Giant Goody Goody

Edwin Morgan

  • The Complete Fairytales by George MacDonald, edited by U.C. Knoepflmacher
    Penguin, 354 pp, January 2000, ISBN 0 14 043737 1
  • Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairytales and Femininity by U.C. Knoepflmacher
    Chicago, 444 pp, £24.50, June 2001, ISBN 0 226 44816 9

A fairytale, whatever messages may be inserted into it or teased out from it, is a tale of marvels. A cat struts past in boots. A demon swells out from a lamp like steam from a kettle. A princess cannot sleep because a pea below her twenty mattresses is hurting her. A prince is metamorphosed from a frog (the poet Norman MacCaig used to say it would be even better if a frog metamorphosed from a prince).

Wordsworth, feeling he had to deplore the increasingly moralistic instruction of the young, refers in The Prelude to those ‘guards and wardens’ who would ‘control all accidents’ and ‘confine us down, like engines’ and recommends legends, fantasies and fairytales as the antidote:

Oh! give us once again the wishing-cap
Of Fortunatus, and the invisible coat
Of Jack the Giant-killer, Robin Hood,
And Sabra in the forest with St George!

The move from wonder to instruction might seem an inevitable consequence of the move from oral to literary tales. But even a highly literate tale like Alice in Wonderland cannot be reduced to the didactics of ‘Don’t talk to rabbits’ or ‘Watch out for magic mushrooms’ or even the cold reality-douche of ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ The very robustness of Alice’s stand for rationality, beleaguered as it is at every turn, itself feeds into the delicious fantasy of gryphons and pig-babies and dormice in teapots. If a fairytale is in danger of becoming an allegory – and many of them are – perhaps there is all the more reason to be suspicious, and to feel that something is being interposed between us and the raw melodrama of a non-historic or prehistoric strangeness. Rumpelstiltskin is a fine tale, but who can identify with any of its characters or feel they are being drawn into a moral battle? A boastful miller tells everyone his daughter can spin gold out of straw. A greedy king locks her up till she has made him rich. The thoughtless girl accepts supernatural help from an ugly imp. The imp makes increasing demands on her, culminating in her promise to give him her first-born. The girl forgets her promise. The vindictive imp gives her one last chance, he will let her off if she can find out his name. The girl by sheer luck does discover it. The furious and frustrated imp tears itself to pieces, laughed at by the court. Variants of this grotesque and bizarre story are found all over Europe. We can say with some relish that its power predates ethics.

Ethics, however, clings to George MacDonald (1824-1905). Brought up near Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, in a religious family adhering to the Missionar Kirk, a dissenting offshoot from the Presbyterian church in Scotland, he imbibed an evangelical spirit that never left him, though it was clouded and confused at different stages of his life by doubts about actual churches and their ideologies. He trained as a Congregational minister, and received a call to the pulpit at Arundel, but resigned a few years later, for reasons which are not entirely clear. Thereafter, he made his living by writing, editing and lecturing, and became one of the best known novelists and poets of the day. His reputation began to decline towards the end of the century, and has never really recovered, despite enthusiastic recommendations from C.S. Lewis and others, and several positive studies of his work. Even Lewis, keen on MacDonald’s mythopoeic powers as he was, had to admit that the actual writing left a lot to be desired: as far as literature is concerned, MacDonald ‘has no place in its first rank – perhaps not even in the second’.

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