In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (2 of 3)

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) Hamburger Kunsthalle

George MacDonald was greatly influenced by German Romanticism, and in particularly through the Idealism and creative imagination of Novalis. Novalis attempted to change his readers’ understanding of truth from looking at an object to expel truth to looking at the subject to understand the truth. MacDonald often paraphrased Novalis in his personal letters by writing, “The Realist is an Idealist who knows nothing of himself. Realism is crude Idealism at first hand.” MacDonald also related more closely to Novalis than Coleridge because of the willingness in German Romanticism to explore the spiritual.  MacDonald found life in the Spirit of the Christian faith through Romanticism, and his fiction testifies to a form of Christianity which is largely non-doctrinal.

With this understanding of MacDonald’s view of freedom, it is easy to see how his faith and idea of truth mingles with his fiction. In his fiction, MacDonald relies heavily upon his desire to lead readers into a genuine understanding of God, and his characters and stories are the vehicles through which he “preaches.” The effectiveness of MacDonald’s writing is due in part to his ability to encompass the entire spirit of a message through metaphor instead of simply communicating a didactic, static message. It is this metaphorical message—a truth received and realized within the reader—that MacDonald is primarily concerned with. One example of this metaphorical message is in the story The Princess and Curdie. Curdie is a young man sent out by the wise great, great grandmother on a special task that will test his spirit. Before Curdie can begin his task, he must first thrust his hands into the magical fiery roses in the hearth in order to burn off his calluses and impurities. Pulling his hands from the fire, Curdie realizes that he has the special ability to see a person’s character by shaking his/her hand. Curdie is then advised that people are not always what they seem—a piece of advice that MacDonald is careful to develop. The grandmother tells Curdie that beneath outward appearances of good and evil there is a more important distinction found in people’s ability to trust:

“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 to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.”

For MacDonald, this image of understanding a person’s character suggests that life comes from an intuitive experience beyond the planes of rationalism. Instead of allowing rationalism to shake his belief in God because he could not explain the unseen, he accepted the unseen not as untrue but as another cosmic metaphor which needs to be explored but can never be fully understood. This is Coleridge’s Idealism. The lack of understanding comes from deficient human reasoning not from divine impotence. In fact, MacDonald even went as far as to say that “’The bringing forth into sight of the things that are invisible [is] the end of all Art and every art’.”  MacDonald’s fiction thrives on the symbolic because he believed that his writing mirrored the creativity of God. MacDonald goes on to say in the same essay that “hidden meanings are all around us” and that nature itself is a representative of God’s character.  “The meanings are in those forms already,” he writes as he explains that mystery and metaphor are a “divine utterance.”

This mystery for MacDonald was intentionally embedded into his fiction and was a focal point for MacDonald’s belief that meaning can be relative. In his Scottish Writers series, David S. Robb explains how MacDonald’s view of meaning plays out in his fiction as he explains MacDonald as an author “who believes that literature ought to have as much conscious meaning crammed into it as possible and that, furthermore, any worthwhile piece of literature must have within it much more meaning still, far beyond what the author was conscious of devising.” The recurring symbol of sanctification is in the picture of fiery roses and appears in both the Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. The roses are only handled by the wise and righteous grandmother, and only those whom she deems ready can be partakers of the purging and healing power of the roses.

The symbolic embedded into nature also extends beyond the fictional world for MacDonald.  In A Dish of Orts, MacDonald quotes extensively from an essay titled “Essays on some of the Forms of Literature,” written by T.T. Lynch. In MacDonald’s essay—given the same title as the Lynch essay—MacDonald draws comparisons between Biography and Fiction.  MacDonald writes, “Deep in the relationship between the life shadowed forth in a biography, and the life in a man’s brain which he shadows forth in a fiction—when that fiction is of the highest order, and written in love, is beheld even by the writer himself with reverences.” MacDonald continues to expound on the similarities when he calls biography “God’s fiction,” and explains that fiction is often a more dramatic telling of the often inward struggle told within human life—biography.  In other words, fiction is man’s exploration and retelling of God’s more cosmic story and a wrestling with the mysteries yearning to “arrive at something greater than what now [we] can project and behold.” MacDonald rejects the notion that a well-written biography is one which only contains the facts and dates of a person’s life; instead, just like fiction, biography is a genre which should be treated with reverence because of the successes and failures of a human life which are invisible to the reader. In essence, MacDonald accepts that a biography, like fiction, must also bear the burden of representing the symbolic. Further on in the “Forms of Literature” eassy, MacDonald quotes Lynch’s poetic explanation of those unrepresented in biography: “One biography may help conjecture or satisfy reason concerning the story of a thousand unrecorded lives… the milky luster that runs through mid heaven is composed of a million million lights, which are not the less separate because seen indistinguishably.”  MacDonald praises Lynch for his observation that a biography is a story about an individual and a story about how that individual connects in spirit with other individuals.

Author: Josh Withrow

I want to help people creatively tell their stories by giving them the tools to engage other people with captivating ideas. My 14 years of classroom teaching and my master's degree in English Literature give me the experience to make my classes both creative and informative. People don't need a degree to enjoy learning -- but sometimes a little guidance goes a long way.

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