I heard of him a long time ago. I often saw him quoted – sometimes by C. S. Lewis. Writers and reviewers praised him as a man of imagination, an artist who brought together the beautiful, the fantastical, and the spiritual. I saw him ranked with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the godfathers of Christian speculative fiction. But I never bothered with his work myself.
Then, while browsing a library shelf for books for my younger sisters, I saw it: The Complete Fairy Tales, by George MacDonald. I’d heard good things about MacDonald. I liked fairy tales. I picked the book up.
Now I can hold up my head among my fellow SF fans: I have read George MacDonald. My first taste was The Light Princess. This fairy tale begins, as is traditional, with a king and queen having a baby. In writing the invitations to her christening, the king forgot the Princess Makemnoit – which was “awkward”, the narrator tells us, because she was his sister, and “imprudent”, because she was a witch.
So – well, you all know. The witch went to the christening anyway and got revenge for the slight by putting a spell on the child. By the spell she deprived the princess of all her gravity – both in body and in soul.
I wasn’t surprised that MacDonald used the old formula: an evil witch, an enchanted princess, a brave prince. That he made an ingenuous story with it did not surprise me, either. What did was that he told the fairy tale with a sense of humor and even a sense of parody.
The greatest example of MacDonald’s parody was the metaphysicians Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck. But often it flashes through in smaller ways. He uses the old trope of provoking the witch by not inviting her, and in that very act observes, “Of course somebody was forgotten. Now it does not generally matter if somebody is forgotten, only you must mind who.”
The humor manifests itself in several ways. One of these is puns. George MacDonald has often been called a great writer, and puns have often been called the lowest form of humor, so this seems a little odd – even if MacDonald’s puns are sometimes so clever they cannot be understood without footnotes.
Another manifestation is asides that are half humor and half (indicting) social commentary. In telling how the king forgot his disinherited sister, MacDonald writes, “But poor relations don’t do anything to keep you in mind of them. Why don’t they? The king could not see into the garret she lived in, could he?”
And later, when the prince “lost sight of his retinue in a great forest”: “These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.”
Neither does MacDonald fail to draw out the humor – and fun – involved in having a princess with no gravity. He brings out, too, the loss and misfortune of it. In one passage, he tells of the Light Princess that “she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing. What it was, I find myself unable to describe. I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow – morbidezza, perhaps. She never smiled.”
I have been enjoying my first plunge into the stories of George MacDonald. They make me want to read more fairy tales. They make me want to write some.