As a novelist and a poet George MacDonald was certainly blessed with a fertile imagination. But he was also a critic who thought long and hard about the nature of human imagination and its uses. And, as a Christian, he wanted to be able to give some account of just why it was that God made us imaginative as well as intelligent and moral beings.

MacDonald's distinctive ideas about these things are certainly woven into the fabric of his novels and poems. But they are expressed most succinctly and carefully in two essays, "The Imagination: its functions and its culture" (1867) and "The Fantastic Imagination" (1893), both published in a collection called A Dish of Orts.

Created in God's likeness

The first and most important thing MacDonald tells us is that imagination is something we have in common with God. Imagination is that in man, he writes, "which is likest to the prime operation of God." As human beings, therefore, we may say that we are "made in the image of the imagination of God."

This is striking in what it tells us both about ourselves and about God. Biblical talk of human creation "in the image and likeness of God" has generally been linked to our ability to think intelligently and to discern right from wrong. But here MacDonald links it unashamedly to that part of us which writes poetry and tells stories, sees patterns in the clouds and hears the music produced by a bubbling brook, and which is too busy wondering what might be the case to be constrained by whatever appears to be. Significantly, he reminds us that imagination does not have to do with such playful, creative and artistic impulses alone—but these are central to it. And God, he suggests, is like this. Our yearning for the poetic, therefore, is nothing other ...

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