The Immersed Imagination, Part 2: The Inner Vision

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This is a series of posts about the imagination, adapted from my lecture at Hutchmoot 2010 about George MacDonald. The last post was about his approach to the doctrine of common grace, the idea that everyone is an image bearer and therefore reveals to us something of the God the Father. That leads us to learn to keep our eyes open for the thousand moments of truth unfolding around us every day.

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This summer Ben and I were at a train station in Sweden for an hour. The June sun only sets there for a few hours a day, and even then it’s never completely dark, which means the Magic Hour, the sweet golden time when the angle of sunlight gilds everything here for thirty minutes or so, in Sweden lasts for hours and hours. The sunrise is the same. Hours of daybreak. It’s beautiful. So we were stuck at the train stop for a while, and the architecture of the station caught my eye. It was an old building—at least a hundred years old—and I thought to take a picture of it. Then I remembered my sketchpad. I drew the building’s face. I drew the rainspouts, the eaves, the stone flourishes, the window framing, the brick cornices. I saw the building. I studied it. It was only thirty minutes. But now, when I happen upon that very amateur sketch in the notebook, I remember that old building on the other side of the planet and its blushing bricks in the slow dawn; I remember the archways that led to the town park and the pigeons and the cool of the air. (I love Sweden, if you can’t tell.)

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I mention that as an example of a time I’m glad I remembered how to be a child, and how to take the time to see. Most of the time I just snap a picture with my phone. But once in a while I manage to take a deep breath and make a choice to live life as if everything is a miracle. I remember what it was like to be a kid who loved to draw. Now, imagine learning to approach the Gospel that way. Imagine looking at your children that way. Imagine how rich every moment would be if we could keep that sleepy inner child awake. But as Rich Mullins sang, “We are children no more, we have sinned and grown old.” The way of Jesus is one of learning to grow young. The kingdom is made of such as these little ones.

All that to say, George MacDonald, however wrong he may have been about some things, was astonishingly wise about others. He had something to teach us, he was able to reveal the secret things of the Father, which only George MacDonald could reveal, just as you have things for me that only you can teach.

And here’s one of the big things I love about MacDonald: his sense of child-like, excessive, exuberant imagination. He was good at being a kid. He was a kid with a bushy beard and a Scottish brogue. And like a kid he told stories that sometimes didn’t make a lick of sense. His imagination was untethered by modern storytelling convention, and that, I confess, is what I like least about his stories. They’re hard to read. As I said, they meander. The wild, Alice in Wonderland oddness makes me uncomfortable (as does Roald Dahl’s stuff), and it’s no surprise George was friends with Lewis Carroll. (He was also an acquaintance of Dickens and a friend to Mark Twain.) In Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes, the author seems hardly able to write fast enough to keep up with his inner vision. There are goblins, little men who live inside the moon, fairies, ogres, ghosts, singing trees; little old ladies who know more than they should and whose hair flows around them like water are sometimes visions of holy kindness and others long-toothed monsters in disguise.

In North Wind, a little boy named Diamond is swept nightly across the skies, nestled safely in the swirling hair of a beautiful pale woman, the personification of the north wind, and the boy’s encounter with her makes him “touched”, makes him odd and wise beyond his years—a trait that makes him seem simple to others. I never quite knew what the story was about until the last chapter, and I have a feeling MacDonald didn’t either. But somehow, to my great surprise, I closed the book with tears in my eyes. He pulled it off.

The Princess and the Goblin was more of a straightforward story, but it still seemed, uncomfortably at times, like MacDonald was flying by the seat of his pants. But there’s a gentle tone, and a reverence for true beauty that I’ve never read anywhere else, except maybe in Tolkien’s treatment of Galadriel or in Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. The stories are suitcases so stuffed with wisdom and wonderings and frights and delights that I picture George bouncing on top of them to zipper it shut while monstrous fingers and bits of luminous lace poke out. And yet. He gave me a way to think about faith and obedience that still helps me.

As strange as the other fairy tales are, Lilith and Phantastes, two of his best-known works, are even stranger. Here’s the best way I know to describe these books: imagine a Scottish preacher with a bushy beard setting up a desk in the middle of an old English forest, taking out his quill and paper, saying a quick prayer, then beginning to write his story—but not before dropping acid, just for good measure. McCartney and Lennon would have loved MacDonald. His main character in Phantastes, a 21-year-old named Anodos, bumbles his way into Fairy Land, and for some reason I could never quite figure, wandered about from weird house to weird house to creepy forest, meets other inhabitants of the woods who seem not at all surprised to be there, sings to a marble encased woman, encounters a rusty-armored knight, wanders about for a few days in a castle of invisible servants, eats well, and kills a giant. It was baffling. No one would ever, ever publish one of these books today. George would have been a fine pastor who self-published his books until his congregation got a hold of them and then they would’ve fired him and called the authorities. I’m joking, but only sort of.

And yet. And yet there was something fascinating about the whole journey. Every book I’ve read of his has been the same. Every time I encounter again and again a stab of bright truth that makes the journey worthwhile.

Here are a few examples:

On joy and sorrow: “As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love.

On love: “I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another, yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being beloved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness.”

On good work: “Somehow or other,” said he, “notwithstanding the beauty of this country of Faerie, in which we are, there is much that is wrong in it. If there are great splendours, there are corresponding horrors; heights and depths; beautiful woman and awful fiends; noble men and weaklings. All a man has to do, is to better what he can. And if he will settle it with himself, that even renown and success are in themselves of no great value, and be content to be defeated, if so be that the fault is not his; and so go to his work with a cool brain and a storng will, he will get it done; and fare none the worse in the end, that he was not burdened with provision and precaution.”

“But he will not always come off well,” I ventured to say.

“Perhaps not,” rejoined the knight, “in the individual act, but the result of his lifetime will content him.

MacDonald wasn’t crazy. He was able, somehow, to keep his inner eye wide open; he was able to peer into the dazzling invisible world and tell us what he’d seen. He was caught up in the rapturous love of a God he knew as Father, and more than any author or artist I’ve ever read, succeeded in Madeline L’Engle’s principle of serving the work.

Next, Part Three: The Inner Spirit

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


18 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I have long said that Phantastes and Lilith are a good way for a Christian to take a legal, safe LSD trip. I mean safe physically. Mentally, spiritually, how do you define safe?

    He did, in fact, fly by the seat of his pants. I think I remember reading that the first draft of Lilith was absolutely scribbled down on paper as fast as he could write.

    The picture of George stuffing a suitcase is the reality. He has the ability to unzip the reader’s soul, stuff it with images, and then zip it back up. When you read GM, you’re stuck. It all explodes in your consciousness later, sometimes years later.

  2. Drew

    Your mention of Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” (which I unabashedly claim as my favorite novel) reminded me that in his following novel, “A Soldier of the Great War,” Helprin made his protagonist a professor of aesthetics.

    How do I get a job like that?

    While I find myself quoting passages from “Winter’s Tale” far more often, I like this passage from near the end of “A Soldier of the Great War”:

    “And yet if you asked me what [the truth] was, I can’t tell you. I can tell you only that it overwhelmed me, that all the hard and wonderful things of the world are nothing more than a frame for a spirit, like fire and light, that is the endless roiling of love and grace. I can tell you only that beauty cannot be expressed or explained in a theory or an idea, that it moves by its own law, that it is God’s way of comforting His broken children.”

  3. whipple

    “…George MacDonald, however wrong he may have been about some things…”

    Thank you for the ubiquitous caveat. My tendency, especially with older writings by Christians I consider pillars of the faith – none of whom, it must be said, I ever knew personally – is to deify these long-gone saints as infallible interpreters of Scripture. It’s good to remember that they’re only human after all, and that they’re not the apostles, even if they are wonderful saints whom we should heed by and large.

    MacDonald himself said, “If a man cares more for opinion than for life…he is not a true man. By holding with a school he supposes to be right, he but bolsters himself up with the worst of all unbelief – opinion calling itself faith, unbelief calling itself religion.

  4. Becca

    This summer we adopted a little boy from Asia. On the day we met his birth town, we rode by bus through an hour-and-a-half of flood waters and traffic chaos times millions.

    The closer we got to our destination, the less I could breathe. I don’t have asthma; but still it felt like I was trying to suck in air through a wet sheet. The polluted sky was yellow-brown and thick. All definition required for beauty was lost in contamination.

    I started crying about halfway through the ride, overwhelmed by passing faces offering the two second gift of soul willing eyes hold out in exchange. Then they were gone. These people were now my family, but I couldn’t give them the sun.

    When I washed my clothes out in the hotel sink that night, the water was black. I cried again. For three years, contamination had filled every breath of my son’s lungs — it had been the vehicle for his laughter, for his dreams, for his first word, and for his sadness.

    A few weeks ago, I was talking our son for a walk. The late summer sun was flexing its glory, throwing strong, black shadows on the concrete before us. My son yelled with delight, point to shadow-us! “Look, Mama! Look! There’s Mama! There’s me!”

    It was his first time to see the miracle. There had been no shadows in the old world. Shadows require unadulterated sunlight.

    So, we stopped and turned a parking lot into a sanctuary. Dancing like two children instead of one. Raising our hands, stomping our feet like monsters, making shadow bunnies, and dinosaurs, and camels. Laughing and pointing. Isn’t it wonderful, Mama? Yes it is. I had forgotten.

    Immersed imagination. Found in rich books, yes. Found also in a parking lot dances.

    – – – –

    (‘Just sneeking in one teeny adoption plug. AKA: Go get those beautiful babies I couldn’t bring home. Please pardon the rabbit trail in the Rabbit Room. 🙂

  5. Drew

    I didn’t get married until I was 36. I turned 40 just after the birth of our second daughter. I fully believe that had I not discovered love and gotten married, I was well on my way to becoming irreversibly bitter, hardened and cynical, having spent several years building a wall of safety around myself. Keeping myself in (holding myself in) as much as keeping others out.

    My wife saved my life, beginning the process of bringing down that wall.

    And then came children. My children completely destroyed the wall, teaching me to laugh easier, to love fully, and to see the world again as a child sees the world.

    I love fall, but my children embrace fall. Every red maple leaf, every orange pumpkin, every crisp apple, is treated like an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime event.

    To become like them, I must learn to experience life fully — the joys, but the disappointments, too — with no filters. This is probably what it is to have faith like a child’s.

  6. Becca

    *’Sorry about the type-o’s. A sweet little boy was crawling in and out of my lap as I was typing. No time for perfection these days. 😉

  7. Leanne

    I’ve always connected that Rich Mullins lyric with George also. I’ve read that one of MacDonald’s favorite ideas was that we grow progressively younger as we mature spiritually. I wonder has any one else read The Golden Key – one of my favorites! In the journey of that story, the oldest man is The Old Man of the Fire, and he is just a child, arranging balls and rearranging them with the “ravishing smile” too deep to appear on a child’s face. A strange image, and yet one that is suggestive of so much more. Truth and wisdom and joy and childlikeness is at the heart of it all.

  8. Leanne

    Hey, also. I saw that you’re in Chicago for a concert? You should go check out the Wade Center at Wheaton College if you’ve never done so. (Or even if you have!) Chris Mitchell is the director and a former teacher of mine. Great guy. And the building is so cool and British-like, with cozy fireplaces and reading rooms. Lovely place to check out more George MacDonald stuff.

  9. Chris Whitler

    “…the result of his lifetime will content him.”

    Wow, such comforting words.

    I’ve only started my first McDonald book “The Light Princess and other stories”. Thanks for the heads up about the meandering. I thought maybe it was me. My favorite part so far has been in the introduction. He says that the best thing we can do to a man is not to tell him things but to wake thing up that are in him. That’s what a good story does, it wakes me up to what’s already there.

  10. Danielle

    Whenever I read GM, I feel awed at the sense of Truth in the stories. They’re so beautiful and gracious and instructing. They remind me use my eyes and my heart and not just my brain to see the world.

    Thanks AP for this series. I’m enjoying your (and everyone else’s) perspectives.

  11. Chris Yokel

    I recorded this quote from Phantastes (found at the beginning of Chapter 12) into my Moleskine:

    “They who believe in the influence of the stars over the fates of men are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law. All that man sees has to do with men. Worlds cannot be without an intermundane relationship. The community of the centre of all creation suggests an interradiating connection and dependance of the parts. Else a grander idea is conceivable than that which is already embodied. The blank, which is only a forgotten life, lying behind the consciousness, and the misty splendour, which is an undeveloped life, lying before it, may be full of mysterious revelations of other connections with the world around us, than those of science and poetry. No shining belt or gleaming moon, no red and green glory in a self-encircling twin star, but has a relation with the hidden things of a man’s soul, and, it may be, with the secret history of his body as well. They are portions of the living house wherein he abides.”

    Weird. Somewhat incomprehensible. But somehow strangely beautiful in parts.

  12. Becca

    Psssst. Great leader. What would you think about opening up a nook on this site where we can have a running discussion about a bunch of books from the RR lists? (A link for each book, so it’s not confusing.) I’m reading through several of them, and I’m aching to hear from others who have gone there before.

  13. Drew

    Great idea, because I’m looking for an opening to share my five-year-old’s reaction to “On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness” as we close in on the final chapters. : )

  14. b.b.

    I really appreciate this Rabbit Room and the conversations that go on here. I am just beginning to read MacDonald’s works (going through his Unspoken Sermon Series right now) and am thankful to have happened upon these posts. Your insights have brought light to MacDonald’s sermon on God’s Justice… as some things MacDonald insinuates do not line up with the Scriptures. I thought I was just misinterpreting him, needing to work on my reading comprehension skills… but now I see the bigger picture. So thank you for sharing your insights on him! Looking forward to more…. God Bless

  15. Phil W

    Living as if everything were a miracle–I love that feeling. I’m not living that way at the office today. I’m closer to seeing everything as a burden and myself as a dismal failure. Heh, why do you I let the enemy take me down like this?

    As for miracles, I have an orange to eat later. Oranges are fun.

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