Across the Page

The world is made up of stories, not atoms.

Page 54 of 83

The Portent

…[We] began to find that we doubted a great deal of what seemed to have happened to us. It was as if the gates of the unseen world were closing against us, because we had shut ourselves up in the world of the present. But we let it go gladly. We felt that love was the gate to an unseen world infinitely beyond that region of the psychological in which we had hitherto moved; for this love was teaching us to love all men, and live for all men.

–from George MacDonald’s The Portent

This passage sums up the central theme of George MacDonald’s “story of the inner vision of the highlanders commonly called the second sight.” Young Scotsman Duncan Campbell falls into a seemingly hopeless love for Lady Alice Hamilton, a beautiful and otherworldly figure who shares his heightened awareness of a portent: the clank of a galloping horse that always heralds disaster to the one who hears it. The two appear to be inextricably linked to a pair of lovers generations earlier who were destroyed by the jealous fury of the slighted brother. The woodcut above (“The Portent,” by William James Linton, 1860) illustrates the dramatic moment when one brother plunges to his doom before the flailing hooves of the other brother’s horse, while the maiden, soon to die herself, listens in horror.

In the hands of George MacDonald, this drama becomes more meaningful than such a summary might at first suggest. It seems that the “second sight” might suggest something parallel to the eye of faith that can penetrate into the spiritual realm. The lines above reveal that love takes the pair beyond the merely psychological “unseen world” of the portent into the spiritual world of real transformation.

Exciting though the tale of the two lovers and the jealous brother is, little happens between Duncan and Lady Alice except for clandestine meetings within various enclosures — a common mind symbol in 19th-century stories. There was a fascination with the idea of the unconscious, introduced before Freud by the German philosophers and elaborated in English by Coleridge, whose writings MacDonald greatly admired. The Portent is full of the idea that we are driven by mysterious and hidden forces within, and the imagery helps carry this forward. Duncan’s closet in the Gothic mansion where he serves as tutor and meets Lady Alice contains a hidden door into an unused wing; Lady Alice often sleepwalks through this door into his chamber, and the two find a haven in a “haunted room” in this secret wing. Not until they are driven out of these hidden, dark, dreamlike spaces so suggestive of the unconscious do they find a way to realize their love.

There may be an allegory about having to escape the claustrophobia of mere instinct, romance, or heritage in order to reach love. It reminds me of Erich Fromm’s words in The Art of Loving: “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love.” For MacDonald, love is also the medium of relationship with God. The motif of waking from one dream into another, each one more “true” than the last, implies that what happens between the two lovers somehow reflects a larger metaphysical vision. Perhaps MacDonald is creating a picture of human beings with an unconscious mind that can control them only to an extent. Love is the gateway out — as Duncan explains in the excerpt above.

Dream, imagination, fate, love — all these are wrapped up in this novel that MacDonald called, apologetically, “a Romance. I am well aware that, with many readers, this epithet will be enough to ensure condemnation. But there ought to be a place for any story, which, although founded in the marvellous, is true to human nature and to itself.”

The Book of Three

On the way home from church today, my youngest daughter informed me that her pencil was stuck, point-first, through the “leather” (plastic) of the car door. When I asked her how it happened, she said, “It was an accident. I didn’t know it was that strong!”

Later, it was determined that my husband had shut the car door on the pencil, which was sticking out in that direction. Any visions of my daughter jamming her pencil full-force into the door were erased, and the penalty — no more pencils in the car — was lifted.

“Mommy, when you were thinking it was my fault, it was like giving someone an apple pie, then someone taking it, then having it turn out that it wasn’t a thief,” Younger Daughter reflected.

“No, it was like handing them a toad. Or like turning the other way when someone’s about to walk into a hole,” offered Older Daughter.

“Huh?” I said. “Maybe we should clean up and have some crunchings and munchings!”

We owe such conversations to The Book of Three, in which a chatterbox named Eilonwy is always making novel comparisons to explain her feelings, and the ape-like Gurgi speaks of “crunchings and munchings,” “whackings and smackings,” “seekings and peekings” and “fightings and smitings.” I guess it’s obvious that this read-aloud got under our skin!

I’ve read it twice before, once when I was around middle school age, and once about two years ago. It’s the first of five chronicles set in a fictitious medieval realm, inspired by Wales, called Prydain. It was fun to read it aloud. There is a rollicking (Chaucerian?)  feel to it, thanks to the exaggerated characterizations, and this keeps the tension under control. In a nutshell, it traces the adventures of an assistant pig-keeper, Taran of Caer Dallben, who sets out on a quest to recover his escaped oracular pig and ends up head-to-head with the forces of evil that threaten the kingdom. He collects an odd set of companions: Gwydion the wandering king, Flewddur Flam the bard, Gurgi the ape-man, and Eilonwy the princess. Over the course of their adventures he does some growing up and manages to become a hero.

Lloyd Alexander has said, “In our times, every fantasy realm must be measured in comparison with Narnia.” But this tale is more indebted to The Lord of the Rings. It includes a dark lord who has thrown an enchantment over the land, an evil king with a troop of semi-living thralls like Tolkien’s ring-wraiths, and an unlikely “fellowship” on a quest full of dangers. My 8-year-old liked it more than my 5-year-old. Maybe it’s because she’s old enough to appreciate one of the central attractions of the story, stated by Lloyd Alexander in his author’s note at the start:

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I was familiar with the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), but that’s about all. Though it took me two tries, I found it to be a unique and powerful book about a black woman in the South becoming her own person.

I started reading it last week, but I couldn’t seem to gain any momentum because the dialect was slowing me down. I also felt (and still feel) confused at the narrative, which is a curious blend of poetic profundity and childlike directness and simplicity. Here’s an example:

Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sun. So Janie had another day… When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to.

The narrator is clearly someone like the novel’s main character, Janie: intelligent and perceptive, intuitive in her experience of the world, but not sophisticated in her expression. It reminded me of a Henry James novel, narrated in the third person but limited to what the character knows and feels. (It seems less ponderous here than in a Henry James novel, though.)

Anyway, I got bogged down in the dialogue and finally set the book aside for a few days. When I picked it back up, I was able to find a stride, and the ending came all too quickly. By then, I cared deeply about Janie, who we first encounter as a quadruply-impoverished character: young, black, female, and unmarried. Ultimately she develops a strong sense of who she is and an ability to live intentionally, but the journey is not without heartache.

This novel, a feminist classic, is considered Hurston’s masterpiece. An anthropologist born and raised in the first incorporated all-black town in America, Hurston sets this tale in all-black settings and uses black oral tradition and folklore. It places the reader within the confines of the experience it relates, and though it took me a bit of work to get inside, I emerge feeling that it was well worth the effort.

84, Charing Cross Road

I read 84, Charing Cross Road in one evening. And though its call number makes it plain that it’s a nonfictional work, somehow I forgot this as I was reading. An epistolary novel ( is it a novel?) that tells the tale of a 20-year correspondence between an American writer and an antiquarian bookseller, 84, Charing Cross Road maintains a near-perfect balance between personalities in the quiet development of a friendship. (Some reviewers have called it a love-affair, but I would call it a friendship.) It was so entertaining and interesting that it felt like an imaginary tale — till the end, where the illusion is broken abruptly by the intrusion of “real life.”

I enjoyed the acquaintance with fellow bibliophiles. My dissertation director was knowledgeable about antiquarian books, and I was reminded of him. I also enjoyed the larger-than-life personality of “H. Hanff,” whose sense of humor and delight in trying to break through her correspondent’s British decorum are balanced by active compassion; she sends food on different occasions to augment British rations after World War II.

One of the things I liked in Helene’s love for old books was her awareness of being one link in a chain, receiving books from previous readers and leaving her own marks for future readers who will inherit them some day. It seemed perfect that my library copy contained an inscription in the front. Apparently libraries acquire used copies of books from time to time!

Nosing around, I discovered this site, which provides further information and even some photos of characters and places in the book. I recommend the site for fans, and the book for anyone in search of a quick and moving read.

Read Aloud Thursday: The Silver Pony

I asked my daughters for their votes on the question of what their favorite read-alouds lately have been. Instantly, my third-grader replied, The Book of Three. Because it’s so adventurous. But I feel a little sorry for Taran, because he’s always getting criticized by other people.” My kindergartener  said, “The Farm Team. And The Wolves Are Back.The Farm Team is a tale of farm animals battling woodland animals in an all-out hockey match; I found it at the library and checked it out for my husband to read. As the girls have gotten older, he does less and less reading aloud, and I thought I could lure him in with guy-fare about hockey. It worked, and it’s a fun story. The Wolves Are Back is excellent, a picture book by Jean Craighead George that manages to convey a total, inter-related eco-system with simplicity and clarity. The illustrations by Wendell Minor are terrific too.

So, there’s the vote from the under-ten set. But I’m going to share my favorite read-aloud, one I didn’t know existed till I stumbled across it at the library this week: The Silver Pony, by Lynd Ward. We have The Biggest Bear, a relic from my childhood, and I’ve always been fascinated by the pictures. The details invite lingering, and somehow, the children’s faces are unexpectedly mature and expressive.

Now that I think about it, The Silver Pony shares some features with The Biggest Bear. Both feature young boys alone in a world of adults, trying to find their way. Both involve parents who are busy, serious people who work hard on their farms, but do make an effort to understand their children without babying them.

The difference is that The Silver Pony has no narrative at all. It’s told exclusively in pictures — 80 of them. They tell the story clearly and powerfully, in black and white. (Does this count as a read-aloud when there’s no reading of text involved?) It’s the tale of a lonely farm boy who dreams of a flying horse that takes him across the world in adventures that allow him to rescue and enrich others: a boy astride a floating house in a flooded village, a girl on the roof in a gray city keeping doves, an ice-fishing eskimo, a mountain shepherd boy. Without giving it away, I can say that ultimately it tells the tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun — but this Icarus survives, and must find a way to incorporate the dream with the daylight world, something his parents can help him with.

I liked the way the story affirms the imagination, but also makes it clear that life isn’t mended by escape. Imagination becomes an ally when it can be incorporated in waking life. I’ve been coming up against this subject in other sources lately, too; Who Am I This Time? by Jay Martin addresses it, and so does this thought-provoking two-part post by Jeanne Damoff on reading Perelandra. (Thanks, Barbara, for pointing me to it.) All of us need stories, all of us incorporate fictions. At what point do they help? At what point do they harm? This book figured into the question neatly and ingeniously.

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