Discover more from M.A. Franklin's Bluster and Brine
The Right Books to Train a Moral Imagination
Lessons from C.S. Lewis and Eustace Scrubb.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the boy Eustace Scrubb happens upon a dragon. But he doesn’t know it’s a dragon. This might seem remarkable because a dragon seems like something that should be easy to recognize, something obvious or self-evident. Eustace, however, “had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.” Because of this, Eustace did not know how to act. He doesn’t make a tactical retreat. He doesn’t plan an attack. He doesn’t avoid the dragon’s lair of cursed treasure.
None of these possibilities were in the realm of his imagination.
Instead, Eustace acts the fool. He acts greedy like a dragon and so becomes a dragon and much misery follows. The education that would have served Eustace so well is given to him in the flesh, good and hard. He gets aggressively pruned, with sharp claws, because he hadn’t been grown properly in the first place.
C.S. Lewis poured some of his own experience into Eustace’s stunted imagination. After lamenting that, other than for some geometry and grammar, his time at an early boarding school was almost entirely wasted, he says in Surprised by Joy:
For the rest, all that rises out of the sea of arithmetic is a jungle of dates, battles, exports, imports, and the like, forgotten as soon as learned and perfectly useless had they been remembered. There was also a great decline in my imaginative life.
Just like Eustace, Lewis had read all of the wrong books, and for both Eustace and Lewis, this prevented them from seeing or doing what they ought and prevented them from avoiding what they should. Lewis didn’t start his rise toward true Joy until his imagination had been baptized by one of the right books (in his case, Phantastes by George MacDonald.) Eustace’s fall into literal dragonhood isn’t just a sign of his bereft imagination but the culmination. It is not the first time he acted the fool in the story. He shows himself to be envious, cowardly, selfish, uncharitable, always complaining, and blinded by his ignorance no matter which direction he turns. He is, in short, an insufferable, spoiled brat. He was a dragon before he ever became a dragon, and he was taught to act like a dragon by his parents and his teachers.
Eustace is a boy who would come across a tree with wide limbs sprawled out to the sky, with several thick branches well within his reach, and never think to climb it. Eustace is a boy who, while in the woods walking with a friend, could come across two sticks, and would never think to wield those sticks as swords, pretending to be a knight in one of the great battles of old. Eustace could find a rock, perfectly round, flat, and smooth, and never wonder how it would skip across the waters of a lake. And even if these ideas had come to his mind, he would have despaired at getting his hands dirty and looked like a cat carefully licking itself after a long nap.
Eustace could not even conceive of the joy of simple pleasures, which meant he could not think outside of himself. He would never think to climb a mountain to save a princess. He would never think about fighting for anything beyond his immediate appetites. He would never think about striking out to sea to meet whatever adventure awaited him (not voluntarily, at least.) No concept of duty, honor, or courage. His imagination would only serve to generate excuses. It would keep his focus on immediate practicality. His imagination, in other words, forms the soil for his rotten character.
An education that does not train the imagination is an education that breaks the ankles of children before bidding them to walk. It smothers and deadens instead of providing fuel and kindling. At worst, however, it can train an imagination in a way that corrupts the affections and is a negative force that pushes away the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.
A man’s imagination, properly trained, helps ground his moral center. He can recognize evil when he sees it, both the evil in his own heart and the evil standing right in front of him, and he can imagine the good so he can attempt to bring it to fruition.
Education, above all, is meant to bestow virtue. A well-trained moral imagination gives a man a picture of what those virtues actually look like, how they taste, and how they feel.
How do you recognize a limp imagination? How do you start to train a moral imagination? Eustace read the wrong books, so what are the right books?
This essay will attempt to answer these questions.
M.A. Franklin's Bluster and Brine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.