`Imagination is more important than knowledge’ Albert Einstein remarked.
Each term as I prepare my three children for the return to school, I find myself pondering his words. Does our education system, ridden as it is with test as the punctuation marks of progress, and our wider culture with its dwindling funds for arts programmes, accord this kind of regard to the world of the imagination?
Perhaps the most important containers of imagination for any culture are its myths and stories. For an archaic culture, such myths are infused with a significance that is as real as sunrise. For the western teacher and parent, they’re more likely to be regarded as fantasy – stories may carry a moral, bear an interesting lesson, stand a situation on its head, or entertain us of an evening but are, at the end of the day, only make-believe. Such an attitude is emphasised by the division in adult reading between fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other. The danger of this division is that it devalues myths and stories as the conveyors of certain truths about life that cannot be as effectively conveyed in other ways – ways that cannot be taught and tested, but rather suggested and appreciated.
Might there be a middle territory between the realms of so-called fiction and non-fiction – a more common regard for stories, myths and legends not as an escape into fantasy, but as a way of mirroring back to ourselves the challenges and mysteries of our lives? Since Freud psychoanalysed Oedipus, psychologists of many persuasions have shown the benefits of dismantling myths and fairy tales in a therapeutic context. By extension, we can see that storytelling is of itself a healing process. The popularity of adult titles that use myth as a tool – Robert Bly’s Iron John, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves – suggest there’s a hunger among parents, let alone their children, for a way of reclaiming imagination as a carrier of meaning in our everyday lives.
`Tell me a story,’ my children clamour. Usually, when I respond to this demand, I draw on my repertoire of old stories. This isn’t because I think modern storytellers aren’t marvellous – many of them are – but because in the themes they explore, the adventures they describe, and the language of enchantment with which they’ve been handed down, the old stories seem to me to deal with the larger issues of our existence – growth and change, fear and courage, friendship and betrayal, suffering and death – in a more robust fashion than many contemporary tales.
There are other reasons, too: with the characters I select, the words I choose, the way in which I tell of the adventures of heroes and heroines of the past, I realise I’m connecting my children to their human history as well as helping to mould the attitudes with which they will approach the future. I’m also laying a pattern of guidelines with which to approach those experiences and feelings that will visit us all – success and loss, joy and pain, loneliness, confusion. How, in new situations, should we feel our way forward? Good stories offer us guidelines with which to navigate the thrills and dangers of growing up – and growing old. They also provide us with clues and the qualities we need to cultivate ‘n particular circumstances: when it pays to be cautious (‘I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts’); when to be generous, like the heroine of the old German folk tale `Mother Holle’; when to take risks (what kind of a wimp would Jack have grown into if he hadn’t defied his mother and scaled the beanstalk?); how to persevere. Are the adventures and lessons of `Beowulf’ and ‘Gilgamesh’, `The Ramayana’ or `The Arabian Nights’ inappropriate to the predicaments of our time? In a sense, they’re always appropriate, for like their creators, they turn around the question of human choice, of love and hate, of intention, desire and power.
I’ve noticed, in my explorations of old stories, that as often as not advice and assistance comes, for those who listen to it, from animals, and from those who live in the wilds and are familiar with animals’ ways. In such tales these animals are not sentimentalised, they serve a serious – sometimes crucial – purpose. In the myth of Isis and Osiris, the native wisdom of the animal world is beautifully conveyed through the animal god Annubis; in the American Indian story `Jumping Mouse’, animals are each other’s teachers. Nothing, it seems, is as ecological as a good old story, for in these tales the theme of right relationships – of parents to children, humans to animals, activities to seasons – has deep and ancient roots in the processes of the natural world.
I know that telling them stories will not secure my children top marks in their exams since `imaginative’ is a word that seems to become increasingly perjorative (and non-vocational) as children ascend the academic ladder. But it’s imagination, rather than knowledge, that shows us how to connect, qualify, enjoy, value – fair versus unfair, better versus worse, good versus bad. It’s through imagination that we learn how to pass time fruitfully. It’s through imagination that we befriend each other – across tables, across play-grounds, across cultures and generations – and ourselves. That’s why, when I’ve ironed their clothes, named their shoes and labelled their folders, I shall send my children back to school on a story.
Details of the adult books mentioned:
Iron John, Robert Bly, Orbit, 185230 419 7, £3.99
Women Who Run With the Wolves. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Rider, 0 7126 5747 9, £9.99
Besides being a mum, Tessa Strickland recently launched a new children’s publishing company called Barefoot Books – for more information, sec page 31 in BfK 83 (Nov 93).