Winter Reading Roundup, Part III: Influential Firsts

Phantastes, by George MacDonald

The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.

I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.

Nevertheless, the now legendary effect produced on Lewis (“baptizing” his imagination) eluded me. The 150+ years separating my reading from MacDonald’s writing is no doubt a factor, as well as the hundred years between my reading of it and Lewis’s. Silent weeping ladies were no doubt more common and compelling tropes in the mid-nineteenth century than in the early twenty-first.

But it also strikes me that the perspective and imagery are very masculine. And while that may convey a critical tone in these egalitarian times, I see it principally as a consequence of the author’s gender and historical setting. If women often write books that appeal principally to women, it is no surprise that men would do the same. Contemporary readers are likely to take issue with MacDonald’s symbolism, but I believe MacDonald was more interested in representing love, wisdom, and self-sacrifice than in relegating men and women to certain spheres of activity.

While Phantastes did not captivate or transform me, I did find it interesting. If I had the time, it would certainly reward close study of its influences and tropes. Readers who wish to do so can enroll in this free course and discussion group sponsored by The Rabbit Room: Phantastes Reading Group

The Emancipation of Aunt Crete, by Grace Livingston Hill

On the subject of gendered literature, Grace Livingston Hill (1865-1947) set a precedent for what was to become the modern Christian romance. In middle school I happened upon a number of her innocuous novels in the church library. Thinking them sweet and beguiling, I was surprised when my grandmother read one and declared, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever read! Standing in the waves singing hymns and waiting for someone to rescue them? Why didn’t they just swim?”

When I ran across Hill’s novels recently I suspected I was likely to have drifted over to my grandmother’s view of things. But feeling they deserve, at the least, a place in literary history, I checked a few out from the library.

Having silenced my inner editor, I found Aunt Crete’s Emancipation to be a sweet Cinderella rewrite, with the downtrodden maiden aunt standing in for the beautiful step-daughter of the original fairy tale. Aunt Crete’s kind heart and generous nature ultimately secure her a loving home with her handsome and noble nephew. While Hill’s other works may also be worthy of attention, my literary curiosity only got me thus far.

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