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Fantasy versus Imagination

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If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
Come in!
Come in!
― Shel Silverstein 

The Gormenghast Trilogy is a series of novels authored by Mervyn Peake between 1946 and the early 50s. I’ve recommended them here before. In 2000 the first two novels were made into a four-part miniseries by the BBC.

The books achieved near cult status in the 70s—borderline Tolkein—but faded from popularity, except for a few hardcore enthusiasts. I suppose many were disappointed with the small-screen adaptation of Peake’s epic: How could the sweep of his tale be crabbed into four short hours? The casting, however, was skillful, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing the role of Steerpike long before the actor’s fame as Henry VIII in “The Tudors”.  If you’d like to borrow the “Gormenghast” DVD, just ask. But when you view it, please be sure to watch the supplementary material taking us behind the scenes. Curiously, one of the Gormenghast cast was Stephen Fry, who speaks of author Mervyn Peake (whom he never knew) and the important difference between fantasy and imagination.

I think tonight of several threads in the story: Stephen Fry, for example, has been a prominent spokesperson for atheism (perhaps more interesting to me than those who read this). Curiously, however, C. S. Lewis, the Narnia author and Christian apologist, had good things to say about Peake [“[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”], and Lewis was himself a close friend of Tolkein, and both of them were in turn, especially in their religiosity, creatures of G. K. Chesterton. I’ve always been skeptical of that unctuous trinity of authors—Chesterton, Tolkein and Lewis—for that reason alone: their cloying religiosity. So, for C. S. Lewis and Stephen Fry to say good things about Mervyn Peake is, for me, notable.

Also, to an ashen academic such as I am, Professor Bellgrove, Fry’s character in the BBC production, is another thread, this time linked with me and my ilk, we quaint and curious keepers of forgotten lore. Each day as Professor Bellgrove and his fellow faculty begin their academic day, they recite a poem, a virtual pledge of their purpose as teachers. One of their students, their academic charges, is none other than Titus Groan, heir to the Earldom of Gormenghast, a place more hidebound by tradition that the British monarchy.

Hold fast / To the law / Of the last / Cold tome, / Where the earth / Of the truth / Lies thick / On the page, / And the loam / Of faith / In the ink / Long fled / From the drone / Of the nib / Flows on / Through the breath / Of the bone / Reborn / In a dawn / Of doom / Where blooms / The Rose / For the winds / The child / For the tomb / The thrush / For the hush / Of song, / The corn / For the scythe / And the thorn / In wait / For the heart / Till the last / Of the first / Depart, / And the least / Of the past / Is dust / And the dust / Is lost / Hold fast!

Hold fast indeed. Which brings me back to the question du jour: the difference between fantasy and imagination, for the chasm between them is greater than between either one and fact.

Several years ago, Molly Yergens invited me down to Shattuck–St Mary’s, the Hogwarts of southeastern Minnesota, where she teaches art. Molly had asked me to tell her students (eight or ten of them, aged 12 or 13) about Agincourt, my own Gormanghast wannabe, I suppose. [Is it pretentious to link these two imaginary places?] Toward the end of the hour, I noted the furrowed brow of one young man and asked what troubled him. “Well, it seems to me, some people might actually think that Agincourt exists.” “You’ve caught right on,” I enthused, “That’s precisely what we hope!” Molly then asked them to imagine their own realms, and got a lot of Lollypop Lakes and Big Rock Candy mountains in the bargain. She got fantasy, rather than imagination. I suddenly understood myself much better.

*The Gormenghast image above was created by Ian Miller and is available for purchase in limited edition giclée format.


1 Comment

  1. baddhorse says:

    But you never told us what you think the difference between fantasy and imagination is.

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