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Filtering by Tag: George MacDonald

Not Just for Dark and Stormy Nights

Joy and Matthew Steem

Princessgoblincptr3 (1) It happened in the closing days of an expansive week and a half in Scotland seeing the awe inspiring ruins, breathing the thick Celtic air, rambling on the highlands and feasting on their startlingly fresh strawberries and unbeatable spuds. Settling into my early morning flight to London, I saw a ghastly image that has never quite left me: a spiny, mustard-yellow man whose grizzled body displayed with such shocking translucence the clawing effects of a life-sucking illness that the look at his decaying body arrested me with a terror so sudden and thorough that all human compassion was replaced with a gripping horror. I sat debilitated, crushingly ashamed and utterly terrified.

Searching the caches of memories filed under “comfort,” I inwardly regenerated the likeness of Great Great Grandmother from George MacDonald’s Princess stories. Reassured by the gentle crooning that all worthy rockers make under the noble weight of maternal figures, I pictured Great-Great Grandmother sitting in her attic spinning: the splendour of her luxurious silver hair softening the sharper angles of her shoulders, her rich sparkling eyes evidencing shimmering wells of compassion and strength. At that moment, as I stood in the doorway to Great Great Grandmother’s attic, I knew she would welcome me to her side, despite, perhaps even because, of the weight of my shame and fear. She, MacDonald’s illustrious depiction of the feminine side of God, would call me to her warmth and envelop me with strength and courage.

The Princess stories were my introduction to MacDonald, and the image of Great Great Grandmother has been significant in my spiritual development. My head and heart have had a thorough plunging into the world of George MacDonald of recent. MacDonald's letters, unspoken sermons, essays, fiction, poems and biographies are in the process of burrowing into my heart and soul, much like a tick into the damp fleshy parts of a mammal.

This absorption evidences itself in several ways, I sometimes catch myself three bumpy lines into a sentence, hoping against hope to smooth out the rough waters of miss mashed consonants and commas, semi-colons and symbols all fighting for prominence. When this happens, my groan is swiftly followed with an optimistic sigh; I am pleased that MacDonald’s influence is consciously and unconsciously making its way into my inner workings. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the entirety of his world view, now that I know more about it, he has illustrated a more compassionate, gracious and loving approach to life. And, as such, philosophy, theology, personality and penmanship, when I see bits of it eeking out in my own work? Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald

Joy and Matthew Steem

George_MacDonald_(1862)The world of written personal correspondence can be a tremulous one. I discovered this while in the preliminary stages of a questing romantic relationship. I was, not unkindly, told that the “real life me” was quite pleasantly different than the more opaque “me in letters.”

Now, this judgement had nothing to do with how or in what light I presented myself, but the way I presented myself. In print, it was gently suggested, it seemed I may have felt the urge to prove prowess and hide true meanings in complex language and ideologies—trying to demonstrate ability rather than authenticity. In my letters, it seemed to my correspondent, I took pains to veil myself: to create complexities of meaning that, in real life, were an illegitimate representation of the real time me. This suggestion, though not intended to hurt, did indeed cause much troubling self-doubt and questioning of my abilities and motivations as a communicator. In truth, I was not trying to flex an amateur writing muscle, and I was tender that the attempt to bare my soul and thoughts in letters was interpreted as mere posturing. Many maturing persons learn to cultivate the painful experience of being misunderstood into fodder for genuine flourishing: leaning with greater trust into the true self and the Person from whom it has been forged. Perhaps it wasn’t the complete misunderstanding that I had earlier hoped, though. In this case, I have wondered for years if those letters belied an unconscious belief about what the important stuff is: the stuff which deserves to be written about.

There are limitations to words on a page, of course. We all know what these are: turns of words and phrases shorn of tone, facial expression or body language. It seems in this age of communicative technology we have aids to visual transparency—though if our relationships are richer for it I am in great doubt. But this is not a diatribe on the dying art of penmanship; it is a meditation on what I learned of George MacDonald the man through his letters.

I started out expecting to learn some behind the scenes information about his theology, approach to composition, relationships and outlook on life in general. And while I did get some glimpses into these issues, what I really gained was perspective on MacDonald as a human being. A man who started a great deal of his letters with phrases like “I am ashamed to see by the date of your note how long I have delayed my answer” or “I am dreadfully busy, and carry a conscience oppressed with letters unwritten.” MacDonald the sufferer: a man often afflicted at various stages of his life with lumbago, back aches, abscesses, asthma, pleurisy, bronchitis, sleep disturbances, poverty and loss. MacDonald the requester: the hopeful often asking for help, whether monetary, materially or for a recommendation from a person of influence. MacDonald the friend: the writer of hope filled birthday wishes and heart filled condolences, gratitude rich thank you notes and pain soaked news of personal loss.

Perhaps, unconsciously, I was hoping to discover a hidden artifact or a little known nugget of knowledge that would help me piece together his vision: instead what I saw was evidence of the merit he placed in the daily-ness of life. George MacDonald the man of personal correspondence was just that: a man. Of course, as a human saturated and consummated in the vast breadth of Love, these themes pervade his letters, but the letters themselves are not necessarily about them. The near ordinariness of his topics is compelling. I should, of course, not be surprised by this because he did not reject the stuff our days are made of. He knew that no person is ordinary and no life is humdrum: we are children of “a live heart at the center of the lovely order of the Universe—a heart to which all the rest is but a clothing form—a heart that bears every truthful thought, every help-needing cry of each of its children.”

What is the imagination?

Justin Ryals


Is it important to have a good imagination? Or is it, as at first glance we might be inclined to think, perhaps a little trifling, maybe something important for children but not very necessary for adults? I guess that depends on what the imagination is. I fairly recently came across a very interesting definition of the imagination while listening to an interview of Stephen Prickett discussing George MacDonald, an influential Scottish writer of fantasy (and other genres) in the Victorian period, who had a particularly profound influence on C. S. Lewis. Lewis, in fact, described his initial encounter with MacDonald’s imaginative work as a conversion or baptism of his own imagination; “It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later… The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live” (George MacDonald: An Anthology, xxxviii). So here we already see the great, potentially even transformative, power of one imagination upon another. It altered the way Lewis saw the world and the realm of the possible. And it’s perhaps telling that his imaginative transformation was more basic for him than other aspects of his nature; it set the groundwork for the rest of him to follow. It was Lewis, I believe, who first made me step back and consider what imagination is, before which I, perhaps naively, conceived of it (based upon the root word) simply as the power of the mind to contain and produce images. But Lewis, in the weirdly titled essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” intriguingly referred to the imagination as “the organ of meaning,” whereas reason is the “organ of truth,” the former being the more basic. These points certainly present the imagination as something far beyond a trifling affair, and rather something that is at the very heart of the human person.

Similarly, I came across a description of the imagination in an essay by David Bentley Hart (for my money perhaps one of the most insightful minds currently writing) titled “The Pornography Culture,” in which he speaks of the central importance of the imagination, and by implication the need to guard it from depraving influences. There he writes (reminiscent of Pr 4:23), “the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character.” Here, again, we have the imagination described as of profound central importance to the human person, such that how one’s imagination is formed will determine the possible range of meaning that one can perceive, and the possible ways in which one may view the world.

On yet another note, also striking is Mary Midgley’s statement, “Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organize themselves into some sort of story, some drama,” pointing to the inevitably “storied” nature of the way we see the world (Evolution as Religion, 4). The form which that story takes will naturally depend on the character of our imagination.

Similar to these perspectives, I think, is the one Prickett recounts of George MacDonald’s view (via Samuel Coleridge) of the imagination. As he explains,

It was [conceived of as] a great integrating faculty that brought all our sense impressions, all our thoughts, all our understanding, together into a single package. And of course each of us has a different imagination because each of us has been through different experiences. I once went for a walk in a very beautiful part of the country with a friend of mine who is an expert on birdsong, and he said, “How many birds can you hear?” And I listened and I very boldly said, “Five or six.” And he said, “I can hear forty.” He had a trained ear, and that was, if you like, the difference between our imaginations at that stage. He could form and integrate what was coming into him into a far more profound pattern of sound than I could.

Here imagination is the central, integrating faculty of the whole person, involved in a dynamic relationship with the world, ever expanding as it interacts with reality (that is, ultimately, God); or, no doubt, diminishing as it entertains false reality. These accounts approach the nature of the imagination from different angles--seemingly not irreconcilably so--but in every case the imagination is something connected to the deepest part of ourselves, forming the range of possibility of what we can and cannot see of reality. One is reminded of Goethe’s commonly quoted line, “Few people have the imagination for reality.” It perhaps informs the fabric or framework of our whole inner world, through which we interpret everything else, having to do with “the power that underlies thoughts,” as MacDonald said in The Fantastic Imagination. Do we give enough attendance to these truths? Do we seek ways in which to enrich or even “baptize” our imaginations, thereby renewing our minds and our vision of the “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live”? Indeed, how might we do that? If Lewis is a guide, encountering those with rich and profound imaginations embodying deep (perhaps even pre-cognitive) truths is one way. In any case, these, I think, are questions worthy of reflection.

Of Beauteous Saints

Joy and Matthew Steem

Lilith-Back-Cover-HR I find something indescribably haunting about the “woman most beautiful of all” in George MacDonald’s Lilith, for on her “stately countenance” rests a “right noble acquiescence” and “assurance, firm as the foundations of the universe, that all ... [is] as it should be." For me, the white-haired woman who captures the intrigue of the protagonist, Mr. Vane, is an image of what a physically and spiritually mature approach to being human might look like. In the gallery of my mind, her resplendent repose reflects an organic and wholesome response to her world rather than a hasty effort conceived in restlessness. Ultimately, when I think of the portrait of this pulchritudinous lady, I think of an individual who has overcome our inborn resentment of time; she is one who, as Byron penned, “walks in beauty.”

Indeed, the more I think of the characteristics of this unnamed lady, the more I am reminded of the saint which Gordon T. Smith depicts in Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. For Smith, in a saint, we encounter “beauty, integrity and congruence." He suggests these characteristics are not achieved by merely trying to emulate Christ’s life on earth. Nor are they attained by adhering to some sort of a moral code. In fact, he suggests that in striving for rigid perfection, we dislocate ourselves from a spiritual life that genuinely flourishes. Instead of toil, Smith advocates humble response; instead of fear, Smith draws our attention to hopeful faith; instead of proving ourselves through our work, Smith reminds us of Love’s work. Ultimately, he reminds us that He is the vine and we are the branches; there is great rest in understanding that instead of trying to be like Christ, our call is to realize we are in Christ.

Which brings me back to MacDonald’s lady: in her stately countenance, I see the reflection of a wisdom grounded in an understanding of interdependence and borne out in humility. In her noble acquiescence, I envision an approach to work that glorifies the divine; she is not frenetic or flustered, but rather content with what time she has been gifted to live in and work with. In her assurance, I visualize a life of joyfully ordered affections because she has an inkling of the depth, width, and breadth of the creator’s love. And so, in “this woman most beautiful of all,” I see a portrait of Smith’s saint; for at the marrow of Smith’s invitation is the reminder that our creator’s call does not only save us from, but saves us to: to an abundant life which results from restfully abiding in our maker.

Maybe, for me, she is an image of Smith’s saint because in time she has grown wiser, not just older. She has employed her minutes, hours, days and years not in despising time, but embracing its facilitation of her growth.  In nurturing a life-affirming delight in God’s good creation she has not indulged in ignorance of the horrific evil at work in the world. Rather, her peaceful gaze assures me that, like a true heroine, she has lived out her days in a grace and gratitude and wonder that holds fast to a belief in an impending Eucatastrophe: a swiftly advancing redemption so beautiful its event will bring forth tears of joy.