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Picturing a World

Gurney on imaginative fiction

Blog post alert: Author-illustrator James Gurney has posted a Q&A on his world of Dinotopia well worth reading. He makes the point, for instance, that fully illustrated books are immersive and provide triggers to deepen the reader's involvement in imagining that world. One answer to a question, however, startled me.

He says he was unaware of J. R. R. Tolkien's concept of artists as sub-creators who reflect the Creator in whose image they are made. I thought everybody in the fantasy field had at some time read Tolkien's influential essay "On Fairy Tales." Gurney says, "My understanding (and I may be wrong) was that he saw himself not so much as a creator or a subcreator but rather as a kind of lowly transcriber of some ancient text that already existed." Well, Mr. Gurney, you are indeed wrong! Translator is the tongue-in-cheek stance given to the narrator in the The Lord of the Rings but hardly the author's understanding of what he himself was doing.
My personal experience in imagining my fictions—whether fantastical, historical, or here-and-now realistic—is two-fold. On the one hand, I seriously plan, plot, and think about themes, imagery, and other technical aspects of writing. On the other, the act of visualizing characters, settings, and actions often does feel more like recognition than making things up. It always delights me when a character says something unexpected or a plot takes a turn that makes me say, "Oh, now I see!" In that way, I'm close to what Gurney describes when he says, "If you believe your fantasy world already exists, it makes the ideas come more readily to the imagination."
Nevertheless, what I take from Tolkien's theologically based philosophy is an assurance that what artists do is natural and needed. Whether God-given or an accident of evolution, our drive to make things, to see things fancifully, to enhance awareness of sound and movement, to tell stories because people can't help telling them—all these are part of what makes us human and should be honored and encouraged. And if I may say so, never more than now.
I am pessimistic about the huge climate disaster that is unfolding. Our politics are discouraging. We are facing a difficult fall, dark winter, and uncertain future. But all of you who practice an art or craft, take heart. Do it! It's what makes us what we are when we are at our best. And for those of you who admire and appreciate the artistic endeavors of others, remember what James Gurney says: your own imagination adds half the magic.

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