Do you recall where you went or what happened to you while sleeping last night? Did you see fondest wishes come true, or something you dread? Were you among friends or strangers and in a normal and ordinary millieu or one surrealistic and bizarre? You may not recall much of your dreams once awake, save some confused fragments that mystified, enraptured or disturbed you, but these visions have inspired or form the basis of some of the most famous literary works ever.
Dreams, most simply, are a progression of images, ideas, and emotions occurring involuntarily in certain phases of sleep, but their content and purpose has not been understood to any level of certainty, despite best efforts of thinkers from the fields of science, philosophy and religion down the ages. For those interested, see Sigmund Freud’s seminal “Interpretation of Dreams” or his former disciple Carl Gustav Jung’s “The Practical Use of Dream-analysis” (in “The Practice of Psychotherapy”) or “Dreams”.
In literature, dreams as inspirations, settings or plot devices are wide-ranging, right down to J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.
Among the oldest is Roman philosopher-politician Cicero’s Socratic dialogue on contemporary politics, “De re publica” (54-51 B.C.). Its sixth and final book “Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream)” has legendary soldier Scipio Africanus Minor thus told his future by his late illustrious grandfather, Scipio Africanus.
Medieval English literature like William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (late 14th century) freely made use of dreams to advance plot, and in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (c.1595), dreams are what the two pairs of lovers and poor Nick Bottom – whose head has been transformed into that of a donkey – imagine their adventures to be after awaking from enchanted sleep.
But at the finale, the mischievous Robin Goodfellow/Puck tells the audience: “If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear./And this weak and idle theme,/No more yielding, but a dream..”
Mary Shelley is said to have dreamt the idea for “Frankenstein” (1818), while a nightmare about a “vampire king” rising from his grave, caused by a too-indulgent dinner of mayonnaise-covered crab or lobster inspired Bram Stoker to write “Dracula” (1897) – though he had been researching vampire folklore for seven years.
Robert Louis Stevenson tried to find story ideas and material from his dreams and it was one of them that inspired “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886). As a story goes, his wife, seeing that he was having a nightmare, woke him but got no thanks – for ending it as things were getting interesting. Stephenie Meyer has admitted the idea for “Twilight” (2005), the first of her vampire romances, came to her in a dream on June 2, 2003 about a human girl and a vampire who was in love with her but also thirsted for her blood.
But the most famous work with dreams is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson alias Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871), which, unlike many of their ilk, follow the ‘logic’ of actual dreams, with flexible transitions and causality.
Visions, of both the past and the future, are significant in both J.R.R. Tolkien’s chronicles of Middle Earth and Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where they can also reveal the truth (if our boy wizard had remembered a dream in Book One, it would have gone easier on him).
Some most imaginative use of dreams are in three separate works of engineer-turned-master storyteller Nevil Shute.
“An Old Captivity” (1940) has pilot Donald Ross, on an air survey mission of Greenland for an Oxford don, go into a coma where he dreams he and Alix (the don’s daughter who has come along) were once slaves aboard Viking chief Leif Ericson’s sailing expedition and had travelled up to North America where they left a stone, with their names carved on it. Later, they find it too!
Set in the Australian outback, “In The Wet” (1953) has ill Anglican priest Roger Hargreaves tending to an aged dying ex-pilot Stevie in 1953 when he dreams of a situation three decades hence where Stevie is a decorated Royal Australian Air Force pilot, who aids Queen Elizabeth II deal with anti-monarchial sentiment in Britain. In the end, the narrative shifts back, Stevie is dead and an exhausted Hargreaves tries to make sense, a task more difficult when the child who will become the future pilot is brought to him for christening.
Also set in Australia, “The Rainbow and the Rose” (1958) has pilot Ronnie Clarke, trying to save retired senior Johnnie Pascoe who has crashed on a medical evacuation mission and is seriously injured, dream about the latter’s chequered life while resting overnight in Pascoe’s house after his first attempt to land a doctor there fails.
So if you have literary ambitions, remember your dreams, or wish they get more colourful!