Symbolism and Religion
George MacDonald (1824-1905)
E. Nesbitt (1858-1924)
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
T.H. White (1906-1964)
The pulp writers have brought us up to the thirties… and now we have to go back, to get to the roots of a very different tradition. George MacDonald was friends with many of the literary greats of his age (he was the mentor, for instance, of Lewis Carroll, and persuaded him to publish), yet his own work is all but forgotten by the public today – but his place in literary history comes not from the numbers of his readers but from their devotion.
MacDonald did not write, like Burroughs or Howard or the rest, for money, but out of a deep religious conviction – he was a congregationalist preacher, though an unpopular one on account of his idiosyncratic theology, which included a believe in universal divine forgiveness – and he uses his fiction to symbolise his faith. His first famous work, Phantastes, can be read, on the surface, as a simple portal fantasy, in which a young man is transported into fairyland where he meets and pursues a beautiful woman. But, under the influence of Romanticism, and in particular of Novalis (whose poetry he translated into English), the fantasy is not simply a fairy tale, but an extended symbol of Christian faith. Later in his career, he went on to write the less overtly symbolic The Princess and the Goblin. In both cases, the genius of MacDonald was to present a moral message – more, a moral worldview – in the guise of a simple and approachable story that could appeal to people of all ages, including children. Yet MacDonald denied that he wrote books for children: instead, he said, he wrote books for the child-like, no matter their age (an ambition later expressly echoed by Chesterton and White).
One early follower, or subsequent fellow-traveller, of MacDonald was Edith Nesbitt, a leading figure in the development of children’s fantasy. Nesbitt continued the legacy of MacDonald through her realisation that literature, and in particular fantasy literature, could morally educate children, without having to resort to overt moralism – although in her case the morality in question was less religious than socialist, as she was a devoted follower of Morris’ political views and a founder of the Fabian Society; her innovation was to combine outright fantasy elements (wish-giving goblins, magic carpets and so forth) with a realistic depiction of contemporary children. Both as a founder of modern children’s fantasy and more generally of the species of fantasy in which elements of the fantastic are injected into realistic stories, she has had a lasting influence.
The key figure in establishing MacDonald’s legacy, however, was G.K. Chesterton. He may seem an odd figure to call one of the most influential fantasy novelists – after all, he wrote few novels, and none are unambiguously ‘fantasy’. Yet enormous influence he did have, both in his fiction and in his essays (political and religious). Like MacDonald, Chesterton was a devout Christian, a Catholic convert – the writer, indeed, of several highly influential apologetics – and Chesterton found in MacDonald the germ that would become his own, as it were, literary ideology. He shared MacDonald’s belief that fantasy could instruct the young morally, and he embraced the idea of writing for the child in everybody – it is the child who has imagination, and the child who has a sense of wonder. The child, indeed, is in some sense closest to God, for age, Chesteron says, is the fruit of sin, and “our Father is younger than we”.
It is therefore in his theory of fantasy that Chesterton had his greatest influence, in inspiring and leading others. Chesterton’s ideology of fantasy sought to combine a child-like appeal to wonder with a Jesuitical devotion to reason and intellect (his combination of faith and suspicion has lead to him being quoted by bishops and atheists alike in the century since his death), to create works that took the fairy-tale forms intended for children and used them to deal with topics of the utmost seriousness, in the conviction that not only could stories symbolise reality, but that reality itself was in some way symbolic of something else – many of his thousands of essays and newspaper columns were attempts to simultaneously discuss the mundane and the profound, turning a rumination about cheese, or getting up late, into a meditation on economic systems or the meaning of life (he wrote at some length about cheese, on which subject, he once lamented, “the poets have been mysteriously silent.”) He resolved these dualities through an acceptance of contradiction, even a love of contradiction, and he became known as the ‘Prince of Paradox’. Throughout his work there is also a love of language, and a conviction in the persuasive and inspiring power of language. In particular, his writing masters a particular style of flippant, ‘stiff upper lip’ ironic detachment, with a sometimes avuncular and loquacious tint, without sacrificing sincerity and commitment – he has much in common in this respect with other contemporary English satirical writers, such as Jerome, Wilde, Saki, or Wodehouse. His novels display great rhetorical prowess, but are an unusual form of fantasy – it’s perhaps best to take the subtitle of his most famous novel (The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare) at face value and call him the first surrealist (before even Kafka); many of his poems are closer to conventional fantasy, in taking historical epochs and styles and infusing them with epic significance and a Nietzschean vitality. In this, he was even an influence on the sword and sorcery writers, Howard himself reportedly being a fan – and in poems like ‘The Last Hero’ or ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ it’s not hard to see the link.
Four more direct followers of Chesterton are themselves worth immediate mention here. CS Lewis was converted by Chesterton not only to fantasy but to Christianity, although in both cases MacDonald himself laid the ground, and Lewis’ description of the influence of MacDonald is itself a perfect example of the effect Chesterton’s ideology called for: MacDonald, he said, converted him to Christianity at the age of sixteen, though he did not realise it for another decade, and then only unwillingly – thanks to MacDonald, he said, his imagination had been baptised, and the rest followed later. Lewis went on to write hugely influential fantasy for children to replicate the effect and to baptise the imaginations of future generations – though he used rather more direct symbolism than Chesterton himself might have approved of.
JRR Tolkien was the other man who converted Lewis. His own work was rather more abstractly symbolic – indeed, he rejected entirely the idea that it should be read as a mere allegory – yet it is impossible to read him without seeing the deep faith behind his words. Tolkien’s works marry the mediaevalist style and the language of Morris with the soul of Chesterton (he was also deeply moved at a young age by MacDonald, though he later came to repudiate his work as unsophisticated). Tolkien also picked up and expanded upon Chesterton’s theories of fantasy, seeking to reconcile the potentially blasphemous activity of creation with his strong religious sentiments – a tension that is visible not only in his private writings but in his fiction itself. In his essays – and in his work – Tolkien took Chesterton’s theory of the fantasy story and transformed it into a theory of the fantasy world. In doing so, through his theory and his practice Tolkien set the stage for all the ‘secondary world’ fantasy that would follow after him. Tolkien was also, of course, by far the most successful writer of fantasy, and is the source of a great many of the tropes of later fantasy works.
TH White is a writer with a less clear link to Chesterton (though he followed GKC, CSL and JRRT in being known by his initials…), and unlike Chesterton, MacDonald, Tolkien and Lewis he was not devoutly religious (indeed, he was agnostic and a ‘free thinker’), yet still there can be no doubt of the influence. The day after Chesterton died, White gathered his schoolchildren around and solemnly informed them that as of yesterday the greatest living master of the English language was now PG Wodehouse. More abstractly, White’s Arthurian retelling is performed perfectly in the Chestertonian style: old fable is married with realistic psychology, whimsy and childish joy are married with the deepest, blackest tragedy, a clear didactic intent is shrouded in uncertainty and skepticism, and throughout it all there is a strong, amusing, distinctive authorial voice. White in turn has been influential both through his revival of Arthurian legend and through his willingness to deconstruct the imagery of fantasy to find a grittier, uglier reality, and also through his ability to combine serious intent with light-hearted humour.
Finally, there is Jorge Luis Borges. Not, perhaps, normally placed in the same context as the English fantasists, yet he too spoke of Chesterton as ‘the Master’ (he was prone to reciting long passages of Chesterton from memory, and openly confessed that many of his stories were inspired by him), and in the form of his fiction he was probably closer to Chesterton’s own work than any of the above. He continued and deepened Chesterton’s emphasis on language itself, and heeded Chesterton’s call to re-present the ordinary and mundane and obvious in ways that made it seem peculiar and fantastical and miraculous – not, like Lewis, Tolkien and White, by following Chesterton’s theories of the fairy tale (though fairy tales are not wholly alien to Borges) but by following his dream-like, unsettling practice; he followed him also in his preoccupation with meaning and symbol.