An excerpt from my new book on fostering imagination in children.
“What hero are you going to be?” my brother asked, as if the world depended on my answer. He was golden then, hair like sunlight, eyes blue as a young summer morning. I was his dark-haired sister. Twelve good years thrummed in his steps, and fifteen in mine as we strode down the gypsy ribbon of a country road, laughing in the face of a fast-setting sun and swiftly rising storm. The crackle and crisp of dying leaves was in every gust of wind; the oaks and ash and maples danced darkly overhead in crimson, flaming grace.
“A princess, of course; a brave one like Eowyn,” I answered, “with sword at the ready.”
“And a bow and arrow too?” he queried.
“Oh yes,” said I.
He smiled in a fatherly way, “Good. Princesses should only sword fight if they absolutely have to.”
He slipped his arm through mine then. I took it and grinned a knowing look to the sere meadows at the darling presumptions and gallantries of my little brother. He was still short then; I stood a good head taller, curbing my strides to match his. The softness of childhood still rounded his face and in moments like those, just us two in a wind-tumbled world, dreams looked out unmarred from his eyes.
“I’m going to fight the orcs like Aragorn and Legolas; I’m going to defeat enemies and fight the darkness,” he chattered, “Do you want to hear the story I’m writing? It’s about an enchanted sword …”
We walked that day with the loping ease of young idealists. There was magic in the air, a scented wind with a heady mix of autumn’s death and brightness that worked like a truth potion on the both of us; we thoughtlessly told the dreams we usually hoarded in silence. Our secrets? Stories. The stories we loved in books, the favorite tales that captured our vision and challenged our dreams. But also the stories we told about ourselves, the narratives we formed in imagination of who we might become and what we might accomplish. Those were the far more telling secrets and we marveled to hear ourselves voice our hopes to accomplish brave deeds, to tell great stories, to live as heroes in the tale of our time.
As we strode that autumn road we recalled the tales that had formed our dreams and we examined their respective heroes; Lucy in Narnia or Aragorn in Middle Earth, Martin the Warrior of Redwall, or even Freckles, the courageous guard of the Limberlost. If they could fight and love, defeat darkness, make beauty, why not us? With each pound of step we imagined the future, each pulse of blood brought our dreams of bravery into speech. Everything seemed possible then and it filled us with a breathless laughter. When we reached the bend in the road, pausing an instant before we turned, I asked him back: “What hero will you be?”
The name made my lips twitch but I didn’t smile, for suddenly, there was no laughter in his voice. I glanced sideways and slightly down, curious, and found him staring hard into the coming dark. Brightness was in his eyes, like light pooled in water just at dusk. He walked faster. His chin went up. His arm was restless in mine and abruptly I knew that he meant it. With every ounce of his soul, he intended to be the utmost of real life heroes and he was walking ahead as if to meet the man he would become.
Perhaps that set chin was daring me to laugh, to parry back and slough off his solemnity with a pinch of scorn. I didn’t. I turned my face back to the snake of road fleeing out from under our feet and kept silence. Imagination is the first step to creation, the instigating spark that drives the actions of a hero. As I stood on the cusp of adulthood that day, I understood the truth at the base of the dreams that my brother and I had shared. If we could imagine great stories, there was the chance, the hope, that we could live them too. The flush-faced thrill of our walk came from the tales we hoped to live; fancies begun in childhood, now ripening into ideals and declared to each other for the first time. There was a sort of doom upon us both now. We had dared to say what heroes we would be, and somehow, from that dappled minute and those spilled stories, there was no turning back.
Almost fifteen years have passed between our words on that memorable day and the moment in which I set them forth on this page. Nate and I are both adults now, and you might assume that the difficult realities of adulthood—the work and compromise and practicality needed for life in a modern world—might have dulled the edge of our ideals. Successful citizens, productive adults, contributing members to family or society, you might think those reasonable goals would replace our youthful, wild-eyed hunger for heroism.
But oh, if you do, then I think you’ve never been wholly captured by an epic tale. You’ve never tasted the beauty of an otherworld so great it sets your soul alive with longing and your mind to wondering if you could make such beauty yourself. You must never have witnessed great battles in imagination and hoped that you could stand your ground in a battle of your own. You’ve never had the doughty heroes and gracious heroines you loved in countless childhood tales standing guard in your mind, staring you down with a challenge to act as bravely, to give as fully, to hope as ardently in your own story as they did in theirs. Adults though we are, adults who work and love, struggle and hope through our confusing twenty-something lives, Nate and I, and Joel and Joy (my other siblings), still believe that we are called to be heroes and heroines in the story of the world.
Why? Because we are storyformed souls…
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Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.