“He that will be a hero, will barely be a man”

Then first I knew the delight of being lowly; of saying to myself, “I am what I am, nothing more.” “I have failed,” I said, “I have lost myself—would it had been my shadow.” I looked round: the shadow was nowhere to be seen. Ere long, I learned that it was not myself, but only my shadow, that I had lost. I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal.

George MacDonald, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women ch. 22 (1858).

Faith and Faerie: Reflections of Another World

When I was asked to do a devotional for today’s post, I really didn’t know which direction to turn.  For someone who loves fantasy, the works of Lewis are an obvious choice for an intertwining of faith and faerie. But Lewis’s brilliance has its sources, and I thought that perhaps one of Lewis’s favorite writers, George MacDonald, would be of service in this discussion, as well.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis says:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

mist irelandAs Christians, we know that “another world” is the heavenly kingdom, but as we are, for now, separated from that future dwelling, we are left with promises and our imagination.  For many of us, exploring and creating fantasy worlds can temporarily satiate the driving need to find “another world” to which we truly belong.  But Faerie Lands can play the role of more than just escapism; they can both act is a reflection of Reality and become that faintest of connections to “another world” which compels us forward in our walk toward it.

The fantasies and faerie worlds that we construct, no matter how wonderful, are still impermanent.  The kind of fantasy that MacDonald, Lewis, and many others strive to write is a kind which attempts to draw us out of our immediate Reality and take us to another world, but only temporarily.  Then, like a mirror, these worlds begin to reflect our Reality in a different form, and we can’t help thinking that some of these enchanted landscapes seem very familiar. Inexorably, we are drawn back into our own world, but when we return, we understand something of our world better, while the yearning for another world remains, perhaps stronger than ever.reflections isle of skye loch

MacDonald says in Phantastes:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? – not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier?  Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still.  Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself.  All mirrors are magic mirrors.  The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

castle scotland craigmillarA beautiful reflection is exactly what MacDonald strives for in his depiction of Faerie Land.  With lush descriptions, strange and surreal, whimsical and lovely, MacDonald draws his wandering hero into the depths of Faerie and compels us along with him.

But as with all reflections, there is a place where they join with Reality.  We can be in one and touch the other.  MacDonald’s Faerie Land is not meant to stand entirely apart:

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.

From the very beginning, Faerie is intertwined with our world.  It reflects our own world, but it also connects us to another.  It both satisfies and increases our longing for that Other World that we know exists.  And so, if this fantasy world as MacDonald portrays it – a reflection of Reality and an echo of something greater beyond it – if this is not only accessible, but ever-present, then we might begin to realize that its higher Form, that Other World that we all long for, is also in our midst.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, tangible, glorious, the source of all deep magic, drawing us further into it.

This is why I find Faerie and fantasy so beautiful and so satisfying: they have the ability to reflect our Reality while simultaneously summoning forth faint, but glorious images of the true Other World.  The best Faerie stories form a connection between us and what we were made for.

A Book to Share: Phantastes by George MacDonald

Any book inspired by the Celtic Otherworld is a book that is going to capture my interest (although whether it retains my interest beyond the synopsis or first chapter is often an entirely separate matter).  So, when Time’s “ever rolling stream” decided to reduce itself to a more manageable trickle on my behalf, I found myself able to look back through that list of books that I’d always wanted to read.

One such book was Phantastes.  The title alone is beautiful and interesting –  and apparently pronounced “fantasies” rather than the French pronunciation that my random brain immediately bestowed upon it.  I wanted to read the book not only because it has a fab title and it happens to be about my favorite place not in the world, but because it is written by the man who inspired CS Lewis, as well as Tolkien and others, and whose concepts of magic and beauty are quite simply stunning.

However, upon beginning Phantastes, I admit to being rather stumped.  Having read The Princess and the Goblin, I was prepared for symbolism, but I was also expecting a lot more coherence of a certain sort.  I had anticipated a plot rather like most books, that is a clear, linear adventure with an obvious challenge, a crisis, a climax, a triumph, and a conclusion.

What I got was Faerie.  The Otherworld doesn’t really make sense the way that our world makes sense.  Trees talk, mirrors might draw you from one dimension into another.  A door that leads into a house will not lead back out of it again.  Music has the power to awaken trapped souls.  Shadows are more than just darkness.  The Otherworld that our hero finds himself in is not a world that one makes sense of by means of comparison to our own world.  Faerie has its own dimension with its own rules and its own way of telling a story.

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.

After I had grasped this concept, I proceeded to wander aimlessly about the book along with our hero, hoping to discover the deep truths that I knew MacDonald had to convey.  I met with only marginal success.  I have the sneaking suspicion that this book will take about five reads to grasp the basics of the metaphors and another five to truly understand them.

The few themes I did uncover in the book were certainly powerful.  And without giving away the plot (not that I really could, since I barely understand it even now), I will talk about a couple of the elements I saw depicted in this story that touched me most.

Our hero’s name is Anodos, which, as I found out, actually means “ascent” or “upward path” in Greek.  This is deeply meaningful.  Anodos spends the story walking the pathways of Faerie.   He has no perceived destination.  He is simply traveling through Faerie to experience whatever he will experience.  His experiences come in episodes with tenuous threads joining some of them together, while others seem to stand entirely alone.  At least, that is what I saw (but I suspect there are likely a whole network of threads that I missed entirely because I was too busy clinging desperately at the first one I spotted).

The subtitle of the story is “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women.”  It is a romance, though a somewhat bittersweet one.  In any given novel that you might read today, the hero has a destiny involving ascension to leadership and heroism, attaining a prize, finding true love.  Any of these might do.  Often, they are combined.

George MacDonald doing what he did best.

Anodos’ story has no such conclusion.  In fact, the prizes he gains, he ends up losing.  His “ascent” is not material. The ascension to power and position, he must cast aside.  The woman he loves… well, let’s just say it’s not like other books.  But I don’t want to give it away.  The theme of Phanatastes (or, I should say, one of the themes), is not what you gain, but what you lose.  Anodos is continually seeking, but the truly wonderful things that he finds are the ones that he wasn’t looking for.  Wilfullness and the determination to forge his own path end very poorly indeed.  Humility and the willingness to listen to others and let the path itself guide him seem to work far better.  His “ascent” is found through “descent.”

This is not a book to read if you want a clear cut adventure with a clear cut ending.  There are battles, romance, and a quest of sorts.  It is just not that sort of book.  What I loved most about it was the ravishing beauty of the scenes, the dreamlike quality of the journey, and the haunting sense of something greater guiding Anodos’ footsteps.  I’ll have to read it again, and hopefully someday I will.  For now, the thought of falling back into Faerie is both tempting and terrifying.  Someday, I’ll try again.

Thou goest thine, and I go mine –

Many ways we wend;

Many days, and many ways,

Ending in one end.

Many a wrong, and its curing song;

Many a road, and many an inn;

Room to roam, but only one home

For all the world to win.

George MacDonald- the foundation for fantasy-Good Reads part V

I have been talking about “Classic” Literature.  And I will freely admit that I am not as well read as I ought to be.  And you may be asking: “Lantern Hollow  is supposed to be a Fantasy/Science Fiction press; why all this literature that has nothing to do with those genres?”  Well, here is the answer: Literary Tradition.

I like literary tradition; it is the foundation for which we build our writing styles from.  So I have talked about Epics (the foundation of all foundations – at least in my mind – for literature); I have raved about Shakespeare (and who wouldn’t; the man was a genius); I have dabbled in some more-modern, somewhat-depressing literature of the brilliant Dostoevsky; and I have admitted lack of love but needed appreciation for American literature.  I personally believe that I have covered the scope of what  traditional “classic” literature has to offer at least from a Western Civ. perspective. I now want to move to the foundations of fantasy.

I like to think that the true foundations of fantasy are myths and epics.  And I could spend years talking about each of my favorite myths or little anecdotes in an epic…but I won’t bore you with all of that (at least not yet).  I want to introduce you to the the man who laid the groundwork for modern fantasy:  George MacDonald.

I know this is a research sin . . . but sometimes wiki does get somethings right.  So here is a quote explaining just how awesome George MacDonald was and how much he shaped the greatest men of fantasy/fiction writing of the twentieth century.

Known particularly for his poignant fairy tales and fantasy novels, George MacDonald inspired many authors, such as W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L’Engle. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his “master”: “Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later,” said Lewis, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had “made a difference to my whole existence.”

I remember the first time I read one of George MacDonald’s novels.  It was The Princess and the Goblin.  I was nine or ten, maybe even a little older, but my age really doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that I fell in love with the story.  I wanted to be the Princess.  I wanted to have a Curdie looking out for me.  I wanted a magic ring.  McDonald’s story, the world that he created . . . was just for me.  I let all of my fantasies become like his story and world.  I would never look at imagination the same way ever again.

If you haven’t read anything by MacDonald, you need to.  In fact, stop reading this post and buy one of his books, or if you can’t wait for Amazon to ship it, read The Princess and the Goblin on google books!