[Editor’s note: Recently, the Rabbit Room staff has been struck by the sheer amount of awesome new stuff being released during the month of October. So this month’s blog content will be punctuated by posts that spotlight each of these exciting new works of art. We will begin with Rabbit Room Press’s reprinting of The Light Princess, complete with illustrations by Ned Bustard (of Every Moment Holy). What follows is the foreword included in the book, written by Jennifer Trafton. Enjoy!]
Something magical happens when the wind blows through a wind chime. A moment before the arrival of that invisible wisp of breath, all is still. The wind chime is motionless and silent. No one would guess that its pendulous form contains the possibility of music.
And then, a breeze. A dance. A sudden flurry of notes, as if the wind chime has been surprised into speech and, to its own utter delight and the delight of those listening, begins to sing.
Put two wind chimes side by side, and the magic deepens. For the wind is the same, and yet the way it curls around each of them, the slight differences in their shape, the way the chimes respond to the movement of the air—all result in a unique song for each. Same breath, different music.
For the writer of this fairy tale you now hold in your hands, each of us is a wind chime. Each of us, he believed, possesses depths of song none could guess, not even ourselves. And that potential inside us—that hidden music waiting to be awakened by the invisible breath of a story, a symbol, a beautiful image, a flicker of truth—is our God-given gift of imagination.
. . .
Like many others, you may have first encountered George MacDonald through the writings of C. S. Lewis—in Surprised by Joy, perhaps, as the author of the book (Phantastes) that “baptized” Lewis’s imagination and showed him the beauty of holiness, or in The Great Divorce as the narrator’s gentle Scottish guide through heaven. “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master,” Lewis said; “indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” The more you read of both authors, the more you will see the truth of Lewis’s statement.
But MacDonald’s influence extends far beyond Lewis. Typical of the prolific Victorians, he published over fifty volumes in his lifetime, including realistic novels, fantasies, collections of short stories and fairy tales, poetry, sermons, essays, translations, and literary criticism. A man of wide interests and gifts—preacher; literature teacher; humanitarian; actor; friend of theologians, artists, and orphans; father of eleven children; gentle patriarch of a home famous for its hospitality to literary luminaries and working-class neighbors alike—he was one of the most beloved Christian authors and thinkers of the 19th-century English-speaking world, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Queen Victoria enthusiastically dispersed his novel Robert Falconer among her grandsons. Lady Byron, the famous poet’s widow, became one of MacDonald’s most loyal supporters and a lifelong patron. Mark Twain discussed co-authoring a novel with MacDonald and requested a second copy of At the Back of the North Wind because his children had worn out the first one. Lewis Carroll, a regular guest in the MacDonald household, shared his Alice stories with MacDonald’s children, who begged him to publish them. When G. K. Chesterton (who called him “St. Francis of Aberdeen” and claimed The Princess and the Goblin “made a difference to my whole existence”) presided over a centenary celebration of MacDonald’s life and work in 1924, Sir James Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) and the poet William Butler Yeats were among the many distinguished guests. J. R. R. Tolkien, Florence Nightingale, Oswald Chambers, Madeleine L’Engle, and Maurice Sendak have all spoken of their debt to him, and modern fantasy literature owes much of its revived interest and inspiration to his faerie creations.
He was a magnet of a man and a writer whose power lay deeper than mere craft. His ability to view the world through the eyes of a child reflected his belief that a childlike approach to life is essential to faith, and his genius for conveying spiritual truths through symbols has few rivals. But he was a Christian who pondered the why of his art as well as the how. For numerous readers and fellow writers then and since, he articulated something about our human identity as imaginers that has fundamentally shaped our view of what it means to write a story, and also to receive one.
MacDonald believed, with all his heart, that God’s revelation of himself to his children is a revelation that invites and enriches the imagination rather than suppresses it. God speaks to us through stories and metaphors in Scripture; he came to meet us not as an Idea but as a Child. Revelation is God reaching out to us; imagination is us reaching out to God. It is our own little mirror image of the Creator’s unique power to clothe thought in concrete form, to dream up and make something—in God’s case, out of nothing; in our case, out of the vast and rich universe that God made for us and filled with living poems that show us glimpses of his glory, if only we have the eyes (and the imagination) to see it.
The truth stirred by story is the truth that slips into our hearts rather than the truth that marches into our heads.Jennifer Trafton
“In very truth,” MacDonald wrote, “a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. . . . We live by faith, and not by sight.” Therefore, the imagination is a gift that should be carefully cultivated in both young and old—baptized by the beauty of nature and art, nourished by stories that point to the Great Story, led further and further on the path to holiness. “It is God who gives thee thy mirror of imagination and if thou keep it clean, it will give thee back no shadow but the truth.”
The purest expression of this gift, MacDonald believed, is fantasy, and what sets certain of his stories within the realm of Faerie is not the presence of fairies or even magic (though both may be there) but the quality of enchantment. The world shimmers with spiritual meaning that lies just beneath the surface, winking at us through stone or tree or bird or star. And because artists are not creating things so much as finding them, uncovering the truths God has already planted in His creation, then the writer of a fantasy story and the reader of that story are both, in a sense, on a journey of discovery—through a land where the joys and the sorrows, the longings and the wonders of human experience, are distilled into their simplest and most vivid forms.
Such a story, MacDonald said, is not an allegory, not a secret code, but more like a sonata of images—golden keys, spinning-wheels, suns, moons, flowers, shadows, cleansing rose-flames, clumsy goblin shoes, water, wine, and bread—symbols that ring in us like little bells, reminding us of many things, arousing memories and emotions, nudging us to make connections. The truth stirred by story is the truth that slips into our hearts rather than the truth that marches into our heads. The unique power of a fairy tale lies in its ability, not to impart ideas or to teach a message, but to awaken our deepest longings—to cause us to desire the good, the true, and the beautiful that we have encountered during our sojourn in fairy land.
It’s an encounter that forever changed C. S. Lewis, and it continues to change lives today.
. . .
First published in 1864 as one of the stories told to heal a depressed young woman in the novel Adela Cathcart, “The Light Princess” remains one of MacDonald’s most beloved fairy tales. It crackles with wit and wordplay, proving that all the weighty importance he gave to Faerie did not mean that for MacDonald a fairy tale must be overly serious. The double meaning of “gravity,” upon which the plot rests, allows him to spin countless puns and share a hearty laugh with his readers while at the same time gently drawing us toward graver themes, such as the redemptive power of self-sacrificial love and the kind of tears that cleanse and deepen us.
Artist Ned Bustard has paid homage to all the multilayered themes and resonances in MacDonald’s writing by threading visual symbols throughout the illustrations, like little Easter eggs for you to discover. Some are images drawn from centuries of Christian iconography—seashell, dolphin, anchor, bread, wine, and more. He’s also hidden objects and elements from some of MacDonald’s other fantasy stories, such as The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, “The Golden Key,” and Lilith. To those of you who’ve read these other stories: look carefully! Do you spot the allusions?
A final word before you begin: if the symbolism of “The Light Princess” sets off a symphony of little ringing bells in your imagination, let it. MacDonald steadfastly refused to explain what his stories “meant,” and that in part reflects his humility as a writer. The meaning you find may be better than mine, he says. An author may not know the full truth of what he’s writing, but the Maker of Stories does, and He will blow truth through the reader’s heart far beyond and even apart from the author’s intentions. “If a writer’s aim be logical conviction,” MacDonald wrote, “he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.”
And so, the best way to read a story by George MacDonald is to be still and listen. Whether laughing or crying or both, listen. Wait for the wind.
Jennifer Trafton served as the managing editor of Christian History magazine before returning to her first love, children’s literature. She is the author of two middle-grade novels, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic and Henry and the Chalk Dragon, and a contributor to the forthcoming book J. R. R. Tolkien and the Arts: A Theology of Subcreation. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where, in addition to pursuing her love of art and illustration, she teaches writing classes, workshops, and summer camps in a variety of schools, libraries, and homeschool groups in the Nashville area, as well as online classes to kids around the world.