Imagination: An Internal Reality
By Brittany Gilmartin
While reality is an external landscape for our bodies and senses, the imagination is an internal landscape for our minds and thoughts. A limitless realm that only we ourselves can control, the imagination is a space for us to think freely about the outside world and create a new reality inside of us. This mental reality is a place that we can escape to when we are not satisfied with the real world, as in “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien, or find the real world too hard to bear, as in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. Some may argue that instead of escaping into the fantasy of our imaginations, we should focus on factual knowledge; however, the imagination can teach us about the facts in a new light. Indeed, L. Frank Baum, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and C. S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, use their imaginations to redefine their external realities through allegories, allowing their readers to gain a deeper understanding of these realities than they could have gained through a textbook.
The imagination allows us to extend our minds beyond the boundaries of physical reality. As famous writer J.R.R. Tolkien affirms in his piece “On Fairy Stories,” the imagination is a “sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the real world and all that is in it” (74). At any moment, we are capable of taking what we experience in the real world and changing it into something more amenable to us in our minds. Most often, this involves making everyday objects and situations more extraordinary. For example, while trees are stationary in the real world, in the imagination, they can do whatever we wish them to, whether that be talking, gesturing, or even singing and dancing. The possibilities are endless and completely up to us. The limitless nature of the imagination also provides us with a space to obtain the freedom that is not available to us in our external realities. Paul Crowther, a respected author and professor of philosophy, declares that the “imagination is not just an aid to freedom, it is an expression of it” (115). In the real world, we are constantly constrained by factors that are, for the most part, completely out of our control, such as our size, social status, and skills. Meanwhile, in our imaginations, we are free to be as big, powerful, cunning, or magical as our hearts desire. Even the weakest of us is fully capable of slaying a dragon inside of his or her own mind. However, the imagination does not always have to involve the supernatural and extraordinary. Wondering how a situation would have turned out if we had made a different decision or picturing ourselves eating ice cream on the beach when we are stuck inside on a rainy day are examples of more simple forms of imagining.
Because the imagination has no limits and is strictly our own, we can make it into an exciting or comforting place to escape to when the real world fails to please us or becomes too difficult for us to bear. In “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien, Niggle escapes into his mental reality because he is dissatisfied by the lack of art in the world around him. When Niggle is merely painting his picture, he is not able to escape because his physical ability to paint is limited and external forces distract him from his task. Only when Niggle believes that he has actually entered into his painting does he make a full escape because his imagination allows him to create the perfect realization of his painting. This story suggests that, whenever the real world cannot give us what we want or need, we should look for it in our imagination. Indeed, because we can create anything in our imagination, our imagination can never be lacking. Moreover, because the imagination is only accessible to the imaginer, it can be a place of safety for us to retreat to when we do not have the strength to remain in the real world. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, Peyton Farquhar escapes into his imagination in the moments before his death by hanging. Bound by a noose and unable to escape his physical reality in any way, Farquhar uses his imagination to free himself mentally. This freedom allows him to escape not only the agony that he would have experienced in the face of death but also the uncertainty of whether or not he would live. Farquhar did not know if the rope would strangle him or snap in the real world, so he made it snap in his imagination. Like Farquhar, we cannot know for certain how situations will turn out in the real world, but we can use our imaginations to actualize our desired results in our minds. Farquhar’s mental escape seems so real to him that he believes he actually makes it home safely to his wife until his neck is finally broken by the noose: “At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting…He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a sudden blow upon the back of the neck” (14). This raises the question of whether or not escaping into our mental fantasies is healthy as it can delude us into thinking what we create in our heads is also occurring outside of us. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien claims that, as long as the escape is the “Escape of the Prisoner” and not the “Flight of the Deserter,” the escape “is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic” (79). Both “Leaf by Niggle” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” support Tolkien’s claim because their main characters, prisoners of their external realities, decide that, rather than submit to the faults and pressures of the real world, they will find a way to fix them and save themselves, even if only in fantasy.
Still, some may argue that the act of escaping into mental fantasy distracts us from the facts. On one hand, factual knowledge is essential because it is the basis for all other forms of thought. For example, if we were never taught what the color blue looks like, the heat of fire feels like, or the ringing of a bell sounds like, we could never utilize any of these senses in the imagination. On the other hand, if we all only knew the facts, the world would be monotonous and boring without the diversity of thought that imagination fosters. In his address to the Liverpool Institute on November 29th, 1877, Viscount George J. Goschen promotes the cultivation of the imagination as a way to “colour” (19) the facts. Most of us would agree with Goschen when he suggests that reading exciting stories of adventure and magic is more appealing than reading a “dry and technical…skeleton [of] histories” (20). Therefore, the imagination should not be seen as an alternative to the facts but rather a means of enhancing them and making them more interesting. Because they interest and excite us, imaginative stories encourage us to think more deeply about what we are reading, making our learning experience more meaningful than if we were just memorizing information out of a textbook.
Indeed, L. Frank Baum, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and C. S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, use their imaginations to create allegorical stories that shed a new light onto their external realities and provide us with a more significant understanding of these realities than facts alone could have. Esteemed American author and historian Henry Littlefield confirms that, although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a “fairy tale,” it “reflects to an astonishing degree the world of political reality which surrounded Baum in 1900” (48). For example, the Wicked Witch of the West, who uses “natural forces to achieve her ends,” represents the “sentient and malign” landscape of the American West (55). While a textbook would simply state that, at the turn of the twentieth century, Americans were in the midst of developing the West, Baum’s characterization of the West as an evil, green witch clearly and effectively conveys the American people’s fear of this mysterious and dangerous land. Similarly, in The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis redefines reality through his imagination by using his characters as symbols for religious figures. While texts that aim to educate us about religious truths tend to be didactic, Robert H. Bell, a religious and political writer for Commonweal Magazine, points out that The Chronicles of Narnia “thrills without proselytizing its…readers” (12). By using children and animals as characters and adding magical elements, Lewis is able to convey the basic ideas and premises of the Christian faith while also giving us enough room to determine our own beliefs. For example, instead of forthrightly claiming that Judas’ betrayal was an unforgiveable sin, Lewis creates the character Edmund, a confused young boy who betrays Aslan, Narnia’s Christ-figure, and his family but is ultimately able to redeem himself and earn forgiveness. Thus, by using their imaginations, both Baum and Lewis manage not only to educate their readers but also to entertain them and foster their creative, independent thinking.
The imagination, an internal landscape for our thoughts, is a limitless realm in which we can take elements from the physical world and morph them into whatever we please. When the real world fails to satisfy us or becomes too difficult for us to remain in, we can escape into our imagination and attain enjoyment, peace, and safety knowing it is immune from intruders and under our individual control. Some may argue that escaping into the fantasy of our imaginations can delude us and prevent us from acknowledging what is really going on outside of us. Although having an awareness of our external world is important, it does not stand in opposition to our imagination. In fact, our imagination can be used as a tool to enhance reality, making it more interesting and appealing to us. Imaginative stories play upon external realities while also inspiring and exciting their readers, encouraging them to delve deeper into their hidden meanings and allowing them to make new discoveries beyond the facts. Thus, the imagination does not just depend on reality for truths, but reality depends on the imagination for truths as well.
Bell, Robert H. “Inside the Wardrobe: Is Narnia a Christian Allegory?” Commonweal 22 (2005):
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Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. San
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Crowther, Paul. “How Images Create Us.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 20 (2013): 101-23.
EBSCO. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
Goschen, George J. “The Cultivation of the Imagination.” Liverpool Institute. Liverpool, 29 Nov.
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Littlefield, Henry M. “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” American Quarterly 16.1
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Tolkien, John R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Random House, 1966.
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Cover Image By: Alvaro Maestro (The Falls)