The intuitive outcome of my February 2020 reading was a resolution to make George MacDonald a literary staple of future winters. A logical accounting of what makes his fairy stories particularly suitable for the season, however, has proved more elusive.
MacDonald’s fairy tales are by no means escapist. Some, like “The Wise Woman,” are unscrupulously didactic. Nor does it do them justice merely to call them “hopeful,” in contrast to much contemporary literature I have run across of late.
The stories of MacDonald, a 19th-century Scottish minister and influential literary figure, embody, simultaneously, the reality of human folly and the elusive element of mystery. It’s not hard to embrace the sublime at Christmas, when we’re celebrating the incarnation of divinity and even secular traditions are infused with “magic” and “wonder.” But by mid-February the shine has worn off our mass-produced miracles. With the midwinter celebration of Candlemas–the final vestige of the Christmas season–behind us, the ultimate mystery of the Nativity dulls in our mortal memories.
I picked up MacDonald’s fairy stories as a respite from realistic WWII fiction. But I found that beyond providing a fantasy reading experience, they relit that sense of … well, the inexpressible. More than heartwarming, more than edifying, more than otherworldly. It occurs to me, in fact, that MacDonald’s stories are difficult to sum up because they accomplish precisely what good fiction is meant to do–express that which cannot be arrived at through exegesis.
MacDonald’s essay “The Fantastic Imagination” (click here for an online version) discusses the ethereal nature of any work of art, whether a painting, a symphony, or a fairy story. He writes, “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean” (The Complete Fairy Tales, Penguin p. 7). His stories, he says, are not intended to explain or be explained but to arouse thoughts and feelings. “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself” (p. 10).
It strikes me that a pandemic is also not a bad time for fairytales. (Also Georgette Heyer, for entirely different reasons. See The Grand Sophy.)
Incidentally, I borrowed The Complete Fairy Tales from my daughter, who received it as a Christmas gift. Though usually careful with books, I immediately (and unintentionally) creased the cover by kneeling on it and ruffled the pages by putting it in my backpack along with an insulated coffee cup holding an inch of water. (At least it wasn’t coffee.) From the final state of the paperback, one would never guess that I listened to at least two thirds of the stories on Librivox. (Another great source of free audiobooks, with no expiration date. See the Pandemic Reading post.)
I could fumble about for parallels between the condition of my paperback and the state of the world. But I will leave that to the reader to contemplate and merely say of MacDonald’s stories that you should read–or listen to–them for yourself and see what they awaken.