Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Finally Get George Macdonald

In the late ‘70s, when I had just discovered C.S. Lewis, I learned from him of George Macdonald’s work. Lewis had edited George Macdonald: An Anthology, which I bought, and found interesting, but it was not an anthology in the usual sense. It contained no complete works or even substantial excerpts, but rather short quotations ranging from one sentence to a paragraph. I liked what I read, but got no sense of the books from which the excerpts were taken.

A bit later I read two of Macdonald’s novels, Lilith and Phantastes, and was disappointed in them. I didn’t dislike them, but they made no very strong impression on me, and my exploration of Macdonald’s work stopped there, thought I always thought I would give him another try someday.

Well, Janet Cupo has been recommending Macdonald’s “The Golden Key” to me, and I finally read it this weekend. I loved it, and immediately read the next story in the same volume “The History of Photogen and Nycteris,” the story of a boy who knows only day and a girl who knows only night, which I liked even better.

And now I understand. These stories are pure gold. They’re fairy tales of a sort, but fairy tales of an extraordinary richness and clarity and what Lewis called, if I remember correctly, a morning freshness. They are deeply good, and very unusual in literature in that they are able to make good seem intensely desirable. They do not make an argument for good over evil, but simply show them to you clearly. This is a much rarer thing in literature than it might seem; in this respect Macdonald resembles Tolkien. Also, like Tolkien’s work, these stories communicate a piercing and almost unbearable hope that most people hardly dare to entertain, but which Christians ought to believe is not just a hope but a promise. I say “ought to” because I think many of us find it difficult to hold on to. I know I do. And I know I’ll read these two stories many more times. When you get to the end of them you feel as if you’ve glimpsed, from a great distance, but unmistakably, heaven: the world and the life for which our hearts were made, but which most of the time seems impossible to attain—because it is impossible to attain by our own power alone. Macdonald seems like a person who has actually seen it, if not been there, and tells us stories to keep up our faith and courage on the journey.

You can read The Golden Key online here at the web site of the George Macdonald Society. “Photogen and Nycteris” is here, but it’s longer and perhaps not as suitable for online reading. The book which contains the two stories I mentioned, and some others which I will soon read, is published by Eerdmans.