Jack, how do you do that?

Jack Lewis, or “Clive Staples” if you want to be formal, has a habit of writing about ideas that I have turned over in my mind before. When he does this, he almost always presents me with a new slant to consider and sometimes even a completely new thought. I enjoy his nonfiction. I enjoy agreeing with him and arguing with him equally. 

Imagine my delight when the copy of Phantastes which I opened recently is introduced by Jack. I have read snippets of his thoughts on George MacDonald before, but this introduction was more comprehensive and more touching. It is uncommon outside academia (maybe it is uncommon within it as well) to have one of one’s favorite authors comment in any length on another of one’s favorite authors. And as usual, Jack’s words touched on my own thoughts regarding MacDonald, and expanded them.

I thought I would share.

“George MacDonald’s family (though hardly his father) were of course Calvinists. On the intellectual side his history is largely a history of escape from the theology in which he had been brought up. Stories of such emancipation are common in the Nineteenth Century; but George MacDonald’s story belongs to this familiar pattern only with a difference. In most such stories the emancipated person, not content with repudiating the doctrines, comes also to hate the persons of his forebears, and even the whole culture and  way of life with which they are associated. Thus books like The Way of All Flesh come to be written; and later generations, if they do not swallow the satire wholesale as history, at least excuse the author for a one-sidedness which a man in his circumstances could hardly have been expected to avoid.  Of such personal resentment I find no trace in MacDonald. It is not we who have to find extenuating circumstances for his point of view. On the contrary, it is he himself, in the very midst of his intellectual revolt, who forces us, whether we will or no, to see elements of real and perhaps irreplaceable worth in the thing from which he is revolting.
“All his life he continued to love the rock from which he had been hewn… His best characters are those which reveal how much real charity and spiritual wisdom can co-exist with the profession of a theology that seems to encourage neither. His own grandmother, a truly terrible old woman who had burnt his uncle’s fiddle as a Satanic snare, might have appeared to him as what is now (inaccurately) called ‘a mere sadist.’ Yet when something very like her is delineated in Robert Falconer and again in What’s Mine is Mine, we are compelled to look deeper – to see, inside the repellent crust something that we can whole-heartedly pity and even, with reservations, respect. In this way MacDonald illustrates, not the doubtful maxim that to know all is to forgive all, but the unshakeable truth that to forgive is to know. He who loves, sees.”


“The image of a great house seen principally from the library and always through the eyes of a stranger or a dependent (even Mr. Vane in Lilith never seems at home in the library which is called his) haunts his books to the end.”


“His lungs were diseased and his poverty was very great. Literal starvation was sometimes averted only by those last moment deliverances which agnostics attribute to chance and Christians to Providence. It is against this background of reiterated failure and incessant peril that some of his writing can be most profitably read. His resolute condemnations of anxiety come from one who has a right to speak; nor does their tone encourage the theory that they owe anything to the pathological wishful thinking – the spes phthisica – of the consumptive. None of the evidence suggests such a character. His peace of mind came not from building on the future, but resting in what he called ‘the holy Present.’ His resignation to poverty was at the opposite pole from that of the stoic. He appears to have been a sunny, playful man, deeply appreciative of all really beautiful and delicious things that money can buy, and no less deeply content to do without them. It is perhaps significant – it is certainly touching – that his chief recorded weakness was a Highland love of finery; and he was all his life hospitable as only the poor can be. “


“It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought – almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions –  the Everyman edition of Phantastes.  A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a frontier. I had already been waist deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference.  Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what its difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete – by which, of course, I mean ‘when it had really begun’ – I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting. But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning. There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my ‘teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round – in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from ‘the land of righteousness,’ never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire – the thing (in Sappho’s phrase) ‘more gold than gold.'”


There is much more to the essay as well. Lewis explores a theory of the nature and artistry of myth-making. It’s well-worth a read.

About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

6 responses to “Jack, how do you do that?

  • bryanajoy

    I need to read Phantastes. I read Lilith some time ago, but haven’t got around to Phantastes yet. It’s fascinating to me how deeply Lewis revered MacDonald and yet how aware he was of the man’s weaknesses. It’s a healthy balance in revering personal heroes and one worth emulating.

    • jubilare

      If you haven’t read The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, I would recommend them. I have only just begun Phantastes, but Lilith, as much as I loved it, suffers from weaknesses that the princess books do not. MacDonald’s style improves when he simplifies it, and as such his writing for children is more magical and clear than his writing for adults.
      I would love to discuss MacDonald’s style with Lewis, as I am not sure we would agree on all points, but I like that he is honest about MacDonald’s weaknesses both because, as you say, it shows a healthy balance, and also because MacDonald’s strengths speak to Lewis, and to me, all the more strongly through the weaknesses. That Lewis loves MacDonald’s work despite the latter’s failings makes me grin.

      • bryanajoy

        Yes, I agree. I have read The Princess and The Goblin and the Princess and Curdie and definitely preferred them to Lilith. I also really enjoyed Sir Gibbie — have you read it?

        • jubilare

          I read an abridged version of Sir Gibbie, alas! I felt, the whole time, like I was missing important things. I intend to find an unabridged copy. It’s so hard to find un-mangled MacDonald these days, though I am thankful for Project Gutenberg. :(

          • bryanajoy

            Mmmhm. I also read an abridged version first and felt like I was missing out on things. I then found a different abridged version which was much richer and longer. And I’ve read portions of the one on Project Gutenberg. But my job is on the computer, so I hate reading on the computer as well. I have yet to find an “unmangled” Sir Gibbie in book form. I keep looking, though.

            Do you have an account with goodreads?

          • jubilare

            You can get print-on-demand hardcopies from Amazon. They aren’t wonderful books, but they are unabridged and in print. I bought an unabridged Sir Gibbie for a friend that way.

            Nay, I do not.

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