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

MacDonald draws his understanding of biography as story into much of his fiction. Anodos in Phantastes, Wilfrid in Wilfrid Cumbermede, Duncan in The Portent, and Belorba Day in The Flight of the Shadow are all autobiographers who tell his or her personal story of change.  It has often been noted by critics that MacDonald’s fiction retains strength because of this autobiographical nature; in fact, a number of different stories—Alec Forbes of Howglen and Robert Falconer, to name two—contain characters or settings that are autobiographical of MacDonald’s own life.  This method of writing is consistent with MacDonald’s view of the purpose of biography as a narrative that provides the reader with a method of understanding God, life, and meaning—even if the biographical narrative is fictionalized (similar to the parables of Jesus). In Rebecca Ankeny’s, The Story, The Teller, and the Audience in George MacDonald’s Fiction, she articulates this characteristic of MacDonald’s writing: “[H]e maintains a skepticism about all attempts to state truth unambiguously: we are hampered by point of view, by vocabulary, by intellectual ability, by limited experience, and by being finite human beings in our attempt to know and be known.”

To MacDonald, a person could only be completely known by the one who created him/her, and a biography is only one way of understanding the spirit and purpose of a person.  Macdonald was skeptical of the modern biography that focused on the didactic retelling of empirical facts and claims, believing instead, that our finite minds could not grasp infinite truths.  His skepticism even extended to the written foundation of Christianity itself: the Bible.  Although he treasured the Bible and treated it as God’s inspired Word, he refused to believe that it was the only Word of God: “By the Word of God, I do not understand The Bible.  The Bible is a Word of God, the chief of his written words, because it tells us of the Word, the Christ: but everything God has done and given man to know is a word of his, a will of his.” MacDonald’s belief in the role of the Bible actively portrays a belief that humanity also plays a role in the cosmic story of God, and thus history is a chronicle of selected lives whose stories are capable of leading people to an ultimate purpose in Christ. This is not to say that MacDonald believed that the truth of the Bible is relative, but that the stories in the Bible transcend the factual in order to reveal the divine.

In one of his most popular and symbolic fairy tales, The History of Photogen and Nycteris, MacDonald writes of a witch named Watho who has a wolf inside of her mind that desires to know everything.  Photogen, a master in the light, and Nycteris, a beauty of the night, overcome their captor, Watho, and grow in courage to face a world which they do not know.  In the end, they both grew to love the foreign world best because it represented their love: “Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.”

This fairy tale may be one of the most autobiographical George MacDonald’s views of life.  As with Photogen and Nycteris, MacDonald’s seemingly opposing influences of Christianity and German Romanticism form a relationship which allows each to reveal meaning in the other. His understanding of love, grace, and Christ influenced his view of narrative and his understanding of the purpose of an individual life.  Through the writings of Coleridge and Novalis, MacDonald’s rigid Calvinistic upbringing gave way to a belief that rested on the understanding that all life is a fiction from the hand of God; the spirit of the law becoming more important than the letter.  And from MacDonald’s pen flowed forms of autobiographical narrative embedded with symbols that mimicked a created Nature.

In an age where history meant finding facts and extracting truth from what was known, George MacDonald wrote fiction about what was unknown—and it was true.  MacDonald’s history meant story, and the truth of the story came from the relationship between the author and the reader. Truth was synonymous with Spirit, and the meaning of a historical event depended both on how the story was told and how it was understood.  MacDonald’s combination of Christianity and Romanticism foreshadowed a type of postmodernism, but it differs from the current rendering of postmodernism because he allowed his readers to decipher his symbols with an intention that they would use the meaning to grow in a greater understanding of the divine. He relied on symbolic metaphors—which were open to interpretive truth—in order to direct his readers gaze to the Ultimate Truth—that of Jesus Christ. Here, MacDonald and the postmodern mind must part ways. For while the postmodern might say that truth cannot be found, or that truth is a personal freedom, MacDonald’s employment of this freedom is used in the service of something greater than himself or his readers. Thus, we may decipher the individual meanings in our personal spheres of understanding, but MacDonald calls his readers to look outside those spheres of human inventions (such as empirical facts and creeds) to see the transcendent. He implores them to understand that truth is interpretive not because truth isn’t solid, but because we are not—not because truth is finite, but because we are. And as MacDonald explains, our finite natures seek truth in a quantity when in fact we should be seeking it as an entity. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

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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