In a genuine fairy-story, everything must be miraculous, mysterious, and interrelated; everything must be alive, each in its way. The whole of Nature must be wondrously blended with the whole world of Spirit.[1]

Novalis, cited in George MacDonald, Phantastes

While reading Phantastes I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist deep in Romanticism[2]

C.S. Lewis, Preface to Phantastes

 

George MacDonald is widely considered to be instrumental in launching the modern genre of fantasy intended for adult audiences. This essay will examine MacDonald’s place in the historical development of fantasy, including the current fantasy-related genre of Magical Realism. The Christian faith guided MacDonald through the literary and philosophical currents of his day (Romanticism and Idealism) and can critique the fantastic aspects of magical realism today. Contemporary writers in the magical realist vein, such as Gabriel Marquez (Colombia) and Haruki Murakami (Japan) among others (including the filmmaker Martin Scorsese) can be shown to owe their own debt to the adult fantasy of George MacDonald. MacDonald’s influence on Christian apologists and fantasy writers C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien will then be revisited to examine their debt to MacDonald and provide us the means to critique the magical realists. Finally, in our Christmas tradition of relating to popular culture in a timely way, we consider how MacDonald might have construed the music of Eddie Van Halen, whose passing in October 2020 was a momentous cultural event.

MacDonald and Fantasy

MacDonald’s influence is easily seen, as he has been lauded by fantasy writers of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. MacDonald was a mentor to Lewis Carroll, and it was the enthusiasm of MacDonald’s children for Lewis’s Adventures of Alice in Wonderland which encouraged Carroll to publish it in 1865. MacDonald has also been lauded by G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, Mark Twain, T. H. White, Frank Baum, Peter Beagle, Neil Gaiman and Madeleine L’Engle among others. It was MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872) which are considered to have launched the modern era of fantasy intended for adults. Other late nineteenth century authors joined MacDonald, such as John Ruskin (King of the Golden River, 1841), William Morris (The Well at the World’s End, 1896), and H. G. Wells (The Wonderful Visit, 1895), though it was in the twentieth century that the fantasy genre became widely popular. The Irish Lord Dunsany and English Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. Rider Haggard joined the American Abraham Merritt in pioneering the lost world fantasy genre. But MacDonald’s unique contribution to the writing of fantasy was to make it relevant to the serious adult reader. While children’s fantasies continued to be written in the twentieth century, such as Peter Pan (1906, by fellow Scotsman J. M. Barrie) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (by American Frank Baum in 1900), MacDonald opened the floodgates for modern adult fantasy, as he admitted, “For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” [3]

Beyond making fantasy serious business for adults (and the reason that his fantasies were taken so seriously), MacDonald’s works uniquely combined his Christian faith and the Romanticism of the nineteenth century to produce soul-gripping worlds and tales. MacDonald’s Christian imagination paved the way for the faith-informed fantasies of C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy). MacDonald’s fantasy was a natural extension of his theology, as he explained:

 

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect . . . We live by faith, not by sight.[4]

 

The worlds of MacDonald’s fantasies were thus imbued with magic from another world, which induced a Romantic-style longing. But it is helpful to first consider the history of fantasy before addressing the influence of the nineteenth century Romantics on MacDonald.

Taking a step back historically, we see that MacDonald simply added his Christian faith to a tradition which included both fantastic and supernatural elements. Nearly every culture offered fantasy which pitted supernatural beings in a cosmic battle between good and evil, including Akkadian, Babylonian, and Egyptian tales as well as Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology marked by supernatural cosmic battles. Fantastic elements such as talking animals and magical events can be found in Greek plays (Aristophanes’s The Birds, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apulieus’s The Golden Ass), the Old English tale of Beowulf, the Norse Edda, Indian epics (Panchatantra, Fables of Bidpai), the seventeenth and eighteenth century genre of Chinoiserie inspired by encounters with China and the East, and the Middle Eastern Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights). The fantasy of MacDonald and other English writers can also find roots in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (1595/6) or Arthurian literature such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century Middle English literature). Yet it was the Romantics from MacDonald’s nineteenth century who would most deeply influence his fantasy.

MacDonald and the Romantics

Like Romantics such as Goethe and Novalis, MacDonald was originally a scientist, but he benefited from his birth into a highly literary family with a number of connections to Romanticism.[5] His parents, and thus MacDonald himself, could hardly help but to be well-read: his mother received a classical education including multiple languages, and his father was a farmer whose favorite authors included Isaac Newton (a scientist and a theologian) and the poets Robert Burns, William Cowper, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. MacDonald gleaned much for his imaginative fantasy from such literary figures as William Shakespeare and the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. Of Shakespeare, MacDonald stated that “the commonplace has no place at all in the drama of Shakespeare, which fact at once elevates it above the tone of ordinary life.”[6]  He saw Wordsworth as a Christian pantheist who “saw God present everywhere” as a spirit not just of beauty (as he claimed of John Keats’s poetry) but as the “Spirit of Truth” and of joy.[7] As for the flamboyant, atheistic Romantic poet Shelley, MacDonald held that his attacks on Christianity were “in reality, directed against evils to which the true doctrines of Christianity are . . . opposed,” while his “sweet melodies, lovely pictures and wild prophetic imaginings” gave him a sympathy and hope that is essential for the greatest of poetry.”[8] The Christian Romantic poet Coleridge echoed MacDonald on Shelley, as MacDonald quoted Coleridge as declaring Shelley’s atheist but moral rants “the next best religion to Christianity,” a point later affirmed by C.S. Lewis.[9]

It was the Romantic poet Novalis (1772 – 1801), however, who most deeply impressed MacDonald. MacDonald translated Novalis’s Hymns to the Night into English in 1895, and MacDonald announced his debt by prefacing Phantastes with such statements from Novalis as:

 

Thus is Nature so purely poetic, like the room of a magician or a physicist, like a children’s nursery or a carpenter’s shop . . . In a genuine fairy story . . . The whole of Nature must be wondrously blended with the whole world of the Spirit.[10]

 

To such enchanted fairy lands Novalis added a sense of yearning, which would become emblematic of German Romanticism. Novalis introduced the imagery of a blue flower to symbolize unfulfilled romantic desire in his unfinished novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Novalis’s blue flower of desire commemorated the loss of his teenage fiancée Sophie Kuhn to tuberculosis, but when coupled with his upbringing in the devout Pietist tradition, it came to symbolize the desire for a spiritual world beyond. MacDonald built into his own fantasies this longing which, induced by beauty, makes the heart ache for more. Of beauty itself, MacDonald declared,

 

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her.[11]

 

Of the desire for such beauty, MacDonald argued an even more transcendent point:

 

The highest poetic feeling of which we are now conscious springs not from the beholding of perfected beauty, but from the mute sympathy which the creation with all its children manifests with us in the groaning and travailing which looketh for the sonship. Because of our need and aspiration, the snowdrop gives birth in our hearts to a loftier spiritual and poetic feeling, than the rose most complete in form, colour, and odour. The rose is of Paradise – the snowdrop is of the striving, hoping, longing Earth. Perhaps our highest poetry is the expression of our aspirations in the sympathetic forms of visible nature.[12]

 

MacDonald’s influence on Lewis can now be easily shown, as this yearning equates to Lewis’s moments of Joy, flashes of such euphoria, however fleeting, that they can only speak of an appetite which this world cannot fully satisfy. Lewis argues the point most simply in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[13] But it is in his sermon “The Weight of Glory” that he most fully explains such a desire:

 

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, I feel a certain shyness . . . I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence . . . it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience . . . Our most common expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his past. But all this is a cheat . . . the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was longing.[14]

 

We can thus see that MacDonald, influenced by Novalis, moved Lewis at the deepest level, giving the foundation to his unique apologetic argument from desire or longing.

Novalis and the Romantics also provide connection to the contemporary world of fantasy which parallels the faith-inspired track of MacDonald and Lewis. In his notes, Novalis described the literary prophet as a magical idealist, uniting the worlds of philosophy and reason with that of poetry and enchantment. In parallel with literary Romanticism, German idealist philosophy (following Immanuel Kant) held that our minds are freed from the deterministic laws of science (so prominent in the Enlightenment, an age of both reason and science) and thus able to appreciate, if not create, human and spiritual values, such as those found in the arts and religion. Novalis and the Romantics affirm this idealistic bent, but added the magic of enchantment that we find in nature as our imagination there encounters that which enlivens it. It is not a big step from this magical idealism of the nineteenth century Romantics to its close namesake in the twentieth century, magical realism, which informs so much of today’s literature.

Magical Realism: From Marquez to Murakami

Magischer Realismus (“magical realism”) originated as an alternative to a style of expressivism in 1920s Germany, the term coined by art critic Franz Roh to describe the magical feel of realistic art in which detailed accuracy and clarity gave a feeling of strange familiarity; the more abstract and subconsciously psychological art school known as surrealism is considered only slightly related. Magical realism quickly entered Latin America through the art of Frida Kahlo as well as the stories of various Latin American authors in the 1930s and 1940s. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by Colombian Nobel Laureate author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, provided the seminal work of modern magical realism, as he used ghosts interacting with protagonists to represent and compress historical factors into the plot. In contrast to fantasy in which alternative worlds are introduced, the magical realist provides heightened awareness within a world of reality; other means often used include granting fantasy powers to some characters, fantastic (or even “marvelous”) events that are left unexplained, and an extraordinary abundance of detail (as one might find in Latin American art) suggestive of some marvelous reality that can be found within. Mexican writer and critic Luis Leal describes the feeling as “to seize the mystery that breathes behind things” and a heightening of one’s senses to an extreme (“estado limite”) to realize the fullness, connectedness, hidden meanings, and mystery within reality.[15] Magical realist works typically provide a critique of (elite) society, often expressing a “Third World consciousness” by way of the struggle of ancient cultures against current society, “the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new.”[16]

While magical realism originated in Latin American literature as a form of historical and political critique, the genre has since spread to literature around the world and highlights the possibility of deeper realities or magic lurking below the surface. The tradition encompasses various authors from the West (Alice Hoffman in America, Nicola Barker in the UK), India (Salmon Rushdie among various others), Poland, and Japan. Haruki Murakami is the most notable Japanese author writing in the genre, though the Christian Japanese artist and author Makoto Fujimura claims a tradition of hiddenness in Japanese culture owing to over 250 years of repression of Christianity in Tokugawa Japan (1600 – 1868 A.D.).

Haruki Murakami is a bestselling novelist in Japan and abroad, whose short stories and novels have been translated into fifty languages. He is well educated in Western literature and culture (and is often criticized for being un-Japanese) and has translated works from J. D. Salinger and Raymond Carver into Japanese. His themes often reflect those of Western writers, such as the sense of alienation from Franz Kafka, the centrality of love found in Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the critique of bureaucratic, industrial and bourgeois life from Kurt Vonnegut. His frequent use of fantastic elements qualifies him as arguably the pre-eminent magical realist writer today, though his use of them is as much a function of his imagination as they are of the Japanese mindset. Even the structure of his stories has garnered critical acclaim, as they alternate seemingly unrelated narratives until they connect as if by magic at the end. The Japanese culture in which his stories are typically set gives ample opportunity for fantasy to fill in its many cracks. Alienation is strong yet subtle in Japanese culture, seen most easily in the well-known space between one’s public face (tata-mae) and private voice (honne); it is in between these that the possibility of deeper meaning, which can be addressed by the fantastic, lurks. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict placed the paradox of  Japanese society between their unique sense of aesthetics and duty, while Japanese Nobel Laureate writer Kenzaburo Oe claimed that “Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity,” a Western style modernization and a more traditional Japanese culture.[17] [18]

The most direct route to the validation of a MacDonald styled fantasy, in this case Murakami’s magic-tinged realities, is revealed by the Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence (also a 2016 film by the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese). In discussing Endo’s Silence, Christian artist and writer Makota Fujimura cites the fumi-e (translated as “stepping on a picture”) culture depicted by Endo as instrumental in initiating the split, or silence, between one’s public and private face. During the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan (1600 – 1868) Christians were pressured to disrespect their faith by annually stepping on wooden or bronze images of Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary, or suffer persecution and even death. Fujimura claims that Endo counters the “violent, corrupt world in which faith cannot possibly survive” by “artfully weav[ing] into his writing the possibility of another reality in which faith, like a deeply scarred mystery embedded between the words, resurfaces over and over.”[19] As an artist, Fujimura claims that this hidden yet pregnant silence can be found in Japanese art. Much like how Latin American magical realists used the fantastic to make political points, the Japanese artists protested despotic rulers with subtle symbols in sculptures and paintings. Using such symbols as a broken chair leg or a moon painted in silver which would tarnish to black as it aged, the Japanese aesthetic often included the realism of brokenness, decay and death. The wabi sabi aesthetic of beauty found among aging items (wabi speaking of things that wear away, and sabi a term for rust), and that the Japanese symbol for beauty consists of a (sacrificial) sheep on top of a character indicating greatness, illustrate the message of Nobel prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata that “the Japanese sense of beauty . . . is always connected with death.”[20] These suggest, Fujimura claims as if a MacDonald fan and magical realist himself, that the “most important reality is to be hidden, and not to be categorized with precise definitions.” [21]

MacDonald’s claim that sacrifice is essential for life, as one needs to repent of oneself and “die out of death into life” is echoed by this Japanese sense of beauty tinged by death.[22] As Fujimura pondered the artisan Senno Rikyu, who was ordered to commit suicide (seppuku) in 1591 for defying a warlord with subtle artistic protests for his persecution of Christians and other acts, he was struck by the epiphany of “the deeper meaning behind the title of this book [Silence and Beauty]: in Japan, silence is beauty.”[23] He further equates Endo’s message in Silence with the Japanese concept of a noble and beautiful sacrifice, as Endo shows how hope can be found through weakness. The appeal of Endo’s Silence to filmmaker Martin Scorcese also highlights MacDonald’s enchantments and their place in the genre of magical realism, as Scorcese wrote of the film:

 

Cinema is the telling of stories with images and sounds – or in the case of avante garde cinema, the embodiment and conveyance of emotion with images and sounds. But that’s just a job description. I think that every truly great work of art orients you toward what isn’t there, what can’t be seen or described or named.[24]

 

The Japanese aesthetic also pays homage to the yearning wrought by such beauty, an important theme for both the Romantics and MacDonald. Nature offers not just “beauty [as] an integrative power that can awaken, heal and restore” aided by a culture that is “deeply, harmoniously connected with nature” as Fujimura observes of Kawabata, but there is a desire induced by such beauty. As Kawabata states, “when we see the beauty of the snow . . . of the cherries in bloom . . . the excitement of beauty calls forth strong feelings, yearnings for companionship.”[25] [26]

Murakami is well known for his use of fantastic elements so typical of magical realism but is criticized for lacking a coherent explanation to unite them. Talking cats, interactive dreams, and rainstorms of flying fish are just a sample of near surreal treats inhabiting his many stories. To Murakami’s Western erudition (described above), he adds a distinctly Asian flavor to his works which ultimately serves to muddy whatever symbolism might be found in his waters. This ambiguity can be traced to the hybrid nature of Japanese culture, which owes a debt to Chinese culture as well as  Buddhist and Shinto religions. John Updike illustrates the effect reviewing Murakami’s 2005 Kafka on the Shore:

 

Unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined.[27]

 

Despite Murakami’s use of such “fragments of globalized Western culture” as observations about Goethe, Beethoven, Hegel, Schubert and Dostoevsky, Updike argues that he points only vaguely to anything transcendent:

 

A Western reader expects the metaphors, or symbolic realities, to be . . . shaped by a central supernatural authority. No such authority controls the spooky carnival of Kafka on the Shore . . . [as Murakami’s character says] especially in Japan, God’s always been a flexible concept.[28]

 

Murakami’s magic is generic at best, not informed by explicit doctrine like that of MacDonald, but instead on a tradition of Shinto, a resilient and adaptive “native cult of polytheistic nature worship” surviving amidst Confucian and Buddhist influences from China, and “based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as ‘gods’ or ‘spirits’ but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence.”[29]

Murakami’s magic serves to enforce the human value to be found in the often perplexing modern world. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami explores cyber-consciousness and how our memories make us distinctly human, using such fantastic devices as the human shadow which contains one’s memories and soul, but which is stripped and left to die when one accepts the offer of a placid utopia where no one asks any serious questions.[30] In Kafka on the Shore, lovers meet across time and space in a dream world reminiscent of medieval tales of Japanese Genji in which enemies could become spirits and attack foes in their dreams, and abusive relationships (domineering patriarchy is the target) reveal dark forces lurking in the soul.[31] More happily, characters affirm their humanity by learning to question, thus avoiding fateful consignment to a mindless bureaucracy akin to that of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men, and further learn that our social relationships help to define us. The final Murakami novel we consider is his futuristic take on George Orwell, 1Q84, in which an alternative world (1Q84) is used to highlight the choices required to regain one’s full humanity.[32] In the place of the threat from Orwell’s bureaucratic Big Brother, Murakami uses a cult-like conspiracy of Little People to threaten both the logic and kindness required of sane, modern life (Murakami thus highlighted the problem of cults such as those responsible for the Tokyo subway bombings in 1995). Murakami again compares the alternative of a mindless harmony (reminiscent of the Buddhist practice of emptying one’s mind) to that of an active exercise of an “anti-establishment, subversive will indispensable for a healthy society;” in a moment of existential triumph, protagonists escape the warped reality of the 1Q84 world only by using their newfound wills.[33]

Murakami’s well known use of such magical realism highlights both his debt to and differences from MacDonald, as we can see in his various novels. The shadow as a repository of the soul in Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that preserves us from descent into a mindless happiness contrasts sharply with MacDonald’s use of one’s shadow in Phantastes as the rational, skeptical enemy of the imaginative soul. The use of dream sequences, however, illustrates the harmony between these authors, as lovers find each other across time in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, as they do in MacDonald’s Phantastes where they learn to love by giving fully and sacrificially of themselves. Murakami’s use of magic is driven less by any central spiritual reality, as Updike observes, than by man’s search for preserving his soul; MacDonald’s use of magic is less defensive and more positive, as his enchantments serve to whet the appetite for a greater spiritual reality beyond this world.

Magical Realism Well Met by MacDonald’s Disciples of Fantasy: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien

The final chapter on the magic reality of MacDonald’s fantasy is best written by his most ardent disciples, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis and his colleague in arms, J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis’s endorsement of MacDonald is well known, declaring that the copy of Phantastes he picked up in a train station for weekend entertainment well before he came to faith had an effect, in contrast to the fleeting moments of joy he had found in the world:

 

Now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things drawn into the bright shadow . . . That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.[34]

 

Of the Romantics which so inspired MacDonald, Lewis likewise claimed that:

 

The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity.[35]

 

Perhaps Lewis’s most eloquent ode to MacDonald’s sort of fantasy can be found in Puddleglum’s rebuttal of the Queen of Underland’s denial of sunny Overworld in The Silver Chair:

 

Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow.[36]

 

Chesterton likewise exulted in the magical, which he defended in his essay “The Ethics of Elfland” as well as in a review of MacDonald. He reviewed MacDonald’s fantasy novel The Princess and the Goblin as the one “book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start.”[37] That both good (love) and evil (goblins) lurked within the house rather than as some threat from without, Chesterton held as more profound than the “some five alternative philosophies of the universe [that] have come to our colleges out of Germany” since he had read the book.[38] Chesterton further insisted that when MacDonald would come to be studied as a mystic he would be regarded as “a rather important turning-point in the history of Christendom,” bringing the “intensely romantic and passionate” Scottish “emotional torrent.”[39] But his most ardent defense of fantasy appears in “The Ethics of Elfland”, with such statements as:

 

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what breeds insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.[40]

 

And

 

My first and last philosophy . . . I learnt in the nursery . . . the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales . . . Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth.[41]

 

Tolkien continued the defense of fantasy, declaring that:

 

The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only  much less ugly than a robot factory, it is also ‘in a very real sense’ a great deal more real.[42]

 

Tolkien further argued that:

 

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason . . . On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion . . . Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.[43]

 

Tolkien thus follows MacDonald, Chesterton, and Lewis, famous Christian defenders of fantasy all, in arguing that the magic of fantasy is a helpful if not necessary prelude to understanding the greater reality, otherwise approachable only through faith.

Why have we attempted to trace MacDonald’s influence through the present day? It has become apparent that, in some way, his fantasy simply continued a tradition from ancient times of including extraordinary characters and events to illustrate the battle between good and evil. Obviously, in today’s world that war continues, but just as importantly, today’s world is every bit as religiously minded as those of each of these authors. Renowned sociologist Peter Berger admits “the world today is massively religious,” and according to the 2012 Pew Research Center’s study of 230 nations and territories, only 16% of the world’s population is religiously unaffiliated; the vast majority of spaceship Earth’s passengers do believe in some sort of magic, and consider themselves on a journey to somewhere.[44] [45] Anthropologists and historians alike admit as much. The journal History and Theory devoted an issue to the topic of accommodating religious assumptions in the writing of history.[46] Anthropologists go beyond simply recognizing the symbolic nature of language required for communication and see symbols (as well as rituals) as the means for connecting “the known, visible world with the unknown, invisible spirit world” as well to connect “the world of exterior realities to inner mental realities.”[47] Thus, the fantasy tradition in which MacDonald was so instrumental, with its persistent influence in the literature of today replete with magical realism, is here (and all around the world) to stay. The religious faith which so fueled MacDonald’s fantasy will also persist in the ongoing activity of fantasy writing, as we have seen in writers especially from Japan. From the Romantics’s quest for something not fully found in this world to the more historical and political justice oriented use of the magically real by Latin American writers to the Japanese search for love and meaning, secular magical realist authors envision a more just and more humane world. Such is only possible, as MacDonald and his disciples (Lewis, Chesterton and Tolkien) remind us, when we seek that which enchants MacDonald’s fairy worlds, a theology with its truths clothed by a beauty for which we ache.

Bonus Memorial: Remembering 2020 and Eddie Van Halen

As a holiday issue bonus, an ode is offered to those lost in the year 2020 which often seemed like anything but an enchanted fairy land. Remembering the loss of renowned guitarist Eddie Van Halen in October 2020 and construing how his musical legacy might in some way continue the legacy of George MacDonald may perhaps serve as commemoration for the many whom we lost. Van Halen music filled the airwaves since Eddie Van Halen’s passing, and as I heard their first and only number one hit “Jump” play, I was reminded of the unrelenting energy of their music, led by Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. This took me to the comment that Latin magical realism could be found even in that culture’s busy artwork, and the description of Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations at a display at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park which explained that “there is more life than time.” While my anticipated connection of the line “I’ve got my back against the wrecking machine” with a Romantic style yearning for something beyond the dystopic reality of modern industrial life failed to materialize (it is in fact a “record machine” against which his back rests), I found there was a deeper, life-affirming meaning to the song. Band singer David Lee Roth had seen a potential jumper being talked out of suicide on the news, and imagined how someone in the crowd might have shouted to “go ahead and jump.” Van Halen replaced that image with an invitation to life, and thus the musical score found its lyrics. Thus, “Jump’s”   ebullient injunctions such as, “You got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real,” and, “You won’t know until you begin,” speak of a longing for a more meaningful and enchanted journey and offer encouragement as we try to restart life as normal in the wake of the pandemic.[48] The longing is even more explicit in “Dreams:” “Save all the tears you’ve cried, Cause that’s what dreams are made of.”[49]  A restless rapture of love, not unlike the enduring love borne of mutual self-sacrifice discovered by Lilith in MacDonald’s book by the same name, or his tale of the student Cosmo and the Princess in Phantastes, comes through in lines of “You Really Got Me” such as, “You really got me now, you got me so I can’t sleep at night.”[50] By contrast, the emptiness of a life without such love is displayed in lines from “Running with the Devil” like “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow . . . Yes I’m livin’ at a pace that kills” and “I got no love, no love you’d call real, Ain’t got nobody, waitin’ at home.”[51]

Eddie Van Halen’s style would fit quite well with that of MacDonald and his Inkling disciples.  The energy of his guitar spoke of a love for life tempered by a Shelley-like defiance of what Lewis would call “an idiotic cosmos” which can act as a wrecking machine of hopes and dreams.[52] Had Lewis a guitar . . . it might have resounded its tunes to the joy of which he penned:

 

The world life had for me pretty much the same associations it had for Shelley in The Triumph of Life . . . [but I] learned to relish energy, fertility and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence of things that grow. I became capable of appreciating artists . . . all the dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people like Beethoven . . . Goethe . . . and the more exultant Psalms.[53]

 

It would have expressed Jesus’s secret of which Chesterton spoke in the final lines of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

 

There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have fancied that it was His mirth.[54]

 

It would have sounded the resilient notes of Tolkien’s Christ-like Aragorn, who echoed Chesterton when described as:

 

the most hardy of living men . . . yet more than they. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from a rock.[55]

 

And it would be accompanied by the song of the little girl with the broken snow globe in MacDonald’s Phantastes who no longer needed her globe “to play for me,” as she had since learned from the Fairy Queen to:

 

sing. I could not sing at all before. Now I go about everywhere through Fairy Land, singing till my heart is like to break, just like my globe, for very joy at my own songs. And wherever I go, my songs do good, and deliver people. And now I have delivered you, and I am so happy.[56]

 

The intricate, explosive, and life-affirming guitarwork of Eddie Van Halen will be missed. But his message, a comfortable fit with MacDonald, his Inkling disciples and magical realists alike, encourages us to seek life despite disappointments like those of 2020, will thus live on.

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Citation Information

Seth Myers, “From MacDonald to Magical Realism: Faith and Fantasy with Romantics, Marquez, Murakami, and Van Halen,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 237-271.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/from-macdonald-to-magical-realism-faith-and-fantasy-with-the-romantics-marquez-murakami-and-van-halen/


Endnotes


[1] Novalis, cited in George MacDonald, Phantastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 3.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “Preface” in George MacDonald, Phantastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), xi.

[3] George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare ( USA: Editora Griffo), 215.

[4] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture” in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, (USA: Editora Griffo), 24.

[5] MacDonald received a Master’s degree in chemistry and physics in 1845, but likely due to his lack of funds to study medicine, switched to theological training in 1845, after which he preached and wrote. A paternal grandfather supported a Celtic text which helped launch the Romantic movement, and a maternal uncle was a renowned Celtic scholar who collected fairy tales and poetry, highlight the various scholars in his family.

[6] MacDonald, “St. George’s Day” in A Dish of Orts, 72.

[7] MacDonald, “Wordsworth’s Poetry” in A Dish of Orts, 169.

[8] MacDonald, “Shelley” in A Dish of Orts, 187, 193-4.

[9] Ibid., 187. C.S. Lewis wrote of the “defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos [that] really is an homage to to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative,” illustrating his claim with a Romantic style claim that “I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley.” in C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 70.

[10] MacDonald, Phantastes, 3.

[11] MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts, 214.

[12] MacDonald, “Essay on Some of the Forms of Literature” in A Dish of Orts, 161-2.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 136. Book I Ch. 10 “Hope.”

[14] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 30.

[15] Leal, Luis. “Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature.” In MR: Theory, History, Community (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) 61.

[16] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981- 1991 (London: Granta Books, 1991).

[17] Ruth Benedict, The Chrsyanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989). The book was originally published in 1946, the research supported by the US Government to aid with stabilizing postwar Japan.

[18] Makota Fujimura. Silence and Beauty (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), loc 1036/5550, Ch. 3.

[19] Fujimura. Silence and Beauty, loc 680/5550, Ch. 1.

[20] Ibid., loc. 919, Ch. 2.

[21] Fujimura. Silence and Beauty, loc. 880, Ch. 2.

[22] George MacDonald, Lilith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 207.

[23] Fujimura. Silence and Beauty, 2151, Ch. 6.

[24] Fujimura. Silence and Beauty, loc. 2525, Ch. 7.

[25] Ibid., loc. 858, Ch. 2.

[26] Ibid., loc. 845, from Yasunari Kawabata, Japan, the Beautiful and Myself (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1969), 68-69.

[27] John Updike, “Subconscious Tunnels: Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike new novel” in The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2005, online https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/01/24/subconscious-tunnels.

[28] Updike, “Subconscious Tunnels.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, trans. Alfred Birnbaum (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).

[31] Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

[32] Haruki Murakami, 1Q84, trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). The 1157 page novel was released in three parts, with an excitement in Japan akin to the tripartite release of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings films, though likely unlike that of its three part prequel, The Hobbit. It should also be noted that Murakami’s novels can include a copious supply of sexually explicit encounters, esp.true  with 1Q84. Murakami has a long Japanese tradition to draw on in this, from the lowbrow Kabuki theater (in contrast to the more refined, aesthetic highbrow Noh theater) dating from medieval times and promoting prostitution, to Geisha girls and prostitution districts quickly legitimized when Japan opened up to the typically Christian West, they have contrasted strongly with a more Victorian type of Chinese literature which promoted family values, according to anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her 1946 study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

[33] Murakami, 1Q84,158.

[34] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 222.

[35] Ibid., 262.

[36] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Collier, 1974), 159.

[37] G.K. Chesterton, “George MacDonald” in In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton , ed. Dale Ahlquist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 301.

[38] Ibid., 303.

[39] Chesterton, “George MacDonald,” 305-6.

[40] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 17.

[41] Ibid., 49.

[42] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 380.

[43] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 370-1.

[44] Peter Berger, ed. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1999).

[45] Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape” (December 18, 2012). https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ accessed Nov. 20. 2020.

[46] History and Theory, 2006, Issue 45. This was cited in Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010).

[47] Jay W. Moon, Intercultural Discipleship: Learning from Global Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 68. Also Michael Rynkiewich, Soul, Self and  and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011).

[48] Van Halen, 1983. “Jump” written by Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth. 1984, Warner Brothers.

[49] Van Halen, 1986. “Dreams” written by Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony. 5150, Warner Brothers.

[50] Van Halen, 1978. “You Really Got Me” written by Ray Davies. Van Halen, Warner Brothers.

[51] Van Halen, 1978. “Running with the Devil” written by Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen, Warner Brothers.

[52] C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, 70.

[53] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 243.

[54] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 160.

[55] J.R.R. Tolkien, Appendix A.I.5 in The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001), 374.

[56] MacDonald, Phantastes, 164.

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