A baptised imagination

C.S. Lewis picked up a copy of George MacDonald's 'Phantastes' as a seventeen year old on a railway platform, not knowing what he was letting himself in for, given that this nineteenth century author had already fallen out of favour. It was, he later wrote, like having his imagination 'baptised'.

Baptised in a double sense. First it acted as a confirmation of the faculty of the imagination as a way of apprehending the world, a world enlarged from the patterns of common sense and 'realism', into a more spacious and flexible universe. Second that the tendency of that imagination to be 'polymorphous' (even 'polytheistic') could be aligned within a gifted and searching Christian sensibility.

In many ways it was reading this remarkable novel that sealed Lewis' fate both as a gifted scholar of the medieval and renaissance imagination (where MacDonald's sympathies also lay, coupled with German Romanticism) and as a writer of imaginative fiction for children of all ages (as MacDonald himself described his art or for the 'eternal child' that is in all ages).

Reading it again, after the passage of time, I am struck with how it both manages to be utterly Victorian in that weaving of romance, faery and fantasy that feels time bound (and a combination that MacDonald helped create) and which explains the falling away of his reputation almost immediately after his death; and, how it 'resurrects' as a work of timeless imaginative grace that if you allow it begins its work of speaking eternal possibilities. In this it is wholly unlike 'Alice in Wonderland', penned by MacDonald's great friend, Lewis Carroll, that is both in form and content of a piece, timelessly modern, and yet an highly gifted entertainment rather than a work of soul making.

'Phantastes' and C.S. Lewis' love of it, also, confirms for me my puzzlement that Lewis ever became such a 'evangelical Protestant icon' because though radically and deeply Christian, he shares with MacDonald an imagination that is 'universalist' in direction. Salvation comes to all who act out of purity of heart and God speaks to purity long before His voice penetrates to the merely believing! A faithful atheist, heartily at home in his material world, yet caring for all is more likely to taste the mystery of God than the 'Christian' who certain in his dogma cannot bring himself to love his 'neighbours' without first checking qualifying shared beliefs!

It is a beautiful book where its 'hero', Anodos, is taken on a journey into 'faery-land' and slowly learns that what matters most deeply is the 'de-centring' of one's ego, that dies into a new life where happiness is vicarious, it is born out of being centred in the joy of others. We spring into genuine being when our being is lost and found in the other. This is a process, a dynamic, rather than a once and for all event. We live in an ever-deepening journey into a luring mystery that has no end. The journey's logic is that of imaginative proximity, not the cause and effect of the 'real world', of a 'fairy story'.

You can see why it is a novel beloved of poets (even when MacDonald's own attempts at real poetry are frankly a bit dire)!



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