This is a series of posts about the imagination, adapted from my lecture at Hutchmoot 2010 about George MacDonald. The last post was about his approach to the doctrine of common grace, the idea that everyone is an image bearer and therefore reveals to us something of the God the Father. That leads us to learn to keep our eyes open for the thousand moments of truth unfolding around us every day.
I love to draw.
This summer Ben and I were at a train station in Sweden for an hour. The June sun only sets there for a few hours a day, and even then it’s never completely dark, which means the Magic Hour, the sweet golden time when the angle of sunlight gilds everything here for thirty minutes or so, in Sweden lasts for hours and hours. The sunrise is the same. Hours of daybreak. It’s beautiful. So we were stuck at the train stop for a while, and the architecture of the station caught my eye. It was an old building—at least a hundred years old—and I thought to take a picture of it. Then I remembered my sketchpad. I drew the building’s face. I drew the rainspouts, the eaves, the stone flourishes, the window framing, the brick cornices. I saw the building. I studied it. It was only thirty minutes. But now, when I happen upon that very amateur sketch in the notebook, I remember that old building on the other side of the planet and its blushing bricks in the slow dawn; I remember the archways that led to the town park and the pigeons and the cool of the air. (I love Sweden, if you can’t tell.)
I mention that as an example of a time I’m glad I remembered how to be a child, and how to take the time to see. Most of the time I just snap a picture with my phone. But once in a while I manage to take a deep breath and make a choice to live life as if everything is a miracle. I remember what it was like to be a kid who loved to draw. Now, imagine learning to approach the Gospel that way. Imagine looking at your children that way. Imagine how rich every moment would be if we could keep that sleepy inner child awake. But as Rich Mullins sang, “We are children no more, we have sinned and grown old.” The way of Jesus is one of learning to grow young. The kingdom is made of such as these little ones.
All that to say, George MacDonald, however wrong he may have been about some things, was astonishingly wise about others. He had something to teach us, he was able to reveal the secret things of the Father, which only George MacDonald could reveal, just as you have things for me that only you can teach.
And here’s one of the big things I love about MacDonald: his sense of child-like, excessive, exuberant imagination. He was good at being a kid. He was a kid with a bushy beard and a Scottish brogue. And like a kid he told stories that sometimes didn’t make a lick of sense. His imagination was untethered by modern storytelling convention, and that, I confess, is what I like least about his stories. They’re hard to read. As I said, they meander. The wild, Alice in Wonderland oddness makes me uncomfortable (as does Roald Dahl’s stuff), and it’s no surprise George was friends with Lewis Carroll. (He was also an acquaintance of Dickens and a friend to Mark Twain.) In Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes, the author seems hardly able to write fast enough to keep up with his inner vision. There are goblins, little men who live inside the moon, fairies, ogres, ghosts, singing trees; little old ladies who know more than they should and whose hair flows around them like water are sometimes visions of holy kindness and others long-toothed monsters in disguise.
In North Wind, a little boy named Diamond is swept nightly across the skies, nestled safely in the swirling hair of a beautiful pale woman, the personification of the north wind, and the boy’s encounter with her makes him “touched”, makes him odd and wise beyond his years—a trait that makes him seem simple to others. I never quite knew what the story was about until the last chapter, and I have a feeling MacDonald didn’t either. But somehow, to my great surprise, I closed the book with tears in my eyes. He pulled it off.
The Princess and the Goblin was more of a straightforward story, but it still seemed, uncomfortably at times, like MacDonald was flying by the seat of his pants. But there’s a gentle tone, and a reverence for true beauty that I’ve never read anywhere else, except maybe in Tolkien’s treatment of Galadriel or in Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. The stories are suitcases so stuffed with wisdom and wonderings and frights and delights that I picture George bouncing on top of them to zipper it shut while monstrous fingers and bits of luminous lace poke out. And yet. He gave me a way to think about faith and obedience that still helps me.
As strange as the other fairy tales are, Lilith and Phantastes, two of his best-known works, are even stranger. Here’s the best way I know to describe these books: imagine a Scottish preacher with a bushy beard setting up a desk in the middle of an old English forest, taking out his quill and paper, saying a quick prayer, then beginning to write his story—but not before dropping acid, just for good measure. McCartney and Lennon would have loved MacDonald. His main character in Phantastes, a 21-year-old named Anodos, bumbles his way into Fairy Land, and for some reason I could never quite figure, wandered about from weird house to weird house to creepy forest, meets other inhabitants of the woods who seem not at all surprised to be there, sings to a marble encased woman, encounters a rusty-armored knight, wanders about for a few days in a castle of invisible servants, eats well, and kills a giant. It was baffling. No one would ever, ever publish one of these books today. George would have been a fine pastor who self-published his books until his congregation got a hold of them and then they would’ve fired him and called the authorities. I’m joking, but only sort of.
And yet. And yet there was something fascinating about the whole journey. Every book I’ve read of his has been the same. Every time I encounter again and again a stab of bright truth that makes the journey worthwhile.
Here are a few examples:
On joy and sorrow: “As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love.”
On love: “I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another, yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being beloved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness.”
On good work: “Somehow or other,” said he, “notwithstanding the beauty of this country of Faerie, in which we are, there is much that is wrong in it. If there are great splendours, there are corresponding horrors; heights and depths; beautiful woman and awful fiends; noble men and weaklings. All a man has to do, is to better what he can. And if he will settle it with himself, that even renown and success are in themselves of no great value, and be content to be defeated, if so be that the fault is not his; and so go to his work with a cool brain and a storng will, he will get it done; and fare none the worse in the end, that he was not burdened with provision and precaution.”
“But he will not always come off well,” I ventured to say.
“Perhaps not,” rejoined the knight, “in the individual act, but the result of his lifetime will content him.”
MacDonald wasn’t crazy. He was able, somehow, to keep his inner eye wide open; he was able to peer into the dazzling invisible world and tell us what he’d seen. He was caught up in the rapturous love of a God he knew as Father, and more than any author or artist I’ve ever read, succeeded in Madeline L’Engle’s principle of serving the work.
Next, Part Three: The Inner Spirit