Recent Reading: George MacDonald

How do I characterize George MacDonald’s sermons? I’ve been thinking about this question off and on for several days. I’ve been reading his Unspoken Sermons for a couple of years now, a little at a time, because it’s inconceivable to take them in more than the smallest bites. There is a prophetic depth and unity to George MacDonald’s comprehension of God that demands every bit of intellectual effort I have to offer, every bit of concentration. It’s like he’s tapped into the underground stream of living water running under the whole ground of Scripture. Reading these sermons is a beautifully stern corrective to all kinds of little contaminations and blurry spots in my understanding of God — false steps and inconsistencies that I didn’t know were there.

It’s well known that C.S. Lewis was deeply influenced by George MacDonald, writing about the Unspoken Sermons, “My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help — sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.” No wonder it’s two scenes from Narnia that my hand falls upon as I grope for a picture of how I feel when reading these sermons. One is when Jill, Eustace, Puddleglum, and Prince Rilian look down into the kingdom of Bism in The Silver Chair — a chasm deeper than they ever imagined, glowing with heat from its ever-burning fires and its living jewels waiting to be picked and eaten like grapes. The other is in Dawn Treader, when Eustace feels the at once terrible and exquisite pain of his dragon-skin coming off. Every time I read in Unspoken Sermons, I have those feelings of hitherto unimagined sights coming before the eye of my heart, and the birth pains of change tingling in my life.

These last few weeks I’ve read two sermons, “The Consuming Fire,” and “The Higher Faith.” It’s the first one I want to think about here, because it has been the most “consuming” in my thoughts. MacDonald begins with Hebrews 12:29, “Our God is a consuming fire,” and meditates on the significance of fire as an emblem of God’s character throughout the Bible: the burning bush, Mt. Sinai, the burning of purification, even hell and the lake of fire. The primary thing about God’s burning, MacDonald urges, is his love — love which is inexorable. When we cooperate, the burning of God may be painful, but it has a gentleness. God doesn’t give us more revelation than we can bear. But if we set ourselves against it, the burning continues, because God continues to love, and to burn away all that is unlovely. In this way even hell, even the casting of death and hell into the lake of fire, are reconciled with, and are expressions of, God’s love.

Never would this have occurred to me. In our limited understanding it can be difficult to reconcile God’s tenderness and his wrath, but this sermon reveals the unity of God’s nature and the pervasiveness of his love.

This sermon has stayed in my thoughts lately, not just because of its transforming insight, but because of the number of coincidences that have brought it to mind. MacDonald speaks of Moses’ partial revelation of God on Sinai, when he asks to be blotted out of God’s book because of the sins of his people. Then God reveals himself again to Moses, partially — only his back, because no one can look on his face and live. After reading MacDonald’s discussion of it, this same passage came up in the girls’ and my Bible reading this week. We talked about why “no one can look upon God’s face and live.” A few days later, Younger Daughter came out of her room, where she was listening to the audiobook of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and told me that she had been reminded of the story again because when the Pevensie children meet Aslan for the first time, they find his face too beautiful to look upon.

I love it when this happens — when God develops a theme steadily over a period of time in different ways.

By far the most important revelation this sermon gives me is of God’s love. There are several passages I underlined, and I’d like to quote them all, but they are all better in context. So in the end I regretfully resist my impulse to insert long excerpts from “The Consuming Fire” here, and instead I recommend it in its entirety — along with the rest of the sermons in the book, to be taken in small doses as our ears are ready to hear.

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.”

Diary of an Old Soul

I’ve been revisiting George MacDonald lately. I knew him first as the one whose Phantastes C.S. Lewis credited with “baptizing his imagination.” Then I explored some of his children’s books, and more recently a Gothic romance. Slowly I’ve been accumulating impressions and experiences of this writer.

I didn’t realize that he was also a well-respected poet, and frequently a guest lecturer on poetry. This week I learned that MacDonald was an admirer of Browning, an acquaintance of Tennyson, and such a fan of Coleridge that he made The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the subject of a chapter in his book There and Back. He published several volumes of poetry, including  A Book of Strife in the form of The Diary of an Old Soul, published as 366 seven-line poems in 1880. “No stranger to hardship,” notes Robert Trexler in the introduction,

MacDonald suffered from emphysema, eczema, bouts of depression, and poverty throughout his long life. Several times poor health placed him at the point of death. His mother died when he was ten and his two closest brothers died as young men. He outlived 4 of his 11 children, 2 of whom died in 1878 and 1879, the period just before the publication of these daily poems. Readers of MacDonald’s books, filled as they are with hope and optimism, might be surprised to learn of the many tests of faith God permitted in his life.

Diary of an Old Soul contains a 7-line poem for each day of the year. Most of them are reflective, devotional pieces that probe all corners of his spiritual life. Many are prayers. Opposite each page is supposed to be a white page for the reader to write their own response, as the first poem explains:

Sweet friends, receive my offering. You will find
Against each worded page a white page set: –
This is the mirror of each friendly mind
Reflecting that. In this book we are met.
Make it, dear hearts, of worth to you indeed: –
Let your white page be ground, my print be seed,
Growing to golden ears, that faith and hope shall feed.

YOUR OLD SOUL

The best way to get acquainted with the book is on these terms, I think. Mine is a library copy, though, so instead of accompanying MacDonald on a journey that unfolds in small steps over a year, I’ve been browsing through the poems — gorging myself, in effect. (It’s not ideal, but maybe I can redeem it at some point with an original poem about late fees…?)

Truth is, they don’t lend themselves to gorging. But here are a few samples that give their flavor, with minimal commentary from Yours Truly.

August 21
Thou being in me, in my deepest me,
Through all the time I do not think of thee,
Shall I not grow at last so true within
As to forget thee and yet never sin?
Shall I not walk the loud world’s busy way,
Yet in thy palace-porch sit all the day?
Not conscious think of thee, yet never from thee stray?

Several lines of speculation emerge: maturity in love for God; the role of consciousness and the “deepest me” of the unconscious; the innerness of spiritual transformation. In the end, the poem suggests, we’re changed not by having lots of consciously religious thoughts, but by the quiet work of God within.

December 26
We all are lonely, Maker — each a soul
Shut in by itself, a sundered atom of thee.
No two yet loved themselves into a whole;
Even when we weep together we are two.
Of two to make one, which yet two shall be,
Is thy creation’s problem, deep, and true,
To which thou only holds the happy, hurting clue.

There’s no trite wind-up, just an acknowledgment of loneliness against a backdrop of faith. MacDonald uses reflection to acknowledge the limits of reflection.

Strangely, though, the overall effect of these poems is to ease loneliness. Here is an author who, as 19th-century scholar Vida Dutton Scudder points out, “makes less solitary the inmost recesses of the spiritual life.” Each of these poems is a microscope trained on some current of thought or feeling. In their quietness they illuminate, and accord a gentleness to, the moments of insight that add up to the diary of a soul.

Phantastes

This is the book that C.S. Lewis read one day on a train and felt his imagination had been “baptized.” I read it back when I was in college and it didn’t capture me. But recently, after reading more of George MacDonald’s books and being intrigued, I decided to try again.

I thought I didn’t remember it, and it’s partly true; it was mixed up in my memory with Lilith, another of MacDonald’s tales I read around the same time. But I was surprised to stumble across not episodes, but sentences that I remembered exactly from my previous reading of this book.

This time, it captured me. I still wouldn’t say I can “explain” it (which is part of the reason I like it), but I felt I grasped more than I did before. I’m sure certain scenes will stay with me, waiting to be explained by experiences I’ve yet to have.

What it is: “A Faerie Romance,” its title proclaims. It concerns the journey of a young man named Anodos (Greek for “the path up” or “the march up”) through Fairy Land. His journey begins on his 21st birthday, when he inherits the key to an antique desk of his father’s, and discovers a secret compartment at its very heart out of which pops a fairy maiden claiming to be (maybe) his ancestor, and suggesting that some surprises are in store. The next morning his room is transformed, and his journey begins.

I remember studying a novel written about a hundred years before PhantastesWieland by Charles Brockden Brown — in which enclosures functioned as mind symbols. So that’s what I thought of when Anodos unlocked the desk. Judging from the nature of the adventures that follow, I think MacDonald may have been using the same symbolism. Fairy Land has a labyrinthian quality, full of mysterious and complex palaces, tales within tales, door that open into different worlds, and encounters and re-encounters with various characters. He meets his shadow there. He considers questions of love and death there. And ultimately he’s tested and learns true humility there. I read one review that said Anodos gives up his ideals at the end, but I disagree. His ideals are tempered, but surely he doesn’t give them up.

That’s a paltry summary. There’s really no way I can summarize this tale. It has a dreamlike quality. But as I said, some of its episodes will stay with me. For instance, there’s one tale Anodos reads during his stay at a mysterious castle in fairyland about a young man with a magic mirror. Every night a woman appears in his apartment, but he can only see her in the mirror. It’s an absorbing story that, like many episodes, explores the nature of love and passion. Will he rise to the occasion and set her free? In the episode that’s perhaps most decisive for Anodos, he witnesses a religious ceremony in which white-robed youths are presented to a majestic figure on a throne — who turns out to be made of wood, and the chamber behind his chair contains a raging wolf that must be killed. What does the wolf stand for? Another decisive plotline has to do with a marble lady Anodos calls to life. She represents his ideal of beauty, but will she return his love — if indeed it’s love that he feels?

These are the kinds of questions the story raises — and many more, both metaphysical and practical. Now that I’ve read more MacDonald, I can recognize some characteristic features, and I enjoyed being able to fit this tale into my mind’s slowly growing network of books by this author: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, The Golden Key, The Light Princess, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith. I also enjoyed the illustrations by Arthur Hughes, praised in the preface by MacDonald’s son Greville as part of the reason he supported this re-issue of the book in 1905. I recommend it for fans of MacDonald, and for fans of fairy tales in general.

At the Back of the North Wind

Any story always tells me itself what I’m to think about it… I never can tell what they call clever from what they call silly, but I always know whether I like a story nor not.

So says Diamond, the angelic little boy at the center of George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. He’s a small boy whose age is never given, but he’s already ahead of me, because I can’t quite make up my mind whether I “like” this book. It’s considered one of MacDonald’s masterpieces, so its literary quality isn’t a question. For what it’s worth, I stumbled across this page, which puts this book in the company of other popular reads in 1908. Though it was published in 1871, it was in illustrious company thirty-seven years later. Time has only increased its stature.

But do I like it?

Diamond, the son of a coachman, meets the North Wind, personified, and is carried off with her on several adventures. The two have various metaphysical discussions, and Diamond comes to love and trust her despite observing that some of her acts are good, and some terrible — like sinking a ship. Even the evil things lead to good and are shown to be part of a larger purpose. It’s a theodicy wrapped in a fairytale.

Or should I say, several fairytales. The first copy I picked up at the library was abridged, and I held out for the unabridged version. How could I read a book with large chunks snipped out, like Thomas Jefferson’s Bible? I wanted the whole work as its author had envisioned and labored over it.

But I did find myself getting impatient with the tales within the larger tale: dreams various characters report in detail, rhymes and poems, stories told. I’m not sure I gave them the careful attention they needed. One of these tales-within-the-tale, the story of Daylight, was pulled out and published independently.

I also didn’t like the ending. (Spoiler ahead!) Perhaps part of MacDonald’s accomplishment in writing the book was to make peace with the ending for himself, for it’s been noted that Diamond resembles MacDonald’s son Maurice, who died young.

It sounds silly, but I didn’t like the way the book left me feeling cold, either. The chill of the North Wind — who insists herself, and Diamond agrees, that it’s not cold when she’s carrying you — just seemed to pervade the book for me. The cover of the paperback version I read, unlike the one I posted above that contains Jesse Willcox Smith’s wonderful illustrations (someday I’d like to have some of those Books of Wonder on my shelf), depicted an arctic landscape with little Diamond in his nightshirt and bare feet peering across.

However, these are for the most part superficial distractions. The core of the book is deeply satisfying, and it would be an interesting tale to discuss in a setting where you could chew on some of the episodes for awhile. As always, I enjoyed MacDonald’s strong, clean, dense-with-meaning writing — though I’m not so sure others would agree; I’ve gotten the impression that he’s valued more for his unique imaginative gift than for his literary one. And unlike my experience with The Princess and Curdie, I felt the symbolism worked without becoming overbearing.

So I’ve hemmed and hawed my way to a verdict: I liked it. But don’t let it fool you into expecting a lighthearted fairytale. This is one I’ll surely read again someday, and I have no doubt that it will yield more — well, diamonds.

The Golden Key

These days I use the library as much as possible, but every once in awhile I come across a book I simply must have. George MacDonald’s The Golden Key is such a book. It’s an allegory, written for children and only 78 pages long. But it’s compact and mystical enough that I know I’ll want to return to it often. And I know there are scenes in it I’ll never forget.

This one, for instance, when Tangle (the heroine) and Mossy (the hero) make their way across a wide plain covered with shadows on their way to find the source of the rainbow, to which Mossy has found the golden key:

They had never seen any space look like it… It was no wonder to them now that they had not been able to tell what it was, for this surface was everywhere crowded with shadows. It was a sea of shadows… No forests clothed the mountain-sides, no trees were anywhere to be seen, and yet the shadows of the leaves, branches, and stems of all various trees covered the valley as far as their eyes could reach… As they walked they waded knee-deep in the lovely lake. For the shadows were not merely lying on the surface of the ground, but heaped up above it like substantial forms of darkness, as if they had been cast upon a thousand different planes of the air. Tangle and Mossy often lifted their heads and gazed upwards to descry where the shadows came; but they could see nothing more than a bright mist spread above them, higher than the tops of the mountains, which stood clear against it.

It’s not long before the two begin to discern the shadows not just of objects of nature, but of an unfolding human drama:

Now a wonderful form, half bird-like half human, would float across on outspread sailing pinions. Anon an exquisite group of gambolling children would be followed by the loveliest female form, and that again by the grand stride of a Titanic shape, each disappearing in the surrounding press of shadowy foliage. Sometimes a profile of unspeakable beauty or grandeur would appear for a moment and vanish. Sometimes what seemed lovers passed… Sometimes wild horses would tear across, free, or bestrode by noble shadows of ruling men. But some of the things which pleased them most they never knew how to describe.

About the middle of the plain they sat down to rest in the heart of a heap of shadows. After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.

‘We must find the country from which the shadows come,’ said Mossy.

‘We must, dear Mossy,’ responded Tangle. ‘What if your golden key should be the key to it?’

That’s more than I usually quote, but part of the reason I blog is to remember such passages.

It’s not just that I can trace the line from that passage backward to Plato, or forward to C.S. Lewis. It has more to do with what my father describes of his conversion. As a young man who believed Jesus was a commanding teacher but not the son of God, he remembers an old man directing his attention to Psalm 22. It’s a prophetic Psalm that describes crucifixion, written by David about two centuries before crucifixion was practiced. It bumped around in his brain for years, along with a growing collection of irreconcilable, unpigeonhole-able data, which paved the way for his eventual surrender to the truth of Jesus’s claims about who he was.

George MacDonald’s tales have a similar effect. The edition I read contained an afterword by W.H. Auden, who points out wisely, “To hunt for symbols in a fairy tale is absolutely fatal. In The Golden Key, for example, any attempt to ‘interpret’ the Grandmother or the air-fish or the Old Man of the Sea is futile: they mean what they are.” To me, this doesn’t mean that MacDonald’s stories have no symbolic significance; it means that they have many facets of meaning. The imaginative vision in this story gets somehow under, or behind, my rational understanding of certain important realities and sheds a vital — and very beautiful — light on them.

The flyleaf quotes J.R.R. Tolkien’s observation that “The magical, the fairy story… may be made a vehicle of mystery. This is at least what George MacDonald attempted, achieving stories of power and beauty when he succeeded, as in The Golden Key.” Though there are things my daughters won’t “understand” here (there’s plenty I don’t “understand”), I can’t wait to read it to them and, in so doing, give them a gift — a golden key that stirs their longing for a larger, more glorious world.

The Princess and Curdie

Here she is: Princess Irene of The Princess and the Goblin . She’s following the thread spun by her mysterious grandmother, who lives in a tower, keeps pigeons, and reveals herself only to Irene. That thread helps her to stay oriented in the caves of the goblins as she rescues Curdie, a miner boy who in his turn rescues her when the goblins erupt into her living room and kidnap her to be their queen.

Over the last week and a half I’ve been reading The Princess and Curdie, the sequel. I didn’t like it as well. I think I wasn’t prepared for it; it seemed at times more overtly allegorical than its predecessor, a story more about its symbolic agenda than its characters and action. But I still found that it gave me much to puzzle over.

It reminded me by turns of Pilgrim’s Progress and Hind’s Feet on High Places, both spiritual allegories. Curdie is an Everyman, a boy who’s proved his mettle once but is rapidly “getting rather stupid — one of the chief signs of which was that he believed less and less in things he had never seen.” When the story begins, he is “gradually changing into a commonplace man.”

A strange turn of events brings him face to face with Irene’s grandmother, who gives him a mission and sends him on a journey. Curdie enlists the aid of an unlikely army of deformed goblin animals, and sets out to find himself involved in a story that reminded me of Prince Rilian’s in The Silver Chair, or King Theoden’s in The Lord of the Rings.

I thought the basic situation was great, and MacDonald’s development of the role of faith was in some respects profound. The princess Irene’s grandmother seems a parallel figure to the Holy Spirit, and this characterization raises some illuminating questions and comparisons. I also liked the way MacDonald stressed that Curdie’s success or failure depends on the unexpected, the humble, the ugly.

There is something so strong and clean about MacDonald’s writing. Some books proceed like a meandering road, some are like a complex web where eventually everything comes together, and some seem to go from one narrative spot of light to the next. But this story is more like a sculpture, full of clean lines struck with force and without apology. I don’t always know where he’s going, but the world conjured up by MacDonald’s writing is so full of meaning. Take this, for instance, a description of a mountain:

A mountain is a strange and awful thing… Now that we have learned to look at them with admiration, perhaps we do not feel quite awe enough of them. To me they are beautiful terrors.

I will try to tell you what they are. They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon down below, and rushed up and out…

On it goes for many paragraphs. The description of Irene’s grandmother when she appears to Curdie underground is similarly extravagant: she embodies “all the beauty of the cavern, yes, of all he knew of the whole creation, [which] seemed gathered in one centre of harmony and loveliness in the person of the ancient lady who stood before him in the very summer of beauty and strength.”

I guess I have a love-hate relationship with passages like this. On the one hand they’re very rich, and they radiate multi-faceted meaning. On the other, they can be quite long-winded, and slow down the story. That pretty much sums up the experience of reading this book. It’s full of treasures — I suppose it’s fitting that Curdie is a miner, because these pages seem encrusted with jewels — but you have to be willing to take your time and mull and dig and consider.

George MacDonald was born on December 10, 1824, so it seems fitting to submit this post for the Celebrate the Author Challenge for December. My original plan was to focus on a different author, but with the busyness of these days I’m going to consider the timing of this reading as a serendipitous event, and conclude my participation in this challenge with this post. George MacDonald is an author I can certainly celebrate, given his famous influence on C.S. Lewis, who wrote that Phantastes “baptized his imagination.” Although he was employed by the church full-time only briefly before his controversial views created problems for him, he continued to earn income through preaching even after redirecting his energies toward writing. Some of his written sermons are collected in Unspoken Sermons.

The Light Princess

The Light Princess is a book of about 110 pages that I unearthed in the library’s juvenile section. There are a few etexts available (listed here), but this is the version I read.

I’ve read a few other MacDonald stories: Phantastes (years ago), Lilith, and The Princess and the Goblin. C.S. Lewis felt his imagination was “baptised” by Phantastes; me, not so much. Nor Lilith.

But I’ve enjoyed both his tales for children immensely. The authorial voice of this one is less grandfatherly than in The Princess and the Goblin, leaving the reader undistracted from the story as it unfolds. I liked this, for this story is like a diamond: it leaves some strong pictures in the mind, multifaceted and mythic, and it’s a treat to be able to retain them vividly, undistorted by an overbearing narrator.

The basic plot involves a princess who, because her aunt (a witch) was inadvertantly forgotten at her christening, is cursed with weightlessness. Gravity — of any kind — has no hold on her. Her body floats; her mind flits; her heart drifts, failing to attach to anyone. She never cries. She’s a mere shell.

Eventually a prince falls in love with her, just about the time her evil aunt begins to drain the lake where the princess loves to swim. She begins to fade away herself. The only way to restore the lake is for someone to willingly give his life for the princess. What will happen? This is the tale MacDonald spins, playing with the symbolic suggestiveness of light(ness), gravitation, and water.

If the princess is the quintessential picture of empty loveliness, her aunt is the picture of hatred. At one point she casts a spell that involves a long walk during which she mutters, coiled lovingly by a huge snake, locking a seemingly endless string of doors. I enjoyed the strength of these characterizations.

I also developed an appreciation for Sendak’s illustrations. I’m as much of a Where the Wild Things Are fan as anyone else, but I wasn’t sure about these drawings till I got a ways into the story. They have an eeriness that seems, I decided, well suited to this fantasy tale, reminding me of Chris Van Allsburg’s Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrations. (You can see them here.) Sometimes a careful scrutiny of them brings unexpected rewards… In one, a table beside the king holds a copy of Phantastes. This was a well-told story that will probably stay in mind for awhile.