“The Secret of Roan Inish” is both magical and comfortably down-to-earth in all its elements.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1993) (IMdB) Director: John Sayles Writers: John Sayles (screenplay) and Rosalie Fry (book) Starring: Jeni Courtney, Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan, Richard Sheridan, John Lynch Music by: Mason Daring Length: 89 minutes Rating (US): PG Spoiler-free Synopsis: Young Fiona lives with her grandparents in a small fishing village on the Irish west coast and begins unraveling family mysteries while searching for her lost baby brother. Reason for Watching: Selkie movie. Perfect movie. Movie Re-watchability: Eminently, for me. It’s been a favorite film for many years and has never failed to inspire or move me. Director Re-watchability: I haven’t seen Sayles’ other films, but have heard that each one is completely different. That speaks to a tremendous range in his abilities as a storyteller, but also makes it hard to determine whether I’d like his other ones. His style in this film, however, is one that suits me perfectly. Recommendation: YES.
Title:The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s) Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally Score Composer: Bruno Coulais Length: 75 minutes Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind… Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music… Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings. Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right. Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.
[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]
Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.
The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.
You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.
The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.
As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.
The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.
Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.
Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.
The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.
If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.
I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
– John 1:5
*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.
Title:The Last Unicorn Series: No. Author: Peter S. Beagle Pages: 212 Published: 1968 Spoiler-free Synopsis: A unicorn, hearing that she may be the last of her kind, sets out to find the other unicorns, with the help of an almost-incompetent wizard and weary woman who has lost her way in life. To do so, they must confront the infamous King Haggard and his terrifying, enigmatic Red Bull. Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard of it for quite some time, always mentioned with fondness and respect, and finally snatched it up. Reason for Finishing: A truly beautiful fairy tale, which manages the difficult task of including bits of anachronistic whimsy and humor without letting them ruin the solemnity of the magic. Story Re-readability: High. It’s short and fast-paced, but expertly written and atmospheric. Author Re-readability: I would gladly read anything else by Beagle. He chooses only the right words to express himself and can swiftly build charcaters that feel warm and real, yet never too far removed from their fairy-tale roots. He understands that taking fantasy seriously doesn’t always mean being serious. Recommendation: Yes and again yes, for everyone with the slightest interest in fantasy and fairy tales. This is one of those few books that really deserves the label of “classic.”
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
“She still moved like a shadow on the sea.” The music of this phrase was the first of the hundreds in this book that made me fall in love with it. Mr. Beagle has a passion for words on their own merits, in addition to their meanings and the stories they can tell. Not an image or metaphor is haphazard or ineffective. Each is striking, burbling with life, original, and perfectly fitted to its object. The smell of iron “seemed to turn [the unicorn’s] bones to sand and her blood to rain.” A hostile crowd begins “to hiss like embers.” Firelight makes a sleeping cat “look like a heap of autumn leaves.” The escape of a wicked harpy from her iron cage is described in terms of a terrible blooming flower, the cage falling away as the harpy rises screaming into the air, “her hair swinging like swords.”
There is a joy and beauty to this book that feels effortless, as if Mr. Beagle had just happened to find the story growing in a strange, secluded grove, plucked it from the tree of childhood dreams, and handed it to us as a gift. It is a fairy tale, and knows it. The characters tell each other so themselves, and discuss the implications of the traditional fairy tale structure on their lives. When the magician tells the mysterious white girl, “You’re in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it, whether you will or no…you must follow the fairy tale to King Haggard’s castle, and wherever else it chooses to take you,” there is the sense that there is a sort of Fairy Tale Providence that guides its characters down predestined paths, often against their will, but most likely for their own good.
The plot ebbs and flows, sometimes stopping to visit a curious place by the side of the road but never straying too far. It moves quickly, but not hastily, if you catch my meaning. Like an experienced traveler who never fails to take in all that is around him, even while his gait is so assured that he always seems to arrive at his destination right when he needs to.
But let you not think this is some verbose or dreary tale of philosophy masquerading as entertainment. Far from it! The Last Unicorn is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It is filled equally with pathos and humor, beauty and terror. There are beautiful, magical forests populated by obscure, slightly incompetent outlaws who think themselves Robin Hoods and eat tacos. There are gypsies running a farcical circus that happens to contain a genuine, dangerous harpy. There is a butterfly who sings in pop songs and poetry, and there is the Red Bull, one of the most genuinely terrifying creatures in any story I have encountered.
The main law of his existence seems to be inevitability: you can never escape him, because he is always fast enough to catch you, large enough to squash you or small enough follow you through caves, smart enough to corner you or herd you in the direction of his will, and just mindless enough that you cannot reason with him. He is a force, whether of nature or of magic, or perhaps of something else. He is a riddle that remains largely unsolved, and is the more effective for it. I can still feel the rumble of the earth as he rages down the mountain.
The unicorn herself is superb. She is just how I would imagine a unicorn might be, were she real. Wise and beautiful beyond anything purely natural, of course, yet also aloof, because of her immortality, and somewhat disconnected from the world around her. We are privy to her thoughts, but they are rarely the thoughts any mortal creature would have. And so it is that we feel as though we get to know her, but cannot claim that we really understand her. There is an element to the unicorn that is always unpredictable. We cannot fully comprehend her being, nor can she fully comprehend ours. It is a phenomenon that her human friends, Schmendrick the Magician, Molly Grue, and Prince Lír all try to come to grips with. It also leads to some interesting arguments. Just because the unicorn is uncannily wise and probably thousands of years old does not mean she is infallible. And her judgments are even and final, sometimes ruthless. Mr. Beagle has written the most iconic and best unicorn I have come across.
Side characters also enrich the story. Ironically, their very down-to-earth and realistic natures complement the magical side of the story instead of detract from it. The unicorn is more the perfect fairy tale creature when contrasted with the hopes and sorrows, failures and uncertainties of Schmendrick and Molly. She is more unworldly and pristine beside their many-colored humanity. Prince Lír lacks a little of their depth, but mainly because he is young while Schmendrick and Molly are middle-aged and mature in life experiences. I liked him, but I loved the latter two. Even Haggard himself is layered and surprisingly believable, even a bit sad and lonely, far from the cliché wicked king I initially expected.
Tender. Terrifying. Lovely. Silly. Somber. Magical. Human, in the best way. There is power in this book.
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.