In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (1 of 3)

The Victorian Age meant progress to much of the Western world.  With a burgeoning industry in much of Europe and the Western world, and flourishing developments in health, science, and religion, the Victorian Age was the precursor to a Modern belief in truth and empirical evidence.  This shift made way for a more progressive and educated aristocracy which redefined the historical scope of the modern world.  “Lady” and “Gentleman” were labels bestowed on the educated—the people who would continue the progress of the Western world.  Building on the philosophies of men such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, the Victorian Age placed increasing value on the empirical, and from this came a greater divide of the people who were allowed to write, create, and speak into “history.”  It was at this time, when science and empirical reasoning ruled both the present and the interpretations of the past, that the Scottish author, George MacDonald, penned volumes of fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales which were built upon an alternative epistemological understanding.  This unconventional historical understanding came from the tension between MacDonald’s Calvinistic upbringing and his youthful engrossment with the Romantics. These two polarities were neither completely accepted or rejected by MacDonald, and led to his robust belief that meaning originates in metaphor.  In her book, The Story, The Teller, and the Audience in George MacDonald’s Fiction, Rebecca Thomas Ankeny explains how these two dichotomies met:  “George MacDonald incorporates into his fiction his thinking that language and literature and the interdependent roles of author, reader, and text.  These ideas…derive from the twin sources of Christianity and Romanticism and are essentially an investigation into symbolism.  The logical basis for a symbolic view of language, artistic expression, or the universe is theistic, and, for MacDonald, Christocentric.” MacDonald’s view of history is one which more closely adheres to a postmodern narrative, which was influenced by his Christian faith, than the empirical views of reason in the Victorian Age.  This view of history is seen by examining MacDonald’s faith, his literary influences, and ultimately his use of the symbolic in his stories.

MacDonald’s Christian faith grew from his Scottish Calvinist roots, and though he ultimately rejected some aspects of this tradition, MacDonald’s early faith was foundational to his religious beliefs and shaped much of his later writing.  As C.S. Lewis once said of MacDonald’s theological background, “all his life he continued to love the rock which he had been hewn.” Even G.K. Chesterton, who was critical of Scottish Calvinism, conceded that MacDonald’s writing contained “a sort of optimist Calvinism.” From these Calvinistic roots, MacDonald drew an emphasis on personal holiness and the evangelization of non-Christians; he also accepted the church’s teaching on the sovereignty of God.  This teaching, an understanding of the total power of God, formed a foundation for other Calvinistic teachings such as Predestination and Election.  These tenets were repeatedly taught to him from an early age from the pages of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was a religious methodology of sortsMacDonald’s later reaction to this methodology revealed a great distaste for the arrogance and piety that often came with “uncovering” all of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.  MacDonald was dissatisfied with the belief that God, powerful and sovereign, could be contained in a creed or list of beliefs.  For MacDonald, truth and faith were an intricate fabric woven together with reason and imagination. To unravel all the knots would destroy the entire tapestry.

During the latter years of his secondary education at King’s College, MacDonald was confronted with numerous theological dilemmas, and he struggled most sincerely with the doctrine of everlasting punishment and other prominent Calvinistic doctrines.  It was during this time that he stumbled upon great clarity through reading Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis.  From that point, MacDonald began forming an unusual syncretic union between the tenets of Romanticism and Christianity.  It is from this union that MacDonald identifies history as a subjective understanding of symbols and metaphors for the use of personal growth in faith and righteousness.

MacDonald’s Christianity and writing were greatly influenced by Romanticism and carried on into modern fiction.  In her introduction to the book George MacDonald Treasury, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Surely George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all—all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”  L’Engle attributes her imaginative success to MacDonald’s own struggles with truth and imagination.  Much of the imagination that L’Engle admires came from MacDonald’s reading of the philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and early German Romantic author Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (more commonly known by his pen name Novalis).  Both of these men directly affected how MacDonald saw what was true.  Coleridge’s philosophy of Idealism was paramount in shaping MacDonald’s fiction and understanding of truth.  This Idealism—“the assertion that objects of perception consist of ideas”—created a more organic and free flowing understanding of truth than did MacDonald’s reading of the Shorter Catechism years earlier.  This new system of ideas worked within a universal polarity that continually oscillated between understanding visible life and the invisible portions that sustain life—the flower that is seen and the unseen seed which brings the flower to life. An excerpt from Paul Faber, Surgeon, one of MacDonald’s adult fictions, shows a clear picture of this mingling of truth that MacDonald found so appealing.  MacDonald explains that magic possess the truth of “the relation of sounds and of intervals” and of its relation to the creativity of its producer.  Not only this, but it suggests that “the something it gives birth to in the human mind is also a true thing.”

One comment

  1. Wow! If your plans are to write a book, then my plans are to pre order it. Well researched and eloquently written. I want to read more! I have never heard of Rebecca Thoms Ankeny’s book so thanks for that too. I hope to find a copy.

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