The Apocalypse of English Phantastes III: George MacDonald

The Apocalypse of English Phantastes III: George MacDonald November 26, 2008

Part I
Part II

If John Ruskin helped awaken a desire for fantastic literature in the English-reading world, it would have not become as far and wide an interest as it became without the aid of George MacDonald, a Scottish minister. Ruskin’s work, while original, could have been the first and last of its kind, making it more than original, but unique. Or, as is probably likely, it might have inspired others to imitate him, and write original tales of fantasy – for children. It took George MacDonald, one of Ruskin’s friends, to push the genre further, to suggest it was suitable not only for children, but for adults, to develop it into a literary movement which continues with us today.

The fairytale for MacDonald was a work of art. The intended audience could be children, but it could just as well be for adults, as his novel Phantastes: A Faerie Romance was set to prove. While one should find meaning in such a story, MacDonald did not want people to assume that they were mere allegories. “The true fairytale is, to my mind, very 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 the 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 the definite idea would be the result? Little enough – and that little more than needful.”[1] Each reader is to find their own meaning to a given story. An author who bludgeons the reader with his or her intended meaning to a text indicates an inept author who has not learned to appreciate the abilities of his or her audience. “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 your child should know what it means? It is not there so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it does not even wake an interest, throw it aside.”[2] The gift of the imagination provides an author and a reader a sense of what it is like to be a builder of worlds. “The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in the way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms – which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation.”[3] But, because of the limitations of the human imagination, the possible meaning of a given work will most likely transcend a human author’s intentions. “One difference between God’s work and man is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant.”[4] It is with his own spark of light that MacDonald wrote, hoping to gladden the hearts of his readers, but he knew that not all would share with him his same vision, his same joy. “Let fairy-tale 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.”[5]

After he started writing, MacDonald became prolific and wrote a significant number of fantastic works. Most of them were intended for people of all ages, although a few, like Phantastes and Lilith, were clearly meant for adults. He was able to employ all levels of the fairy story, from tales of magic and enchantment, such as in “The Shadows,” to tales of fairy creatures or goblin lore, such as in his famous The Princess and the Goblin. While he might not have desired to be preachy in his stories, there is no doubt that they did contain many lessons for his audience to ponder over and learn from, so much so, that many of his writings ended up being more didactic than he might have liked. But we must remember, MacDonald was writing within a different time, and the genre itself was just beginning; the fairy story had been used for centuries as a story to educate and socialize children. It should be of little surprise than MacDonald, while trying to move beyond this mode of storytelling, ended up reengaging it in his stories.

Phantastes, MacDonald’s first published novel, is the fairyland equivalent of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Anodos, the hero, had just reached the age of adulthood (twenty-one), and he found himself to be apathetic towards life. There was a deep sorrow in his heart, one which would destroy him, if something was not done to stop it. He needed to overcome himself, which is what he did in his own journey in fairyland. He was able to be reborn in joy only after he died to himself, only when he gave himself up for the sake of others. And it is in this way that his story is that of everyman. The lesser good which we now have must make way for that which is greater that it, otherwise it will become evil. “Yet I know that good is coming to me – that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.”[6]George MacDonald the universalist looked for the good in all things, to understand all things in relation to that good, so he could understand the love of God for all things as well as for God’s preservation and elevation of them in grace. And yet, as to be expected under the mantle of such universalism, there is a kind fatalism behind much of what MacDonald would write, turning upside-down the predestination of the Calvinism he was taught in his youth, from a grim, bitter division of the world into categories of the damned and the saved, to a world of one universal destiny. For this reason, as he wrote in Phantastes, he could say astrologers were closer to the truth than commonly believed. For everything is connected together, and guided by the hand of providence. “They who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men, are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law. All that man sees has to do with man. Worlds cannot be without an intermundane relationship. The community of the centre of all creation suggests and interradiating connection and dependence of the parts.”[7] MacDonald would return to the lessons of Phantastes, time and again, throughout the rest of his writing career. It served, as it were, as the foundation for his writing, and presented in outline, the kind of thought processes he would use and reuse for years to come, until he would provide what might be his fullest exposition of them in Lilith, where the famed seductress of legend ended up, after much struggle and sacrifice, among the redeemed.

If a fairy story is to end in “eucatastrophe,” (as Tolkien would later suggest), we must not think that such endings come easily upon those who are involved with the story. Nor does it mean that this joy would be felt by all in a given story, as many of MacDonald’s later tales would demonstrate. Although his heroes would experience the joy of the eschaton, for many others, the end of a tale would be the beginning of the story for its characters, and their journeys will not be recorded. Thus we find in “The Wise Woman, Or the Lost Princess: A Double Story,” the princess, Rosamond, originally a spoiled, wicked child at the beginning of the tale, is transformed by the harsh guidance of the “wise woman,” the one who had taken her away from her parents, into a respectable young woman, while at the same time, during her time away, her parents do not attain an equal level of wisdom. This left Rosamond with the task of guiding her parents following the way that the “wise woman” directed her. Because of their misdeeds, they were blinded by the magical wise woman. When Rosamond asked for their sight to be returned, she was told, “I will one day. Meanwhile you must be their servant, as I have been yours.”[8]One who has been guided into wisdom is expected to follow through with what they have been taught, and to impart it with others, while those who avoided it will be forced, kicking and screaming (as it were), to learn its ways: what happens in one’s life because of one’s foolishness can be a cruel educator indeed.

Some of the traditional conventions of the fairy story were followed by MacDonald, but many, if not most, were transformed, which made his tales evade the expectations of his readers. It was the way he was; he did not want to be trapped by social expectations. Indeed, he did not like many of the ideals of Victorian society, and he was able, in his writing, to counter them, often for comedic effect. This meant he experienced years of criticism, and rejection, of much of what he wrote. Even his friends would find his works to be scandalous: should children be shown concerned with the affairs of adult life, including love, romance, and sexual attraction? Ruskin would suggest that MacDonald went too far in “The Light Princess,” because of the underlying sexuality contained within it.  But love is far too great a magic for MacDonald to ignore, and it served, more than once, as a means of salvation. Love is able to beat the strongest of curses, so that, as in “The Light Princess,” the princess, cursed by her aunt to float in the air as if not under the law of gravity, is freed from that curse by the actions of her lover, a prince who was willing to sacrifice his life for her sake. Death, love, and salvation form one giant knot in many of MacDonald’s works, as can be seen in this riddle of “The Light Princess”:

Death alone from death can save.
Love is death, and so is brave
Love can fill the deepest grave.
Love loves on beneath the wave.[9]

Indeed, MacDonald had such an affinity for the power of love, that it became a common bond which united so many of his heroes together; story after story would contain one boy and one girl, bound together by love (and by fate?), so that only when together as one could they solve the crisis of their lives. “The History of Photogen Nycteris: A Day and Night Mährchen,” exemplifies this well, as two different children were raised by an inquisitive witch (Watho), one completely in the light of day and never to see the darkness (the boy, Photogen), the other completely in the darkness of night, and never to see more than an unnatural light as a means of sight (the girl, Nycteris). They were both treated as well as they could be held captive by Watho. But they were kept apart, without the knowledge of the other. But both escaped from their imprisonment, and met each other in their escape; each faced the kind of existence they had never known before (the night for Photogen, the day for Nycteris), and were frightened of it because they did not know what it was. But their counterpart, used to it, was able to assuage the other, to comfort them in their new situation. Never was there a perfect antithesis between a boy and a girl as these two, and yet the two by the end of the story find each other, and find they are better together than apart; their mutual love allowed them to escape from the clutches of the witch, but also, it brought them to new state of being, where they came to love the state of existence they had once feared, because they associated it with their beloved. “But hardly had one of them passed [years], before Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.”[10]

Perhaps there is no better story of the transforming power of death in the tales of MacDonald than “The Golden Key.” It is one of his most important works, filled with much beauty and yet much hardship. The union of death with love would find its fullest realization here. Death is purgative and not the end of life: it leads to greater life, not less. 

You have tasted death now,” said the Old Man. “Is it good?”
“It is good,” said Mossy. “It is better than life.”
“No,” said the Old Man: “it is only more life.”

Mossy had started out as a young boy with “the golden key” to a magical door which opened up to a place he did not know. He had to find the door which it fit, and find out where it led. On his journey, which went through fairyland, he met with – and fell in love with – a young girl, Tangle, who had also found herself in fairyland. They were meant to find the door together, to go through it together-and yet their journey, begun together, lived together for so long that they grew old together, became divided; only in the end do they find one another again, revitalized with the vigor of youth, a vigor which came upon them because of their contact with death. For the magic of death is of transformation to those who meet its call; thus, in the land of the fairy, it is “the ambition of the animals to be eaten by the people; for that is their highest end in that condition. But they are not therefore destroyed.”[12] Fish which were eaten became one of the fairy; indeed, they sought to be cooked and eaten because they knew of the fate of such an action. It is easy to see the influence of St Paul on MacDonald: “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42-43). It is because death brings new life, not annihilation, that MacDonald could praise it without being seen as a member of “the culture of death.”

He who believed all will be well in the end, nonetheless saw the process to that end to be one of hardship, trials and tribulation, all geared towards our personal education and preparation for glory. Story after story established this ideal, one which he was able to say in one of his many sermons this way: “Love is justice – is the fulfilling of the law, for God as well as for His children. This is the reason of punishment; this is why justice requires that the wicked shall not go unpunished – that they, through the eye-opening power of pain, may come to see and do justice, may be brought to desire and make all possible amends, and so become just.”[13]In his fairy stories this is preeminent; education through hardship for the sake of love is the norm; and the midwife who brings this about, so often a focus in his stories, is at first hated for the hardship she brings, but then, in the end, she is loved by her subjects, because of the joy her ways provided to them. It is in this way that MacDonald provided a way to explain the trials and tribulations we face in life as well, and in this way, created a theodicy: that which does not destroy us makes us stronger, better in the end.


[1]George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination,” pgs. 5 – 10 in George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 1999): 8.
[2] ibid.: 7.
[3] ibid.: 5-6.
[4] ibid.: 9.
[5] ibid.: 10.
[6] George MacDonald, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 206.
[7] ibid., 85.

[8]George MacDonald, “The Wise Woman, Or The Last Princess: A Double Story,” pgs.225 – 303 in George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 1999): 301.
[9]George MacDonald, “The Light Princess,” pgs. 15- 53 in George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 1999): 43.
[10]George MacDonald, “”The History of Photogen Nycteris: A Day and Night Mährchen,” pgs. 304 – 341in George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 1999): 340-341.
[11]George MacDonald, “The Golden Key,” pgs. 120 – 144 in George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin Books, 1999): 142.
[12] ibid.: 127.
[13]George MacDonald, “Justice,” pgs. 63 – 81 in Creation In Christ. ed. Rolland Hein (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1989):72.

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