Discovered or Imagined?

a real book

It’s been a while since my last post. Partly that’s because the comments in Discovered or Invented? were so thought–provoking, I had to pause to reflect for a time on a question I’d never really considered before.  Are stories discovered or imagined?

There are aspects to this question I’ve pondered before but I’ve never really looked at it in just that phrasing. And I’m not sure, after considerable thought, that there’s a simple answer to it.

To invent [that is, to make a poem] is to come into a knowledge of the unknown thing through the agency of one’s own reason.’ This statement by the medieval grammarian, John of Garland, is cited as an idiosyncratic view by Robert Edwards in Ratio and Invention but, if John is eccentric, then he’s in very good company.

George MacDonald—the great nineteenth century fantasist who influenced CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, WH Auden, JRR Tolkien and EE Nesbit, not to mention yours truly—said: ‘A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.’

In his notes to his children’s fantasy, The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner wrote: ‘The more I learn, the more I am convinced that there are no original stories. On several occasions I have ‘invented’ an incident, and then come across it in an obscure fragment of Hebridean lore, orally collected, and privately printed, a hundred years ago.’

I’ve often encountered a similar phenomenon in my own stories: scenes that I thought I’d invented out of my imagination turn out to be classic moments from certain northern myths or folktales. Names that I’d made up and then looked for through 27 books without result have subsequently popped up in the age of Google as real names with precisely the meaning I assigned to them.  My spelling is often atrocious, as if I’d never seen the name but heard it sounded out in Old Gaelic or Norse and spelt it phonetically. I don’t even find this spooky any longer. Because I’ve noticed that lots of other writers do it as well. They just don’t know they do.

So is the creative process really one of discovery, rather than an exercise of imagination? Are writers explorers, rather than fabricators? I think a lot of us are, particularly in the field of fiction and more especially within the genre of fantasy. There’s a lot of talk in fantasy (and speculative fiction generally) about world–building, but sometimes I wonder: is it truly about creating or about charting an already–existing geography?

Do stories have an independent life? If there were no human beings, would there still be stories? For most people, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

I’m not so sure. Does part of being made in the image of God mean that we have an irresistible urge to tell stories? Jesus told them. God spoke the universe into being. Is the universe itself the great story He is telling? Do we simply share in carrying on the ones He’s already created?

Everything is a story,’ said Sara in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. ‘You are a story. I am a story.’

To a degree, there’s great truth in this. God says in Ephesians 2:10 that we are His workmanship—and the word translated ‘workmanship’ is from poeo, Greek for ‘poem’. We are God’s poems, His stories. We collaborate with Him in crafting the story, we have choices which affect the storyline but, ultimately, He is the author.

And if we are stories, can we as sub–authors actually invent our own sub–stories or are we restricted to discovering parts of God’s grand story when our imaginations run wild?

And if we are just discovering truth in what we write, as George MacDonald suggested, then aren’t the boundaries between fiction and non–fiction an artificial construct of modernist thinking?

When Christians object to fiction on the grounds that it’s not true, this means they have accepted the relatively modern philosophy that enables a distinction between types of literature.

Back in the days of John of Garland, there was no division between fiction and non–fiction. Like modern fantasy and science fiction writers, a medieval poet could work within the circles of the world to chart his own small bounded universe. He could explore the geography of his imagination and pioneer a way for others to follow, just as many of us have followed CS Lewis through the wardrobe into Narnia.

So is that wardrobe ‘real’?

That’s a tough question. Perhaps; perhaps not. One thing is sure: within the wardrobe, truth can be expressed in ways impossible elsewhere.


  1. Fascinating! I’ve often thought and felt that our characters do have a sort of imaginative life that’s hard to describe. That, because we ‘made them up’ they actually have a kind of existence somewhere–that they’re real. Your reminder of the passage from Ephesians is very telling: as God made everything, He made our thoughts/imaginings/stories for us to walk in. Better listen and heed Him, right?

    Thank you for writing about this!

  2. Hi Maria,

    I remember the first time a character looked up from the page, glared at me and said, ‘I would not say that.’ And I thought: You’re right. You wouldn’t.

    I know some writers who laugh at the idea of characters becoming so ‘alive’ that they talk back to their authors. I think part of this process is choosing the right name for the character. If you get the name wrong, the character is wooden and lifeless; if you get it right, the character seems to write himself or herself.

    Again, I know writers who have no time for this sort of ‘nonsense’, so I was relieved to hear Michael Morpurgo say at a conference that it might sound pathetic but he couldn’t even really start a story unless he got the names of the characters right.

    And, in a Hebrew understanding of the meaning of conception, it is when God whispers our name to us that we are spoken into existence. So maybe it’s when we give our characters their true names that they come to ‘life’. I hadn’t thought of that before – but in the context of what I know about names, it makes sense for us as sub-creators.

    • It does make sense, Annie! Naming is so important, whether of characters or places.

      • Naming was a sacred act in many ancient cultures.

        Behind the Name is one of my favourite websites when it comes to exploring meanings – it’s got better and better over the years with many alternative etymologies and possibilities added. Nonetheless, it still suggests that a name is essentially a label, not a word which summons destiny.

        • Thank you! I saved the site in my favorites.

          When I was writing my book, I came up with a name for the kingdom that didn’t work, and an agent, who declined to represent me, mentioned this. At last the right name simply came to me. It sounded like something spoken in the same quirky idiom of my ‘voice’. ‘Zuphof’ just summed up that funny little place.

          • The names in The Queen and the Handyman really did work, Maria. There are many fantasies where the names just seem like they were plucked out of a spelling randomiser. But all of yours seemed to fit together and fit the story perfectly.

  3. Lyn Churchyard

    Couldn’t agree more Annie. One of the characters in my book is, as you know, Elitha. Just discovered today, that it is a Danish name but the meaning is unknown. Another character (from a different story) whose name I thought I’d invented – Keleitha – also exists. The only one I can’t find is “J’Sharn.” Wouldn’t mind betting though, that it’s also out there somewhere 🙂

    • How fascinating is that! Do you have any Danish blood? Keleitha and Elitha are almost rhyming names – certainly assonances – so it would seem that this is a significant set of syllables to you. Now you’ve got me curious.

      • Lyn Churchyard

        No Danish, but definitely Finnish. My Grandfather (father’s father) was from Arbo in Finland. Oh, I never noticed that before – about the similarity of the names.

        • I was curious enough about this to look into Elitha. Behind the Name is a great website that offers alternative spellings when it can’t find the name you’ve specified. It offered Elita from Latvia, meaning unknown. This seemed like the same name with a different spelling and suggests that the Danish and Finnish names might not be too different. The other ones that seemed most likely to me are Alethea, from Greek for truth (and, of course, made famous in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass where Lyra had an aleithometer)and Eilidh, which is a Scottish diminutive of Helen.

  4. Ken Rolph

    There’s an interesting book — Creation of the Sacred: tracks of biology in early religions by Walter Burkett. Here’s part of the blurb.

    “His book takes us on an intellectual adventure that begins some 5,000 years ago and plunges us into a fascinating world of divine signs and omens, offerings and sacrifices, rituals and beliefs unmitigated by modern science and sophistication. Tracing parallels between animal behavior and human religious activity, Burkert suggests natural foundations for sacrifices and rituals of escape, for the concept of guilt and punishment, for the practice of gift exchange and the notion of a cosmic hierarchy, and for the development of a system of signs for negotiating with an uncertain environment. Again and again, he returns to the present to remind us that, for all our worldliness, we are not so far removed from the first Homo religiosus.”

    This suggests not only that stories are discovered, but that all human cultures will discover approximately the same things.

    • Perhaps this explains why there are only seven basic plots (or so it’s often said).

      • Ken Rolph

        Yes, I’m reading Christopher Booker too.

        Strangely, various people have various numbers of basic plots. I’ve seen up to 39 listed. Ronald Tobias has 20. Georges Polti has 36 dramatic situations. William Foster-Harris only allows 3. There must be others.

        Which makes me wonder. If you read all those books, would you always be able to know whodunnit in the TV mysteries?

        • Hi Ken,

          Quite right. Booker admits this in his book. But I think the idea of seven basic plots has such appeal as a not-too-big, not-too-small number. Enough categories to remember reasonably easily but not so many as it feels not worth the recall, unless you’re a professional.

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