I’ve been following a beautiful garden path of thought as I spend time with Kathleen Raine’s books, Defending Ancient Springs and That Wondrous Pattern. In her essays she mingles with poets like William Blake, W.B. Yeats and Edwin Muir who have all experienced the visionary power of imagination. For them, poetry and myth-telling aren’t just pastimes. They are vital for our health and wholeness as human beings.
Most of us haven’t been taught how to imagine. We don’t make a distinction between imagination and fantasy, but for early philosophers, this was lesson number one. The sixteenth century alchemist Jacob Boehme was quite explicit about it. He wrote: “Phantasy is not imagination, but the frontier of folly.”
As Jeffrey Raff wrote in Jung and the Alchemical Imagination:
Anyone who endeavors to experience the inner world through active imagination will, sooner or later, deal with the thorny issue of fantasy and delusion, especially if one teaches or works with individuals in therapy or analysis. While imagination opens the door to profound experiences of the self, and makes the formation of the self possible, fantasy leads to inflation, illusion, and stagnation.” (43)
I think that the best way to learn the difference between “imagination” and “fantasy” is to do our own imagining, and I have found that one of the most accessible entry points is through fairy tales. The images in the stories are very potent, and for many, they have a magnetic pull on the psyche. If you acknowledge that pull, and you go into a scene to see it for yourself, you will likely see images that are surprising. Needless to say, a certain amount of spiritual courage is needed to go there because the conscious mind is not in control. If we don’t like what we see, and we want the image be something else, Imagination veers into fantasy.
Let’s say I asked you to locate yourself in a mythic place, and the first thing you imagined was climbing a glass mountain. The image expressed how you felt, but you didn’t want to be on a glass mountain, so you changed your image to a sandy beach by a sparkling blue lake. The beach might express where you’d like to be, or how you’d like to be seen, but it wouldn’t be expressing truth. The glass mountain, on the other hand, has something to say about where you are. It may also be suggesting a way to surmount that obstacle, because it’s your glass mountain and nobody else’s.
When you start engaging the symbols of a well-worn story like a fairy tale, it’s easy to veer off into fantasy. In my WonderLit exploration of Jack and the Beanstalk, I wanted to confront my fear of intimidating male authority figures. But when I got into the story, I was much more comfortable on the ground with Jack and his magic beans than I was with the giant in the sky. I didn’t want to see that man-eating monster! But I knew that I didn’t see him with my own eyes, I wouldn’t be getting the medicine that I had come into the story to receive. Just like Jack, I had to step up onto that beanstalk.
When I finally did go and look at the giant for myself, I found him at the dinner table. He had just finished his supper and he was pounding his fists on the table. He wore a bib and looked like a huge BABY. I was shocked by my picture. The giant didn’t terrorize me at all. As I wrote in The Otherworld Journey course:
“The giant’s a big VICTIM. He can’t handle things not going his way. When they do, he automatically turns into a huge cry baby. It’s a conspiracy, everybody is out to get him. It’s like he’s running to his Mama all the time, crying, “Look what they did to me, Mama, they hate me!” And it’s true, they do, but not because he didn’t deserve it. He’s the biggest bully in the schoolyard! But he is completely unable to admit fault. That’s his biggest, most glaring FAULT!!”
Had I skipped that chapter in WonderLit, had I not gone to look at the dark power in the story, I wouldn’t have seen the giant’s fundamental weakness. I might have been able to speak about friendly giants and beanstalks, but I would not have found a way to see through the dark powers that had terrorized me in my life.
I understand how tempting it is cling to our ‘beanstalks’ when we’re engaging in mythic imagination. If we’re not ready to see the big bad wolf or the evil witch, we’ll want to change them into a friendly dog or a pitiful old woman. Of course it’s okay to fantasize if we’re not out to grapple with the gritty stuff, but it is important to learn the difference. Real images produce self-recognition. We see where we are and what we’re dealing with, and from then on, we become interested in the plot of the protagonist because it has become our own and we have a vested interest in the outcome.
The people in Kathleen Raine’s garden of thought have all had transformative experiences of Imagination because they have learned how to imagine. As she writes in Defending Ancient Springs, the poets Dante, Milton, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake and Yeats have all discovered how to speak “the great symbolic language of tradition.”
“The world-tree and its fruits, the birds of the soul, sun, moon, river, loom, dragon, gate, and dark tower, may be likened to words of that language, whose meanings, though not otherwise definable, are exact. Knowledge of these symbols is essentially a kind of learning, but it is the learning of the imagination, not of the merely conceptual mind. It is the learning of the poets.” (p. 13)
These symbols don’t come to life by reading about them in a symbol dictionary. Those sources can only reinforce what we discover for ourselves, because symbols speak to each of us in a unique way. I learned this very early on, and it was the key that unlocked the gate to all the fairy tales. P.L. Travers, one of the earliest contributors to Parabola Magazine and the author of Mary Poppins, wrote that the meaning of a symbol can never be universally expressed for once and for all. A symbol is like a crystal hanging in the window. It has many facets. It has meaning for me, for you, and for all of us. But you can’t get to the universal before you’ve had your own encounter with the symbol. Jack’s giant represents a power in the world, a power that we are all grappling with together. But everyone who engages honestly with that giant will have their own epiphany.
I’m taking a deep breath now as I move through the garden. I’m listening to the conversations that are going on in every corner and under every tree. This is my vision of the way the world is meant to be, one facet of my image of the Garden of Eden. Human beings sharing their discoveries on the inner planes, speaking the forgotten language, and changing the fabric of the world from the inside out.
Feature Image, Poet’s Garden, Vincent van Gogh, (1853-1890)
Other images: Michelle Tocher, from WonderLit Fairy Tales (www.wonderlit.com)