I’ve been lately enjoying George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Many of the ideas in those books echo the thoughts in one of MacDonald’s other fantasy books, Phantastes. MacDonald’s characters are often on a journey of some sort which prompts all sorts of surprises and discoveries. There is nearly always some sort of tension between faith and unbelief, virtue and temptation, courage and fear, and MacDonald never fails to give me deep, life-changing prompts for my own journey. I’ll highlight just a few of these to keep this post from being a novel of its own.
The first example is that of unbelief, that progressive losing of the childlike mindset that sees wonder and potential and possibility all around.
Curdie is a miner boy whose stealthy spying on the goblins in The Princess and the Goblin uncovers a plot to kidnap the princess. But in the beginning of the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, he is losing his grip on true reality:
“….as Curdie grew, he grew at this time faster in body than in mind— with the usual consequence, that he was getting rather stupid— one of the chief signs of which was that he believed less and less in things he had never seen. At the same time I do not think he was ever so stupid as to imagine that this was a sign of superior faculty and strength of mind. Still, he was becoming more and more a miner, and less and less a man of the upper world where the wind blew. On his way to and from the mine he took less and less notice of bees and butterflies, moths and dragonflies, the flowers and the brooks and the clouds. He was gradually changing into a commonplace man. There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid of it that he takes himself in altogether, and comes at length to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.”
In Phantastes, MacDonald’s chief character, Anodos, opens a closet he was told not to open, and his shadow-self finds him. This shadow changes the way Anodos sees people and things – it comes between his vision and his relationships and causes problems. As he goes on, he says of his shadow-self:
“But the most dreadful thing of all was, that I now began to feel something like satisfaction in the presence of my shadow. I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, ‘In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live.’”
Anodos begins to embrace the lack of wonder as right, as normal, as true; Chesterton said, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” In the end Anodos and Curdie, both lacking wonder, make selfish choices that harm others. The harm they do causes them to see more truly, and they repent.
George MacDonald always brings moral and spiritual issues to the heart and not simply to the head. Courage is shown to be kingly and beautiful. Fear is contrasted with servility and ugliness. Unbelief creates delusion and destroys beauty, and the childlikeness of faith shines out true reality and beauty. Reading MacDonald causes an inner reaction of desire – the desire to be courageous oneself, or childlike, to avoid the ugliness and imitate the beauty. Truth in the head alone often creates only arrogance and self-satisfaction, because we can think we’ve owned a thing when we’ve only grasped it with our intellect. But MacDonald always brings it home to my heart, to my will, and stirs me in the depths.
This bit from The Princess and the Goblin shows how fear can drive the very thing we fear to come to pass:
“Not daring to look behind her, she rushed straight out of the gate and up the mountain. It was foolish indeed—thus to run farther and farther from all who could help her, as if she had been seeking a fit spot for the goblin creature to eat her in his leisure; but that is the way fear serves us: it always sides with the thing we are afraid of.”
Curdie, by contrast, is not afraid of the goblins. Instead, he makes up mocking songs to sing to them:
“We’re the merry miner-boys,
Make the goblins hold their noise.”
The goblins can’t stand hearing someone sing boldly, confidently, not giving in to fear.
Jesus had to say to the disciples many times, “Do not be afraid,” and “Be of good courage.” King David said, “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.” Fear locks us in a prison of our own perceptions, a cell of our own making. We create and live in a false reality, sometimes for decades, until our perceptions of reality are altered or even shattered.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.