LITERATURE: by Siobhan ReevesNews Weekly
How George MacDonald's fantasy fiction illuminates reality
, December 7, 2013
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish Christian minister, poet and prolific novelist, who wrote Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, The Golden Key, Robert Falconer, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind and Lilith, amongst other works. He counted among his friends and admirers Alfred Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Henry Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Anthony Trollope, G.K. Chesterton, W.H. Auden, John Ruskin (for whom he acted as go-between during Ruskin’s courtship with Rose La Touche) and others.
MacDonald’s works had a great influence on many writers, particularly those authors of fantasy including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis wrote that it was MacDonald’s Phantastes which “baptised” his imagination, and that “the quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live”. Through the medium of fairytale MacDonald illuminated reality.
Lewis wrote tellingly in a letter in 1962, the year before his death: “I never met Chesterton. (But) the same affinity which made me like him, made us both like MacDonald.”
Chesterton wrote particularly movingly of the profound influence MacDonald had on him personally. He especially praised him as a great writer and mystic, hailing him as “one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century”.
In his introduction to Dr Greville MacDonald’s memoir of his father, George MacDonald and His Wife, published in 1924, Chesterton described MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin as“a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.”
The Princess and the Goblin is a fantasy story for children published in 1872. It concerns the young princess Irene and the miner’s son Curdie, who, with the aid of Irene’s magical great-great-grandmother, foil the attempts of the goblins to kidnap the princess.
Chesterton captures the essence of MacDonald’s works when he described in The Victorian Age in Literature how the Scottish author conveyed “the real sense that everyone had the end of an elfin thread that must at last lead them to paradise”. Chesterton shared with MacDonald the sincere belief that the wonder of God permeates all creation. In an article for The Daily News in 1901, Chesterton described MacDonald as “as true mystic to whom the supernatural was natural”.
How fitting it is that Chesterton, “the prince of paradox”, should astutely note in the above-mentioned introduction how, for MacDonald, “the fairy-tale was the inside of the ordinary story and not the outside” — that is, fairy-tales are much closer to reality than that which we perceive to be reality.
In an article for The Daily News in 1901, Chesterton anticipated this comment by noting that “Dr MacDonald’s tales of real life are allegories, or disguised versions, of his fairy tales. It is not that he dresses up men and movements as knights and dragons, but that he thinks that knights and dragons, really existing in the eternal world, are dressed up here as men and movements.... His allegoric tales of gnomes and griffins do not lower a veil, but rend it.”
This rending of the veil is very evident in Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, perhaps MacDonald’s most well-known work, along with The Princess and the Goblin. First published in 1858, it concerns the young man Anodos reaching the age of 21 and finding his way into the mystifying realm of Faerie-Land.
As he proceeds on his journey, he encounters all manner of fantastical characters, including flower fairies, tree spirits, knights, goblins, giants, enchanted women, his evil shadow and many others. Through his various encounters arise great adventures, narrow escapes, ethical dilemmas and even his short-lived death.
Faerie-Land is beautifully and evocatively described as a realm of dramatic landscapes, but more importantly, of dramatic distinctions between good and evil. In his Daily News obituary for MacDonald in 1905, Chesterton observed, “True Mysticism is entirely concerned with absolute things; not with twilight, but with the sacred black darkness and the sacred white sun.” Through the medium of seeming fanciful fairytale, MacDonald highlights the very real nature of goodness and of evil.
Reading MacDonald’s works provides the reader with further insight into Chesterton and the latter writer’s own illuminating of reality through paradox. Both writers endow supposed reality with the awe and wondrous joy properly due, but alas so often overlooked in contemporary culture.
By losing sight of knights and dragons we have lost sight of the battle between the angels and the fallen, constantly reoccurring in our own lives, and so forgotten that “dragons can be beaten”. Worse still is if we dismiss it all as a mere figment of the imagination.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of The Defendant, the quarterly journal of the Australian Chesterton Society.