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’.
This selection, with a useful introduction and notes by U.C. Knoepflmacher, does not contain the longer fantasies, Phantastes and Lilith, which are unlikely in any case to come back into full favour, though Phantastes was reprinted recently, marketed as science fiction, which would not have pleased MacDonald. These are books which are never quite forgotten, but never quite accepted. Lewis’s recommendation of them was a poisoned chalice for critics, since he took them as myth rather than literature, and regarded the actual words, which involve much archaism, some archness, and a tendency to capitalise Life and Love and Death, as ‘almost an accident’. Epigraphs from Goethe, Novalis, Schiller and Schleiermacher do not help readers to fend off feelings of irritation with disjointed or indulgent narrative episodes. On the other hand, both books have brilliant passages of description and evocation, of the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. A reaction of slight impatience is likely to dominate for today’s readers. But the shorter stories, where he can be seen (if not consistently) at his best, are all here, from ‘The Light Princess’ and ‘The Golden Key’ to ‘The Carasoyn’ and ‘The Wise Woman’. Knoepflmacher also includes MacDonald’s essay ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, which despite its teasing and repetitive style serves as a handy pointer to his ideas. Its main theme is MacDonald’s refusal to interpret his stories. ‘I do not write for children but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five. A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory . . . So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.’ Readers may feel there is some over-protesting at work here. A clear and vitiating didacticism does make an appearance from time to time. There is a cartoon of 1872 (reproduced in Knoepflmacher’s study Ventures into Childland), showing ‘MacDonald as Giant Goody-Goody’, a huge bearded figure looming like a marabou stork above a couple of small children and offering them an edifying magazine, Good Words for the Young. Giant Goody-Goody is never very far away in MacDonald’s work, and his presence is the main reason for the 20th-century reaction against him. It must be the principal aim of a modern defence of MacDonald to show that he has other powers, genuine frissons, Gothic shadows, erotic twanglings, challenging ambiguities.
The worst of MacDonald is seen in ‘The Wise Woman’, in which every step of the long and tedious story is commented on authorially. The wise woman’s job is to help erring children find out and acknowledge their faults and so grow into decent human beings. Rosamond is a spoiled princess given to wild tantrums and rages; Agnes is a shepherd’s child, also spoiled but silly and conceited. The wise woman, who is a sort of white witch, appears and disappears and appears again; and so does the author. Agnes at one point congratulates herself on having done her duty. MacDonald seizes the opportunity to do a Polonius:
However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Could any but a low creature be conceited of being contemptible? Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures.
This is no way to run a fairytale.
But some of the other tales are absorbing and original and show how MacDonald sometimes managed to achieve some distance from Giant Goody-Goody. In ‘The Light Princess’, which has more charm and humour than we normally find in MacDonald, a newborn princess is placed under a spell by her spiteful aunt, Makemnoit (‘make ‘em know it’), who is a witch and an unusually wicked one. She removes the child’s gravity, so that the girl is constantly floating up into the air and has to be held down. Her levity is mental as well as physical, and she turns out to be a giggling airhead who takes the whole of the story to become anchored in ordinary human feelings. She is happiest in water, and enjoys swimming in the lake near the palace. A travelling prince ‘rescues’ her from the lake and falls in love with her. The scene of the rescue, with both prince and princess practically naked, caused the prudish John Ruskin, a friend of MacDonald’s, to chide him for impropriety and moral danger, but MacDonald seems on this occasion to have taken an honi soit qui mal y pense attitude. Anyhow, the princess is so delighted by the experience that she and the prince spend much time diving and swimming and splashing about together, to the disgust of Makemnoit, who decides to drain the lake and subject the whole land to drought. In a remarkably erotic scene, she fashions a large grey snake, kisses it, twines it round her body, and then unwinds it until its mouth is clamped on the roof of a cavern under the lake. Like a monstrous lamprey it sucks and sucks at the stone till water begins to drip through. The lake shrinks, and the prince in a moment of supreme self-sacrifice offers his body to plug the hole. When he is almost drowned, he is saved by the princess, whose tears are for the first time truly human, and are followed by rain. She regains gravity; the lake fills; the witch is buried in her flooded house. Knoepflmacher makes much of the Christian symbolism of sacrifice and redemption, but even without that, the ending of the story is impressive:
All the pent-up crying of her life was spent now. And a rain came on, such as had never been seen in that country. The sun shone all the time, and the great drops, which fell straight to the earth, shone likewise. The palace was in the heart of a rainbow. It was a rain of rubies, and sapphires, and emeralds, and topazes. The torrents poured from the mountains like molten gold; and if it had not been for its subterraneous outlet, the lake would have overflowed and inundated the country. It was full from shore to shore.
Another of MacDonald’s successes is ‘The Golden Key’, which takes two children, Mossy and Tangle, on a series of fairyland adventures in search of the lock which their golden key will open. This story is more a guided pilgrimage than a drama of good and evil, and its virtue lies in its poetic invocation of animals and birds, rocks and precipices, plains and lakes, mingled with unexplained supernatural phenomena like the beautiful ‘sea of shadows’ which surrounds the children, tantalising them because the shadows do not fall from anything visible. They weep, ‘each longing after the country whence the shadows fell’. By the end of the tale Mossy and Tangle have grown old. They find a sapphire keyhole in a rock, turn their golden key in it, enter the rock, and climb up and out of it, emerging in a rainbow where ‘beautiful beings of all ages climbed along with them.’ As the story ends they are still climbing, but there is a strong suggestion that they will reach that post-death land ‘whence the shadows fall’. There are depths and mysteries in the story, despite many hints of the Christian peregrinus (at one point Mossy walks on water). The girl sums it up. ‘Tangle felt that there was something in her knowledge which was not in her understanding.’
The tightly constructed ‘Day and Night Mährchen’, as MacDonald calls it, of ‘Photogen and Nycteris’, is the last and best-written of his tales. Exciting and tense for all its happy ending, this story has a pleasing simplicity and symmetry. Under a witch’s spell, Photogen is brought up in bright daylight, so that he cannot stand darkness; Nycteris is brought up in the dark, so that she cannot stand daylight. The course of their adventures is to make each understand and bear with the condition of the other. MacDonald does this with subtlety and finesse. The rapprochement is anathema to the witch, who in a terrifying final scene reveals herself as a huge werewolf and is killed by Photogen. MacDonald, this time, is wise enough not to spell out the resonances of this story. As Nycteris says to Photogen:
And you must learn to be strong in the dark as well as in the day, else you will always be only half brave. I have begun already – not to fight your sun, but to try to get at peace with him, and understand what he really is, and what he means with me – whether to hurt me or to make the best of me. You must do the same with my darkness.
MacDonald emerged as a central figure in the growth of the literary fairytale in Victorian Britain. Translations of Grimm (1823) and Andersen (1846), to say nothing of Andersen’s eccentrically successful visit to England, put what was virtually a new genre on the map, a genre at once admired by MacDonald. No doubt he was drawn to it as the editor of the children’s magazine Good Words for the Young, but he could see that these good words might perhaps be bettered through some imaginative release. His friendship with Lewis Carroll sealed the belief. In the event, ‘Uncle Dodgson’, as MacDonald’s children called him, who took them to toyshops, photographed them and fed them on buns and ginger beer, was the one who produced in Alice the undoubted classic that none of MacDonald’s individual works could rival, but the success of Alice stimulated MacDonald to publish his own stories. In addition to the short tales in Knoepflmacher’s collection, such longer fantasies as The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, directed at children, showed a sureness of touch that has kept them in print. If they are about problems of belief, and especially belief in the divine, they are also about Victorian materialism, and the goblin-haunted mines below the castle are as important to the stories as the high tower-room with its ‘wise woman’. MacDonald’s idealism is grimly tempered by the conclusion of The Princess and Curdie, where an apparently happy outcome of marriage between the princess and Curdie is swept away in an apocalyptic, Carlylean vision of the future, when the city is destroyed in a flood. ‘All around spread a wilderness of wild deer, and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.’ Realism? Pessimism? Prophecy? At least the children who read that story were given something stronger than magically successful closure. Here, the closure is happy only for wild beasts; man and his boasted civilisation have had their chance, and blown it.