fantasy

Book Review: George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville MacDonald


It is an uncomfortable and disquieting thing to read an intimate, posthumous biography. One learns quickly of the experiences, perspectives, reactions, and pursuits of some previous individual and, despite the conclusions reached, is alarmed and jolted by the sudden ending or slow, spiral decay of the once thinking, reacting, dynamic subject of the text. For myself at least, death seems alway too close at hand to lose its freshness.

George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and lecturer who wrote many novels, religious texts, and books of poetry. His most lasting impressions include The Princess and The Goblins, At The Back Of The North Wind, Phantastes, and Lilith. He directly influenced Lewis Carroll’s writing and publishing of Alice In Wonderland and C.S. Lewis would one day claim that Phantastes provided a baptism for his imagination.

Greville MacDonald’s biography of his father (and mother) is extensive. It is a step-by-step look at every turn of events leading to and throughout their lives, and it’s really a good read for anyone with a knack for history in general. It also provides great insights not only to MacDonald’s faith and perspectives, but as to the hard artist’s lifestyle that he chose and which sometimes seems to have chosen him. He was a starving artist most of his life, even with friends like Twain, Ruskin, Carroll, and Tennyson and a pension from the Queen.

Unlike most artists, he raised about a dozen kids, along with and occasional orphan or street urchin. MacDonald’s family life was his world, and one into which he and his wife brought dozens of lifelong friends, who play heavily throughout the text.

The obvious flaw of the text is that the author inundates the reader with a sacred defense for nearly every questionable or confusing action his father ever took, whether personal, theological, or artistic. He tells us why his father’s ideas on all subjects were the best available at the time, even when his father’s own demeanor in his texts and letters implies that he questioned his own judgement. While it can make for grating reading, it’s worth recognizing that a son’s undying devotion is a pretty great legacy, perhaps the one of which MacDonald would be most proud.

Luckily, the book is heavy laden with text from many personal letters, both to an from MacDonald, so that the bias opinions of Greville MacDonald can be easily seen around to get the fuller picture, often from MacDonald Sr. himself. He deals often with poverty, often with death close at hand, often with disabling sickness, and often with misunderstanding of his work. Yet always he maintains an otherworldly self-possession, a capacity at least toward outward insistence on the rejuvenation of all things through the cleansing of death that brings new life.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help marveling at how much I could use a MacDonald in my daily life, coaching me on through my trials, my misgivings, and my fear of death. This book may hit close to home.

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Futher Reading

C.S. Lewis On Good Reading Materials For Children

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering

Bill Watterson On Creativity

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C.S. Lewis And Lilith: What Does Blending Myths Do For You?


Last fall, I was reading The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe aloud to my wife. We reached the passage in chapter 8 when the beavers are explaining the nature of things in Narnia, when we hit a snag. I read this.

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“That’s what I don’t understand, Mr. Beaver,” said Peter. “I mean isn’t the Witch human?”

“She’d like us to believe it,” said Mr. Beaver, “and that’s how she is trying to call herself Queen. But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, Lilith. She was one of the Jinn. On the other side she comes from the giants. No, there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch.”
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My wife stopped me. She was frustrated. She was confused. She couldn’t understand where this Lilith reference came from, and it annoyed her immensely.

Curious for details myself, I looked it up and found that Lilith was a type of female demon in Hebrew literature. “Lilit” was originally used to mean “night monster” or “screech owl.” In Isaiah the term is used in a listing of animals. Medieval Jewish mysticism popularized the idea that Adam had had a wife before Eve, who was created out of dust at the same time he was. She wouldn’t submit to Adam, left the Garden Of Eden, and started dating angels and what not. Lewis has her mating with a Jinn or genie.

Personally, I like these sorts of things. I love mythology mash-ups that create entirely new fantasy realms. My wife, on the other hand, was not satisfied by this information. She was more annoyed to hear this alternative version of the popular Biblical account. The idea of changing the foundation story and even adding new cast members was disruptive rather than inventive.

By all accounts, Tolkien felt the same way about his friend’s books. While they agreed more than most on many things, the flavors of the two men’s writings show clear distinctions in their personal tastes in how myths and fairie should be approached. Lewis was constantly getting creative energy from smashing together ideas from various sources for new sensations. The man was an omnivorous reader and you can see shadows of thousands of older ideas in his fiction works.

Tolkien also finds much inspiration for his work in the great pieces he cherishes. Gandalf is occasionally a mirror of the older, more obscure mythical creations Tolkien loved. The big difference is really the level of perceived coherency and the depth of pursuit. Tolkien, like many others, seems to find the willful suspension of disbelief in Lewis too great. He is equally enamored by magic and dragons and even silly children’s stories, but mixing characters from preexisting universes seems too much to be enjoyable for him. What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? How did the descendant of Lilith, the original mother of our world, end up as the Queen of Charn?

I can understand these frustrations well. I find The Magician’s Nephew to be the most satisfying of the Narnian books in large part because it ties so many origin stories and loose ends together in such a neat fashion. Lewis writes like many authors, so that the stories can feel almost stunted at times in their openings and closes. Everyone is suddenly rushed into alternate realities at break neck speeds.

On the other hand, a large part of what makes Tolkien’s legendarium so fulfilling and believable is the expansive way in which so much untold backstory is expanding in every direction. Tolkien himself was constantly fleshing out his worlds throughout his lifetime. Perhaps he thought pulling so directly from previous material was too quick and cheap, unsatisfying to him as a creator and suspicious in others.

There is something enjoyable in both the whimsical adventure of being swept away by foreign magic and in the adventure of fulfilling a long forgotten destiny in a mythical world of unspeakable beauty and impending evils.

Which one thrills you more?

 

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Further Reading

 

C.S. Lewis’ Literary Essays

Dave Eggers On The Fear Of Publishing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Us To Fail

Wanglung Children’s Book Sale!


Recently, I used Kickstarter to self-publish my children’s book Wandlung. You can read and share the book here. Soft cover copies of the book are available through Amazon and my publisher’s site and copies of the limited edition hard back version are available from local Oklahoma City vendors Collected Thread, Blue Seven, and Full Circle Books.

As of this publication, I still have a small stack of the limited edition hard back version in my possession and I’m ready to get these out into little hands! There were only 65 hard back copies ever printed, and most of those have already been shipped to Kickstarter backers, placed in local storefronts, or sold by me personally. To make sure that the last few get to be read, I’m going to be selling the remaining books at $15 a piece. That’s a 40% discount, making them cheaper than the soft cover copies currently on sale online!

If you do not live in the Oklahoma City or Cincinnati metro areas, you can still get a copy! Shipping inside the U.S. is an additional $4. These will be sold on a first come, first served basis until they run out! To grab your copy, contact me through the contact form below.

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Further Reading

C.S. Lewis On Why Kids Need Fantasy Literature

A Review Of “In The Night Kitchen” By Maurice Sendak

Thoughts On “The Railway Children” By E. Nesbit

 

55 Classics Review #6 – On Stories And Other Essays On Literature by C.S. Lewis


When it comes to popular spiritual epigrams, C. S. Lewis has G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and maybe Jesus himself beat in terms of popular quotability. It seems impossible to browse any social media outlet without coming across a line from Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. That is what intrigues me the most about Lewis. A huge quanitity of the most enlightening statements he ever made came from the mouths of characters in fiction, rather than from any articles of non-fiction.

On Stories is therefore one of the greatest resources for getting behind this veil. In it we discover bits of the frame of mind capable of creating such original and timeless stories that seamlessly imply his deepest ideas about being human.

The book is a simple collection of essays, author dedications, op-ed pieces, and even a transcript of a conversation between Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss about the nature and value of science fiction as a genre. Many of the articles were never published, some merely scraps, unedited and unfinished.

On Stories cover a lot of ground, seeing Lewis address concepts and wrestle with idea which many of his popular quoters might find questionable or reproachable. He expresses interest in seeing good science fiction proposing a third gender, proposed that children’s literature shouldn’t shy away from being frightening, and emphatically endorses a lot of literature which some people might prefer to be banned. Overall, you are getting a much more rounded picture of the author’s ideas than you ever can from any piece or body of fiction.

The themes that come through most clearly are his strong opinions about fantasy and science fiction being absolutely valuable endeavors for both children and adults and his general rebuttals against the overwhelming academic ideas on literature from his day. He proves himself extremely well-read in everything from the classics (no surprise here as he was a world-class medievalist) to the science fiction paperbacks which were just gaining a huge foothold. He holds firmly that each has its own place of legitimate value to the reader.

One of my personal favorites was A Reply To Professor Haldane. A posthumously discovered response to the multiple, brutal assaults on his intellect by a professor of theoretical biology, this essay is at once precisely factual and sterile of any character assassinations. A discovered rough draft like this only highlights the immensity of logical preparation he puts into his ideas. He explains himself theoretically and through example while completely tearing down his opponent’s ideas without ridiculing the man. Indeed, it is easy to feel that Lewis has no emotional response to those who continually abused his character. Like Chesterton, one cannot help but admire his ability to let accusations roll off his back while taking the ideas involved quite seriously.

Overall, I highly suggest this title to any Lewis fan or general fan of science fiction and fantasy. If you’ve ever felt frustrated at those who don’t get why fairy tales or space travel stories are legitimate, you will find a friend in Lewis. I would also highly recommend this book if you’re interested in reading the more obscure works that have influenced modern fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi writing. Lewis is constantly referring to what he considered the classics of these genres.

Though you may not always agree with his conclusions on the issues he tackles, it is hard to fault the man for lack of thorough contemplation or sincerity in wrestling with all forms of literature.

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I’ll leave you with this delightful transcribed dialogue between Lewis and Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss.

 

“Lewis: Would you describe Abbott’s Flatland as science-fiction? There’s so little effort to bring it into any sensuous–well, you couldn’t do it, and it remains an intellectual theorem. Are you looking for an ashtray? Use the carpet.

Amis: I was looking for the Scotch, actually.

Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

 

Related Reading

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C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic

C.S. Lewis On How Words Die

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien On Our Connection To The Land

E. Nesbit’s Brave Tone and The Depths Of Whimsy


The Railway Children is a book I was unfamilar with when I added it to my 55 List, but so many people mentioned how they enjoyed it that I decided to bump it up to get started on right away. I have only scratched the surface but I have not been dissapointed. Right off the bat the whimsical, amusing-adults-while-engaging-children tone reminded me of A.A. Milne and the extreme swing from charmed living to tragic squalor reminds me of Lemony Snicket. I know I will love the rest of this one.

One sure sign of true whimsy is a work that inplies and includes a great deal of writing of songs and reciting of poems. The point is never that they be wonderful (although they sometimes are) but that they give a creative outlet to the characters and show us that the characters themselves are strong enough to respond to hardship and wonder with creativity. Here is a great poem that the Mother writes and recites in the first chapter of said book. Her 10 yr. old son has been devestated to the point of sickness by the explosion of his favorite new toy engine.

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Author Quotes- C. S. Lewis and Fairy Tale Potency


Excerpts from the essay “On Three Ways Of Writing For Children,” by C.S. Lewis. (I highly suggest that you read it in its entirety.) I recently made and Author Quotes post which borrowed heavily from this C. S. Lewis article’s main thrust concerning books for children. Well, he went on so many valuable tangents that I thought I would make a secondary post concerned more with the general defense of fantasy and fairy tales for all ages. Let me know your thoughts

“The whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental. I hope everyone has read Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Tales, which is perhaps the most important contribution to the subject that anyone has yet made. If so, you will know already that, in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children. It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses. In fact, many children do not like this kind of book, just as many children do not like horsehair sofas: and many adults do like it, just as many adults like rocking chairs. And those who do like it, whether young or old, probably like it for the same reason. And none of us can say with any certainty what that reason is. The two theories which are most often in my mind are those of Tolkien and of Jung.

According to Tolkien the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed. For Jung, fairy tale liberates Archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious, and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept ‘Know thyself’. I would venture to add to this my own theory, not indeed of the Kind as a whole, but of one feature in it: I mean, the presence of beings other than human which yet behave, in varying degrees, humanly: the giants and dwarfs and talking beasts. I believe these to be at least (for they may have many other sources of power and beauty) an admirable hieroglyphic which conveys psychology, types of character, more briefly than novelistic presentation and to readers whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach. Consider Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows—that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.”