Christian Living

Spiritual Life

A Master of Imaginative Fiction

If we want a writer of imaginative fiction who can plant Christian truth in our hearts, who can help us grow by nourishing a desire for the morally good and even the holy, to whom can we turn? There is more than one choice, of course. But probably the best one to turn to after the well-known C. S. Lewis is the one Lewis referred to as his "master": a nineteenth-century Scotsman named George MacDonald.

If anyone’s opinion on writers should be respected, C. S. Lewis’s should. Here was a scholar who earned an unprecedented three Firsts at Oxford in three years of study. After teaching as a fellow and tutor at Oxford University for several decades, Lewis was elected in the 1950s to Cambridge’s first chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Remarkably, he succeeded not only as a literary critic but as a poet and novelist, and his Chronicles of Narnia became instant children's classics.

Yet Lewis not only referred to George MacDonald as his master, he credited one of MacDonald’s adult fantasy novels with "baptizing" his imagination when he was fifteen. Let’s take a look at what gives MacDonald’s work such stature.

The man and his work

George MacDonald was born in 1824 in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He earned an M.A. in science, but later studied theology at a non-Anglican seminary. He began to lead a Congregationalist church in 1850, but three years later a powerful minority in his congregation forced him to resign because they thought his preaching was tainted by liberal, German theology. There is evidence, however, that this well-to-do minority disliked his preaching against the idolatries of riches and self-seeking.

MacDonald soon thereafter turned to writing, lecturing, and sometimes teaching to support himself and a growing family. By the end of his life, he had published dozens of novels, fairy tales for children, poetry, and "unspoken sermons." He had won the admiration and friendship of England’s and America’s finest thinkers, writers, and poets. He passed away in 1905 "surrounded by an adoring family," as Florence Becker Lennon put it.

MacDonald may be the most important yet ignored Christian writer in English. Why so ignored? One probable reason is that his nineteenth-century writing style can be difficult for today’s readers. But I hope to show that whatever effort we put into reading MacDonald is more than repaid. Like Lewis, MacDonald reunited aspects of the gospel unfortunately sundered over the centuries. In MacDonald we see a (for that era) typically Scottish insistence on the objective reality and authority of God and his commandments. But he decried the theological controversies of his day, such as those between Calvinists and Arminians. He liked to emphasize that the New Testament word "doctrine" refers to duty, not theory, and that faith without action is no faith at all. But this strict insistence on obedience is wedded to a heartfelt knowledge of God’s infinite love and mercy poured out through his Son. MacDonald demonstrated a unique ability to imaginatively extrapolate upon and illustrate what such love means.

Another reason MacDonald has been ignored is that, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, his writing is not without defects for the literary critic, such as "bad pulpit traditions . . . verbosity, [and] oversweetness." (Scholars, however, are beginning to look again at MacDonald’s work.) But the unique power of MacDonald’s fantasy fiction—and even some of his "realistic" fiction—the aspect that changed Lewis’s life, is this: It is mythic.

Myth: A feat few can achieve

"Myth" is much misunderstood these days. To most people, it means old legends about gods and heroes. Others use it as a fancy word for a comforting lie.

But myth as a living art is quite different; it is the Grand Canyon of literary forms. Like parable and allegory, it is a form of story able to deliver truth through characters and events that are fictional. But myth has features far superior to parable and allegory.

C. S. Lewis explains myth to the modern reader in his classic essay "Myth Became Fact" (in God in the Dock. This essay,by the way, is the first thing that you should be armed with if anyone ever argues with you that "Christ’s resurrection is just another version of pagan myths about dying and rising gods."). He points out that the tragedy of life is that we cannot both experience reality and think about that experience at the same time. We cannot wholeheartedly taste or see or hear and simultaneously reflect on what we taste or see or hear. At best our attention jumps back and forth from our senses to our thoughts, from the concrete to the abstract. But "in the enjoyment of a great myth," Lewis says, "we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction."

Take for example the well-known myth of the Hydra, a huge, venomous, man-eating serpent with nine heads. When the Greek hero Hercules would smash one of the beast’s heads, two more would grow in its place. (Perhaps it had been a single-headed Hydra until some less-mythical hero took a whack at it.) If you have ever spent a disastrous day at the office—or with children at home or school—where every problem you solved created two more, you may know a little of how our hero probably felt: confusion, then alarm verging on panic.

But it is not that the Hydra myth "really means" that solving a problem sometimes creates two more. For one thing, a myth can express many abstract truths, not just one. The Hydra, for instance, can also illustrate the idea (popular in classical myths) of the inevitability of death and fate. Struggling against them only ensures they come true all the more.

A myth, then, presents not ideas but reality. It is, as G. K. Chesterton says about MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, "like life." If it were presenting only ideas it would be an allegory. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton warned against our hubris in thinking we can comprehend a myth by abstracting from it:

A really fine work of folklore, like The Golden Bough, will leave too many readers with the idea, for instance, that this or that story of a giant’s or wizard’s heart in a casket or a cave only ‘means’ some stupid and static superstition called ‘the external soul.’ But we do not know what these things mean, simply because we do not know what we ourselves mean when we are moved by them. Suppose somebody in a story says ‘Pluck this flower and a princess will die in a castle beyond the sea,’ we do not know why something stirs in the subconsciousness, or why what is impossible seems almost inevitable. Suppose we read, ‘And in the hour when the king extinguished the candle his ships were wrecked far away on the coast of Hebrides.’ We do not know why the imagination has accepted that image before the reason can reject it; or why such correspondences seem really to correspond to something in the soul. Very deep things in our nature, some dim sense of the dependence of great things upon small, some dark suggestion that the things nearest to us stretch far beyond our power, some sacramental feeling of the magic in material substances, and many more emotions past finding out, are in an idea like that of the external soul.

Because myths can correspond to such depths within us, myth-making is a feat of artistic creation that few can achieve. "Every now and then," Lewis wrote in another essay, "there occurs in the modern world a genius—a Kafka or a Novalis—who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know." In his introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology (just quoted), Lewis explains why some traditional aspects of literary quality are not essential for a myth to be effective: "What really delights and nourishes me [in a myth] is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all—say by a mime, or film."

Lewis goes on to explain how it is possible for myth to transform and awaken those who confront it. Myth-making, he says,

may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. . . . It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.

It is quite a delightful miracle, when you think about it, that this writer who is the supreme creator of myth in modern times just happens to be thoroughly Christian and evangelical.

MacDonald’s fiction is soaked through and through with "patterns of events" that hit us with Christian reality at the deeper level Lewis spoke of. Some of the elements of Christian truth that MacDonald makes real include the true horror of sin; the necessity and the feel of grace; God’s unconditional and untiring love; and our painful but necessary dying to self. Supremely, MacDonald presents us with God’s goodness, not simply in moral terms but as something to be felt, tasted, and seen.

This kind of art has the potential to change us and our children forever, as it did Lewis—and G. K. Chesterton, W. H. Auden, and so many others.

Classics of Christian Myth

MacDonald’s key mythic works include five full-length books, which we’ll introduce here. Three of these are suitable for children: At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie. Many of his shorter fairy tales, such as "The Golden Key" and "The Wise Woman," are classics in their own right. All are available today in several different editions and collections—including beautiful editions of "The Golden Key" and "The Light Princess" illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

At the Back of the North Wind (1871) is about Diamond, a coachman’s son who is befriended by the North Wind. The North Wind appears in many guises, often as a tall woman with night-black hair, her beautiful face as white as the moon. The north wind in England’s winter brings fierce cold and destruction. But there is a higher power that directs the North Wind. When Diamond rides on the back of the North Wind, going with her rather than against her, he gets to see more of that higher point of view: He sees how God can be working through even the disastrous events that nature levies upon us. In other words, MacDonald has presented in story form a response to theodicy, the perennial problem of how an omnipotent, good God lets "bad things happen to good people." And MacDonald accomplishes this for children.

The Princess and the Goblin (1872), one of the best introductions to MacDonald’s writing, renders the story of another boy poor in money but rich in character. Curdie, a young miner working with his father, stumbles across a conspiracy being brewed by the goblins of the mountain. The goblins itch to kidnap Princess Irene, a girl of about eight who is being raised in a country manor nearby. Curdie sets out to find the details of the plan and foil it.

The story is rich on the mythic level. It illustrates, for example, how difficult it is to have a relationship with a real but invisible being. The being in this case is the princess’s mysterious and magical great-great-grandmother. At one point she weaves a magical thread with which the princess can find and rescue Curdie, who has become trapped in the mountain’s inner darkness. But Curdie himself can’t see or even feel the thread. Can he trust the princess even if he can’t understand how she knows the way out? Can he walk by faith and not by sight?

Its sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1882) features the same characters in a far more ambitious and sweeping story. Curdie must rescue the princess’s kingdom, which has fallen under the power of evil men. With the help of the Grandmother, he enlists the aid of some bizarrely deformed creatures called the "Uglies." Along with a mythic portrayal of good battling evil, the book also shows how even creatures deformed by a curse can repent and take part in redemption.

I have only touched upon a very few of the important features of these novels for the Christian parent. One feature not yet mentioned is that, along with his mythic elements, MacDonald does not shy from being just plain didactic. In approved Victorian fashion, he is out to instruct readers morally and spiritually in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. But these books aren’t slowed down by this habit. Another issue is that some parents have told me their kids find some of the long descriptive passages too boring. But these parents didn’t hesitate to skip or summarize them, so why should you?

Truly Adult Reading Matter

MacDonald’s masterpieces are reserved for those who have seen more Christmases than have children. Adults have Phantastes and Lilith, two full-length fantasy novels, to explore—if you dare.

Reading Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858) is a great exercise for anyone accused of being "too left-brained." This is the book that Lewis credits for baptizing his imagination when he was fifteen. The book places certain demands on the reader. As with the gospel itself—as with all myth—you must first immerse yourself in the story and its images. You must first enjoy it—experience it with the heart—before you will be able to uncover its meanings.

A young man named Anodos finds himself in a mysterious land that resembles this world but where mysterious powers are clearly in control. He is almost killed by the spirit of an alder tree, meets temptresses, explores a spacious and paradisiacal but haunted castle, and chases the love of his life down into the depths of the earth. He enters stories by reading them, fights giants, and learns to sacrifice himself for love of a greater good. In the end he is transformed from a man who knows only a selfish and romanticized eros to one who has begun to know and practice agape. And perhaps we do too. "I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness," Lewis says.

Lilith: A Romance (1895) is rightly considered the capstone of MacDonald’s career and perhaps the best imaginative work ever by an evangelical. Another young man, Mr. Vane, finds a doorway from his dead father’s library into another world. As he struggles to make sense of a blasted heath and a dim mausoleum of apparently infinite interior—filled as far as the eye can see with bodies resting on biers—he realizes that he no longer knows who he is. He must find out, and he must achieve a mighty task that will prepare him for his own "true rest"—a rest to be followed by a "true waking." He eventually meets the Lilith of the title, Adam’s first wife from Jewish mythology. She is the epitome of beauty, but prideful and wicked. Lilith has rejected the concepts of obedience and dying to the self, and she rules a kingdom based on that antagonism.

But this kingdom is about to be invaded by enemies: children.

The book uses imagery and narrative form to weave together several Christian themes into a thick and complex tapestry. Its themes stir the heart and startle the mind. They include death and resurrection; God’s inexorable love and grace (can even Lilith be "converted"?); the mysteries of evil and innocence; and selflessness versus self-centeredness. But even in listing them and summarizing these tales I have descended to abstraction. To read myth is to taste and feel, not to cogitate.

Lilith, like Phantastes, is imaginative fiction for adults, not kids. One friend of mine, no stranger to literature, told me that the evil portrayed in the novel, although not graphic in today’s fashion, was too disturbing for her to continue reading. But Lilith does not end on scenes of horror. It ends with an apotheosis of joy and fulfillment such as, I think, no writer before or after MacDonald has dared to attempt, until C. S. Lewis did in The Last Battle.

Lilith may instill in the reader what Jonathan Edwards called the necessary Christian emotions of hope and holy desire. That is because MacDonald gives us a glimpse of what it will be like on that day when our hearts’ deepest desires become a matter of sight, not of faith—the day we find ourselves in a restored and glorious creation. A profound longing sets in—yet we feel peace in knowing that it will be so, for we have tasted some of its first fruits.

And that’s much stronger magic than you’ll get from Harry Potter.

2001 Mark D. Filiatreau. All Rights Reserved.

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