What do we know about the imagination? Why do we have it? And do we need it? Shelley and Chesterton considered imagination the moral organ of man. Lewis said imagination was the organ of meaning. Tolkien described it as the part of man that causes him to “sub-create” (only God can create, said Tolkien). For each of these men, imagination resulted in literature—poetry, fantasy, fairy tales. And for most of us a definition of imagination is dependent upon our observation of its products. The product most easily recognizable as imaginative is the fairy tale.
The essays on imagination by Lewis and Tolkien, which I have reread annually for much of my adult life, leave me both satiated and tantalized. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” though thorough, stops short of telling me why he and other Christians are so interested in imagination. Explaining imagination is no easy task.
Help has come from an unexpected source: a child psychologist. In a compelling and brilliant book entitled The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Knopf, 1976), Bruno Bettelheim proposes that for a child to develop an integrated personality he needs fairy tales, he needs imagination. “Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children” (p. 53). This book should become the basis for future studies of fairy tales.
In his introduction Bettelheim tells us what he won’t do in his book: he won’t concentrate on how fairy tales reflect our cultural heritage, our moral values, or our religious nature, though throughout his study he cites several fairy tales that function in each of these ways. As he explains, those are book topics in themselves. Rather, ...1
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