I have impulsively acquired unabridged copies of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. I would have acquired many more MacDonald books from the Christian camp’s bookstore, and even some more Lawheads, but my wallet wouldn’t acquiesce.
Some people go into the woods and bring back beautiful rocks, or feathers, or branches, or mud stains. I bring back books.
Also, I may have a late “Halloween” post or two, consisting of reviews of two Rudyard Kipling short stories that are of the spooky variety.
An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.
Lilith is equal if not superior to the best of Poe.
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. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling…But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man…Myth does not essentially exist in words at all.
~C.S. Lewis, 1946
Title:Lilith Author: George MacDonald Pages: 252 Published: 1895 (making this a piece of Victorian literature) Spoiler-free Synopsis: In his large and mostly empty home, young gentleman Mr. Vane is led by a strange old librarian, Mr. Raven, to a mirror that transports him to an otherworld, where he is confronted with the truth of his own soul and with the very mystery of evil itself. Reason for Beginning: After reading MacDonald’s own Phantastes, I determined to read any work of his that I could get my hands on. Lilith was the next I could get my hands on. Reason for Finishing: An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams. Story Re-readability: It may not be the easiest reread, due to MacDonald’s peculiar style, but it probably should be in order to better understand its underlying meanings. As Lewis says in the quote above, there is a wisdom in MacDonald that comes out in his writings, and I don’t think we’re likely to fully understand his wisdom after only one reading of it. Fortunately, each chapter is fairly short and usually comprises a single major incident, such that you can easily track your progress through the book. Author Re-readability: This is my second MacDonald novel, and I loved it and will seek out his other books as well. The value in rereading him comes not so much from his writing style (though there are times when he manages a wonderful turn of phrase), but in the deep content of his books and the values that infuse them. He can preach boldly without being preachy because his sermons are woven into the fabric of his stories. Take the sermon out of the story, and you lose the story. Recommendation: I would be pleased if everyone read this book, as it is so unique and has so much of real value, both aesthetically and spiritually, to offer. Yet I think that many people may have difficulty getting beyond the book’s strangeness, as sublime as I find it. Knowledge of Christianity is extremely helpful in understanding this book, as MacDonald references theology quite often without explaining his references very well; nonetheless, such knowledge is not necessary. In fact, MacDonald himself would probably have preferred readers to merely read and soak in his story without trying to understand every little bit as they go. When reading Lilith, focus on the emotions of the characters and of the scenes, and then use the theology to guide your understanding of those emotions.
Obtainability: I recommend reading a physical copy of Lilith so that you can underline passages and make notes in the margins. However, it is also available online, in the public domain, here.
You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
~Lilith, pg. 30
If I could meet with just one dead author, it would be to sit down with George MacDonald and have him explain, page-by-page, what he meant in Lilith and Phantastes. These two novels have some of the most surreal and difficult plots I have encountered. It’s not that they are bizarre or meaningless in any postmodern way—through them runs a deep and sure current of absolute Truth that always leads to the Christian gospel. As C.S. Lewis noted, MacDonald has a tendency to preach his point even in his stories, only we do not mind as much as we might because he is a superb preacher. With this I agree. It is not MacDonald’s values or his message which seem obscure, but the details of every strange event which, while providing opportunity for commentary of a philosophical or theological nature, are nonetheless quite, well, strange.
The plot is closer to a dream narrative, and the question of why certain events happen is better answered by examining them from an allegorical or symbolic perspective rather than applying mundane logic. I think MacDonald’s powerful images are meant to awake in us recognition and acceptance of spiritual truths. Many of these are not very clear when we first encounter them in the book, but become clearer by the end. Take this excerpt near the beginning:
Then I saw, slowly walking over the light soil, the form of a woman. A white mist floated about her, now assuming, now losing to reassume the shape of a garment, as it gathered to her or was blown from her by a wind that dogged her steps.
She was beautiful, but with such a pride at once and misery on her countenance that I could hardly believe what yet I saw. Up and down she walked, vainly endeavoring to lay hold of the mist and wrap it around her. The eyes in the beautiful face were dead, and on her left side was a dark spot, against which she would now and then press her hand, as if to stifle pain or sickness. Her hair hung nearly to her feet, and sometimes the wind would so mix it with the mist that I could not distinguish the one from the other; but when it fell gathering together again, it shone a pale gold in the moonlight.
Suddenly, pressing both hands on her heart, she fell to the ground, and the mist rose from her and melted in the air. I ran to her. But she began to writhe in such torture that I stood aghast. A moment more and her legs, hurrying from her body, sped away serpents. From her shoulders fled her arms as in terror, serpents also. Then something flew up from her like a bat, and when I looked again, she was gone. The ground rose like the sea in a storm; terror laid hold upon me; I turned to the hills and ran. (50)
Is the ground rising literal or metaphorical? It could be either, I don’t know. Nor do I know what purpose it serves for the incident or the story at large. Our protagonist knows as little as we do at this point. And yet even now, having finished the book and knowing who the woman is and why she grasps her side in pain, and even knowing the source of her arrogance and misery…I still don’t know why she appeared at this early instance, why she fell to the ground now and not other times, and why her limbs sped away as serpents (when next we see her, her limbs are attached the way they are supposed to be). I can say, to some degree, what MacDonald means, but I have no idea why he chose to say it in this way!
When confronted with Mr. Raven, a person who seems to shift physically between an old man and a literal raven at the casual blink of an eye, and who speaks in seeming riddles and appears to inhabit an otherworld even as he stands in Mr. Vane’s library, Mr. Vane accepts the situation rather quickly and engages in philosophical argument. Not that he fails to question the weirdness of the situation; he does, but doesn’t dwell on it long. What I’m trying to say is that his reactions are not always what the reader’s would be or what the reader would expect. This isn’t a bad thing, really: it makes Mr. Vane a much more interesting protagonist. He engages philosophically with the dreamworld around him, trying to understand it and his place in it. Still, it is often hard to understand why he reacts in a certain way at a certain time, or why a particular thing happens.
Yet MacDonald is aware of the strangeness, and sometimes comments on it. There is an instance where Vane becomes enslaved to a group of evil, brutish people who are so stupid that he could easily either escape or even overcome them by his wits. Yet he continues in his slavery and only tries to escape in the most inconvenient and unnecessarily difficult ways. Much later, when he is wiser, he reflects on that incident with incredulity at his own foolishness.
The chapters are short, and each one contains a very curious scene, most of which are so strange and powerful in their imagery that they will stay with you for some time: there is the house of Mr. Raven and his wife, with an endless dark room lined with couches on which people lie who wait for the resurrection of the dead—they have willingly died to themselves in order that they might live a new life; the Evil Wood, in which skeletal armies massacre each other every night, but fade before the sun rises; the bountiful forest of the Little Lovers, children of innocence and beauty who spend their days alternately frolicking and hiding from the stupid adult brutes that live nearby; the hall of leaves and branches in which skeletons dance and curtsy like aristocrats; the massive dry riverbed that is plagued by monsters only at night; the House of Bitterness, whose kind but enigmatic mistress speaks to white leopards and always wears a veil over her face; a male and a female skeleton of recently-deceased aristocracy arguing comically about their broken carriage and the difficulty of walking without muscles on one’s knees; the great city of Bulika with its silent, fearful populace, its leopards and creepy Thin Man stalking the streets; and the final scenes, so magnificent and rapturous, of…ah, but that would be revealing too much!
I have listed these images in an attempt to prove a measure of what Lewis is saying in his quote above: that the power of MacDonald’s stories lie not in the words he uses, but in the events themselves. I could retell the entirety of Lilith in my own words, and as long as I am true to the content of the story, it would retain many of the same haunting qualities it has coming direct from him. This is the power of myth and fairy story, which belongs also to Fouqué’s Undine and which Tolkien discussed in “On Fairy Stories.” (I remember now that MacDonald himself called Undine the most beautiful of all fairy tales he knew.)
As to the title, the book does involve the old Jewish myth of Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife, who rebelled in arrogance and greed from God’s established plan and was cast out of the Garden to be replaced by Eve. The story is not in the Bible and is not true, but MacDonald uses it in his fantasy to convey his message of the sheer power of God’s grace. This book is all about salvation, and the necessity of letting go of sin, dying to one’s own self, and accepting the will of God to cleanse us and make us more like Him.
What I love about MacDonald is how powerful holiness is in his stories. Evil is shown truthfully to be weak, decrepit, a desperate sham, a pitiful and vindictive rebellion against God that only hurts the rebel, while only in holiness can people truly find themselves. We are made for Heaven; our struggle through this life is the result of our own sinful rebellion. Sin is part of human nature, but it was never meant to be; it is like a disease which attaches itself to the body, but was not originally part of it. And we cannot cure ourselves—the sick can never cure themselves! We must submit to the One who can cure us. This is always MacDonald’s message, I think: by submitting to Christ, we are cleansed of the evil that was not meant to be part of us, and we become truly ourselves.
There is another theological point, however, which MacDonald does not get right. Perhaps you have heard that he was a universalist? That is, that he did not believe that Hell is eternal, but that every created person, including the demons and Satan himself, will eventually be redeemed and join again with God. Well, it is true: this belief is expressed fairly clearly in Lilith. The Shadow, representative of Satan, is prophesied to eventually lay down his arms and submit to God, “the last to wake in the morning of the universe” (218). I have not read any of MacDonald’s sermons or essays on this subject, and so can only guess at his reasoning. My guess is that he thought that God’s grace and love are so all-consuming that it would be inconceivable for any evil to be able to resist it for ever, even Satan’s. It is a noble error, resting as it does on the sovereignty of Christ’s love and sacrifice, but an error nonetheless. MacDonald made the mistake of relying on his own reason and feelings in trying to understand the concept of Hell, and in doing so ignored the explicit nature of Scripture.
Firstly, if those who consistently and consciously reject the grace of Christ’s sacrifice unto their death do not have to pay an eternal price, but will be saved anyway, then the gospel is robbed of its meaning. Why should any person repent now, if they can sin as they please in this life and be cleansed—easily, without having to submit to anything themselves, they think—in the next? Secondly, the Scriptures clearly state that eternal punishment exists: Matthew chapters 7, 10, and 25:31-46, among others.
Does this serious error invalidate the spiritual value of MacDonald’s message and story? I think not. Christians must be aware of biblical theology and of where MacDonald trusted his own reasoning over God’s Word, but that does not mean he is no Christian, nor that his book cannot be termed a Christian book. His portrayal of the victory of God’s love over the most dedicated sinners is beautiful and moving. Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.
And yet, for all that, the unique power of MacDonald’s story is very hard to communicate; you simply must read it for yourself.
None but God hates evil and understands it.”
~Lilith, page 206
I submit this thesis for your reflection: The greatest possible event, in any kind of story, real or invented, is the redemption of some undeserving person through pure love and grace. Often it is at the story’s end, as with the Prodigal Son, but it need not be. In Les Misérables, it happens at the beginning. But in this particular story, in George MacDonald’s Lilith, it does indeed occur near the end. I have not yet finished the last few chapters, but when I came across this passage it was so beautiful that I had to share it.
The scene is the House of Bitterness, in which Lilith, rebel wife of Adam, who has declared herself Queen of Hell and imagines herself free in her evil, but is really a slave of the satanic Shadow, has been forcibly confronted with the depravity of her soul and her slavery to sin. Broken, scornful, and then broken again many times over, she tries to remain unrepentant even as anguish takes her soul. “I will not be remade!” she cries, “I will be myself and not another!” “Alas,” comes the wise reply, “you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?” Lilith cries back, “I will do as my Self pleases—as my Self desires.” But she knows her words are false. She loathes herself, but fears the surrender necessary for change. For truly, she is so steeped in evil that it has slain her, even as she appears to live. She walks in death; she must die to death if she hopes to live again! The idea is fearful and incredible; how can it happen? “He will forgive you,” Lilith is told. It is too much for her, too much. She acknowledges she is a slave. She admits she is powerless even to change herself, even to cease her own existence. She cries that she is hopeless, that she should die, if she could, and she collapses.
And then comes what may be the finest passage by George MacDonald I have yet read.
Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.
Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside. Softly they stole in at the opened door, with a gentle wind in the skirts of their garments. It flowed and flowed about Lilith, rippling the unknown, upwaking sea of her life eternal; rippling and to ripple it, until at length she who had been but as a weed cast on the dry sandy shore to wither, should know herself an inlet of the everlasting ocean, henceforth to flow into her for ever, and ebb no more. She answered the morning wind with reviving breath, and began to listen. For in the skirts of the wind had come the rain—the soft rain that heals the mown, the many-wounded grass—soothing it with the sweetness of all music, the hush that lives between music and silence. It bedewed the desert places around the cottage, and the sands of Lilith’s heart heard it, and drank it in. When Mara returned to sit by her bed, her tears were flowing softer than the rain, and soon she was fast asleep.
What a hell of horror, I thought, to wander alone, a bare existence never going out of itself, never widening its life in another life, but, bound with the cords of its poor peculiarities, lying an eternal prisoner in the dungeon of its own being!…I sighed—and regarded with wonder my past self, which preferred the company of a book or pen to that of man or woman; which, if the author of a tale I was enjoying appeared, would wish him away that I might return to his story. I had chosen the dead rather than the living, the thing thought rather than the thing thinking! ‘Any man,’ I said now, ‘is more than the greatest of books!’
[N.B. Though I do discuss the themes of the book in a detailed manner, I have included no real plot spoilers.]
The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” pg. 8 )
Recently I reviewed the novel Myst: The book of Atrus, in which an arrogant man named Gehn eagerly instructs his son, Atrus, in the nearly-lost magical Art of D’ni Writing belonging to their now-ruined civilization. This Art, and much of the novel’s themes, works as a fairly literal metaphor for J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of sub-creation, which is elaborated in the above quotation.
The Art of Writing in Myst: The book of Atrus
To re-cap from my review of the novel: The Art of D’ni Writing, called “the art of precise description,” is beautifully literal: when a D’ni writer describes a world, that world comes into existence, and is called an Age. A special paper and special ink are required, as is the special D’ni language in which to write, but still, what is written becomes real. If the writer describes well—that is, precisely, accurately, with detailed knowledge of the elements, physics, wind patterns, tectonic movements, etcetera, and with perfect attention to cause and effect—the Age that comes into being will be stable and fertile, filled with a self-sustaining environment and possibly peopled with whole cities and kingdoms that regard him as a god. But if he writes not well, if he makes mistakes, writes contradictions, if his writing does not have internal consistency, then his Age becomes unstable and eventually collapses into nonexistence. If any changes are made to the Book that describes an Age, those changes will become manifest in the Age itself—for better or for worse!
Sub-creation and the philosophy behind Christian fantasy
Now, when we write fiction, we are inventing new places and new persons, but the question must always be brought up of whether we truly create anything in our thoughts from scratch, or whether the source of all our thoughts is really somewhere else. The Christian, for instance, believes that every thing is from God and in God’s power; thus when a Christian writes a story, he acknowledges that even his ideas are not truly his own, for his brain is not his own, nor his soul—all belongs to God, the All-Powerful (the originator of all power).
Only one act of creation was ever ex nihilo, and that was the one of Genesis which started it all. Everything else is a shadow of that creation, a trying to understand it and the Creator. I write about a character that is drawn from my experiences with the people God has created, and I imagine new places and vistas only because I have seen the ones brought about by God. No human invention is truly original. As George MacDonald wrote,
One difference between God’s work and man’s is that while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he himself had not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own. (quoted in “Imagination” in The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook by Colin Duriez, pages 129-130. Emphasis mine.)
Tolkien wrote that the highest form of fantasy was sub-creation, the creation of a fictional, secondary world that had enough depth and detail to maintain the “inner consistency of reality.” The idea of suspension of disbelief may be the most basic form of this idea, as it involves avoiding gross contradictions and disregards to logic in order to allow the receiver of the story to believe in it at the level the story requires. In sub-creation, however, the world-building itself is one of the most important of the story’s elements. A new world is created with its own geography, its own stars, its own trees, its own winds, and they all must make sense together. Yet they need not be mere copies of our own world. Rather, we are encouraged to let the laws of nature inspire us to imagine other ways they might be.
Some thinkers would feel sorely hampered if at liberty to use no forms but such as existed in nature, or to invent nothing save in accordance with the laws of the world of the senses; but it must not therefore be imagined that they desire escape from the region of law. (George MacDonald)
In making such fantastical alterations to our invented worlds and in trying as we can to make them consistent within that world, we gain greater appreciation for the balance and artistry of God’s creation. We know we cannot surpass Him, and we do not try to. But in emulating Him by creating in the best ways we can, we show our admiration for Him and we learn more about Him.
Every new embodiment of a known truth must be a new and wider revelation. No man is capable of seeing for himself the whole of any truth: he needs it echoed back to him from every soul in the universe; and still its centre is hid in the Father of Lights. (C.S. Lewis quoted in “Imagination” in The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook by Colin Duriez, page 129)
How Myst: The book of Atrus engages the question of where our Ideas come from
In the novel, the two main characters hold differing views on how their magical Art works. Gehn believes that he is a god and that his Writing literally creates new worlds ex nihilo. In Tolkien’s terms, he believes he is an original Creator, and that his creation is primary (coming into existence solely by his power). This belief fuels his arrogance, blinds his critical faculties, and ultimately brings out his cruelty. His son, Atrus, eventually comes to disagree with him, believing that by Writing they are somehow Linking to pre-existing worlds. He is uncomfortable with being called a god and worshipped; he is too aware that he himself is a created being, not supernatural or omnipotent or eternal. His belief also implies the existence of an original First Creator, which the book mentions as a possibility but does not further discuss.
The book generally sides with Atrus, but leaves enough ambiguity about the nature of the Art that you cannot be completely sure how it works. For one thing, Atrus’ theory depends on the idea that there are infinite pre-created worlds; this is the only way to explain how he can Write such a specific description of an Age in a Book—a place he has never known to exist before—and then travel to it. This idea, while plausible in a fantasy setting, is nonetheless unsatisfactory, for it removes any Meaning and Purpose that comes from the uniqueness of a particular world. Further, it is confirmed that if a Writer makes changes to an Age’s Book, those changes will manifest themselves in the Age. This is how Gehn tries to fix all his Ages that are steadily falling apart. The fact that this is possible suggests that the words in the Book do hold the creative power.
And yet, one time Gehn’s revisions go too far, in a way that is not completely understood by the characters or the reader. After the latest of a series of Gehn’s revisions to the Book of Age Thirty-Seven, Atrus visits it to discover that it has irrevocably changed. The people on the island of Age Thirty-Seven, who had worshipped Gehn and Atrus and developed relationships with them over a few years, suddenly have no knowledge of them and are hostile. It’s as if Atrus has stepped into a parallel universe. This gives credence to Atrus’ theory that to change the description in a Book does not actually change that Age, but rather Links to a similar Age, one of an infinite pool of worlds.
Also challenged, quite interestingly, is Gehn’s assertion that D’ni Writing must be sparse and precise, strictly following the D’ni rules literally and avoiding all contradictions in order to work. To my mind, this is akin to building a fictional world that in all its physical laws is identical to the real world; perhaps the names and geography is different, but there is no magic, no new creatures, no impossible wonders. Gehn believes that this is all that is possible through the Art. We begin to suspect his theory when we learn that, although he follows the Rules to a T, all his Ages are unstable and falling apart. But it is not that the Rules are completely flawed, for Atrus himself follows them carefully—more carefully than his father, in fact—when creating his first Age, which is implied to be perfectly stable and self-sustaining.
However, the idea that this is the only way Writing can work is turned on its head by the discovery of the character Katran’s first Age, which seems to break all sorts of scientific laws and yet somehow is stable and incredibly beautiful. Perhaps it is a case where Poetry trumps Logic? Not necessarily—the implication is that even though Katran changed the laws of gravity (among others), she did so with consistency and purpose. This is analogous to the creation of a fantasy world with magic and other impossible features that nonetheless plays true to its own rules. Katran is the character who most purely practices the Art. And, relevant to our discussion, she is the one who perhaps most purely does what Tolkien, MacDonald, and Lewis believe is sub-creation.
I do not know if the writers of Myst: The book of Atrus were familiar with the theories of Tolkien, George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis. Nonetheless, their sub-created world seems the perfect place in which to explore these ideas, and even if the other books in the series fail to deepen the philosophical discussion, I am still grateful for the book even bringing it up. When I write anything at all, it is an act of worship to my God, however poor due to the limitations of my heart. When I write fantasy, when I create new characters and grow them and become attached to them, it helps me get a tiny view of how God sees us. He is the great Author.
Memetic modification is the order again. I neither want to spoil the “surprise” of my final choice for favorite book (which of course will not be “final” and could in fact end up being multiple books), nor limit myself to the impossible task of one favorite passage. Some of my favorite books, like The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, are simply too large and wonderful for me to hone in on any single passage.
So instead I have chosen two passages from two books which speak to me in very different ways.
As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men…
That’s George MacDonald in Phantastes, a truly beautiful and dreamlike book. In describing the ways in which magic relates to the world of the book, he is also saying something about the way the spiritual world relates to our real world. And…(my brain is kind of dead right now, so I’ll point you to theseposts to get an idea of what I mean by that.)
The next is from The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It comes from the end of the book, is beautiful, and benefits from context which I cannot give you. +) The pages following it are equally beautiful, but you must earn them by reading the book itself.
Aquila reached for his best cloak, where it lay in a tumble, dark as spilled wine, across the foot of the low couch, and flung it round him, hastily settling the shoulderfolds. He was late, for there had been some trouble down at the horse-lines over the new Cymric steeds that he must see to, and the feast would have begun by now; this crowning feast for a new High King, who was the hope of Britain. He stabbed home the pin of the great bronze-and-silver shoulder brooch, and when he looked up again, there seemed to be all at once more warmth in the room, and more colour, for Ness stood in the inner doorway in a gown of thick, soft wool the colour of the apple flames. Roman in so many things nowadays, she had never taken to the pale colours that Roman ladies wore, and suddenly he was glad of that.
“I feel as though I could warm my hands at you, in that gown,” he said.
She laughed; something of the old mockery in her laughter still, but the sting gone from it. “My lord learns to say pretty things in his old age!” She came forward into the inner circle of warmth and light about the brazier…
…He half-turned towards the colonnade doorway, then back again, realizing he would probably not see Ness until after [the feast for] Ambrosius. “You look so pretty in that gown. I wish this wasn’t an all-male banquet.”
“I am sure that the Princes of the Dumnonii and the Lords of Glevum and the Cymru would be outraged if they found themselves expected to follow the Roman fashion and sit down to feast in the same hall with women, on such a state occasion as this!”
“Your people,” Aquila said, and was struck by a sudden thought. “Ness, do you see that it has come full circle? The Princes of the Cymru feast with their High King. Tonight Ambrosius will confirm Pascent as lord of his father’s lands and his father’s people. Tonight your people and mine are come together again!”
“Yes, I do see,” Ness said. “After twelve, nearly thirteen years.”
Aquila felt that he had been stupid in pointing that out to her as though it were a thing that she might not have noticed, when it must be so much nearer to her than it was to him. He wondered whether she had regretted the choice that she had made, almost thirteen years ago, but could not find the words to ask her.
And then Ness came and put her thin brown hands on his shoulders and said, as though she knew what he was thinking, “Have you regretted it?”
“Why should I regret it?” Aquila said, and put his hands over hers.
“I’m not beautiful like Rhyanidd—”
“You never were, but it was you I chose, in my rather odd way.”
“And maybe I’ve grown dull. Contented women do grow dull; I’ve seen it happen.” She began to laugh again, and this time with no mockery at all. “But at least I haven’t grown fat, as some contented women do.” She gave him a little push and dropped her hands. “Go now to this splendid all-male banquet of yours, before you are later than you are already.”
The meaning, the striking emotion, of this passage is gathered from all that came before it. Aquila’s long years of suffering, the heartbreaking way he and Ness married against both their wills, their years of bickering and misunderstanding. So much pain. But then, finally, to see them like this, where they have comfort with each other and both are surprised to realize that they do not wish to leave each others’ presence, even for an evening…oh my friends, all I can say is that this is the only passage of a novel to have wrung even a few tears of joy from my stubborn eyes. I love it. I reread it often on its own, and its power remains. It encourages me, sobers me, and causes me to praise God for His grace in allowing even flawed beaten creatures such as we to experience the joys of forgiveness, mercy, healing, and love.
George MacDonald, one of the great inspirations to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote his own essay on the essence of fantasy and fairy tales in “The Fantastic Imagination.” Some key excerpts of it are below; the full essay can be found here. Chief among his concerns are dispelling the notion that “fantasy” can involve nonsense or meaningless invention. A fantasy story must be internally consistent. The author invents new rules for his world, and must cause his story to abide by them. The only place where he must not invent new rules, interestingly, is the realm of morals. There he must stay true to real, objective virtue and ethics. He must not “write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless.” Yet it is not mere allegory; that is, not only allegory. But what is it? These fantasies and fairy tales, that create some new laws, but should stay eternally true to others? Why do some people think this kind of storytelling important? MacDonald explains:
Some thinkers would feel sorely hampered if at liberty to use no forms but such as existed in nature, or to invent nothing save in accordance with the laws of the world of the senses; but it must not therefore be imagined that they desire escape from the region of law. Nothing lawless can show the least reason why it should exist, or could at best have more than an appearance of life.
…In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey–and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.
…Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child’s dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but definite? The cause of a child’s tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairtytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.
I will go farther.–The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding–the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.