorded him a pleasure commensurate with the complexity of reading Mallory or the Faerie Queene. The landscape captured and fueled his imagination.
Macfarlane writes that cartography equals precision, but maps of imagination, of story, of our own histories and travels across landscape are equally, if not more important. Who hasn't been out walking and imagined that in certain places it might be possible to access the ancient past or that mythical creatures might easily rise from the ground? G.K. Chesterton writes about this in an essay called "On Man: Heir of All the Ages." Our imaginings in a particular landscape are as much etched in our memories as the reality of the landscape itself. Sitting around a campfire after a day's walking, we bring to this fire not only all our memories of previous campfires, but all of the imaginings those fires inspired as we stared into the flames, thus enriching and informing the present experience. Landscape has a similar effect on us.
3. Nuance: The Inuit are reputed to have more than 70 words for sea ice. Likewise, we might expect airline pilots to have many ways to describe air currents or ship captains many ways to describe water currents. Often, making the right distinction is vitally important. So it is with imagination.
Lewis identified more than 30 types of imagination. He described the penetrating imagination which looks at a thing from many different angles in order to ascertain the truest understanding of it. He wrote of the satisfied imagination, which seeks to find contentment with the familiar and mundane. He identified the historical imagination which attempts to enable a reader to more fully enter into the mindset of ancient literature, and thereby understand it on its own terms, rather than overlay a modern context on an ancient one and so miss the point. And so on.
Each of these is an attempt to enable us to understand the imagination more fully and not to fall into the mistake of thinking it is only one thing with one function. Lewis believed the imagination was not simply make-believe, but existed, along with reason, to function as a source of truth about reality.
Hopefully this short post has given you some small insight into C.S. Lewis's imagination. More importantly, how can these insights help you to begin cultivating your own imagination more fully?
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