As I reflect on the trajectory of my life, both spiritual and academic, I notice that George MacDonald’s thought and influence has always guided me, if not consciously. Like North Wind, I could feel and sense something, and in true MacDonald fashion, his name and identity seemed to slip around corners and seep through his symbols before I could properly identify him. This journey starts a long time ago.
I am unsure of when my parents bought the movie The Princess and the Goblin, but it came out in 1991 and I was born in 1992, so I assume the VHS was always lurking in a mysterious recess of the cabinet, waiting for my curious hand or cooing to select it. The story captured my imagination. It may have something to do with the roses and their magic: I was equally obsessed with The Beauty and the Beast. But this film evaded normal categorization: my parents are not Victorian or British connoisseurs, and this film was perhaps one of few if not the only non-Disney children’s movie our family owned. My grandparents had all died long before I was born, so great and grand relationships have never fallen from their sublime thrones in the kingdom of my imagination. I assume that for others their imaginations and reverence of their grandparents eventually became subject to a sinful or mediocre reality. Instead, my reverence of the great great-grandmother blends with reverence for my grandparents and for old and ancient things. Great great-grandmother Irene bridges that gap between is and ought in my life, whether it be my grandparents, my adventures, my memories, the liturgical tradition, or God.
I think above all, I loved the serenity and benevolence of the great great-grandmother Irene, and her hallowing of abandoned steeples and attics. Perhaps because of her influence, I would adventure everywhere. I found what I can only describe as an igloo of thatch in the glade outside the black fences of my house. I crawled through and exited again, newly baptized. The rays of the sun gently kissed the compact dirt through that pierced brambled roof. I told very few people about it, and few people would probably understand the significance of that brush igloo for me. I explored creeks and ponds, alleys and graveyards, spider webbed stairways and basements, never searching for anything in particular but always searching for that thing that Narnia, Irene, and Hogwarts signify. In many ways the great great-Grandmother is the source of all of these obsessions I have developed over the years, spilling now into Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and many others.
Through all of this the name George MacDonald meant nothing to me.
It wasn’t until many years later that I stumbled upon his name again. I was a junior in high-school and going through the phase of my life where I became obsessed with rationality and demonstrations of faith. Naturally, if you are raised in evangelical Texan culture, I gravitated toward C.S. Lewis, but not initially to his literature. I sought reason, I sought in many ways to entomb that open attic where Irene could transfigure a box of hay into a hearth of rose. I tried to seek objectivity, the proofs and demonstrations that ignored personal feelings or subjectivity. This search was not wholly unfounded but probably misdirected: I had a lot of internalized guilt for being queer, and living with many people who in varying degrees adhered to health and wealth gospel does little to comfort or heal a queer teenager. I collected austere quotes from C.S. Lewis about emotion and reason and posted them in my locker (I know, I was that kid). I selected and memorized Johnathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God for a speech project. Let’s just say that in several ways I was angry at God and myself. I wanted to find this objective, and let’s be honest, somewhat evil God, so that at least the puzzle pieces would fit together.
But even here I was found. After many bizarre recommendations for it, I picked up Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, and again encountered that richly abandoned attic, now in the form of the Grey Mountain. Little did I know that Lewis’ magnum opus was similarly a trajectory of a life, beginning with Lewis’ obsession with the Cupid and Psyche myth before his life of faith, baptized like his imagination when he picked up MacDonald’s Phantastes for a bit of light reading. The agelessness of the great great-grandmother Irene took her form in Psyche, and I again fell in love with the mysterious, the transcendent. I read much more Lewis, and remember reading Lewis talking about MacDonald’s work, but Lewis talked about many people’s work, so I remembered little else.
I continued growing in love with Lewis, and this love directed me towards a study abroad program with my college. I enrolled in the Lewis class, but had found I had already read quite a few of the books assigned. I talked with my professor, and she encouraged me to pick up MacDonald’s Phantastes and Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, seeing as Lewis explicitly mentions these two in Surprised by Joy. I never picked up Chesterton, to my shame even this day, but picked up Phantastes on my way to the train station to travel from Oxford to Italy. I’m not sure if I was aware of the parallel.
I remember being put off by the story initially. I had entered into this book with the wrong attitude: armed with a light pencil I insistently marked any quotation that bore resemblance to Lewis’ thought. I went on a treasure hunt for bath water while the baby watched innocently. I remember sleuthing through almost half the book before the Dionysian directed my path. Walking back to the hostel after a night of enjoying great house wine from all across Florence, I developed a peculiar itch to read. What a rather bizarre adaptation of Augustine’s “pick up and read”! Mildly intoxicated, I picked up Phantastes, and finally the beauty of the book found space and silence enough to speak. This is the passage I remember reading:
“Or art thou Death, O woman? for since I
Have set me singing by thy side,
Life hath forsook the upper sky,
And all the outer world hath died.
“Yea, I am dead; for thou hast drawn
My life all downward unto thee.
Dead moon of love! let twilight dawn:
Awake! and let the darkness flee.
“Cold lady of the lovely stone!
Awake! or I shall perish here;
And thou be never more alone,
My form and I for ages near.
“But words are vain; reject them all –
They utter but a feeble part:
Hear thou the depths from which they call,
The voiceless longing of my heart.”
In that night, cloistered in a concrete stairwell at a hostel, I discovered more than just poetry. Previously, poetry was something to mine for information, to detect the messages and motives and to systematize them and codify them for your knowledge and understanding. Poetry had never sung to me before. Not only that, Anodos sings the song that still resonates within my being – growing less marble and more real with each passing year. The book became muse – I became Anodos – Anodos became Cosmo – and I found light and life through the dregs of death. I shall die for love of the maiden.
There is a lot left to say about this journey. A lot left that I have yet to comprehend or imagine. MacDonald has thoroughly bracketed my journey into a living faith, genuine hope, and sincere love. And yet, what Lewis has to say of MacDonald still strikes me as true: it is not really MacDonald that is facilitating this journey. He testifies to the light, but is not the light. What sets MacDonald apart for me is his utter humility in his testimony. He is not the man who says: “here is the truth!” but instead,
“Thee the sculptors all pursuing,
Have embodied but their own;
Round their visions, form enduring,
Marble vestments thou hast thrown;
But thyself, in silence winding,
Though hast kept eternally;
Thee they found not, many finding –
I have found thee: wake for me.”
MacDonald testifies to the light of God but does not confuse himself with the divine he attempts to articulate. Softly, in the ways he knows, MacDonald invites all of us to contemplate through his rich stories, his sincere sermons, his earnest novels, the glory of a God who is emphatically good. So although I can truly say that MacDonald has always been with me in my journey, from that VHS The Princess and the Goblin to my recent attempts to write on the theological imagination, it is just as true to say that that same transcendent invitation beckons each one of us, in infinitely varying forms. In my life, and in my journey, MacDonald has guided me, much like he guided Lewis in The Great Divorce, to that country beyond the mountains, where the throne of glory awaits, and calls us home.
Matthew James Roberts
Read Matt’s essay, George MacDonald and the Theological Imagination in Musing on MacDonald