Mythic Imagination

Exploring the connection between memory, archetypal imagery and imagination, Jules Cashford suggests that we cannot simply ‘remember’ archetypal images in the way we remember a personal event in our past, but we can approach them only as symbols for which we need Imagination.

An old Irish Fairy Tale tells how Fionn, the son of Uail, was set wandering in great distress of mind through Faery. Over days and nights he had many adventures, and when he returned to the world of men he was able to remember them all. In his version of the story, James Stephens says, ‘that by itself is wonderful, for there are few people who remember that they have been to Faery or aught of all that happened to them in that state. In truth we do not go to Faery, we become Faery, and in the beating of a pulse we may live for a year or a thousand years. But when we return the memory is quickly clouded, and we seem to have had a dream or seen a vision, although we have verily been in Faery. It was wonderful, then, that Fionn should have remembered all that happened to him in that wide-spun moment.’

If we condense this narrative into an image of a state of mind we have a story of a moment of Imagination: the departure from the known, the encounter with the new and strange, the becoming one with what is found, and the re-membering, the putting together of the vision into a new whole. And what happens to us when we hear what happened to Fionn is that we also are set wandering away from the world of men, that is, from the literal frame of mind in which limits are set and predictions can be made; and, far from this world, we must become Fionn who has become Faery and, like him, we must hold the ‘wide-spun’ moment before our eyes. The tale asks us to participate in two worlds simultaneously: the eternal world of Faery, where all things are possible, and Fionn’s world, a man like us who has finally to return to life in time. The wonder of the tale will depend on our being able to hold both worlds together without sacrificing one to the other. William Blake called this ‘double vision’:

For double the vision my eyes do see,

And a double vision is always with me.

With my inward eye, ‘tis an old man grey,

With my outward, a thistle across my way.

The inward and outward eye – these might seem to be two ways of seeing, two eyes, but for Blake this is one act: it is a seeing and a feeling together, seeing the thistle so intensely that he feels its inward nature, so that the vision of the old man grey comes from his feeling for the sparse, grey spikiness of the thistle. We could even say that the image of the old man grey is the image of his feeling for the thistle, an image born of the identity between them which dissolves the difference between people and plants, spirit and matter, There is a union of what those of ‘Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep’ would separate into two things and turn back into one. But the old man grey cannot replace the thistle, because without the thistle the old man grey is no more and, in the exactness of Blake’s perception, if the thistle is not felt for it is hardly seen, if seen at all:

‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only

a Green thing that stands in the way…But to the eyes of the man of

Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.’

Because of this relation between being and seeing, Imagination cannot be treated as a separate faculty or function of the mind which thinks in images.


The rest of this article is reserved for members only. If you have a subscription, please sign in here. Otherwise, why not Subscribe today?


[This article was previously published in ‘The Gist – A Celebration of the Imagination’ (edited by Lindsay Clarke, with a foreword by Andrew Motion) available at]

Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.

Subscribe Today

, , ,

No comments yet.

You must be a subscriber and logged in to leave a comment. Users of a Site License are unable to comment.

Log in Now | Subscribe Today