George MacDonald on Fairy-Tales

"But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?" I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one."

JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis both wrote their own treatises on fairy tales (fairy-stories' and "myths", they called them), but George MacDonald came before them. His essay, The Fantastic Imagination, surprised me. I had read Lewis' & Tolkien's essays previously, so the idea of myths-communicating-truth was nothing new to me. What did surprise me was the essay was full of what is now considered "postmodern thought"- and it was published in 1893! I wanted very badly to copy & paste the whole thing- and it's beyond copyright, I believe, so it would be OK- but decdied to spare my readers. I really do suggest you read the whole thing essay.

"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have a meaning?"
It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than truth, but without truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.

"If so. how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?"
Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be of higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

"Suppose my child asks me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?"
If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see meaning in it, there it is for you to give him.A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much as to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it does not ever wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse, the name written underneath it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.
But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning.
A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy.
"But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a precise meaning!"
It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child's dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but definite? The cause of a child's tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairtytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way,
another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.
I will go farther.--The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.

There is no greater thing, says MacDonald, than rousing a man's conscience and make him think things for himself. I resonate with that. There is very little art on this blog (see above), but there is much that I am thinking about- and I hope you are thinking with me.

1 comment:

Kristen said...

It is fun seeing that you enjoy the things that I did :) I love that essay. I felt like it gave me permission to love fairy tales.


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