George MacDonald’s Wise Imagination

GMD

George MacDonald wrote during the Victorian Era when scientific reasoning was taking hold as the predominate means of knowing. The Victorian mind often disregarded God and rejected the imaginative function as a way to understand the world. Many Victorians distrusted the imagination and treated it as a lower and irrational way of knowing, while accepting rationalism as the superior way of reasoning. In his essay, “The Two Worlds of George MacDonald,” Stephen Prickett observes that MacDonald faced a culture that was predominantly concerned with “rationaliz[ing] and where possible demythologiz[ing] the long record of man’s awareness of the [spiritual]” (19). Prickett describes the age as “probably the most profoundly self-critical age in English history” (qtd. in Hilder, “George MacDonald’s” 177), one full of religious doubt that created a “spiritual vacuum” (The Romantics 116) filled by skepticism. Gilliam Avery writes, “George MacDonald was born in one of the bleakest periods of children’s literature . . . [where] imagination in itself was held to be evil, and all that was not actual fact was a lie and therefore damnably wicked” (qtd. in Hilder, “George MacDonald’s” 176). In spite of this adversity, MacDonald believed that rationalism was in fact irrational because it sought to separate human reasoning from the imagination. MacDonald once wrote that imagination “is the faculty which gives form to thought” that helps us “to inquire into what God has made” (Orts 2), and invites us to take part in the greater nature of our inquiries.  MacDonald then views our imagination as the primary epistemological approach that guides us to a theological end. In other words, imagination has the ability to teach us to recognize the wonder of God in all of Creation—MacDonald refers to this as the “wise imagination” (Orts 28). He writes:

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.  (Orts 28) 

The Victorian mind was besieged by waves of skepticism, materialism, and nihilism, and Victorian-Era-imagein an era where rationalistic discourse was privileged over imaginative discourse, MacDonald asked his readers to embrace imagination as the spiritual faculty that bridged the gulf “between that which makes in its own image and that which is made in that image” (Orts 3). He stressed the use of such symbolism because it refutes the reductive nature of rationalism by asking readers to look beyond the materialistic world.

The term moral imagination originated with Edmund Burke (Schakel, Imagination 163), and describes the theoretical position that any life-shaping education must include the imagination. MacDonald’s own understanding of the imagination was largely shaped by the thinking of Romantic writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis. These Romantic thinkers helped MacDonald form his belief that Nature is a symbol that points people to the divine, and that these symbols are understandable with the help of the imagination.

 

MacDonald trusts the symbolic nature of his writing to carry his message of the moral imagination, and believes that some truth that comes from intuitive experiences cannot be grasped by mere rationalism. In contrast to rationalism, with its wariness of emotional and experiential understanding, MacDonald regards the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom.  He thinks of the wise imagination as being open to the divine: “The imagination is the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding” (Orts 14). This is imagination and reason collaborating for the purpose of holistically directing the gaze of all humanity to a transcendent God.  MacDonald explains:

Man is not divided when the manifestations of his life are distinguished. The intellect “is all in every part.” There was no imagination without intellect, however much it may appear that intellect can exist without imagination. What we mean to insist upon is, that in finding out the works of God, the Intellect must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect, Imagination. (Orts 11) 

George MacDonald writes, “the best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him” (Dish of Orts).  Our “wise imagination” then proceeds from and therefore reveals our divine likeness, and opens our eyes to the vision of the divine in both nature and humanity.

How George MacDonald Has Affected Our Lives by Teresa Churcher

There are few moments in life which we remember with acute clarity.  There are even fewer moments in our life where we experience a frozen moment of time.  Some moments like this are pivotal for obvious reasons such as holding a new born baby or a first kiss.  When you are a child these moments can be anything from a loving embrace to a surprise A on a school paper.  For me, I only remember one as a child.  I was at the school library and I saw a book with an intriguing title that caught my attention: The Princess and The Goblin.   I was eight years old and I loved fairy tales but hadn’t yet attempted to read a volume as large as this.  Still I remembered the moment of reaching for the volume, taking it down from the shelf and feeling a sense of awe for THIS looked like a book really worth reading!  I borrowed the book (needless to say) and took it home and read it.  I don’t remember how long it took me to read it but I remember two things clearly.  I remember beginning the book and loving the illustration of Princess Irene in her starry bedroom and I remember the moment I finished it because I did something I had never done before or since.  Immediately after finishing the last page in the book, I turned back to the first page to begin reading it again.  I remember after that looking in my basement for a secret door which would lead me to a secret staircase but I never found it although I had dreams that I did.

Two years later at the same school library, I came across The Princess and Curdie.  I never found any other books by GM until I was in my early twenties and came across two paperback books with interesting covers at a book store.  I didn’t realize who the author was until I was sitting on the train on my way back home looking at my purchases and discovered it was the same author I had loved as a child.  So I then read Phantastes and Lillith.

Years later, I discovered more books by GM through a catalogue I received.  After that, when I had the internet, I decided to do a search on George MacDonald.  I found two websites (yup, only two then), one of them mentioned an email list to join to discuss his works.  I joined the community and gained so much more knowledge and insight into GM and his faith.  I eventually began corresponding with one of the other email subscribers.  One day, he told me of a dream he had where we were in a dark cave along with a bunch of children searching for Princess Irene’s ring.  He found it first and then tossed it to me.  Three years later I had moved from the US to the UK and married him.  Together we visited GM’s birthplace in Huntley.

Last year, I read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and felt as if I have really come home to my faith.  I read all three volumes slowly and took notes and felt my spirit soar to new heights.  His views on God resonated and added new depths to my faith.  I consider George MacDonald to be a 19th century Christian mystic with a huge heart and a wonderfully wild imagination.

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In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (3 of 3)

MacDonald draws his understanding of biography as story into much of his fiction. Anodos in Phantastes, Wilfrid in Wilfrid Cumbermede, Duncan in The Portent, and Belorba Day in The Flight of the Shadow are all autobiographers who tell his or her personal story of change.  It has often been noted by critics that MacDonald’s fiction retains strength because of this autobiographical nature; in fact, a number of different stories—Alec Forbes of Howglen and Robert Falconer, to name two—contain characters or settings that are autobiographical of MacDonald’s own life.  This method of writing is consistent with MacDonald’s view of the purpose of biography as a narrative that provides the reader with a method of understanding God, life, and meaning—even if the biographical narrative is fictionalized (similar to the parables of Jesus). In Rebecca Ankeny’s, The Story, The Teller, and the Audience in George MacDonald’s Fiction, she articulates this characteristic of MacDonald’s writing: “[H]e maintains a skepticism about all attempts to state truth unambiguously: we are hampered by point of view, by vocabulary, by intellectual ability, by limited experience, and by being finite human beings in our attempt to know and be known.”

To MacDonald, a person could only be completely known by the one who created him/her, and a biography is only one way of understanding the spirit and purpose of a person.  Macdonald was skeptical of the modern biography that focused on the didactic retelling of empirical facts and claims, believing instead, that our finite minds could not grasp infinite truths.  His skepticism even extended to the written foundation of Christianity itself: the Bible.  Although he treasured the Bible and treated it as God’s inspired Word, he refused to believe that it was the only Word of God: “By the Word of God, I do not understand The Bible.  The Bible is a Word of God, the chief of his written words, because it tells us of the Word, the Christ: but everything God has done and given man to know is a word of his, a will of his.” MacDonald’s belief in the role of the Bible actively portrays a belief that humanity also plays a role in the cosmic story of God, and thus history is a chronicle of selected lives whose stories are capable of leading people to an ultimate purpose in Christ. This is not to say that MacDonald believed that the truth of the Bible is relative, but that the stories in the Bible transcend the factual in order to reveal the divine.

In one of his most popular and symbolic fairy tales, The History of Photogen and Nycteris, MacDonald writes of a witch named Watho who has a wolf inside of her mind that desires to know everything.  Photogen, a master in the light, and Nycteris, a beauty of the night, overcome their captor, Watho, and grow in courage to face a world which they do not know.  In the end, they both grew to love the foreign world best because it represented their love: “Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.”

This fairy tale may be one of the most autobiographical George MacDonald’s views of life.  As with Photogen and Nycteris, MacDonald’s seemingly opposing influences of Christianity and German Romanticism form a relationship which allows each to reveal meaning in the other. His understanding of love, grace, and Christ influenced his view of narrative and his understanding of the purpose of an individual life.  Through the writings of Coleridge and Novalis, MacDonald’s rigid Calvinistic upbringing gave way to a belief that rested on the understanding that all life is a fiction from the hand of God; the spirit of the law becoming more important than the letter.  And from MacDonald’s pen flowed forms of autobiographical narrative embedded with symbols that mimicked a created Nature.

In an age where history meant finding facts and extracting truth from what was known, George MacDonald wrote fiction about what was unknown—and it was true.  MacDonald’s history meant story, and the truth of the story came from the relationship between the author and the reader. Truth was synonymous with Spirit, and the meaning of a historical event depended both on how the story was told and how it was understood.  MacDonald’s combination of Christianity and Romanticism foreshadowed a type of postmodernism, but it differs from the current rendering of postmodernism because he allowed his readers to decipher his symbols with an intention that they would use the meaning to grow in a greater understanding of the divine. He relied on symbolic metaphors—which were open to interpretive truth—in order to direct his readers gaze to the Ultimate Truth—that of Jesus Christ. Here, MacDonald and the postmodern mind must part ways. For while the postmodern might say that truth cannot be found, or that truth is a personal freedom, MacDonald’s employment of this freedom is used in the service of something greater than himself or his readers. Thus, we may decipher the individual meanings in our personal spheres of understanding, but MacDonald calls his readers to look outside those spheres of human inventions (such as empirical facts and creeds) to see the transcendent. He implores them to understand that truth is interpretive not because truth isn’t solid, but because we are not—not because truth is finite, but because we are. And as MacDonald explains, our finite natures seek truth in a quantity when in fact we should be seeking it as an entity. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (2 of 3)

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) Hamburger Kunsthalle

George MacDonald was greatly influenced by German Romanticism, and in particularly through the Idealism and creative imagination of Novalis. Novalis attempted to change his readers’ understanding of truth from looking at an object to expel truth to looking at the subject to understand the truth. MacDonald often paraphrased Novalis in his personal letters by writing, “The Realist is an Idealist who knows nothing of himself. Realism is crude Idealism at first hand.” MacDonald also related more closely to Novalis than Coleridge because of the willingness in German Romanticism to explore the spiritual.  MacDonald found life in the Spirit of the Christian faith through Romanticism, and his fiction testifies to a form of Christianity which is largely non-doctrinal.

With this understanding of MacDonald’s view of freedom, it is easy to see how his faith and idea of truth mingles with his fiction. In his fiction, MacDonald relies heavily upon his desire to lead readers into a genuine understanding of God, and his characters and stories are the vehicles through which he “preaches.” The effectiveness of MacDonald’s writing is due in part to his ability to encompass the entire spirit of a message through metaphor instead of simply communicating a didactic, static message. It is this metaphorical message—a truth received and realized within the reader—that MacDonald is primarily concerned with. One example of this metaphorical message is in the story The Princess and Curdie. Curdie is a young man sent out by the wise great, great grandmother on a special task that will test his spirit. Before Curdie can begin his task, he must first thrust his hands into the magical fiery roses in the hearth in order to burn off his calluses and impurities. Pulling his hands from the fire, Curdie realizes that he has the special ability to see a person’s character by shaking his/her hand. Curdie is then advised that people are not always what they seem—a piece of advice that MacDonald is careful to develop. The grandmother tells Curdie that beneath outward appearances of good and evil there is a more important distinction found in people’s ability to trust:

“One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.”

For MacDonald, this image of understanding a person’s character suggests that life comes from an intuitive experience beyond the planes of rationalism. Instead of allowing rationalism to shake his belief in God because he could not explain the unseen, he accepted the unseen not as untrue but as another cosmic metaphor which needs to be explored but can never be fully understood. This is Coleridge’s Idealism. The lack of understanding comes from deficient human reasoning not from divine impotence. In fact, MacDonald even went as far as to say that “’The bringing forth into sight of the things that are invisible [is] the end of all Art and every art’.”  MacDonald’s fiction thrives on the symbolic because he believed that his writing mirrored the creativity of God. MacDonald goes on to say in the same essay that “hidden meanings are all around us” and that nature itself is a representative of God’s character.  “The meanings are in those forms already,” he writes as he explains that mystery and metaphor are a “divine utterance.”

This mystery for MacDonald was intentionally embedded into his fiction and was a focal point for MacDonald’s belief that meaning can be relative. In his Scottish Writers series, David S. Robb explains how MacDonald’s view of meaning plays out in his fiction as he explains MacDonald as an author “who believes that literature ought to have as much conscious meaning crammed into it as possible and that, furthermore, any worthwhile piece of literature must have within it much more meaning still, far beyond what the author was conscious of devising.” The recurring symbol of sanctification is in the picture of fiery roses and appears in both the Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. The roses are only handled by the wise and righteous grandmother, and only those whom she deems ready can be partakers of the purging and healing power of the roses.

The symbolic embedded into nature also extends beyond the fictional world for MacDonald.  In A Dish of Orts, MacDonald quotes extensively from an essay titled “Essays on some of the Forms of Literature,” written by T.T. Lynch. In MacDonald’s essay—given the same title as the Lynch essay—MacDonald draws comparisons between Biography and Fiction.  MacDonald writes, “Deep in the relationship between the life shadowed forth in a biography, and the life in a man’s brain which he shadows forth in a fiction—when that fiction is of the highest order, and written in love, is beheld even by the writer himself with reverences.” MacDonald continues to expound on the similarities when he calls biography “God’s fiction,” and explains that fiction is often a more dramatic telling of the often inward struggle told within human life—biography.  In other words, fiction is man’s exploration and retelling of God’s more cosmic story and a wrestling with the mysteries yearning to “arrive at something greater than what now [we] can project and behold.” MacDonald rejects the notion that a well-written biography is one which only contains the facts and dates of a person’s life; instead, just like fiction, biography is a genre which should be treated with reverence because of the successes and failures of a human life which are invisible to the reader. In essence, MacDonald accepts that a biography, like fiction, must also bear the burden of representing the symbolic. Further on in the “Forms of Literature” eassy, MacDonald quotes Lynch’s poetic explanation of those unrepresented in biography: “One biography may help conjecture or satisfy reason concerning the story of a thousand unrecorded lives… the milky luster that runs through mid heaven is composed of a million million lights, which are not the less separate because seen indistinguishably.”  MacDonald praises Lynch for his observation that a biography is a story about an individual and a story about how that individual connects in spirit with other individuals.

In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (1 of 3)

The Victorian Age meant progress to much of the Western world.  With a burgeoning industry in much of Europe and the Western world, and flourishing developments in health, science, and religion, the Victorian Age was the precursor to a Modern belief in truth and empirical evidence.  This shift made way for a more progressive and educated aristocracy which redefined the historical scope of the modern world.  “Lady” and “Gentleman” were labels bestowed on the educated—the people who would continue the progress of the Western world.  Building on the philosophies of men such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, the Victorian Age placed increasing value on the empirical, and from this came a greater divide of the people who were allowed to write, create, and speak into “history.”  It was at this time, when science and empirical reasoning ruled both the present and the interpretations of the past, that the Scottish author, George MacDonald, penned volumes of fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales which were built upon an alternative epistemological understanding.  This unconventional historical understanding came from the tension between MacDonald’s Calvinistic upbringing and his youthful engrossment with the Romantics. These two polarities were neither completely accepted or rejected by MacDonald, and led to his robust belief that meaning originates in metaphor.  In her book, The Story, The Teller, and the Audience in George MacDonald’s Fiction, Rebecca Thomas Ankeny explains how these two dichotomies met:  “George MacDonald incorporates into his fiction his thinking that language and literature and the interdependent roles of author, reader, and text.  These ideas…derive from the twin sources of Christianity and Romanticism and are essentially an investigation into symbolism.  The logical basis for a symbolic view of language, artistic expression, or the universe is theistic, and, for MacDonald, Christocentric.” MacDonald’s view of history is one which more closely adheres to a postmodern narrative, which was influenced by his Christian faith, than the empirical views of reason in the Victorian Age.  This view of history is seen by examining MacDonald’s faith, his literary influences, and ultimately his use of the symbolic in his stories.

MacDonald’s Christian faith grew from his Scottish Calvinist roots, and though he ultimately rejected some aspects of this tradition, MacDonald’s early faith was foundational to his religious beliefs and shaped much of his later writing.  As C.S. Lewis once said of MacDonald’s theological background, “all his life he continued to love the rock which he had been hewn.” Even G.K. Chesterton, who was critical of Scottish Calvinism, conceded that MacDonald’s writing contained “a sort of optimist Calvinism.” From these Calvinistic roots, MacDonald drew an emphasis on personal holiness and the evangelization of non-Christians; he also accepted the church’s teaching on the sovereignty of God.  This teaching, an understanding of the total power of God, formed a foundation for other Calvinistic teachings such as Predestination and Election.  These tenets were repeatedly taught to him from an early age from the pages of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was a religious methodology of sortsMacDonald’s later reaction to this methodology revealed a great distaste for the arrogance and piety that often came with “uncovering” all of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.  MacDonald was dissatisfied with the belief that God, powerful and sovereign, could be contained in a creed or list of beliefs.  For MacDonald, truth and faith were an intricate fabric woven together with reason and imagination. To unravel all the knots would destroy the entire tapestry.

During the latter years of his secondary education at King’s College, MacDonald was confronted with numerous theological dilemmas, and he struggled most sincerely with the doctrine of everlasting punishment and other prominent Calvinistic doctrines.  It was during this time that he stumbled upon great clarity through reading Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis.  From that point, MacDonald began forming an unusual syncretic union between the tenets of Romanticism and Christianity.  It is from this union that MacDonald identifies history as a subjective understanding of symbols and metaphors for the use of personal growth in faith and righteousness.

MacDonald’s Christianity and writing were greatly influenced by Romanticism and carried on into modern fiction.  In her introduction to the book George MacDonald Treasury, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Surely George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all—all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”  L’Engle attributes her imaginative success to MacDonald’s own struggles with truth and imagination.  Much of the imagination that L’Engle admires came from MacDonald’s reading of the philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and early German Romantic author Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (more commonly known by his pen name Novalis).  Both of these men directly affected how MacDonald saw what was true.  Coleridge’s philosophy of Idealism was paramount in shaping MacDonald’s fiction and understanding of truth.  This Idealism—“the assertion that objects of perception consist of ideas”—created a more organic and free flowing understanding of truth than did MacDonald’s reading of the Shorter Catechism years earlier.  This new system of ideas worked within a universal polarity that continually oscillated between understanding visible life and the invisible portions that sustain life—the flower that is seen and the unseen seed which brings the flower to life. An excerpt from Paul Faber, Surgeon, one of MacDonald’s adult fictions, shows a clear picture of this mingling of truth that MacDonald found so appealing.  MacDonald explains that magic possess the truth of “the relation of sounds and of intervals” and of its relation to the creativity of its producer.  Not only this, but it suggests that “the something it gives birth to in the human mind is also a true thing.”

An Inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce

Picture by Jason Pensa

 

The Great Divorce, written by C.S. Lewis, is a response to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  Lewis believed that Blake’s understanding of heaven and hell was dangerous, as can be seen when he writes that, “…some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development of adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be a disastrous error.”  Lewis refutes Blake’s idea that all roads lead to God by telling a story of a man who is ushered into heaven on a bus that he chooses to board.  This man, the narrator of the story, is met by George MacDonald and is led through a series of revelations on the nature of heaven and hell.  MacDonald’s voice comes through Lewis clearly, and many of the themes that MacDonald felt passionate about—namely death and the need for spiritual sanctification—are also present in Lewis’ story.

Although Lewis is a much different writer than MacDonald, Lewis maintains the same goal of MacDonald as he explores deep theological truths in the form of a fantasy story.  MacDonald often debated the way that heaven and hell were described with such great finality; and so it appears that Lewis too takes up the mantle, though be it a little more orthodox, to explain heaven and hell. Through the use of the grey planet and the bus, Lewis is portraying an afterlife where people are still able to choose between heaven and hell. Lewis is able to communicate this tension through the numerous stories of people who arrive in heaven and choose to return to hell. The “phantoms” that exit the bus are met by the “solid people” who try to guide them in maturity and ultimately into the joy of heaven. The narrator and MacDonald watch as a number of phantoms reject his/her guide on different grounds, and ultimately abandon the quest for heaven. After viewing a number of phantoms reject heaven, the narrator concludes that, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it.” In the end, the narrator chooses to follow George MacDonald into the heavenly city.

The Great Divorce strives to explore a world that cannot be fully explained. In the forward, Lewis reminds his readers that he is not trying to portray an accurate view of what he thinks heaven is like; instead, he is trying to deconstruct Blake’s view of heaven and hell that was being so widely accepted. Like MacDonald, I believe that Lewis is trying to help his readers have a less dogmatic opinion of a realm that is not and cannot be thoroughly explained by the living.

The Impact of George MacDonald on Our Lives (Pt. 2)

Guest Blogger R.J. Anderson (Check out at her fantastic book series at http://www.rj-anderson.com)

I can’t remember exactly what age I was when I first read The Princess and the Goblin, but I suspect I was at least nine or ten. My father, a full-time Bible teacher in the “open brethren”, had introduced me to Lewis and Tolkien by reading them aloud to my older brothers (bless him for it!) and I had plunged headlong into fairy tales, mythology, and all the “juvenile” (as they were then called) fantasy stories I could find as a result — L’Engle, Le Guin, Alexander, and so on. My father’s habit was to scour the Christian bookstores for fantasy stories that might interest me, and give them to me for birthdays and Christmas presents: a four-book set of the Curdiebooks, The Lost Princess and The Golden Key and Other Stories was the happy result.

I have re-read the Curdie books, and read them out loud to my own children, at least ten or perhaps fifteen times since. They exerted an influence on me almost as powerful as that of Lewis and Tolkien, albeit in a more subtle way that I find difficult to describe. Interestingly enough the main and most obvious “borrowing” I did from MacDonald ended up being the same part that Lewis and Tolkien borrowed from him: the powerful imaginative element of the goblin tunnels leading to a vast, labyrinthine underground world. (We see it most clearly in The Hobbit when Bilbo must rescue the dwarves from the goblins, and again in LotR during the passage through Moria; in Lewis we find it most in The Silver Chair, when Eustace and Jill and Puddleglum venture underground to find Prince Rilian; and in my own books it manifests as the Delve, an abandoned tin mine which is both a place of safety and great danger for my Cornish piskey heroine and her people.)

On a faith level, however, I find the symbolism of the young princess Irene following her “grandmother”‘s thread through the tunnels by touch more than sight, with the skeptical Curdie unable to see or feel the thread at all, is a marvellous use of spiritual metaphor — ringing true to Scripture and to life, without feeling contrived or preachy in the least. MacDonald had an amazingly deft way of weaving faith elements into his fiction in a way that seemed natural to the plot of the story and even enhanced it, while still containing a deeper truth and meaning that even the youngest child reader would find difficult to miss. I love that.

The Impact of George MacDonald on Our Lives (Pt. 1)

The Impact of George MacDonald on Our Lives

I want to dedicate the next few posts to guest writers who have written about how George MacDonald has affected their lives.

This writing comes from Justin Wiggins. Go check him out on Facebook

 

The Impact of C.S.Lewis and George MacDonald On My Life

by Justin Wiggins

"That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my refuge."-George MacDonald “That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and  desires, without a glow or an  aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects,  and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my  refuge.”-George MacDonald

C.S.Lewis was the first one who led me to George MacDonald. I still remember vividly reading through Lewis’“Surprised by Joy” and coming across MacDonald’s name. Who was this Christian writer that had such an immense impact on the Oxford pipe smoking Christian apologist and thinker? I discovered a very fascinating and amazing individual when I began to read the writings of George Macdonald. I saw parallels between “The Princess and The Goblin”and the Narnia stories, and was very moved by the powerfully imaginative “Phantastes” and “Lilith.” From that point on I read through his other fairy tales like “The Golden Key,” “The Light Princess” and re-read them, like I did Lewis’ books.C.S.Lewis was my first introduction into the world of literature through reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and it was from that point on that I started to think more critically, saw the value of language in a way that I had never had before, was given a love for myths and fairy tales, and began to really be interested in Christian theology and apologetics, and it’s role in the life of a believer. I loved “Mere Christianity” and read his other apologetic works, along with his fiction and his very brilliant essays on literature that are still hard for me to understand. I grew in my faith like never before and loved it. I had answers to theological, historical, and existential questions I had for years, and it was liberating! And though there were still some very difficult things that I went through like we all do, the writings of MacDonald and Lewis were always there to encourage me, challenge me, delight me, and remind me of just how much Christ Loves me. As any reader does with his favorite writers, I read some really wonderful biographical things on the life of Lewis and MacDonald, and only marveled all the more because they really lived out their beliefs, and therefore had a more personal impact on my life. I loved learning that most of C.S.Lewis’ money during his lifetime went to people that really needed help that was managed by his friend Owen Barfield, that he took the time to answer his letters written to him when his writings were becoming popular, that he took in children at the Kilns when WWII was going on. I loved learning about George MacDonald that he tutored women at a time when them getting an education was looked down upon, that he helped the poor, and as a preacher he really sought to help people in their walk with Christ,and that through his novels and fairy tales and other fantasy works he sought to teach the Christian virtues of faith, hope and Love that he believed in passionately. What George MacDonald has most helped me with is the delight in obedience towards the will of God, the tenderness of God and the Love that flows from His Heart. I am in a very interesting and new chapter in my life right now, and it’s a comfort to me to know that if I am obedient to the will of Father,then He will guide me and provide for me: He is the author of my life and is guiding me. Just this afternoon on a walk I was overwhelmed with the Love of Christ, and marveling at all the beauty around me,and came across this passage from George MacDonald’s first written worked called “Within and Without” that really resonated with me,“It is a law with us that no one shall sing a song who cannot be the hero of his tale—who cannot live the song he sings..” I really resonate with that because recently I have been struggling with a lot of fear and depression, and everything looked bleak, but that quote was a reminder that I don’t have to fear, and that Christ is guiding me as he is writing my story, and I have peace and joy now embarking on this new quest, this new chapter of my life. And I am choosing to sing the song of my tale.

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To Be Royal in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (3 of 3)

In the previous two posts, I wrote about the symbol of royalty and the positive aspects of that royalty in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. In this final post, I want to direct your attention to the false picture of royalty that MacDonald paints through the characters of the goblins. I want to do this by first taking a look at what MacDonald says about the goblin “royalty” and then conclude by comparing both sets of royalty (human and goblin) to their position and reaction to light. I hope you have enjoyed the last two posts, and I hope that this one is also insightful.

MacDonald’s description of the goblins

“There was a legend current in the country that at one time they [goblins] lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there was different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had requires observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws, and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country. According to he legend, however, instead of going to some other country, they had all taken refuge in the subterranean caverns, and then seldom showed themselves in any number, and never to many people at once” (4).

“The goblins themselves were not so far removed from the human as such a description would imply. And as they grew misshapen in body they had grow in knowledge and cleverness, and now were able to do things no mortal could see the possibility of. But as they grew in cunning, they grew in mischief and their great delight was in every way they could think of to annoy the people who lived in the open-air storey above them” (4).

“…especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors; and although dwarfed and misshapen, they had strength equal to their cunning. In the process of time they had got a king and government of their own, whose chief business, beyond their own simple affairs, was to device trouble for their neighbours” (5).

“The goblin’s glory is his head” (53)—[because of its hardness]

“‘Now light your torches, and come along. What a distinction it is to provide our own light, instead of being dependent on a thing hung in the air–a most disagreeable contrivance–intended no doubt to blind us when we venture out under its baleful influence! Quite glaring and vulgar, I call it, though no doubt useful to poor creatures who haven’t the wit to make light for themselves!'”

‘”Regardless of the fact that we were the first possessors of the regions they now inhabit, regardless of the fat that we abandoned that region from the loftiest motives; regardless also of the self-evident fact that we excel them so far in mental ability as they excel us in stature, they look upon us as a degraded race, and make a mockery of all our finer feelings'” (67).

“…while their owners had sunk towards them…” (101).–[in reference to the goblins becoming more like animals]

‘”Don’t talk to me of his mother! You positively encourage his unnatural fancies. Whatever belongs to that mother ought to be cut out of him…If you expect me to approve of such coarse tastes, you will find yourself mistaken'” (134).–[Goblin Queen referring to Harelips sun-mother]

‘”but what do you mean by the king and queen?’ asked the princess ‘I should never call such creatures as those a king and a queen'” (167).

‘”…But they think so much of themselves!’ said his [Curdie] mother. ‘Small creatures always do'” (191).

“A good many of the goblins with their creatures escaped from inundation out upon the mountain…and most of those who remained grew milder in character…Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even with the miners” (241).

What to make of this

From these descriptions, we can understand how MacDonald defines royalty by understanding what true royalty is not: According to MacDonald, It is not:

Rebellious

Cunning and Mischievous

Seeking to undermine others

Arrogant

Bitter

Vengeful

Mocking

Rude

Hard-hearted

Unaware of true moral position

Creates a separate moral position

Ugly in nature
P & GUndoubtedly, if this story were made today, we would be hearing a subverted story from the goblin’s perspective who would probably end up being the heroes because the king was too harsh on them. And while I say this a little tongue and cheek, it amazes me how little our modern fairy tales have to say about royalty as goodness…or just goodness period. I think relativism has a large part to play in this–not that people don’t want to know what goodness is, but because we have subverted any and all forms of authority for the sake of equality–so it’s hard to find a solid definition of goodness. Unfortunately, when good and evil become indistinguishable from one another, it creates moral confusion.

I was asked a few days ago what I thought about the t.v. show Once Upon a Time. Truthfully, I haven’t watched the show, so I didn’t really have an opinion, but an interesting question followed that I believe demonstrates the kind of subversion I just mentioned.

“I know you talk a lot about virtue in fairy tales,” the woman asked, “but don’t you think there is hope for all characters? Both good and bad? Even the wicked witches?”

I stopped to think about the question for a moment. By saying “yes, there is hope of redemption for the witches,” I would appear benevolent and accepting. After all, doesn’t God desire to save all people?

But this is the trap of relativism. It is a misdirection, and eventually lowers goodness to make the wicked seem acceptable. In other words, by removing all points of moral reference, the good and evil are difficult to distinguish.

Fortunately, my wits came back to me, and I responded, “What makes you think that the witch wants to be saved? And if so, what would she be saved from and be saved to?”

Relativism in fairy tales has created a mashed-up mud puddle of virtue–we want to see the story from all points of view but often forget to have a reference point that lets us know whether we are looking up or down.

In other words, we can get a bad case of moral vertigo.

In The Princess and the Goblin, those who are further from the light are further from the truth, and the true royals of the story–Curdie, Mr. & Mrs. Peterson, Irene and her King-papa–are the only ones that can see the grandmother’s lamp. This lamp is the ultimate moral reference point of the story! The further a character is from her lamp, the more grotesque he or she becomes.

Notice that the goblins revel in the fact that they can live solely by their own lights; in fact, they mock those who rely on anything that isn’t made…even if it is the most natural and powerful sun by which the entire universe bows down to.

In the end, MacDonald creates a clear picture that false royalty is rooted in the goblin rebellion and their self-created theology where they are the authority.

It is only when the goblins exit (or are forced to leave) their self-constructed catacombs that they become less grotesque in appearance. And of course, in MacDonald’s symbolic world of The Princess and the Goblin, to be beautiful is to be royal, and to be royal is to be good, and to be good is to know that there is a reference to goodness beyond ourselves.

To Be Royal (1 of 3)

To Be Royal (2 of 3)

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