George MacDonald - Visionary Dreamer of reconcilation

George MacDonald was C.S. Lewis' master. Lewis credited a reading of MacDonald's 'Phantastes', his first fantasy novel, with giving him a model of the search for holiness and that this search had a stop, a home, a place when it was fully realized in God. MacDonald was not only a principal factor in Lewis' conversion, he was a model for that conversion. He came after the manner of a literary saint.

MacDonald, himself, occupies a rather ambiguous place in literary history. A popular and accomplished nineteenth century author - of novels, poetry and theology - what principally survives is his striking reinvention of the fairy tale for the child in every person and his two striking novels of imagination and what would become known as the unconscious namely Phantastes (written at the outset of his career) and Lilith (written at its end). Here he creates imaginative worlds that are both resonantly beautifully and metaphysically complex inviting the reader to undergo their own self-reflective journey towards wholeness, holiness as Lewis' found. He is an author whose striking content in these books overcomes the inadequacy of his style (both in itself and in its ability to contain the reality of his vision).

As William Raeper compellingly argues in his 'George MacDonald - Novelist and Victorian Visonary', Lilith is MacDonald's 'Divine Comedy' where its central character, Mr Vane, is taken through an other worldly journey from ignorance to self-revelation, a revelation that brings redemption not only to and for himself but to the world he inhabits, the real world of dream of which this world is only an imitation.

For MacDonald believed passionately that this world is enfolded in a greater one, the beauties of this world, as a disciple of the Romantics, was a foreshadowing of an ideal world, where life continued in a deepening pattern of revealing meaning, a world in which God lured every soul back home to its home in God who was both our Father and our Mother. Death was never an end but a transition to this world foreseen. It was a vision that was accompanied by, and contend with, much actual death - MacDonald`s family being wracked by tuberculosis as so many were.

Reading Raeper's intellectual biography reminded me of the difficulty of reading Lewis as an 'evangelical'. MacDonald himself had rejected his birthright of Calvinism, had failed to become a successful Congregational minister because of his purported heresies and had settled into Anglicanism (and laity) because it allowed him a capaciousness of thought that allowed for little censure. After all he hoped for the redemption of all at the end and imagined that this included the whole of the created order, animals included. He was in the jargon of the time - an universalist.  As was Lewis himself. More than this, their imaginative lives stretched them to a sympathy towards the 'pagan' both of antiquity and (notably in MacDonald's case) towards other religions. They were both more complex than simple classification allows.

Both too were wonderful defenders of the reality of the imagination as the key category of being in the world. As Coleridge acknowledged, the world came to be continuously as an act of the divine imagination and grasping the contours of the world required our own imaginative acts. Poetry was a vehicle of truth telling not simply of fancy. We navigate best when we dream most deeply aligned with the world's own dreaming. MacDonald regularly quoted with appreciation the German poet-philosopher, Novalis, remark that life becomes only truly real when you realize that it is being dreamed.

Strikingly MacDonald`s two novels of adult faerie have the capacity to transport you closer to your dream, the reality of the life you are meant to be living not didactically (MacDonald left his capacious ability to sermonize behind here) but by creating symbols complex enough to mirror any soul, to meet it where it is in its struggle towards consciousness and invite it further and deeper than many a more superficially accomplished author. 


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