IMAGINATION Part I: The Moral Imagination


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Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” ~ Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery)

Every summer that I spend in northern Michigan I watch the 1985 film adaptation of Anne of Green anneGables (northern Michigan—especially the Victorian summer colony of Mackinac Island—always makes me think of Prince Edward Island). My fascination with the power that words have on our imaginations probably started when I first read the ‘Anne books’ as a very young girl (and then re-read them multiple times). One of the most endearing characters in all of children’s literature, Anne Shirley made the mundane magical and infused ordinary life with wonder. During her early life in orphanages, Anne’s active imagination seemed to be a coping mechanism (i.e. Katie Morris, her window friend), but once she reached Prince Edward Island it became her characteristic response of gratitude for her new life (“It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?”), as well as the source of her passionate spirit, love of poetry and history, longing for transcendent mystery, and moral courage. Anne of Green Gables, without a doubt, was the fictional character who sparked my young moral imagination more than anyone else.

The term “moral imagination” was coined by the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and described those intangible ideals “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination” that form a foundation for all flourishing societies (myth, religion, poetry, art…in a word, culture)–sentiments Burke believed were being rejected by certain thinkers who wished to narrow valid experiences to those that could be explained by a limited definition of reason and a reductionist vision where human beings are little more than advanced animals. Russell Kirk reinvigorated the term in the 20th century, referring to the moral imagination as an empathetic “power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.”

Many parents want to encourage the imaginations of their children, but I also meet parents who are wary or discouraged by the kinds of stories currently being marketed to young people (“they’re so dark,” “there’s no clear sense of right and wrong,” “the content is too edgy and explicit”). Perhaps this fear explains why imagination has not always been thought of as a positive faculty. In the Middle Ages the word was often used to describe dark fantasies of the mind that tempted one to do bad things, and in modern times imagination is sometimes associated with romantic daydreamers who can’t cope with the world as it is, so they create their own. This certainly wasn’t what Burke and Kirk meant by moral imagination, but defining the somewhat ambiguous term—especially as it relates to fictional stories—can be a challenge, so I’ve come up with a list of 10 Principles in an effort to narrow it down.

An important point to mention is that when it comes to books for children and young adults, stories with squeaky-clean characters and overly preachy messages (in addition to being dull) aren’t usually the best representatives of the moral imagination. Stories of the moral imagination promote wonder, empathy and hope. They allow us to enter into another’s plight and experience ethical dilemmas, but they also inspire by giving the reader confidence that Goodness ultimately wins out and is not for the weak.

What stories have you read that embodied these principles? Please comment below!

10 Principles of the Moral Imagination

by Ashlee L. Cowles

1) Stories of the Moral Imagination point to an enduring and transcendent moral order, and therefore resist ethical relativism, utilitarianism, and nihilism. They suggest that many aspects of the human experience are universal and can be shared across cultures.

2) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize “what a thing is”—especially, human nature. They recognize that there is something “above human nature” (the supernatural) and something “below it” (the diabolical) (Russell Kirk). The writer does not create this reality, but rather discovers it.

3) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that humans have a mythopoeic means of knowing reality that transcends rationalism and empiricism. Human beings are “sub-creators” (J.R.R. Tolkien) who naturally seek out the Good, True, and Beautiful through story and myth—our primary modes of understanding the deepest truths.

4) Stories of the Moral Imagination defend the notion of free will, while also acknowledging the possibility of destiny, grace, and providence. Because humans are free agents who will not always choose to act virtuously, they as individuals, as well as the societies they form, are always an imperfect—but redeemable—blend of good and evil.

5) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that the purpose of human life is not pleasure, power, or utopia, but arête (virtue or excellence) and, above all else, Love.

6) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist the extremes of libertarianism and collectivism by emphasizing individual personhood in inescapable community. This is reflected in the story’s heroes and in the lives of the writers themselves, whose craft is often the result of both solitude and community.

7) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize that there are “permanent things” (T.S. Eliot) which must be passed on in order for a culture to endure and flourish. The characters in such stories fight not necessarily for total victory, but “to keep something alive” (Russell Kirk). Memory is therefore crucial, as are the traditions of past generations.

8) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist rigid dualisms by stressing paradox, as well as the sacramental nature of existence. Humans are a mystery in that we possess some kind of consciousness/soul that cannot be explained entirely by scientific means, yet we are also embodied beings, which means the pleasures and sufferings of the material world are central to the human experience.

9) Stories of the Moral Imagination have an ethical end, but they need not be didactic and are not always allegorical. Their primary purpose is not to instruct, but to awaken (George MacDonald). Just as the Moral Imagination is not a thing or even a faculty, but “a process of making metaphors out of images and experience” (Vigen Guroian), stories of the Moral Imagination use powerful symbols, believable characters, and authentic situations to achieve their purposes, rejecting simplistic moral lessons.

10) Stories of the Moral Imagination recognize that truthful fiction often requires “getting yourself dusty” (Flannery O’Connor). Such stories do not shy away from depicting the nature of evil and the broken state of our world, but they also recognize that without the possibility of transformation and a vision of hope “the people perish.”

A Year in Scotland


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It’s hard to believe that our time in Scotland has come to an end. This past year has been a whirlwind, but fortunately we still found time to explore this enchanting land of lush forests, emerald isles, misty mountains, sea-glass studded beaches, and heather kissed moors. As a lover of history, literature, and folklore, I can see why Alba is a place that appeals to people with more romantic sensibilities–those who prefer timeless truths to temporary ‘facts’ and long-lasting, fantastical legends to prosaic annals of the past. From the gritty atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Old Town with its narrow closes and winding cobblestone streets, to the white sands of sunny (relatively speaking) St Andrews or the haunting Highland valley of Glen Coe, Scotland is a land that—in the words of my favorite literary heroine, Anne Shirley—provides much “scope for the imagination.” Here are a few of the highlights from our year in Scotland:

The Western Isles & Highlands


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Edinburgh – Scotland’s City of Literature…and lots of fun pubs! (the two go hand-in-hand, right?)




Radiant Ruins & Creepy Cemeteries





Fairy Forests & Secret Gardens

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Castles and Cairns

IMG_1451 DSC_1416 DSC_0650  Sowells in Scotland 107 Sowells in Scotland 105

Sands, Seashells, and Sunsets

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Craft Beer at STABCO (St. Andrews Brewing Company)

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Hamish McHamish the St. Andrews Cat…and other Creatures Great & Small

WP_20140119_018 WP_20140119_004 WP_20140425_02820140425210100 WP_20140423_118 WP_20140305_01220140317192814 Sowells in Scotland 186 Sowells in Scotland 146 WP_20140520_052 WP_20140520_059 WP_20131020_007


Mini Pilgrimages & Long Walks

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Old Books

DSC_0975 DSC_0989 Chaucer Romance of the Rose Glasgow Monkey


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Writing & Wanderlust


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It’s almost finished, so I suppose I can make an official announcement on the old blog. In the next few weeks I’ll be completing the revisions of my Young Adult novel THE LONG WAY HOME and my wonderful new agent, Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management, will soon be pitching it to publishers. I’ve written several novels in recent years (all unpublished…so far ;)), but this story is particularly special to me because it deals with topics rooted in my Army brat upbringing that will hopefully speak to people living this lifestyle today…and anyone else suffering from wanderlust! Here’s the story:

Spain 305 (2)Gabriela Santiago remembers the moment her childhood changed forever: September 11, 2001. Since that day over a decade ago she’s lived on more Army bases than she cares to count, her soldier father has deployed five times, and now her nineteen-year-old brother, Lucas, is going to war too. Some people would love to spend their senior year living in Europe on the U.S. government’s dime, but not Gabi. With her boyfriend back in the States and her brother in Afghanistan, Gabi wants nothing less than to be stuck on a U.S. base in Germany. What she wants is to go home—too bad Uncle Sam is the one who gets to dictate every aspect of her life.

Gabi’s already unstable world is turned upside down when she learns that her brother has been severely wounded in action. What’s more, right before he was injured Lucas sent her a cryptic message in the form of a Homeric epic and a strange request: if anything should happen to him, Lucas wants Gabi to fulfill his dream of conquering the Camino de Santiago—the ancient route of their family namesake, which crosses northern Spain and is still walked by thousands of seekers and skeptics alike.

To honor her brother’s wish while he fights for his life, Gabi must make the journey with Cain Cohen, Lucas’s best friend, a young soldier who harbors dark secrets about what happened in Afghanistan and wrestles with these demons of war the entire way. What transpires on the road is a transformative journey filled with quirky characters and an unlikely romance between two people united by their loyalty to Lucas…and to Gabi’s surprise, a great deal more. Cain may be the last person Gabi would have chosen to walk to the ends of the earth with, but he may become the one person she can’t walk without.

Stay tuned! :)

Reading Resolutions 2014: A Year of Scottish Authors


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I’ve never been one for making serious New Year’s resolutions, but I often make a list of fiction reading goals and since I’m in Scotland, this year I’m focusing on Scottish authors (and it turns out there are many great ones!). Here we go:

1) Sir Walter Scott

KenilworthOften considered the first historical novelist, there’s no way I could pass up Sir Walter Scott! Right now I’m reading Kenilworth (about Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley) and I hope to get to Ivanhoe and The Tailsman as well.





2. Dorothy Dunnett

Another historical novelist,  Dorothy Dunnett’s retelling of the story of Macbeth, King Hereafter, is the novel I’m most looking forward to reading.










3. Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyllAfter visiting a pub in Edinburgh inspired by this classic Gothic tale of good vs. evil, I decided it was time to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.








4. George MacDonald

This Victorian writer was an influence on some of my favorite authors and wrote many, many stories, but I think I’ll start with his children’s classic, The Princess and the Goblinprincess and goblin







5. J.K. Rowling

goblet of fireI know, I know, technically J.K. Rowling was born in England (though her grandfather was Scottish–born on the Isle of Arran–so she’s 1/4 Scottish), but Harry Potter’s birthplace is Edinburgh, where Rowling wrote the early books. She has also stated in interviews that she always envisioned Hogwarts being located in Scotland (which is where you end up when you get on a train at King’s Cross station and head north!). I’ve been working my way through the series and am getting ready to begin The Goblet of Fire.



6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

After watching two seasons of the hit BBC series, I’m eager to read a few Sherlock stories by another Edinburgh-born author. Sherlock

You Might Be a Pilgrim If:

Originally posted on The Greenery:

56 Ways to Identify an American Post-Camino Peregrino in Withdrawal

colorful peregrinos

*note to visitors: This post is about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain and assumes a certain amount of knowledge in readers. If you’re curious, this article gives a brief overview: “Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Beginner’s Guide

1. Goodwill will not accept your used hiking boots.

2. You carry toilet paper, extra-powered Ibuprofen, and Compeed with you at all times.

3. You wash your socks with shampoo.

4. You have a fantastic tan…but only on your left side.

5. You have seen Pablito‘s special rock.


Pablito with his special rock

6. You fear cyclists.

7. You routinely approach reception desks and ask if the hotel is “complete.”

8. You hear that Alanis Morissette song in your head when you take long walks.

9. You can say “hello” in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, English, Dutch…

View original 701 more words

Autumn Enchantments: Celebrating the Sturdy Shoulders of Two Literary Giants


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Of course Aslan showed up

Now that Thanksgiving is over and Advent is upon us, the last of the leaves are falling from the trees here in Scotland and the hours of daylight are dwindling. Looking back on my first semester at St. Andrews, I realized how fortunate I was to have celebrated in an intimate way the lives and work of two ‘men of letters’ who are also two of my literary heroes. Both Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis were fond of a saying attributed to Bernard of Chartes, which acknowledges the debt we owe to the great writers and thinkers of the past: “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that the American Kirk and British Lewis are considered by many to be two literary giants of the 20th century who shared that quintessential ‘giant’ quality: they help us to better see. And the view these past few months has been particularly clear, since anniversary celebrations have brought both writers back into the spotlight.

To start, this October some of Russell Kirk’s family members, friends, former students, and St Andrews alumni arrived in Scotland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Kirk’s seminal work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, originally his doctoral dissertation from the University of St Andrews. As the names in the subtitle suggest and the intellectual genealogy within the book’s covers confirms, Kirk’s portrayal isn’t so much about politics (in the sense of policy issues) as it is about the power of the imagination; the “faculty of meaning” (as Lewis puts it) employed by creative thinkers who sought to conserve the very best of the past for subsequent generations—something they succeeded at only because they were able to speak to the present. This linking of the past and present was a palpable theme throughout the entire weekend’s celebrations, as visible in the physical presence of Kirk’s grandchildren as it was in the sharing of his ideas with a new generation of St. Andrews students.


Kellie Castle, not far from St. Andrews, where Kirk wrote much of his magnum opus thanks to the hospitality of the Lorimer family

Similarly, the C.S. Lewis Symposium and Commemoration at Westminster Abbey in London this November was a gathering of those who, as speaker Alister McGrath put it, shared the childless Lewis’s “intellectual DNA”, in that we had all been deeply inspired by him and are “linked to him through our imagination and reason.” This ‘bridge building’ between reason and imagination seems to be the key to understanding Lewis’s ever increasing popularity and persistent influence (many of his books, after all, remain bestsellers even 50 years after his death!).


C.S. Lewis memorial in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey

During the dedication of a stone memorial to Lewis in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, the last surviving recording of C.S. Lewis’s BBC talks during WWII was played and the final scene from Narnia’s The Last Battle was read by Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson:

“Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no-one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” 

Life was an adventure for Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis because they both knew their own small role was part of an even Greater Story. Both writers attempted to bring others into that Story by reconciling the modern divorce of Reason from Imagination through that most irresistible of invitations: Wonder. Because of their literary legacies, any child (or child-at-heart) who reads their fantastical tales will never look at an old wardrobe or the ominous door at the end of a spooky hallway the same way again. And as eager readers open their minds more with each turning page, many will find the courage to enter these magical portals and discover where they lead.

As T.S. Eliot (another writer I had to pay homage to during my literary London pilgrimage) said in his poem Little Gidding: Image

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

May the redeeming words of Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis continue leading many to that realm of the Timeless, giving us the sturdy shoulders we often need to better see the way.

Eerie Edinburgh & Spooky St. Andrews (AKA Ashlee Adores Alliteration)


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October is my favorite month for many reasons (crisp fall weather, autumn colors, apple cider, and All Hallows Eve, to name a few), so it is fitting that our first visit to my favorite city would take place in October just like it did back when we were in Edinburgh in 2008. And for all you Harry Potter fans out there, Hogwarts is without a doubt located in Scotland…there are little HP “inspirations” near J.K. Rowling’s writing haunts all over Edinburgh!

*Please do not use photographs without permission….my husband gets the credit for most of these awesome shots!

WP_20131002_01620131005190840The Graveyard of Greyfriar’s Kirk

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WP_20131002_009It’s good luck for students to rub the philosopher David Hume’s big toe!


Hogwarts (seriously…the school JK Rowling could see from the coffee shop where she wrote the first HP books)IMG_1214

One of Professor McGonagall’s relatives I presume…IMG_1215

The grave of Tom Riddle :)IMG_1208Moving on to some brighter scenery in St. Andrews….

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