Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She likes reading, writing, fairy stories, and chocolate covered caramel corn.
I’m ashamed to say that I never encountered George MacDonald until graduate school. Yet it was there, waist-deep in biographical research on C. S. Lewis, that I not only brushed up against him but also kept on bumping into him. Lewis had a high regard for this forefather of modern fantasy and, what’s more, he credited one of MacDonald’s books, Phantastes, as a major factor in his eventual religious conversion. In Lewis’s 1946 preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, he wrote:
It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. . . . The whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”—I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting.
Bits and pieces of this tantalizing quote kept popping up again and again as I worked my way through a stack of secondary sources on Lewis. Before long, I began to conclude that I really owed it to myself and my research to dip into George MacDonald’s “holy fantasy” and see what all the fuss was about. (I don’t need much prodding to break away from scholarly research and read fairy tales.)
Over the next couple of years, I nibbled my way delightedly through the Princess and Curdie books, “The Light Princess,” and many of MacDonald’s other stories as if they were chocolate covered caramel corn.
Still, I never managed to get my hands on Phantastes.
Then, after a break of several years, I joined Eerdmans. When I first started working here, I was already well aware that we shared a lot of the same taste in books. Like Eerdmans, I enjoy intellectually rigorous biblical studies, “honest, wise, and hopeful” children’s books, and, of course, all things Inklings. I did not expect, however, that this same kindred-spiritedness would extend to the works of George MacDonald. Still, there they were, smiling sweetly at me from the Eerdmans backlist: The Light Princess and Other Stories, The Gray Wolf and Other Stories, The Golden Key and Other Stories, The Wise Woman and Other Stories, Lilith — and, yes, Phantastes.
It was time, I decided. Time — finally — to read the full text of Lewis’s personal tribute to MacDonald (conveniently reprinted as an introduction to the Eerdmans edition). Time to follow imaginatively in Lewis’s footsteps through what was for him a life-changing novel.
Phantastes isn’t quite a literary masterpiece. Even Lewis admits that: “If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank — perhaps not even in its second. . . . The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.”
The storyline of Phantastes almost defies summary. In it, a young man on the verge of adulthood (we eventually find out he is called Anodos) is spirited away to fairyland. He wanders aimlessly (yet with an unexplained sense of purpose) through it — ever eastward — encountering an array of fairytale characters: flower fairies and tree spirits, an enchanted white lady, a knight errant, peasants, children, goblins, an ogress, a wise old woman, his own evil shadow. Numerous adventures, escapades, and moral dilemmas ensue, until, at the end, he wakes up on a hillside next to his home.
We never really find out why (or by whom) Anodos is sent to fairyland, what (exactly) he is supposed to get out of the experience, or why he is eventually brought back to ordinary life. In fact, readers who are sticklers for things like plot, theme, and character development may find the book a little frustrating, since it defies many of the conventions we’ve come to take for granted in a novel.
Even so, this is a lovely book, gorgeous in its imaginativeness. MacDonald’s Fairyland may not hold together in the same way that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and even Lewis’s own Narnia do. Yet traveling through it is a strangely liberating experience, inspiring one to defy all normal constraints on creativity and — like Anodos in his wanderings — let the whims of fantasy blow the mind where they will. MacDonald’s “faerie realm” — with its stunning vistas, dark forests, dewy meadows, winding rivers, and stormy seas — is strikingly beautiful, and, what’s more, it is good. Or, more accurately, perhaps, it is good and evil.
I’ll explain. MacDonald’s books are not “religious” fiction in the sense that we think of it today. There is no mention here of God, Jesus, paradise, or hell. The characters do not pray or go to church. Readers generally don’t spend much time dwelling on “right” and “wrong.”
Yet MacDonald is nonetheless a profoundly moral writer. Lewis calls what he does “myth-making”: “It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”
There are some subtle religious motifs — I found hints of baptism, penance, absolution, mother church, the Lord’s Supper, and others — peeping through here and there throughout Phantastes. Yet more remarkable, more powerful than these is the certainty with which MacDonald depicts the essential goodness or badness of a thing, from which right or wrong action inevitably proceeds.
This is virtuous writing. It is holy writing. It was refreshing for Lewis, who reflected, “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. . . . What I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness.”
It’s refreshing for me, too, fatigued as I am by the unrelenting ambiguity of postmodern relativism in which everything’s good, and nothing is.
Fifteen years after Lewis’s discovery of Phantastes and the “baptism” of his then-atheist imagination, “the process was complete” (by which, of course, I mean, “it had really begun”). Beginning in 1929 C. S. Lewis became first a theist, then a Christian, then one of Christianity’s most able apologists, and finally, like George MacDonald, one of the world’s most potent writers of holy fantasy.
Even years after his conversion, Lewis continued to express his love and gratitude for the works of George MacDonald. In The Great Divorce, he imagined in fiction his own encounter with George MacDonald in heaven. It reminds me a little of how I imagine myself (and how many of you imagine yourselves, I shouldn’t wonder) first greeting Lewis himself in the glorious hereafter:
I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the new life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness.
Over the next months and years, I will recall fondly my travels through George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It has been a very pleasant and edifying journey.
Even if I thought the book was complete rubbish, though, I would always be grateful for Phantastes, not because it changed my life (it didn’t), but because it forever altered the life of a man who has forever changed mine.
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