The Princess Irene and Curdie Series by George MacDonald

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from a 1920 edition.

I have such a fascination with MacDonald and must say work through some thoughts on The Princess Irene and Curdie Series which I just finished for a book group I attended, today. It’s the season of monsters and goblins, so why not?

George MacDonald influenced a slew of fantasy writers including C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Charles Williams. (He’s known as the Grandfather of the Inklings.) He also had a close relationship with Lewis Carrol. Scholars often compare the structure of Phantaste (published in 1858) to Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland which was published in 1865, which means Carrol likely borrowed from MacDonald. Phantaste was C.S. Lewis’ first introduction to MacDonald and was also one of his favorite books.

Tolkien was not as impressed with MacDonald as was Lewis, (Lewis called MacDonald “his master”). However, The Princess and the Goblin, the first book of the Princess Irene and Curdie series, influenced the goblins in Tolkien’s mythopoeic writings that are the basis of The Lord of the Rings.

Spoiler Alert!

Monsters play a major role in many of MacDonald’s tales. In The Princess and the Goblin. the goblins are your standard European sort. They live inside the mountain. They are greedy and want to overthrow the king and marry his daughter (8 year old Princess Irene) to a goblin in order to secure the kingdom. Their plans are thwarted by Curdie, a young miner who knows his way around the inside of a mountain.

We are told that the goblins may have been human beings that fled to the safety of the underground because they were persecuted by a cruel king many years ago. Perhaps they had been overworked miners? Whatever the case, they make alls kinds of excuses for why it is better to remain underground, despite the fact that a benevolent king now rules. They have been underground so long that they are no longer human.

The goblins have monstrous pets that play a larger role in The Princess and Curdie but there is an interesting scene in The Princess and the Goblin when Princess Irene intends to visit her mysterious great great Grandmother but comes upon a monster that resembles a cat with very long legs. It scares her so badly she runs away and gets lost. She has to overcome her fear in order to find her great great Grandmother, who represents divinity.

According to Roderick McGillis, MacDonald believed that it was only when individuals were able to fully recognize the chaos of evil that they were able to be open to the certainty of divine protection.

Forgiveness plays a major role in Lilith and several of MacDonald’s other books, but the Irene and Curdie series is much more vindictive. Perhaps the vindication is metaphorical? The goblins have all drowned at the beginning of The Princess and Curdie but Irene is gone, too, and everything feels dismal to Curdie. He would have preferred everything remain the same – goblins and all.

Curdie has grown lazy and mindless as young men tend to do. He shoots one of Irene’s great great Grandmother’s white pigeons and “wakes up”. He feels so badly about his mindlessness that he seeks out the great great Grandmother whom he has never met and isn’t even sure exists except through Irene’s testimony. He wants to repent and receive her forgiveness.

He receives her forgiveness and learns to move forward through life with trust. As in The Princess and the Goblins, this involves overcoming his fear of one of the goblin’s monstrous pets that still remain even though the goblins are gone. In this case, it is a dog creature named Lina that may have once been a woman.

The illustration doesn’t adequately represent the fearsomeness of the monster. It’s dog-like, but has two sets of fangs and is extremely ugly. It can easily dismember men and animals. It doesn’t like to be feared, but it is ferocious and has become Curdie’s fierce protector. Part of this protection includes gathering a team of 49 fellow “Uglies” that seek violent, ferocious vengeance on the enemies of the king on behalf of Curdie. It’s brutal, especially for a kids book.

MacDonald felt that both individuals and societies were either getting better or they were getting worse. The way to get better usually requires something like Curdie’s repentance. Most of us have to do this over and over again. But that is much better than the route the goblins took. The morally depraved monsters are in need of the purification of fire, but we know from Lina that they are also redeemable.

But what are we redeemed from? Ourselves?

At the end of the series, Curdie and crew defeat the evil-doers. Princess Irene marries Curdie who, it turns out, has royal blood. They do not have children and are eventually replaced by a king who becomes greedy and does so much mining for gold that his kingdom becomes even worse than the one Curdie & Irene helped defeat and the earth gives and the kingdom falls into the gold mines and is destroyed.

Extremely moralistic tale and harsh way to end a children’s novel, but we do seem doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Happily ever after stories rarely end up happy. And it’s true! If we aren’t constantly vigilant about our thoughts and actions, we fall prey to power, greed, fear and the stuff of the ego.

Perhaps MacDonald is saying that we’re all in Dante’s Purgatorio in need of constant purification until we are finally completely consumed by the fire like Lina and never seen again? (Sounds like ACIM.)

The Most Reluctant Convert by David C. Downing

I am extremely interested in C.S. Lewis because his fiction is universal, yet he is touted as a defender of the faith by Christians who claim Christianity is the only way to God.

Lewis went from a staunch atheist to a theist and the conversion fascinates me. Especially since the more I read of him and about him, the less he seems like somebody the fundamentalists would want to tout.

I greatly enjoyed The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S Lewis’s Journey to Faith by David G. Downing and highly recommend it. Browning also wrote Planets in Period: a Critical Study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy which is considered to be one of the five best books yet published on Lewis on the C.S. Lewis and the Inklings homepage.

Fundamentalism is a product of the industrial revolution and Capitalism. It turned Christianity into a factual, mechanized religion to be marketed. Lewis was very concerned about what had occurred at the turn of the century. He did not believe in “progress” as progress – not even in the form it took during the Renaissance.

The philosophy of Materialism, the monistic view that only matter has reality, had taken hold of Christianity early on and gained new importance with the industrial revolution. (Consider the fact that many Christians are only capable of thinking of God as a physical reality). Lewis had been trained in Idealism, which is also a monistic view, but takes the opposite stance of materialism – that matter is really just the veil of appearances and there is an unknowable Absolute that lies behind this veil of appearances.

This belief was, in part ,a reaction to materialism. Likewise, Lewis’s atheism was a reaction to theism. He came to realize that to not believe in something requires that you believe that something exists at some level. It’s a trap of the mind. So he began to find Idealism wanting as he did his atheism. But it took him much longer to change his mind about atheism.

Downing accredits much of Lewis’s struggle to the fact that he lost his mother at 10 and had a distracted father.

There is the theory (based upon Freud’s teaching) that “Christians are among the psychologically needy who project a benevolent, all-protecting Father into the heavens, far more powerful and caring than their flawed earthly fathers.” But according to Paul Vitz (Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism), such analysis is “a double-edged sword that can also, indeed easily, be used to explain their unbelief….atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates”, usually associated with defective father figures. Downing goes on to say that, “it seems rather glib for either believers or unbelievers to presume that one’s own views are based on unflinching analysis while those who disagree are dominated by unconscious conflicts.” (Downing, p. 32-33) You can’t explain away matters of faith/belief based upon emotional needs. But as Downing says, you can discover obstacles to faith/belief that are rooted in childhood (both for and against whatever the belief happens to be.)

Lewis held a deep regard for Puritans, but claimed that most of the Puritans surrounding him were what he called “apostate Puritans” in that they had replaced a spiritual vigor for a legalistic vigor which he considered to be the “memory of Christianity”, not Christianity. Peace, love, wisdom and humility had been replaced by, as Downing puts it, “sectarian narrowness and a quickness to judge others.” In fact, Lewis was far more perturbed by what he called “blind guides” in the church after he had converted to Christianity than when he was agnostic.

George MacDonald, a Christian minister, was Lewis’s favorite writer, claiming that nothing came close to giving him the sense of spiritual cleansing and being washed as reading George MacDonald. Lewis discovered MacDonald when he was 17 years old and realized upon his conversion to Christianity that MacDonald had accompanied him all the way. He writes, “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.” Utopian societies were not MacDonald’s or Lewis’s thing.

In Out of the Silent Planet, scientist Edward Weston has a sort of Utopian ideal. He’s willing to defend mass extermination in the name of the proposed benefits for coming generations. The Beyond for Weston is nothing more than the future of humanity for which he has no problem interfering in the free will of others. In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end. Those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell chose it.” Downing writes that Lewis believed that “one’s inner sense of glory and gratitude for all that is beautiful and sublime may be the first step on a road to faith.” If you do not have this sense of the beautiful and sublime, then you are much more likely to have a blind faith, not true faith.

According to Downing, Spirits in Bondage, written by Lewis in 1919 prior to converting to Christianity, is not about atheism as much as it is a sort of gnosticism. In it, Lewis writes about his belief that one shouldn’t let Matter, one’s body, dominate Spirit, one’s mind. Lewis writes, “I do believe that I have a spirit, a chip, shall we say, of universal spirit; and that since all good and joyful things are spiritual and non-material, I must be careful not to let matter (=nature=Satan, remember) get too great a hold on me and dull the one spark I have.” Lewis goes on to say that true beauty arises out of something spiritual, either the relationship between the tree and the observer, or perhaps “some indwelling spirit behind the matter of the tree.” At this agnostic point in his life, Downing writes, Lewis was “almost Manichean, insisting that Spirit and Matter existed in a state of perpetual opposition.”

After Lewis was wounded in World War I, he re-read MacDonald’s Phantastes. 1923, he wrote that it served as a sort of devotional book for him and it went counter to the dualistic philosophy of matter and spirit. “The call of spirit” was different. In reading MacDonald, he said he “saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged.” Glory did not dim ordinary things as he had thought previously, but rather were polished and smoothed by Glory. This was a shift in his philosophy of spirit.

After he had become a Christian, Lewis said that the most important distinction in the church was “not between high and low but between religion with real supernaturalism and salvationism on the one hand and all watered-down and modernist versions on the other.” One of the reasons Lewis decided to stick to a more orthodox view of Christianity was because of a friend (Doc Askins) who had a complete mental collapse. Lewis 2 weeks with him, trying to hold him down and soothe Askins who believed he was ascending into Hell. Lewis realized that there were likely physical causes for what had happened to Askins, but he also believed that Askins’ years of being attracted to the occult (the magical side of spirituality) sped his demise. He believed that he and his friend Author were both candidates for neuroses and offered this advice to Arthur:

Keep clear of introspection, of brooding, of spiritualism, of everything eccentric. Keep to work and sanity and open air – to the cheerful & the matter of fact side of things… Above all beware of excessive day dreaming, of seeing yourself in the centre of a drama, of self-pity, and, as far as possible, of fears.

The mental collapse of this man (Doc Askins) had a profound effect on Lewis. According to Downing, “from 1923 onward, Lewis would associate magic with a particularly sinister kind of escapism and a possible route to diabolism or dementia.”

In Perelandra, the portrait of evil in the “Un-man” was likely taken from Jack’s experience with Doc Askins. The Un-man is the possessed body of Weston who makes the comment that spiritualism contains more truths than people realize, but that they are hideous truths. For Lewis, the problem with the magic and magicians of the occult is not that they are dabbling in forbidden arts, but rather that they have succumbed to the temptation to “be as gods”.

Downing writes that Lewis later begins to explore Idealism which is not to be his final destination, but one Lewis considers a step in the right direction. Lewis describes his progress this way: “On the intellectual side, my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ [the belief that only that which is experienced through the senses is reality] to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity.” I think it is interesting here that he is differentiating Theism from Christianity.

Lewis writes in “De Futilitate” that the “only two serious philosophical options for an adult mind” are Hinduism and Christianity. Downing believes that by Hinduism, what Lewis is referring to is not the complex religious traditions of India, but rather the philosophies of F.H. Bradley who had a huge influence on Lewis. According to Downing, Bradley held “that the atman, individual soul, of all living things comprise the Brahma, or Universal Soul. This “Oversoul” cannot be known directly because the physical of world is Maya, a veil of deceptive appearances.” This belief is a form of pantheism. As Downing writes, we tend to think of pantheism as new age but it is an age-old religion found in aboriginal societies around the world. Lewis writes of pantheism, “far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind.” If human beings are both body and spirit (the inner world of consciousness) then certainly animals, plants and even the whole cosmos itself would have a Universal Soul.

But what happens to Lewis’s Pantheism, as he writes about the process in The Pilgrim’s Regress: “As soon as he attempts seriously to live by Philosophy, it turns into Religion” and “From Pantheism to Theism. The transcendental I becomes Thou.”

In 1924, Lewis first reads Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity and writes in his diary that he was “greatly impressed by the author’s truthful antithesis of enjoyment and contemplation.” What also struck Lewis was the differentiation Alexander makes between experiencing something directly and unself-consciously (“enjoyment”) versus thinking about the experience. Lewis realizes that one cannot be both unself-conscious and self-conscious at the same time.

By Lewis’s mid-twenties, be begins to think that the Absolute might be personal. In 1926 he read G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and found himself quite attracted to the beliefs within it. Lewis began to feel that “Christianity itself was sensible ‘apart from its Christianity’.” Most of the authors that Lewis was attracted to (Spenser, Milton, Johnson and MacDonald) took Christian mythology seriously while those who “did not suffer from religion” (Voltaire, Gibbon, Mill, Wells, Shaw) seemed to Lewis “tinny” in comparison. Downing writes that “more and more it seemed to him [Lewis] that the profound writers were profoundly deluded by their faith, but the clear-seeing unbelievers did not see very far.”

The word conversion is not really accurate for what Lewis experiences. There was no radical, sudden transformation. Instead, it happened in stages. Lewis depicts himself as a “dejected and reluctant convert” the first time around and explains what he underwent, best interpreted in terms of the medieval model of human personality, in The Screwtape Letters. Downing explains it this way:

“In this view the inner self can be envisioned as three concentric circles, with one’s will at the center, intellect in the second circle and imagination in the outer circle. First an idea or image enters into the mind’s eye, then one grasps it intellectually and finally one acts on it. Lewis’s long, drawn-out conversion process illustrates the [medieval] model perfectly. His imagination was baptized back in 1916, when he first read MacDonald and was entranced by “the beauty of holiness.” His intellect had shown him by 1929 that the Absolute must indeed by God, but it was not until 1931 that he recognized the claims of Christ and surrendered his will.”

In 1930, Lewis read George MacDonald’s, Diary of an Old Soul, writing that he would like to find other books of this sort and adding “that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion – one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travelers. It is emphatically coming home.”

In 1931, he has a long midnight talk with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. According to Downing, “they [Tolkien and Dyson] argued that one of the great and universal myths, that of the dying God who sacrifices himself for the people, shows an innate awareness of the need for redemption not by one’s own works, but as a gift from some higher realm. For them, the incarnation was the pivotal point at which myth became history. The life, death and resurrection of Christ not only fulfilled Old Testament types but also embodied – literally – central motifs found in all the world’s mythologies.”

For Lewis, this understanding was sort of a return to a childhood sense of wonder and glory – quite the opposite of the mundanities and insanities of the adult modern world. So it isn’t surprising that Lewis’s books have so many metaphors of looking back or going back. In The Great Divorce, Lewis says that good comes only by undoing evil, not by trying to wed the two: “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right; but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it.”

He uses the example of walking a dog in a letter to Arthur Greeves. Imagine walking your dog and the dog goes around the wrong side of a post and gets caught by his leash. The owner can see that he is caught so tries to pull the dog back but the dog thinks the only way is forward. If he is obedient, he will reluctantly go backwards before he is able to go forwards again. If this dog were a theologian, he would label the attempts at going forward without first going back, temptation to sin. The dog has to learn to surrender his will in order to resume his true progress forward.

Downing writes of Lewis progress forward that “as a materialist he had tried to deny the reality of in immaterial realm altogether. As a dualist he had viewed the human spirit at war with the material world. As an Idealist he had pondered a Universal Spirit immanent in nature. Finally, as a Christian he would view God as Spirit – the supreme Spirit – not in nature or against it, but above it – its Creator. In this view humans need not spurn nature as evil or worship it as divine, but rather to value nature as part of creation as we ourselves are.”

Lewis writes: “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: he invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

Becoming a Christian, for Lewis, was setting aside introspection as self-therapy and taking it up as a philosophy. Downing writes, “the practical purpose for self-examination was to study how the working of his own mind shed light on the nature of reality.” Of writing, Lewis wrote that the longing of writers to get thoughts and feelings down on paper cannot be helped, but that writing to seek acclaim was unworthy.

Lilith by George MacDonald

I have been trying to gain an understanding of C.S. Lewis’ theological perspective. One of the writers who most influenced his conversion from atheism to theism was George MacDonald. The book that especially influenced Lewis was Phantastes, which happily I just found on-line tonight.

Lewis said this of MacDonald: “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself!” He also put together an anthology of MacDonald’s writing.

My library had a copy of Lilith with a forward by Lewis as well as recommendations on the back of the book from W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle which I couldn’t resist checking out. I really liked Lilith and would love to read Phantastes and am really glad to know it is available on -line!

I definitely have a better understanding of Lewis after having read Lilith. The Christianity that MacDonald and Lewis believed in is not at all like the Christianity I typically think of when I think of Christianity. It’s much less factual – much more imaginative.

According to legend, Lilith was the first wife of Adam who would not be faithful to Adam. Legend has it she also killed boys. In MacDonald’s tale, she confiscates every child that is born – an attempt to destroy childhood, basically, which is closer to God than is adulthood.

The main character, Mr. Vane, has inherited an estate and discovers that there is a ghost wandering around in the library. This ghost turns out to be a raven who helps Mr. Vane navigate the underworld, similar to Dante’s Virgil but MacDonald’s underworld is far less sinister. It is full, however, of motherless children and children who have escaped Lilith but never grow up. Stupid giants. Dancing skeletons. Riddles.

I love this exchange between Mr. Vane (the narrator) and the Raven.

“What does it all mean?” I said.

“A good question!” he rejoined: “nobody knows what anything is, a man can learn only what a thing means! Whether he do, depends on the use he is making of it.”

“I have made no use of anything yet!”

“Not much, but you know the fact, and that is something. Most people take more than a lifetime to learn that they have learned nothing, and done less…”

I also like this statement made by the raven when Mr. Vane claims he had wanted to keep the children from having to deal with hardship : “No doubt you would – the aim of all stupid philanthropists! Why, Mr. Vane, but for the weeping in it, your world would not have been worth saving!.”

Mr. Vane travels the underworld, discovering that he really does know nothing and that everything he ever feared was not worth fearing. In order to realize this, he has to come to the point of being willing to die to the life he knows.

It was a marvelous tale of death and resurrection. I don’t want to say too much more about it, but I do have to mention that I was literally sobbing by the end of the book.

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful novel. Not sure I’ve enjoyed a book so much in quite some time.