George MacDonald Fairy Tales

I started reading George MacDonald in high school, at C.S. Lewis’s recommendation.

My first George MacDonald was, if I remember correctly, “The Golden Key,” a lovely story about a boy and girl who enter fairy land to go on a quest and find as they near the end that they have lived their entire lives on that quest and must go through death to succeed in it. I first read it in the weird and creepy halls of the university library where I now like to study and write (to me, at least, evocatively weird and creepy, probably largely because of memories of MacDonald, but full of dingy and duct-taped greenish carpet and high, dusty metal bookshelves.)

My next MacDonald was a number of stories from the two volumes of Gifts of the Christ Child. I liked these stories, especially the story of Photogen and Nycteris and “The Wise Woman”—which struck me, as it had struck C.S. Lewis, as wonderfully psychologically astute. I couldn’t decide which of the spoiled protagonists I was, Agnes the proud shepherd’s daughter or Rosamond the wrathful king’s daughter (in retrospect—definitely Agnes, though I think readers are in fact supposed to see themselves in both, as I did). Of course, those characterizations (proud and wrathful) do not at all do justice to the psychological insights in the book; especially, MacDonald captures how dreadfully hard it is to try to change oneself, the tricks our minds play on us when we try seriously to adhere to our ideals.

In retrospect, this story is (at least, to the modern mind) more disturbing than I realized. Rosamond, especially, between her cruelty to animals and her attempted suicide, strikes me as having much more serious issues than being “spoiled,” but she comes off in her entirety as a very real and plausible person. Rosamond is so much more destructive than Agnes that it is hard to think that they are, as MacDonald says, equally awful—especially since Rosamond will be a queen with great worldly power, while Agnes is most likely to remain poor and lack influence throughout her life. But….MacDonald is not remotely that much of a consequentialist.

I want to write at least one fictional adaptation of this story—perhaps one that merely transposes it to modern times and another that inverts it, both dealing (somehow) with its more problematic aspects.

As an argumentative side note, I’ve read at least one critic who takes the fact that Agnes is not redeemed within the space of the story as a reflection of the “fact” that MacDonald believes that peasants are intellectually and spiritually duller than nobles; the text explicitly contradicts this—I believe MacDonald comments that Agnes has superior faculties, which the story bears out—and it also runs against the grain of most of MacDonald’s fiction. I would guess that redeemed Agnes will outshine redeemed Rosamond someday.

I’ve made several attempts on Phantastes and Lilith, MacDonald’s adult fairy tales, and did not get through either (not through the books’ fault; I am, shall we say, not a compulsive finisher of books, and many of my favorites have taken me multiple tries to get through) until five years ago, when I finished Lilith (it was weird, and disturbing, and extremely evocative and thought-provoking). A dear coworker of mine just bought me a beautiful, illustrated edition of Phantastes, so perhaps the time has come that I will finish it too. This coworker knew I would be interested because I had exclaimed over a beautifully illustrated edition of The Wise Woman and Other Stories, which I just bought for myself, and I just read “Little Daylight,” which I hadn’t before).

In all, I find a lot of MacDonald’s work lovely and arresting, although, as I commented earlier, it sometimes doesn’t have enough—teeth? grit? earth?—to compel me. I suspect this last problem is a problem with my taste and not with his writing—or at least that the back of my head wants him to write in a different genre than the one he is actually writing in.



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