Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.

George MacDonald was a Christian writer. He was the author of realistic novels, often with Scottish settings, always with explicit Christian messages.  When I was putting together the Scottish Reading Challenge, I had concluded, mistakenly, that these books had retreated to the archives, and that only the fantasies were still read, but I was quite wrong.  Editions of the Christian novels were recently in print.  See left for The Baronet's Song, which has been "edited for today's reader."  One of those "edits" is the title, originally Sir Gibbie (1879), which, admittedly, sounds ridiculous.

I have leafed through a strange book assembled by C. S.Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (1947), which is not a collection of stories or poems, but rather of aphorisms, of sentences of wisdom broken lose from MacDonald's many books.  What a way to treat a fiction writer.  MacDonald was enormously important for Lewis, who attributes some sort of conversion experience to his reading of the strange fairy novel Phantastes (1858).  If I understand Lewis correctly, he had not a religious conversion, but an imaginative conversion, a preparation for a later religious awakening.  "I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him," writes Lewis.  But also "Few of his novels are good and none is very good."  MacDonald was a sage to Lewis, but not quite an artist.  Quotations from the valuable George MacDonald website The Golden Key.

MacDonald's Christianity was his own.  He apparently believed that animals could achieve salvation, for example, which explains the talking horses in At the Back of the North Wind, among other oddities.  He had a very strong sense of a feminine aspect of God.  The powers in his fantasies are almost always women - the North Wind, the great-great-grandmother of The Princess and the Goblin, a host of fairy tale figures in Phatastes.  MacDonald's God is, among other things, a protective mother.  It's a gentle, sweet Christianity.

It's also a German Christianity.  MacDonald, like Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot, was a keen student of German literature, particularly the great German Romantics.  "Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine," the 1811 novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, MacDonald writes in the essay "The Fantastic Imagination."  MacDonald is right, by the way, about Undine.  Most important to MacDonald was Novalis, a connection that is both obvious and a complete mystery to me.  Novalis is a poet I read with keen incomprehension.  He advocated, or sought, or found, for all I know, some sort of idealized Kantian transcendental Christianity, available to us all if we would only I don't know what.

The very end of Lilith (1895) - or non-end, since the chapter is titled "The Endless Ending":

Strange dim memories, which will not abide identification, often, through misty windows of the past, look out upon me in the bright daylight, but I never dream now.  It may be, notwithstanding, that, when most awake, I am only dreaming the more.  But when I wake at last into that life which, as a mother her child, carries this life in its bosom, I shall know that I wake, and shall doubt no more,

I wait; asleep or awake, I wait.

Novalis says, "Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one."

George MacDonald, by a means I do not quite understand, turned that idea into fiction.


  1. I adore, and have read a great huge lot of, and mostly don't get, George Macdonald. He can make me think and laugh and cry, and he writes wonderful fairy tales, but it is all very dreamlike, as you say.

  2. p.s. Much as I love his novels, my own favorites are his short stories, like those collected in The Wise Woman. They're not exactly allegories, but what else are they? It's a bit like reading Charles Williams, sometimes, but much gentler.

  3. I haven't read these - but it sounds like there is a lot of theological interest here - albeit a bit far out.

    Great post thanks for sharing


  4. Jenny - Ah, I must read more of the short pieces. "The Golden Key" is stunning, "The Light Princess" a delight. I may have to wait a bit, though - I might have overdone it with MacDonald.

    I wonder how "gettable" a lot of it is? Maybe the sense of understanding, or almost understanding, is more important than actual understanding.

    Hannah - pretty far out - I think that describes MacDonald in more than one way.

  5. "The powers in his fantasies are almost always women - the North Wind, the great-great-grandmother of The Princess and the Goblin, a host of fairy tale figures in Phatastes. MacDonald's God is, among other things, a protective mother. It's a gentle, sweet Christianity."

    This is such an excellent point - and I think it explains why I'm getting on with his writing so well.