Theologian of the Fantastic Imagination

Illustration from At the Back of the North Wind

The Gospel in George MacDonald
Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings
Edited by Marianne Wright. Plough. Pp. 358. $18

The Golden Key
A Victorian Fairy Tale
By George MacDonald. Illustrations by Ruth Sanderson. Eerdmans. Pp. 136. $16

Review by Arabella Milbank

George MacDonald “seemed an elemental figure, a man unconnected with any particular age, a character in one of his own fairy tales, a true mystic to whom the supernatural was natural,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1901.

Has MacDonald’s time come again? These two unveilings of the depth of his imaginative, visionary, and mystical capacities offer a key. MacDonald was the 19th-century magus of spiritual fantasy whose writings precede, form, and indeed radically instigate those of C.S. Lewis and Chesterton. His wider influence includes Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), W.H. Auden, H.G. Wells, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and J.R.R. Tolkien, among many others.

The initial encounters were for Chesterton and Lewis occasions of metanoic transformation. Lewis read MacDonald’s Phantastes on a station platform as an atheist teenager; it catalyzed the powerful sense of yearning that led eventually to his Christian conversion. Similarly, for Chesterton, The Princess and the Goblin was “a book that has made a difference to my old existence” (see the preface to Greville MacDonald, George MacDonald and His Wife [1924]).

MacDonald’s writings, which cover the second half of the 19th-century, range across a spectrum of realist novels, often set in Scotland, always with a mystical horizon, into adult fantasy (Phantastes, Lilith) and literary fairy tale, not purely directed at children (The Golden Key, The Light Princess, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind), and directly theological writings in sermon form (Unspoken Sermons).

He began life aspiring to preach conventionally but ended it having fulfilled an extraordinary calling as a theologian of the fantastic imagination in whose work the communication of his deep, mystical faith is inseparable from its narrative and mythic forms and characters. MacDonald’s visionary faith shows a radical openness in its emphasis on a primary yearning for something more real, something more true, and something more beautiful at the heart and at the end of things.

This could be described as a Christian Platonism, and it is certainly a statement of the human condition with resonance among those in all kinds of relationship to faith. MacDonald described this as the harmony any work has with itself. Precisely because such harmony is impossible without a relation to the ultimate truth, the beautiful is in relation to truth as MacDonald understood it, which will only finally be visible in the grand restoration of all things in the divine plan (see “The Fantastic Imagination,” MacDonald’s introduction to The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales).

MacDonald’s novels and stories, as Marianne Wright remarks in the introduction to her anthology, The Gospel in George MacDonald (and Lewis concurs) have invited anthologizing of his direct and indirect sagacity. There might be a danger, one the title slightly risks, of extracting the moral content of an oeuvre of literary narrative and fantasy so as to make MacDonald into a moralizing preacher, by taking only those moments that seem momentously sermonic or didactic outside of the rich weave of his literary imagining.

It is to Wright’s credit that this is not what comes through in this beautifully produced collection, a wonderful introduction and further encounter with MacDonald’s works. Arranged by themes of initiation and progress in the spiritual life (Seeking, Work, Love, and Marriage), cleverly framing its extracts within their narrative contexts, and allowing certain themes and narratives to recur across categories, it captures something of the narrative spirit of all MacDonald’s theology.

One would still want this to be an invitation to read MacDonald’s works holistically, so that they may have their fullest purchase. Throughout, the pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes’s illustrations to MacDonald’s works maintain the spirit of the creative imagination. The anthology succeeds in emphasizing how close to the surface is MacDonald’s voice in all his works and piquing desire to take it as a key to further unlocking the doors of his novels and stories (which are all available online, although many are more difficult to obtain otherwise).

The Golden Key is perhaps the story, “fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic,” that most perfectly illustrates the particularly open invitation MacDonald’s mystical imagination can extend. The trajectory of its child protagonists, Mossy and Tangle, will take them through youth and age and back again, and the tale, which begins like a fairy story, expands to the entire duration of their lives and indeed afterlives.This mirrors what the story has been to many: a philosophical fable with the power to entrance at all ages, forming a lifelong engagement with levels and echoes of meaning, never merely reducible to a single allegorical core; a tale of exertion and refreshment, of faithfulness and reward, of love and purpose, that moves metaphysical and emotional mountains.

Ruth Sanderson has produced a mesmerizing chiaroscuro rendition, much more than mere illustration. The scratchboard technique she uses yields details seemingly etched from filaments of pure light, and gives a glimmeringly magical texture to the realism of her images — evoking further worlds and narratives beyond Maurice Sendak’s 1967 version. I unreservedly recommend these books, both to those who know MacDonald well and those who have never encountered him before. May they, too, unlock further only guessed-at doors.

Arabella Milbank has just completed her doctorate on fear in medieval literature at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and is training for the priesthood at Westcott House.


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