This article first appeared in Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, from Square Halo Press.
When I was a child, the world seemed infinite. The horizon, which ever recedes no matter how far you chase it, seemed literal: perhaps the world really did go on forever. Omniscience was easy to envision: perhaps my dad really did know everything. When I learned from the old professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe that nothing was more likely than that “there could be other worlds—all over the place, just round the corner,” this was not much of a surprise. My response, though not in these words, was something like: “I knew it!” The excitement immediately turned into action: I of course began looking for them. Many a closet failed to yield to my questing hands as I vainly sought passage into the world of magic and talking animals. Of course, the professor had warned that we shouldn’t go looking for them, that if we were patient and lived our lives, they would come to us; but how could I be sure they would find me if I didn’t look? Perhaps the violent could seize the kingdom of Narnia by force. I never succeeded, of course, but it always felt like I might. Like Lucy in Prince Caspian, I felt that I had come just a little too late, or asked in not quite the right way. The reality I sought had always just disappeared around the corner as I came into the room: you could still smell its scent. And so the search continued.
But as I grew older, the world began to shrink. The horizon was just a trick of optics, weather, and topography; my dad was a mere mortal, and a flawed one at that; a closet was just a closet. Gradually but relentlessly every gateway to another world was closed in my face, proven never to have really existed. The tantalizing sense of more that had kept the search going was just my own wishful thinking. It was time to accept that there was no world but this one, and to get down to the grim and dull reality of dealing with a world insufficiently populated with wondrous things, marvelous people, and, most heartbreakingly, meaning.
This story, I’m given to understand, is a common one. Growing up seems to mean letting go of the way we want the world to be and accepting the way it is. The only problem is that this whole view of the world that we grow into is dead wrong.
The children have it right, and this is their birthright: to see what adults have, through disillusionment, neglect, and misdirected sense of duty, trained themselves not to see. That is why children flock to Jesus in the Gospels, even as the adult religious experts scratch their heads in consternation. That is why Isaiah says “a little child shall lead them.” Theology teaches us that the world is, at every level, more than we adults consider it to be. The natural world is a ceaseless trove of wonders (water falls from the sky (!), birds bright as candies fill the air, and our days and nights are lit by massive explosions in space); we are surrounded by hosts of strange and magnificent people (the saints and angels); there are monsters and dragons to be slain (demons); and above it all is another world, unimaginable in its richness and joy, and this world is creeping into our own such that round every corner, behind every leaf or blade of grass, is a possible glimpse of it and entry to it. I had the world right all along, though I was off on some of the details. The task of growing up is not to learn to let go of this way of seeing the world, but to learn to recognize what all this means.
As adults, we have to help children along this path. That is what the essays in this book do: they point the way along various roads that will lead children to grow up to have childlike eyes with mature hearts. The paths laid out here are numerous, because what calls to one soul will not call to another. Also, these paths are not exhaustive: we cannot show all the ways, but by showing some it will be easier to recognize others. There are commonalities in the things presented here, derived from the nature of human thought and desire. Some of the most important ideas that animate these paths are imagination, wonder, and mystery.
I. Imagination: Sailing the Seas of Possibility
When I speak of imagination in conjunction with literature, the mind may first turn to fairies and goblins, dragons and knights, wizards and enchantments. And one does encounter imagnation’s fruit in very rich form in such stories (my own heart aches for dragons). And yet, we should think of the imagination no less when speaking of historical fiction, or a book about nature, or biography. The imagination is fundamentally about the possible, and what is real and every day is no less possible than what is fanciful and out of the ordinary.
For example: where Tolkien builds his world from the ground up, or Rowling crafts a world parallel to and intertwined with our own, historical fiction takes the rules for what types of things are possible, what types of technologies are available, what types of structures make up society, etc., from a particular time in our past. This by no means limits the imagination, for its work is not just in the building the stage, but also in figuring the characters and contouring the plot. And so even when Napolean or Julius Caesar come into the tale, they come not in their historical form, but as recast by the imagination of the author. There is always this sense of seeing between the pages of history, catching action and conversation that never made it into the official record. This is of course what makes it fiction; but the imagination is freed rather than hampered by the historical starting point.
Similarly, in the case of biography, it might seem that the imagination is squeezed out by the necessity to faithfully present the actual person in question. Here the goal is not to slip between the pages of history, but to fill out those pages. While it may be a virtue in historical fiction to reimagine Napolean, this is a vice in biography. And yet a biography is no bare listing of deeds done. Rather, every biography is a story. And the story is not the same as what was experienced by the subject of the biograph. Rather, much as in the case of historical fiction, the imagination takes what is given, but can only create a whole by the creative interaction with it.
The point is that the products of the imagination are not just dragons and wizards, but also ways of telling a story, perspectives on history or a life, and the reasons we give why things happen. The imagination is as active in appreciating our world as in making new ones. Indeed, all crafting, all creation, is a work of the imagination. And every story, whether it tells of things true or make believe is fruit of the imagination.
II. Wonder: The Spell That Binds Our Souls
We see countless miracles every day. As Chesterton puts it: “Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” And yet, the vast majority of these marvels are taken for granted. We do this when we don’t see it as something common place. Of course rivers run with water: that’s nothing special. But it is. Imagine how differently we would feel if we came across a river of liquid gold: yet water is much more precious and no less marvelous.
We are not always insensitive: sometimes we are arrested by a marvel, and we linger over it. The attitude that lingers over the marvel precisely as marvel is wonder. Wonder is the way that we honor the strange, the otherworldly, or the magnificent. We love this experience so much so that “wonderful” far exceeds “good.”
Wonder raptures us out of the every day, out of the false confidence with which we approach the world as a known thing. This is because wonder arises as a result of perplexity: this can be, as Aristotle thought, because we are ignorant of the cause of something, or because we are perplexed (astounded) by the greatness of something. When I see a massive mountain, I am not so much perplexed how such a thing can be as I am awed by the sheer immensity of it. When an angel appears, it must say “do not be afraid” because its very being so greatly exceeds our own that we are overcome by a wonder that quickly slides into dread. It is this type of wonder that stories evoke in us: the grandness or even strangeness they present, whether it be a fantastical or mundane grandeur, cracks open our understanding of what is possible.
And so wonder, awakened by the products of the imagination (human imagination in the case of stories and art, divine imagination in the case of beings and places), itself awakens the imagination. We instinctively know when we are moved to wonder that the imagination should be brought to bear, because wonder forces us to realize that the boundaries of the possible are not where we thought they were. Faced with an enlarged sense of possibility, we must call upon the imagination as a guide through these new vistas.
III. The Central Place of Mystery
And so we are brought to mystery. Though we come to it last, it is really first, because it is mystery that gets the whole process going. Let me explain with a personal example.
When I was in college, my life in many ways revolved around our library and classroom building. It was a majestic building: a row of tall columns through which one had to pass to enter, supporting a golden roof many dozens of feet above. Inside the colonnade, the ground was paved with tiles, and at the center was a fountain. Water flowed from the top level down to the bottom through twelve channels (symbolizing the twelve apostles), and in the midst of the water in the upper level was a torch that was always lit. I passed in and out of this gateway several times a day, and it became a sort of temple of knowledge, the emblem of my daytime world.
But one night, I wandered around to the back side of the building, and here I discovered something very much worth seeing. The building, I then learned, was symmetrical, such that there was an identical “temple” in the rear. But the rear looked out over a field that ran down to the stream that marked the edge of campus: no one ever needed to go that way, and no one’s path led that way. So the university chose not to spend the money on the needed upkeep. The fountain was dry, the torch was unlit, and the tiles were broken in places, the tesserae lying about as if discarded by a disinterested child. It was, quite frankly, a ruin, and I loved it. I went there often, almost exclusively at night, where I could have the illusion that I had stepped through a mirror from my daylight world into its dark reflection in another world.
I was drawn to it because it felt mysterious: it was a tangible instance of what I had so long looked for: a door into another world. Every time I stepped onto those broken tiles, I felt transported to a world where I was the only living thing. I was put in mind of the dead world in The Magician’s Nephew, where Digory and Polly unwittingly awaken the White Witch. There was nothing mysterious about it really, of course: the university had been in financial difficulty for many years, and so had no money to waste on unseen parts of the campus. But it was possible to ignore all of that and pretend that there was a great history here, that a great civilization had fallen.
The strangeness of the place awakened my sense of mystery, which moved me to wonder, which caused me to engage my imagination. The process was so seamless that it seemed to take no time at all: it was as if I were plunged headlong into the sea of mystery, wonder, and imagination the moment my eyes laid hold of that marvelous desolation.
We adults too often fail to be on the lookout for wonder and imagination. We approach the world as fundamentally understood, and so we do not wonder at it; we solve problems by reason, and so we do not feel the need to bring imagination to bear. But mystery interrupts this: upon encountering mystery, we are immediately moved to wonder. And when trying to unravel a mystery, we are forced to use our imaginations, precisely because the mysterious nature of the thing in question defies our normal intellectual categories.
If, as I have argued, our job as adults with children in our lives is to guide them down paths of maturity that will leave imagination and wonder intact, then our great weapon in selecting books for them is mystery. Mystery has a gravity to it, and if we can bring our children within its influence, it will draw them inevitably deeper. This is why the approach must be varied: we must learn what will grab each child, and offer that, so that we provide channels for their wonder and imagination. Each book opens another channel, and we want to open as many as we can, for the Spirit of God is abundant enough to flow through infinitely many. These things hold open the spaces in our soul where the Spirit inspires and encourages. They make us magnanimous, and on this spiritual immensity we can build the character that will help our children grow into the fullness of virtue. Good stories keep the soul awake, forewarning it of danger and populating it with heroes and heroines to inspire us. Their example of courage and character gives us strength to do likewise, to see ourselves standing against similar foes and refusing to yield to evil. Story has always been and remains our greatest tool in crafting wise and great people.
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970), p. 46.
 ibid. p. 186.
 Mt 11:12
 C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 112-3.
 Is. 11:6
 Orthodoxy, p. 51
 Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I, 982b
 C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1955), pp. 41-53.
Featured image by victor217
- Imagination, Mystery, and Wonder – On Choosing Books for Children - September 12, 2022