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Cultivating Imagination, Stories and Childlikeness

Last Spring I was making coffee in my kitchen for a group of teachers and moms, when suddenly some rhythmic chanting arose from the other room. A group of St. Timothy’s children – ages 5-7 – alive with the verve of having been outside learning the names of bugs and flowers and mushrooms, had started wandering around after my calico cat. She’d finally sat down, and was now surrounded by almost twenty children, at least half leaning in to pet her, whilst together they murmured:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES….

No adult was in the room. None had prompted them, suggested, “Oh! This is an appropriate time to recite that poem Miss Martin taught you…!”

No, on their own they had begun reciting – to the audience of one: my cat.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,

A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,

Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,

Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

Their voices rose in rhythmic and elated crescendo, my crazy cat sitting there purring all the while:

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable


Deep and inscrutable singular name.

I’m not sure my cat was in “profound meditation” – although she did seem somewhat mesmerized by the experience. The occasion likely left a more profound impact on me. These children had been so imbued with the gift of poetry, that it was spontaneously arising … not to show off, to look smart, to improve a grade: but out of sheer appropriateness of the moment, sheer fun, pleasure, beauty. The given words were deepening their enjoyment of Goodness.

In the play that the children performed last night – The Princess and the Goblin – poetry, beautiful words, story-equipping is central to the tale. It interweaves with intellect, with faith, with physical labour. With fun. Joyful wordsmithing even wards off fear and danger:

Hit and turn and bore!

Whizz and puff and roar!

Thus we rive the rocks,

Force the goblin locks.—

See the shining ore!

One, two, three—

Bright as gold can be!

Four, five, six—

Shovels, mattocks, picks!

Seven, eight, nine—

Light your lamp at mine.

Ten, eleven, twelve—

Loosely hold the helve.

We're the merry miner-boys,

Make the goblins hold their noise.

Akin to T.S. Eliot’s words in “The Naming of Cats,” Curdie’s seemingly silly poems in The Princess and the Goblin, do not fend off goblins merely for their power of rhyme: light and playful though the text may be, they are nonetheless weighty with meaning. “Rive the rocks,” “Light your lamp at mine,” “Loosely hold the helve,” – all these lines with clever words and turns of phrase warrant close attention. As Eliot himself would have noticed when he read George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin – loving the fun, and moved by the depth. Madeleine L’Engle was not the first to point out the echoes of this fairy tale in Eliot’s more weighty poem “Little Gidding.” And he was not the first so moved.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that

in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, [this children’s book, The Princess and the Goblin] remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.

Chesterton describes MacDonald as a “practical mystic,” for whom, he says, every door and staircase was invested with the excitement and mystery of a spiritual romance. He speaks of how MacDonald was a sort of “St Francis of Aberdeen,” seeing “the same sort of halo round every flower and bird.” He adds: “It is not the same thing as any poet's appreciation of the beauty of flower or bird. It is a certain special sense of significance ... [it is]  sacramental. (Italics mine.)

C.S. Lewis wrote of how MacDonald’s fairy tales give “as much delight much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest of poets....It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and 'possessed joys not promised to our birth'.”  Lewis says this type of writing, mythopoeic writing, is perhaps – Lewis’s words – the greatest of all the arts, and MacDonald the greatest genius of that “greatest of arts”.  For Lewis, MacDonald not only helped him access the Holy, the Sacramental, in our daily physical world, but he also pulled him back into other literature of his inheritance – of our inheritance – that was intended to do the same. Literature that taught both wisdom and wonder. Goodness.

In the last year he was alive Lewis named MacDonald as the writer who most shaped his “vocational attitude” and “philosophy of life.” That MacDonald shaped his vocational attitude should not be a surprise to anyone who is aware that like Lewis, MacDonald was not only a crafter of magical fiction and thoughtful prose, but also a passionate teacher of literature. A lover of teaching the stories that teach the love of stories, and thus, of humans.

What is relevant for us from his biography is that this 19th century rural Scotsman, who grew up in a family that treasured labour and intellect, science and art, family and neighbours, Scripture and folktales, and who crafted stories that taught luminaries such as Lewis and Chesterton deeper understandings of holiness and the sacramental, was intimately involved in the movement to return an acknowledgment of the importance of story – and wonder – to the academy.

MacDonald’s primary mentor, a man named A.J. Scott, was the first ever full time English Literature professor. The discipline is much younger than most people think – dating only to the 1840s. And most people are completely unaware that this discipline was founded because of some Christians who were quite concerned at the loss of story not only in culture generally, but in an academy focussed more on acquisition of knowledge than of relational-understanding and growth.

Let me tell you a brief version of a story about teaching stories that we should all know much better…

There once was a Scottish pastor named A.J. Scott. He moved to the country of England to pastor Scottish immigrants, but when he arrived he was more than a little discomfited to learn how restricted education was in this new country. London was then the largest city in the world, and the Industrial Revolution had wreaked havoc on people’s communal identities, pulling them away not only from their cultural stories and parish communities (and thus often Scripture stories), but also: literacy rates in England at the time were at least 20% lower than in Scotland, for men and women both. Which also meant people knew little literature. But… it wasn’t just the lower classes who did not know Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare… perhaps bizarrely to us today, many Oxford and Cambridge graduates were not overly familiar with that English literature either.

This was because the literary focus at Oxbridge had traditionally been only the Classics…if the stories were not in Greek or Latin, then they were not material for study. This was perturbing enough to a group of students at Cambridge early in the century that they started their own club which not only set readings for each other of English literature, but also set essays. When (likeminded) folk discovered that Scott had begun offering free evening lectures on the literature, church history, and philosophy of England for the dockworkers in his parish, they begged him to broaden his audience, and offer similar talks in public lecture halls.  The likes of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and the Wedgewoods began to attend – and were captivated. Scott was going down into the archives of the British Library and pulling up dusty tomes with names like Beowulf, Piers Ploughman, The Perl – and both inviting in but also chastising his educated peers for being intrigued with even Continental literature, whilst disregarding their own. It is hard for us to imagine today, but in many of his lectures Scott was arguing for the validity of the study of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare.

Impacted by Scott’s lectures, the founders of England’s first university that was willing to give degrees to scholars other than just Anglicans (University College London) decided to develop a course on this material. Together with his friend F.D. Maurice, Scott carved out and shaped this new discipline. A thoughtfully relational, trinitarian theology was central to both men, and this was foundational to their conviction that the stories we imbibe shape who we are, how we are, and how we relate with each other and with God – as does our lack of story, of identity. They believed that within the space of story – again, as modelled by Scripture itself – readers could be changed, even transformed. Literature that was shaped by, responded to, engaged with scripture could be  – as Lewis called MacDonald’s literature – praeparatio evangelica, but its careful reading could also help any human to be more empathetic and sympathetic. It could foster hospitable listening, even re-orientation. It could do more than give philosophical arguments for the virtues, it could model how they might be indwelt. These teachers believed that for those desirous to be Christ-like, responsive reading would reinforce shared humanity and concern and care for all of creation; that good reading would compel social responsibility.  

Living in an age of swelling nationalism, these first professors also believed that better knowing the stories of their own country would actually help the English understand that so much of the richness of their identity was born out of engagement with, and through the influence of, other cultures. To better know one’s own story is to better understand how richly entwined it is with that of others.

And to these lectures came a hungry young George MacDonald.

Scott and Maurice also talked of literature as being a communication of living persons; of how engaging with literature was engaging with real – eschatologically alive – voices. The Communion of Saints. This proposal – that attentiveness to voices of those who had gone before (whether of distant or immediate past) could better inform readers as they stepped into the future – was a provocative concept in Victorian England, a culture so enamoured with “progress.” And it was especially captivating to the young student George MacDonald. He was persuaded that the better equipped one was to understand the text, oriented in hospitable conversation, the greater the possibility that engagement with it could prove transformative. And also, the more able one might be to contribute to this Long Conversation of the Cloud of Witnesses, with new potentially transformative texts. MacDonald’s own success is attested to by many, such as Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien … whether when facilitating a seemingly simple change in perspective – finding trees more mysterious, goodness more attractive, or the childlike more heroic – or the dramatic shifts in prejudice attested to by contemporary readers of MacDonald – approving education for women, changing minds about eugenics, choosing to fight ecumenical schism. Even as radical as a shift as finding joy in theology.

MacDonald moved his young family to Manchester to study further under Scott, and soon he too was a lecturer in this new discipline, both giving similar public lectures and even stepping into a former position of Scott’s, as the second English Literature professor at one of the first colleges for women. MacDonald would continue to lecture on British Literature for forty years. But he did not only teach literature from behind the podium.    

If you have read his fantasy carefully, or have immersed yourself in his “realistic” novels, you will have discovered how MacDonald teaches literature – be it English, Scottish, German, French, Italian…even Greek! – on nearly every page: whether it is through weaving quotations into tales, using images and symbols that have travelled time, from Greek myth to Scripture to Ambrose to Chaucer to Herbert and up through to his contemporaries, to having characters recite Dante and Burns and Coleridge.

Plato, Euclid, Boethius, Langland, Mystery Plays, Mallory, Spenser, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Donne, Goethe – these are a but a few of the writers/works that MacDonald engages with repeatedly in his fiction, sometimes all of those within a single novel or fairytale, showing how their voices engage with each other antiphonally as they seek across time to better understand Truth and Goodness and Beauty. Repeatedly MacDonald pulls their phrases and images and ideas into conversation with each other, explicitly and implicitly, and from thence into conversation with the issues of his age.

MacDonald was convinced that it is through such highly informed and intentional engagement with the works of others that truly great literature was, and is, evinced. He explains that such critical engagement with the art of previous sub-creators is itself high art; that this is what makes such texts “a kind of sacrament.” That it deepens, makes more wise, our participation in God’s gift of imagination. Whether one is writing material intended for adults, or for children.

His own crafting of a seemingly simple children’s tale such as The Princess and Curdie proves to be: an exploration of a biblical narrative (Isaiah); a questioning of cultural ideologies (such as the newly formed self-help movement, A. Smith’s laissez-faire, and the degradation of land by economic greed); a deft challenge to the literary and biblical criticism of Matthew Arnold; and an homage to typological convergences (from Greek myth and Christian art traditions up through Coleridge and Shelley). He even slips in nods to some recent geological treaties.  As well as exploring concepts of obedience, trust, truth, faith.

All whilst crafting a successful children’s fantasy novel that’s never been out of print.

I think it is really important to understand the depth, the passion for story, the study of story, the stewardship of story through which a children’s tale like this is crafted. But I also want us to stop and notice that it is this: a children’s tale. That when Chesterton is asked for the book which has most made a difference to his whole existence, it is MacDonald’s children’s tale; that in C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (the fictional expression of his Abolition of Man) the books that are given to the academic who is recovering from abuse, and who has never really been …tethered… are what Lewis calls “The Curdie Books” – The Princess and The Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Lewis learned much about the transformative power of literature from his well-storied master (this is the word he uses for MacDonald: my “Master”).  He also learned the importance of treasuring, nourishing, stewarding the childlikeness and wonder of children, rather than rushing them into sounding smart and erudite before they are ready to love – let alone grasp – what they learn and read; before they have first really anchored themselves in, and really claimed for a way of being, imaginative delight and wonder.

In writing to a friend about important teachers of faith, Lewis references people like Augustine, Athanasius, and Hooker, and then proceeds to explain that for himself, it is to George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons to which he owes his own “great debt.” The very first sermon in that collection is called “The Child in Our Midst,” and in that sermon MacDonald recalls us to what is actually a rather uncomfortable saying of Christ’s: Unless you become as one of these, you may not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Unless. That’s a pretty strong statement. And the scene appears three times in the Gospels. Christ is saying this to men who have walked and worked and studied with him for a substantial amount of time. These are his primary disciples. And he clearly believes that they need this word; their familiarity with his teachings, their own leadership skills and abilities, are not sufficient. They still must become “as one of these.” 

I think this is a very important reminder for those of us in education, who love and value and get excited about learning: be it maths, or language, or history, or theology or comprehending the virtues; be it thoroughly framed by the trivium … that Christ says “unless we become as one of these…”

So, in all our teaching and training, we need to be careful to not impede childlikeness. To not put The Four Loves ahead of Narnia;  to not elevate winning the science fairs above excitement at the coolness of insects (both good, but the former missing the mark if at the cost of the latter); to not let our children think it’s more important to be smart than it is to delight in each other and the world. Indeed, we need to remember both to foster and to model childlikeness. MacDonald talks – and models – a lot about the difference between childlikeness and childishness in his work. About how Paul calls us out of childish immaturity, and how Christ calls us to mature into childlikeness. (For those of you familiar with Narnia, think of Aslan’s first actions upon resurrection: to play a game with Susan and Lucy. With every other urgency before them, he deems it important to do this first.)

Even in MacDonald’s stories for adults, one easily comes to recognize that the mature characters, the Christ-like characters, are those who do not merely value university knowledge, but those who bend low to smell flowers, who are not shy to sing silly songs, or to cherish fairy tales and lore. They are out reading their books in the fields, so that their copy of Plato’s Republic is blessed, even transformed, when they delight in an alighting butterfly. His academics who shut themselves up in towers, even when renown in their field, are shown to be imbalanced, unhealthy, atrophying, if they have forgotten how to leave their desks and pens, and step out to become – as he phrases it at one point – God’s playfellows.

What does it mean not only to have, but to foster a childlike imagination? To teach and train our children – as they acquire precious knowledge and learn valued skills of application – to mature into a Christ-like childlikeness?

This is a question that I hope St. Timothys, and the community that carries and supports it, will continue to pursue.  But it is also something that I have certainly already seen: in the children spontaneously reciting poetry to my cat, by those performing The Princess and the Goblin last night, so enthusiastically indwelling a children’s tale that was forged in deep relationship with our rich literary inheritance.

I commend those who chose to weave this rich story of wordsmithing and wonder and goodness and fun, into the curriculum, into the children, of St. Timothy’s this year. With this imaginative tale in their bones they will do more than memorize… they have seen it play out, are playing it out themselves. In learning the beauty and truth and goodness in such a children’s tale, like Chesterton, they are being shaped to “see certain things from the start” that will continue to inform their more complex and increasingly adult readings. And hopefully, have been shaped enough that they shan’t ever leave one behind for the other.

Lewis would have been pleased to hear that a St. Timothy’s grad was going on to study Augustine. He would have been deeply glad to know that a St. Timothy’s grad was fast friends with a fairytale of MacDonald’s – as well as assured that that grad would thus be so much better equipped to wisely engage with Augustine. By engaging with stories that are themselves crafted as part of a conversation with our storied inheritance, a relational engagement about which the founders of English Literature were so passionate, St. Timothy’s students will be better prepared – have wiser imaginations – for their studies of other ancient tales, the classics, the sciences, and more. To teach them that they can do this without leaving behind, but, rather by wisely maturing their Childlikeness…is to weave Christ’s call into our educating.

I shared with you earlier some of the weighty yet playful rhyming of Curdie – rhyming that protected both him and others from the ills in his world. Those of you who have read (or last night watched) the story will know that even though Curdie is equipped with the grammar and logic and rhetoric to navigate his way through some serious trials, he struggles to find the trust and faith that Irene has.  He will get there – he has a whole other book for that journey.  But it is no accident that whilst his education serves him very well – and that includes his education of physical labour, of digging and helving and delving – Curdie has not yet learned the childlikeness of Irene, let alone the childlikeness of the great-great-grandmother.

In his sequel story we will learn more of how much childlikeness is tied to the curation of wonder, of attentiveness, of holding stories that call us to live these out. When we next meet Curdie, the narrator explains that the two chief signs indicating that he is  (and I quote) “getting rather stupid” is that “he believed less and less in things he had never seen” and “[h]e took less and less notice of bees and butterflies, moths and dragonflies, the flowers and the brooks and the clouds.” The narrator continues: “There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. […] The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh born.” 

We as educators are to equip our students with stories that “break them out of their normal mode of consciousness” and help them apprehend the Holy, the Sacramental, in their daily physical world; stories that help them indwell a Christ-like childlikeness that that will not be left behind, but rather be grown into with ever-fortifying maturity; that will help them to not simply comprehend the virtues, but to joyfully indwell them. Rather than choosing texts and curriculum on the basis that they will make our children look smart, how do we delve into the literature of our inheritance, the voices of that Cloud of Witnesses that somehow yet surround us, and teach our children to converse and delight so that they might be equipped? This is our calling as a community.

But so too is our calling – from Christ – to seek to mature into childlikeness ourselves. To figure out how to grow this way ourselves.

May those 5, 6, and 7 years olds still be chanting poetry to random animals fifty years from now.

Not to look smart, but in spontaneous expressions of delight in God’s creation, participating in his invitation into wordplay and attention.

May it be jolly poetry like “The Naming of Cats” and Curdie’s poems;

may it be the profundity of Gerard Manley Hopkins;

may it be adventures from the Aeneid;

may it be the soul-cries of the Psalms.

And may that, in a myriad of ways, inform their various educations and vocations, their parenting, their community living, their choice to keep studying and learning and reading and playing. May it keep them able to see – and share – the Holiness that surrounds us, waiting to be known. May they still be able to intuit that reciting poetry to a cat is an act of sacramental imagination……a wise childlikeness that is part of their readying to be playfellows in the Kingdom of Heaven.

And, may we keep learning this from them.

by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is a George MacDonald scholar who lives on a farm in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. She writes and lectures internationally on MacDonald, the Inklings, the nineteeth century, and Faith & the Arts. She is on the Advisory Board of Inklings Journal VII, a founding Board Member of the C.S. Lewis & Kindreds Society of Eastern & Central Europe, and co-chair of the George MacDonald Society. She directs Linlathen, a Theology & Arts conference and lecture series based in rural Ontario. Passionate about integrating ecological care, local community, and academia, she occasionally partners with the environmental network of A Rocha. You can find some of her photography on Instagram: #Mythopoeic_Life


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