Last week I stumbled upon a striking passage by W.H. Auden on the vital function of imagination. In a short essay on The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:
Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.
Evil, that is, has every advantage but one—it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil—hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring—but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for dominion and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head, and his eye is kept turned toward Gondor and away from Mordor and the Mount of Doom. ~from pp. 47-48 of ‘A Tolkien Treasury,’ edited by Alida Becker
Interestingly, Auden’s essay was later collected and placed alongside another essay by the English critic Colin Wilson, who had surprisingly similar things to say about imagination. In responding to a writer who deeply disliked Tolkein’s trilogy, Wilson articulates the relation between imagination and hope, and suggests why the trilogy—and fantasy fiction in general—can stimulate one’s imagination to action.
We still live under the threat of a great oppressive evil. But all imaginative people feel that there are solutions that no politician is far-sighted enough to grasp. Our hope for the future lies in the capacity of the human imagination to reach beyond the present, in our capacity to glimpse vistas of meaning that stretch out endlessly around us. Tolkien’s work performs the important function of stimulating this wild, Chestertonian hope for the future. For all I know, Tolkien may have thought of himself as a pessimist, in the strictly historical sense; i.e. he may have seen no practical hope for our civilization. But in the fairy tale essay, Tolkien states that one of the most important functions of the fairy tale is to aid “recovery”; that is to say, the work of fantastic imagination may be regarded as a kind of hospital, a place where exhausted people can regain strength and hope. ~from p. 83 of ‘A Tolkien Treasury’
To which I say: bravo.