My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"
08 November 2005
Book Review - Ad Fontes
The deeper you go into any particular subject, the more pressure you should feel to go to the sources (ad fontes), to seek the originals as well as those who copy the originals. Hence my desire to read some of George MacDonald's fantasy work. This was the man whose writing grabbed Clive Staples Lewis and wouldn't let go. These were the stories which inspired other writers like Tolkien and Sayers and l'Engle. In fact, Lewis read Phantastes years before his conversion, writing later, "I should have been shocked in my 'teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness." And later, this: "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him."
Phantastes, a Faerie Romance, is quite the difficult book to summarize. Although if falls squarely into the realm of fantasy (or phantasy, as MacDonald would spell it), it goes about its work much more loosely than Lewis or Tolkien. We follow our weak, unnamed hero as he slips into the fairy world and takes it upon himself to embark on a journey through this land, only half-thinking he may be able to return to his world when he's finished. During this journey, he meets up with charming but less-than-traditional fairies, powerful living trees (some good, some bad), and many other colorful characters. He falls impossibly in love at least a couple times, I think, but these are not your normal love story, as one lady is, um, stone and the other is quite elderly, though young in the eyes.
MacDonald throws in some subplots, helpfully placed because the hero has stumbled upon a fairy library and takes it upon himself to treat us to some stories. There isn't an over-abundance of action - nothing matching the manic wars of Tolkien. But there is one rather stirring event of redemption when our hero comes through in a pinch, fighting some monsters that have terrorized a small town. Also sprinkled throughout the book are some songs, both of our hero and others; these, I must confess, must be somebody else's cup of tea, because they're not mine. And then the end of the book arrives and the reader is left wondering exactly what just happened. Perhaps that fogginess, murkiness of story, was exactly what MacDonald was shooting for. Our hero's remarks upon singing to his lady of stone seem to summarize my feelings toward MacDonald's writing: But I cannot tell whether she looked more of a statue or more of a woman, she seemed removed into that region of phantasy where all is intensely vivid, but nothing is clearly defined.
What MacDonald did for fantasy writing was to make it okay, acceptable, a worthy pursuit. His writing is not as amazing as his literary children and grandchildren, but we can join them in being thankful for his striking out in new territory for the kingdom of Christ. Should you take and read? If you're a reader of Narnia or Middle Earth, or even newer fantasy, it would be good to see where it all came from. If you're not, you would probably do better to start with the disciples rather than the master.