George MacDonald (1824-1905) opened one of the main roads to Fantasy. His visionary novels are alluring, strange and disquieting. Their strangeness is more so because it was brewed in a time different from ours, from a mentality shaped in a world long gone and a mind nurtured by religious, social and philosophical ideas that have evolved or faded. Ideas which, of course, have not vanished completely: they are our past, the roots of today. They have left behind their traces, continuations, counterparts and reactions. But we readers of the 21st century find that sometimes they add strangeness to the strangeness of Macdonald’s books. Some of his conceptions are utterly alien to the majority of us. In other words: they lend an extra dimension to the general atmosphere of otherworldliness that pervades Phantastes, Lilith and also At the back of the North Wind, the story intended for children which belongs to that group of children stories that appeal strongly to adults.
In these narrations, we are led along very unusual paths. Not only we are entering something very different from the typical fantasy novel of our time with its overused schemes and its well-known components that change name just to get slightly rearranged under new titles. MacDonald is a predecessor of the genre, but his works are not a product of the market; they are sons and daughters of his mind, and so genuine that as he shares his visions with us, we feel utterly aware that we are walking through his dreams, even if in each case we are exploring a piece of literature. He gathered the ingredients of what constitutes the commercial category well known to us and produced them in quite recognizable forms. A few gifted authors have created original and meaningful worlds following his steps.
Insofar as Lilith is contemporary with Morris’s romances, MacDonald’s status as a precursor rests primarily on Phantastes. On a quite literal level, Phantastes does in fact embody all the key elements that form what I have called the BAFS (Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series) template. The book’s Fairyland is an imaginary world, in which Anodos the protagonist encounters magical beings and spells. With its castles, rustic homesteads, dark forests, and knights; its journey structure; and its rather pre-Raphaelite medieval atmosphere, the vocabulary of romance and fairy tale is marshalled unambiguously.Williamson, Jamie. The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (p. 115). Palgrave Macmillan US. Kindle Edition
Nevertheless, the strange quality of his imagination is somewhat disturbing, and the prejudices and principles of a man of his epoch gave birth to stories based on presuppositions that are no longer so. At least in his fantasy novels, his representations of women are archetypal and acutely Romantic (he was very familiar with Romantic authors, both English and German). Female figures are commonly bad o good with nothing in between. Woman is the demon or the angel, the mother or the prostitute, Eve or Lilith. But we cannot deny that MacDonald, in any case, loved the Myth, the representation of womanhood and the side of Humankind he never fails to see. He gives her her part in the drama of Redemption, the Christian cycle of Fall and Salvation, and he chose Lilith, detestable and lovely, as the protagonist of his novel against the doctrine of predestination, which he loathed as much as evil itself.
In this sense, Lilith, the very spirit of rebellion against God, incarnates the idea that even the worse of sinners will go back to their Celestial Home through the long, most painful and winding roads they have chosen to follow. We can never forget while reading him that MacDonald was a Christian minister. His worldview is decidedly religious. He built Lilith on theological principles and worries.
Even the most innovative creations draw part of their energy and materials from the past while trying to project into the future. Those longer, complex works MacDonald wrote for grown-ups under the subtitle of “Romances” are rich in constituents brought alive both through inspiration and knowledge. Their fantastic pulse gives the experience of reading an oneiric quality. But doesn’t our culture shape even our dreams? I said before that, despite being literature, these stories are dreams, maybe dreamed at daylight, but dreams anyway. Now I wish to turn around the edges of this view to ascertain that they are pieces of written art no matter how dreamlike they look. Sometimes we can hear the echo of allegory, parody or even comedy, folklore and Romantic authors, fables or motifs from heterogenous antiquities and traditions. Phantastes is defined by his author as “A Faery Romance for Men and Women” and Lilith. A Romance grows to the epic dimensions of a world inspired not only by Medieval genres but also by the Bible. Characters from the Scriptures appear under the most unusual shapes and lights. Their roles and actions do not lose a bit of religious symbolism. Both books take us to magical worlds where the deeds and decisions of the protagonist have a transcendent meaning.
The transition from the apparently real to the secret, weird land is quite peculiar in Lilith, not suggesting at all the possibility of a dream save at the end, where it appears as a turn of the screw of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life is but a Dream (a piece of XVIIth Century Spanish drama very much appreciated by the members of the Romantic Movement). There is a surrealistic quality in those elements that work the transition. A second progression transmutes the recognizable enchanted house tale into something so different that it can only be accounted for under the light of a religious explanation, which is always the background of Macdonald’s fictional worlds. That is also why he shows a decidedly shocking attitude resolved into aesthetic features: love of Death. Our century has seen the triumph of life as the supreme value. McDonald, inspired by the Romantic heritage and Christian faith, teaches that Death is a friend, for it is the passage to the real and true life that awaits the human soul when it has completed its pilgrimage. Death and Dream are sisters in the worldview inscribed into the book. But as the roles of Life and Death are changed, being the last only a passage to real life, so an ambiguous meaning is cast over the sister of Death, Dream, suggestive of possibilities that put the weight of reality away from the side of terrestrial life.
Religion has been a source of literature, unrivalled in the Middle Ages. Christianity went on to supply the worldview of the inhabitants of Europe for several centuries and is still here, if not as absolute King and Master in the sphere of ideas and art. How could it not exert a powerful influence in the Victorian Era and even after? No surprise that it may lay behind the nascence of the fantasy novel with its heroes risking not their bodies but their souls in their mystic quests and symbolic adventures or, at least, running great perils and choosing right or wrong to make their way short or to drive their destinies through Hell. Anyway, however familiar this background was to his contemporaries, MacDonald supplied them with a fair amount of weirdness they were not used to. The years and changes of mentality that lie between the author’s existences and ours do not ruin our taste for his strange gardens of imagination. Readers and critics often did not know what to make of them while the author was alive. David Melvile puts it nicely. Let us end with his own words:
In the 1871 children’s fantasy At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald’s boy hero Diamond is asked what he thinks of a story. He replies, without hesitation, that “any story always tells me itself what I’m to think about it.” (The story, or what little we hear of it, is The Princess and the Goblin—which MacDonald would publish the following year.) Prophetically, and perhaps unwittingly, the author here foresees the root cause of his own critical neglect. Remote from the mainstream of 19th-century fiction, the works of George MacDonald are explicable in their own terms or not at all. Literary critics, who cut up and distort a text to fit the theory du jour, tend to shy away from MacDonald. His work defies such treatment and, ultimately, defeats it. For all his perceived naiveté, he is a more difficult author than Henry James.Beautiful Terrors — George MacDonald And ‘Lilith’
By David Melville
Issue 8: Scottish Science Fiction