Several years ago my daughter and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946), said to be a childhood favorite of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Goudge’s mix of whimsy, fantasy, and light-handed moralism intrigued me, as did her blend of Catholic and pagan imagery (not unlike C.S. Lewis’s employment of Greek mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia). Seeking more, I discovered Goudge (1900-1984) had written almost twenty adult novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.
I decided on The Rosemary Tree (1954), a novel set in post-WWII England. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the protagonist is a mild-mannered minister–a kindhearted soul who doesn’t quite have a handle on family life. When a native son, back from the war, wanders onto the scene, John befriends him. Before long we learn this lost soul was once engaged to John’s wife.
You will never read a book about perfect people in a perfect world. If you happen to stumble upon and launch into such a book, I predict you will put it down by chapter 2, if not before.
But why, exactly, is that? If we long for world peace, why don’t we enjoy reading about it?
A thorough investigation of that question could fill volumes and venture into the realms of psychology, philosophy, and myth, among others. But one accessible explanation is that we need characters we can relate to. And none of us is perfect.
Certain masterpieces shock us with unapologetic images of human nature at its worst. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor come to mind. The latter wrote that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.
Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.
I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.
The intuitive outcome of my February 2020 reading was a resolution to make George MacDonald a literary staple of future winters. A logical accounting of what makes his fairy stories particularly suitable for the season, however, has proved more elusive.
MacDonald’s fairy tales are by no means escapist. Some, like “The Wise Woman,” are unscrupulously didactic. Nor does it do them justice merely to call them “hopeful,” in contrast to much contemporary literature I have run across of late. Continue reading