George MacDonald: The Fantastic Imagination

George MacDonald, whilst not a wholly reliable guide to Christian orthodoxy in some respects (his Christology was not always clear and he seemed to see belief in the Holy Trinity as a negotiable issue with respect to one’s identity as an orthodox Christian – though he did firmly believe in it himself), remains a very important figure in terms of his contribution to the resources with which people can encounter Christian truth imaginatively. His stories (particularly his fairytales, but I would certainly include novels like Lilith and Phantastes in a list of relevant works as well) have an amazing ability to move our horizons, alter our assumptions and reawaken that sense of wonder that most of us lose sometime after childhood.

MacDonald’s stories also manage to communicate a great deal of what the Christian life is all about, without explicitly mentioning Christianity (or indeed, any particular theology at all). This is achieved mainly through his characters, and what they learn during their adventures; certain truths or ideals are indeed embedded in the structure of the stories themselves, but it is the characters’ encounters, and their response to what they experience that bring those truths out. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, written (7th March 1916) a good many years before his conversion to Christ, C. S. Lewis wrote about his discovery of MacDonald, and the excitable way he writes about this new discovery conveys something of what many others have also felt upon first reading him:

I have had a great literary experience this week. I have discovered yet another author to add to our circle – our very own set: never since I first read “The well at the world’s end” have I enjoyed a book so much – and indeed I think my new “find” is quite as good as [Thomas] Malory or [William] Morris himself. The book, to get to the point, is George Macdonald’s “Faerie Romance”, Phantastes, which I picked up by hazard in a rather tired Everyman copy – by the way isn’t it funny, they cost 1/1d. now – on our station bookstall last Saturday. Have you read it? I suppose not, as if you had, you could not have helped telling me about it. At any rate, whatever the book you are reading now, you simply must get this at once: and it is quite worth getting in a superior Everyman binding too.

from Yours Jack: The Inspirational Letters of C. S. Lewis (2008), p.1, Harper Collins.

There is a wonderful sense of youthful enthusiasm in this letter (Lewis was, after all, only seventeen at the time of writing), and the references to the book’s price and binding are charming touches. But what is most significant for our purposes here is the way in which the story Lewis picked up connected with his imagination – the literary ‘circle’ mentioned by Lewis to Greeves was replete with works of myth and legend, and stories that touched the imagination were very dear to Lewis, informing much of his own approach both to fiction writing and to his apologetic work (he was just as concerned with what sort of grand narrative Christianity presented as the logical arguments in its defence). In this letter he goes on to point out that MacDonald’s actual prose is not the greatest, but that this does not undermine the appeal of the stories – which is that they engage the imagination.

The importance of this experience was noted many years later by Lewis when he came to write his ‘spiritual autobiography’ Surprised By Joy. Many years passed between that moment and his embrace of Christianity, but he never forgot the effect that MacDonald’s work had in ‘paving the way’ for that embrace:

The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. For in one sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense all was changed. I did not know yet (and I was long in learning) the name of a new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness…

…in this new region all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed. There was no temptation to confuse the scenes of the tale with the light that rested upon them, or to suppose that they were put forward as realities, or even to dream that if they had been realities and I could reach the woods where Anodos journeyed I should thereby come a step nearer to my desire. Yet, at the same time, never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself.

Surprised By Joy (1977), pp.144-145, Fount Paperbacks.

Lewis would also refer to his encounter with Phantastes as the moment that his imagination had been ‘baptised’, and this is a very suitable word to choose to describe the effect of MacDonald’s writing, as whilst the Sacrament of Baptism transmits real grace to the believer, it can often take many years for that grace to be actualised in the life of the recipient – just as it took many more years for Lewis to make the connections between his imaginative world and what he believed about the world in general. The concluding part of the above quote though, is an excellent description of what good imaginative or fantastic literature should do – that there was ‘no temptation to confuse the scenes of the tale with the light that rested upon them’ yet that a deep sense of awakening or longing (both aspects of what Lewis termed ‘Joy’) permeated the story, is the mark of a good fairytale.

George MacDonald wrote an essay entitled The Fantastic Imagination, which was published as part of an essay collection in 1893 (more than a decade after he had completed the last of his fairy tales) and which he also used as an introduction to later American editions of The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales. In this essay, MacDonald writes about precisely what Lewis had experienced in reading Phantastes – that what the author is trying to communicate cannot be summed up other than in the telling of the story itself; the meaning is embedded in the tale, and cannot be abstracted. If it were otherwise, then the ‘scenes of the tale’ would indeed be confused with the ‘light that rested upon them’, the reader would see the author’s hand forcibly trying to make a point, and the imagination’s alarm bells would go off, rendering the story ineffective.

MacDonald describes this point in his essay, but first notes that just because one cannot isolate the meaning of a story and break it down outside the context of the story itself, this does not mean that there is not order and harmony involved in creating it, nor that because it is a fantasy that the author can alter things that are fundamental to our lived experience (though he may well add to and expand the breadth of the sensible data the characters in the story can respond to):

The mind of man is the product of live Law; it thinks by law, it dwells in the midst of law, it gathers from law its growth; with law therefore, it can alone work to any result. Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy the journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying laws, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracting the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey – and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (1999), pp.6-7, Penguin Classics.

MacDonald is insisting on the maintenance of moral order not just because he believes in an objective moral realm, but because he knows that characters in a fantasy or fairytale must act like real people – they must be believable as persons. It is the juxtaposition of characters we can identify with, acting in and reacting to a world that operates according to a recognised moral framework, with a physical world that is uncommon and may not behave as we expect, that makes fantasy what it is. If the characters were not believable (which a supposed good man acting badly is not) or the environment were not strange, we would not be enchanted as we are – both continuity and unreality are required, as we must be rooted in the new world before we can be changed by it. This is the substance of Lewis’ testimony to the effect of Phantastes on his imagination.

Further on in the essay, MacDonald comes to the question of meaning. What does the story mean; can it mean anything; does it mean only one thing; how can we discern what it is trying to say? Using a dialogic format for this section, MacDonald responds to a range of questions provided by his imaginary interlocutor – his answers give us some sense of why they can’t be answered in the way the questioner would like, and thus shines a light on what the real task of the fairytale is:

”Suppose my child asks me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor the child should know what it means? It is not there so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning…

…The true fairytale is, to my mind, very much like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something: and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough – and that little more than needful…

…I will go farther. The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is – not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any respect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite…?

ibid, pp.7-9.

What MacDonald is drawing our attention to here is the multivalent nature of stories – the idea that the author started out with (character, rough plot, ending) gradually becomes padded out with detail as the story is written, and the images that are part of that padding out will all contain in germ something of that original intention; but they act as symbols, and symbols generate various layers of meaning, all connected to that original seed in the author’s mind (whether they were conscious of it or not) but fanning out in unexpected ways, providing new layers of meaning which are communicated to each reader according to their capacity and character. This multi-layered means of communicating truth to the imagination is, MacDonald goes on argue, due to the analogy of being between Creator and creation:

One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought; it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

ibid, p.9.

                Because all things came into being through the logos of God – His word or reason – all of creation is suffused with potential significance, and what MacDonald is arguing is that particularly in the act of ‘sub-creation’ that the author engages in, and in which he echoes the work of his Creator, those layers of possible meaning are brought especially close to the surface. In that sense, story writing and/or myth making can be seen as an incarnational process – the writer embodies his meaning within the story, and this embodied meaning, itself in some distant continuity with the ultimate truth that emanates from the mind of God, takes on an enormous amount of symbolic power. Thus, as a different range of readers engage with the work, the scope for interpretation will be wide – and yet, all such responses, if the story has integrity, will be true to the original authorial intention (the significance of which will not be known in full even by the author).

I shall leave the final words to MacDonald, who, at the end of his essay, returns to the question of whether it is actually incumbent upon the author to provide some kind of summary reading or ‘final’ interpretation of his story at all. In providing an answer to this, he reminds us of that multivalency latent in the story itself, that the various responses to it will in turn depend upon the dispositions of the reader, and also what the task of story-telling is – not to win arguments or to give lessons, but to cleanse our vision and rekindle the fires of the imagination:

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an Aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant, ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

The best thing to do with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child, must however, need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a very large creature indeed. If any strain of my “broken music” make a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

ibid, p.10.

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