The Large Room of Imagination, by Nathan Musgrave
By Nathan Musgrave
Recently I have been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to my 11 year old daughter. Middle Earth has swallowed her whole. I read aloud, and as we follow Frodo and Sam through the perils and triumphs, the peaks and valleys of that imaginary land, my daughter paces, she snarls, she groans, she bangs her fist on furniture, she shouts and rails at orcs and trolls and evil wizards who have the audacity to threaten her newfound friends in the fellowship of the ring.
More than once, people have come by our house and interrupted our reading at a particularly dramatic moment, and she’s had to flee upstairs to avoid being seen in her state of acute distress.
We are now 950 pages into the book. I can testify that Tolkien likes words. At times I am tempted to turn two pages at once, to skip lengthy descriptions of the flora or fauna of Middle Earth. She catches me every time. “Wait a minute dad, what just happened to Legolas – I thought he was running through the woods just now? How did we suddenly jump to the cave trolls?” ….Ummm… maybe the story will come back to that scene in a little bit… “Stop it dad, you’re skipping pages again!”
I am constantly amazed at the extent to which she absorbs the detail, and the way in which she gives herself over wholly to this imaginary world.
Simultaneously, I have been reading a wonderful biography to myself in the evenings: The Narnian, by Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College. The book tells the life story of CS Lewis from a unique angle, through the prism of his Chronicles of Narnia. Jacob’s book also speaks much of the unique friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, and describes their weekly meetings at a local Oxford pub where they read their stories aloud to one another over adult beverages.
Both men had a keen sense of the power of fairy tales and imaginative stories to fire the human imagination, for children and adults alike. And both men viewed epic stories as a way of quickening the imagination, and in a sense, awakening us to the larger cosmic story that we are all caught up in, but so easily forget.
We find ourselves in a world that slowly but surely crushes imagination; where good guys frequently finish last, and evil so often seems to prevail, and we are relentlessly assaulted with reductionist and naturalistic explanations for every wonder that we see.
Lewis realized that the story of a frog turning into a prince or a pumpkin turning into a stagecoach is hardly more astounding than a world where a homely green caterpillar turn into a butterfly, where a smooth, cool round egg turns into a fluffy chick; where a crusty, academic rationalist turns into a portly, laughing, lover of children’s stories.
Lewis’ treasured a childhood love for fairly tale and myth. But during his teens and twenties, he tried to kill off this part of himself during a methodical pursuit of atheism. He found, however, that he was strangling the most vital and beautiful part of his life. He eventually reached a crisis, and the imaginative stories and longing they evoked gradually led Lewis back to his earlier sense of childhood wonder. The epic stories chipped away at the naturalistic box in which Lewis had caged himself, a box that he found to be cramped and sterile with air that was barely breathable. In that box, he found that he could hardly live or move or have his being.
Eventually, God used these stories to usher Lewis out of that box, and into a much larger room, into faith in God Himself. Lewis discovered a God who is behind all wonder, and whose existence is the only thing that can account for the everyday miracles we see around us, a world in which our hearts are full of longing and desire and imagination.
During WWII, several children came from London to live with Lewis and his brother in their country home, in order to avoid the German bombing campaigns over England’s cities. Lewis was struck by the children’s inability to entertain themselves and sustain any kind of imaginative life. He wrote a letter to a friend, in which he described reading the Peter Rabbit tales to one of the children every evening: “Would you believe it, the child has never been read to nor told a story in his life? Not that he is neglected. He has a whole time nanny, an insufferable scientific woman with a diploma from some Tom-fool nursing college; the boy has a hundred patent foods, is spoiled, and far too expensively dressed: but his poor imagination has been left without any natural food at all. I often wonder what the present generation children will grow up like. They have been treated with so much indulgence yet so little affection, with so much science and so little mother-wit. Not a fairy tale nor a nursery rhyme.”
My daughter tells me that when we finish the book, we need to start over again at the beginning. I think I’m going to need a break. But we will keep reading good stories, and I hope that neither of us will ever out-grow them.