George MacDonald (1823-1905)

LéONIE CALDECOTT

C.S. Lewis regarded the Scottish Congregational minister, George MacDonald, as his “master”, and especially a master of the mythopoeic art, of the kind of writing that “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.” MacDonald, says Lewis, converted, even baptized, his Romantic imagination, and prepared him for conversion to Christianity.

A Scottish Congregational minister, MacDonald was also a poet, a teacher, an editor, a lay theologian, and a writer of extraordinarily beautiful children's stories. Though he was the first to admit that MacDonald was not always a perfect stylist, and his writing often marred by imperfections, C.S. Lewis regarded him as his "master", and especially a master of the mythopoeic art, of the kind of writing that "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." MacDonald, says Lewis (I am quoting from his Introduction to Lilith), converted, even baptized, his Romantic imagination, and prepared him for conversion to Christianity. "An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central."

Brought up a Calvinist, later influenced by the German Romantics, often treated with suspicion by his fellow-religionists who suspected him of heresy, MacDonald's imagination transcended the narrow limits of Calvinist dogma and opened on a warm and sunny land — the land Chesterton was later to describe as "common sense". Chesterton is, indeed, one of those many writers from Lewis Carroll to W.H. Auden who counted themselves among his disciples.

MacDonald is here commenting upon Galatians 4:1-7:

None but a child could become a son; the idea is a spiritual coming of age; only when the child is a man is he really and fully a son. The thing holds in the earthly relation. How many children of good parents — good children in the main too — never know those parents, never feel towards them as children might, until, grown up, they have left the house — until, perhaps, they are parents themselves, or are parted from them by death! To be a child is not necessarily to be a son or daughter. The childship is the lower condition of the upward process towards the sonship, the soil out of which the true sonship shall grow, the former without which the latter were impossible. God can no more than an earthly parent be content to have only children: he must have sons and daughters — children of his soul, of his spirit, of his love — not merely in the sense that he loves them, or even that they love him, but in the sense that they love like he loves. For this he does not adopt them; he dies to give them himself, thereby to his own to his heart; he gives them a birth from above; they are born again out of himself and into himself — for he is the one and the all. His children are not his real, true sons and daughters until they think like him, feel with him, judge as he judges, are at home with him, and without fear before him because he and they mean the same thing, love the same things, seek the same ends. For this we are created; it is the one end of our being, and includes all other ends whatever.

MacDonald continues after a while as follows:

There may be among my readers — alas for such! to whom the word Father brings no cheer, no dawn, in whose heart it rouses no tremble of even a vanished emotion. It is hardly likely to be their fault.... Therefore I say to son or daughter who has no pleasure in the name Father, "You must interpret the word by all that you have missed in life. Every time a man might have been to you a refuge from the wind, a covert from the tempest, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, was a time when a father might have been a father indeed. Happy you are yet, if you have found man or woman such a refuge; so far you have known a shadow of the perfect, the only man, the perfect Son of the perfect Father. All that human tenderness can give or desire in the nearness and readiness of love, all and infinitely more must be true of the perfect Father — of the maker of fatherhood, the Father of all the fathers of the earth, specially the Father of those who have specially shown a father-heart.

From Gary and Catherine Deddo, George MacDonald: A Devotional Guide to His Writings (St Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1996, pp. 65-6)

CURDIE AND THE GREAT GREAT GRANDMOTHER

One of the most fascinating strands in MacDonald's two books The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie is the figure of the old princess, Irene's great, great grandmother. She appears in the first book when the child loses her way and ascends a neglected staircase, to find the old woman spinning at the top of a tower. It is an exact inversion of the spinning woman in Sleeping Beauty or Briar Rose: here the lady is not a witch about to put the princess to sleep (and to death if she could), but a figure of infinite goodness and wisdom, who will wake up the princess, and later the valiant miner boy Curdie, to their true destiny. For what the old woman is spinning is the thread which leads the one to the other, and to a confrontation with the powers of darkness and bestiality (in the first book the goblins, in the second the political forces which have ensnared the king and are preparing to usurp his place).

The most telling thing about the old princess is her magisterial power. She is truly a figure of Mother Church, as she draws her descendants and heirs to an ever awareness of truth, goodness and beauty. In The Princess and Curdie, the miner boy is left alone after Irene has departed from their mountain home to the city with her King Papa. He has hit a difficult moment in his life, the sort of moment that nowadays would be associated with the adolescent crisis. In spite of the miraculous events of the previous book, in which his courage and honour have played a major part, he has begun to incline in another direction. His parents — good and loving to their core — have noticed it and are wondering what to do. Then the old princess, still hidden in the house of the King, intervenes. Curdie shoots one of her white pigeons, and picking up the wounded bird, is struck with remorse. He is face to face with the bloodying of innocence, the dread tendency to wanton, unthinking action. He runs with the pigeon into the house, up the stairs to the tower which Irene used to visit, and where she had tried to introduce him once to her miraculous ancestress. It had been to no avail: Curdie had not been ready for the encounter, and had not been able to see the old lady. Indeed he had blamed Irene for playing tricks on him. Now, however, he is ready. Or rather, she is ready to receive, and instruct him.

"What have you got there?" she asked.

Again Curdie advanced a few steps, and held out his hand with the pigeon, that she might see what it was, in the moonlight. The moment the rays fell upon it, the pigeon gave a faint flutter. The old lady put out her old hands and took it, and held it to her bosom, and rocked it, murmuring over it as if it were a sick baby.

When Curdie saw how distressed she was he grew sorrier still, and said: "I didn't mean to do any harm, ma'am. I didn't think of its being yours."

"Ah, Curdie! if it weren't mine, what become of it now?" she returned. "You say you didn't mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?"

"No," answered Curdie.

"Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don't know about."

Later on, the old lady, who is also capable of appearing young and extremely beautiful, initiates Curdie into the task which is to be his: asking him to plunge his hands into a glowing fire composed of incandescent roses, red and white, she gives him the gift of discernment of souls. He acquires the ability to feel, by taking the hand of another person, whether that person is fully human, or whether they are degenerating into some sort of beast. Whatever the strictly theological implications of this notion, it is in keeping with the central theme of the books: the need to feel one's way with clarity, whether by following the Ariadne-like thread through the labyrinth of life, or by knowing clearly what one is dealing with in the others one meets, in order to do good in the world. The purifying fire of roses is also an important theme: at the end of The Princess and Curdie, the old king, who has been almost poisoned to death by his disloyal subjects, is brought back to life and health in that same fire.

A long and broad marble table, that stood at one end of the room, had been drawn into the middle of it, and thereon burned a great fire, of a sort that Curdie knew — a fire of glowing, flaming roses, red and white. In the midst of the roses lay the king, moaning, but motionless. Every rose that fell from the table to the floor, someone, whom Curdie could not plainly see for the brightness, lifted and laid burning upon the king's face, until at length his face too was covered with the live roses, and he lay all within the fire, moaning still, with now and then a shuddering sob. And the shape that Curdie saw and could not see wept over the king as he lay in the fire, and often she hid her face in handfuls ofher shadowy hair, and from her hair the water of her weeping dropped like sunset rain in the light of the roses. At last she lifted a great armful of her hair, and shook it over the fire, and the drops fell from it in showers, and they did not hiss in the flames, but there arose instead as it were the sound of running brooks. And the glow of the red fire died away, and the glow of the white fire grew grey, and the light was gone, and on the table all was black — except for the face of the king, which shone from under the burnt roses like a diamond in the ashes of the furnace.

It is no coincidence that it is Irene's father, whom she calls her King Papa, who is under such threat in this story. From the attack on the father of the nation, McDonald shows the effects on the people; they degenerate into all manner of cruelty and greed, become self-serving and cynical, as their head declines. Only a faithful remnant remain: the young princess in all her purity of soul, the indomitable miner-boy purified for his task of service to the king, a good and faithful mother and her small daughter, a servant girl and the captain of the horse with a young page; and fifty hideously ugly beasts, souls doing a strange kind of purgatory in order to redeem their own previous misdeeds. But above all this is the old princess; the magisterial mater ecclesia, releasing a host of white pigeons against the face of the enemy, disguising herself now as an old crone, now as a humble servant, and then, in the last scene, revealed in all her royal glory.

The housemaid poured out the wine; and as she poured out for Curdie red wine that foamed in the cup, as if glad to see the light whence it had been banished so long, she looked him in the eyes. And Curdie started, and sprang from his seat, and dropped on his knee, and burst into tears. And the maid said with a smile: 'Did I not tell you, Curdie, that it might be you would not know me when next you saw me?'

Then she went from the room, and in a moment returned in royal purple, with a crown of diamonds and rubies, from under which her hair went flowing to the floor, all about her ruby-slippered feet. Her face was radiant with joy, the joy overshadowed by a faint mist, as of unfulfillment. The king rose and kneeled on one knee before her. All kneeled in like homage. Then the king would have yielded her his royal chair. But she made them all sit down, and with her own hands placed at the table seats of Derba and the page. Then in ruby crown and royal purple she served them all.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Léonie Caldecott "George MacDonald (1823-1905)." Second Spring.

Reprinted with permission of Second Spring, the magazine of the Oxford Centre for Faith and Culture. Plater College, Pullens Lane, Oxford, OX3 0DT, Tel: +44 (0)1865-74 05 00, Fax: +44 (0)1865-74 05 10.

These pieces appeared in the 'Second Spring' section of Catholic World Report, August-September 1999.

THE AUTHOR

Leonie Caldecott is a writer and journalist. Co-director of Oxford's Centre for Faith & Culture and co-editor of its journal Second Spring, she is a columnist for The Catholic Herald, and a frequent contributor to other journals and newspapers. She is married with three children, and lives in Oxford.

Copyright © 2001 Second Spring


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