Tag Archives: george macdonald

The Gospel in George MacDonald

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings edited by Marianne Wright, with selections from MacDonald’s work, with “appreciations by C S Lewis and G K Chesterton”.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth-century Scots writer who was popular in his own day, although now fairly obscure. His fantasy novel Lilith was recommended to students by revolutionary occultist Aleister Crowley, and MacDonald was cast as Virgil in the Dante-dream of Christian bigot and allegorical fantast C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Having read and enjoyed a couple of MacDonald’s book-length fantasies, I was intrigued by this title: The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings.

Receiving the book as an early reviewer copy, I was disappointed to find something very different from what I had imagined. It does not consist of chapter-length excerpts from MacDonald, with commentary on their theological significance. Instead, it has little snippets, from a sentence to a few pages in length, organized according to topics of inspirational substance. Very little here is drawn from MacDonald’s fantasies, which, if we are to believe his critics, are his best and most essential work, and there is none of his poetry. In addition to passages from his novels, there are excerpts from sermons and correspondence. Mindful of my duty as a reviewer, I managed to read the whole book. But it took a while, and I had to resort to the method of making it a prop for excremeditation. It has been in my bathroom for about six months.

If you think that MacDonald must have something special going on to appeal to both Crowley and Lewis, you’re right. I did find enjoyment, one way or another, in most of the content of this book. My eyes glazed over a bit when trying to follow some of the long dialogue passages written in Scottish dialect (although the more impenetrable expressions are glossed in footnotes). The sections on Work, Education, Moralism, and Resurrection have some of the excerpts I liked best, along with the terrific sermon passage on page 84, which the editor has categorized as on “The Boundlessness of Love,” and which genuinely approaches the Thelemic gnosis.

The book concludes with two “appreciations” by writers who were fans of MacDonald: G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Like the body of the book, each of these is stitched together from multiple published sources. I was sympathetic to Chesterton’s praise for MacDonald’s work, emphasizing its poetic and mystical qualities. I found it amusing, however, to see the Catholic convert Chesterton attempt to recruit posthumously the lifelong Presbyterian MacDonald (with his further heretical universalism) to his own church (313-14). My low opinion of Lewis, alas, was merely confirmed by what I read here, although it helped me to prioritize The Princess and the Goblin for my next reading in MacDonald’s oeuvre, whenever I might get to that.

Descent into Hell

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Descent into Hell: A Novel by Charles Williams:

Charles Williams' Descent into Hell

 

Of Charles Williams’ six novels, Descent Into Hell has a special place, according to a number of reviewers. It is purportedly his best or most important. I will quickly agree that it is somehow different from the other three I have read. It is far more interior in its focus, and thus it reminds me more of Lilith by George MacDonald. (Interestingly, Lilith herself features by name in Descent, though the name is only in the title of MacDonald’s book.) Stylistically, this interiority sometimes leads to real stream-of-consciousness passages, and the prose feels far more “modern” than that in War in Heaven, for example.

The notion that Descent Into Hell is a cornerstone work exposing the author’s worldview is supported by the arrangement of characters. The playwright Peter Stanhope is clearly a Mary Sue or idealized authorial proxy for Williams, flagged by explicit allusions to that hoary Mary Sue, Shakespeare’s Prospero! In addition, Williams supplies an “Eram Eus” — an inverted Mary Sue to embody the culpable perversion of his own dearest virtues — in the form of the historian Lawrence Wentworth. Stanhope and Wentworth are alike defined by their relationships with female disciples, in keeping with a notable feature of Williams’ biography.

In addition to these and other polarities of character, the novel advances a dualist scheme under a metaphor borrowed from Augustine of Hippo. Where Augustine’s City of God used Rome as the contrast for the New Jerusalem, Williams uses Gomorrah as the pole opposite Zion. He explains his choice of the city by way of the vulgarly misconstrued “sin of Sodom” as homosexuality, with the “sin of Gomorrah” being the ultimate love of self to the exclusion of others (174). At another point, Williams offers and subsequently applies the idea that there are only four possible human responses to any circumstance: revolt, obedience, compromise, and deception (185). These options are presented with moral valences, and for all his evident psychological subtlety in this book, Williams seems unequipped to appreciate the wisdom offered by his elder cousin in esoteric initiation who wrote, “The Key of Joy is disobedience.”

In any case, there is but one character in this novel who descends to hell through “Gomorrah,” and while the terminus of that descent is the close of the book, that storyline is mixed with other, more hopeful passages. The universalization of certain Christian doctrines is carried out deftly; on the religious front, Williams may have been pious, but he was no bigot. As in all of Williams’ books, the focus is on characters who are immured in “bourgeois propriety.” But the author, who was himself of comparatively humble stock, offers some unusual (for him) glimpses of “The poor, who had created [the estate in which the story is set],” although they “had been as far as possible excluded, nor (except as hired servants) were they permitted to experience the bitterness of others’ stairs” (9).

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, and I would rank it within the author’s oeuvre next to Many Dimensions for insight, and probably a bit higher for its language. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Lilith

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lilith by George MacDonald:

George MacDonald's Lilith

 

This book has been aptly described by Aleister Crowley as “A good introduction to the Astral.” It is insulted by comparison to the didactic allegories of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, although they were strongly inspired by MacDonald’s work. Lilith is instead an imaginative portrayal of adult mystical realization, as adumbrated through the distortions of reason, desire, and memory that befall spiritual seekers in the mundus imaginalis. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Smith of Wootton Major

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Smith of Wootton Major by J R R Tolkien:

J R R Tolkien's Smith of Wooton Major

 

This slender novella was one of Tolkein’s last works that he saw published during his lifetime. It is a cross-generational fable about creativity, fortune, and loss. It is very effective when read aloud; I had the pleasure of having it read to me by my Other Reader over the course of three sittings.

Smith is unoriginal in the best possible way for a modern fairy-tale. I was reminded strongly of Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but some of the episodes in Faery in the middle of the book exhibit the sort of psychedelic reverie that I associate more with the work of George MacDonald. Sure enough, the wikipedia article on Smith of Wootton Major gives Tolkein’s story its origin in an attempt at a preface to MacDonald’s “The Golden Key.” Tracing the line of influence the other direction, I believe that Susanna Clarke must have read this book.

The Pauline Baynes illustrations are lovely, and really capture the spirit of the thing. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.