Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Wise Woman and Other Stories by George MacDonald

I first read The Wise Woman years ago, courtesy of a church library, in an edition titled The Lost Princess. I was familiar with George MacDonald's other fairytales, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, and was happy to find another, similar story. It was greatly edifying to me then, but I re-read it again last weekend (partly as an aperitif for Phantastes), and found that the story had grown with me.

The volume I read also contained some of MacDonald's other fairy tales, and I'll review them briefly as well.

The Wise Woman: Princess Rosamond, spoiled rotten by her foolish parents, has grown into a little monster who insists on her own way in everything and throws violent tantrums if she is denied. Rosamond's parents finally send for the Wise Woman, who takes Rosamond away with her and introduces her to a whole new concept: discipline.

Meanwhile, north of Rosamond's kingdom, the daughter of a shepherdess also draws the Wise Woman's attention. Agnes looks like a model girl, apart from occasional obstinacy, but the Wise Woman sees the pride, self-satisfaction, and hypocrisy lurking beneath the surface.

Two little girls, one naughty, the other obedient. But is there hope for either of them?

Little Daylight: This short story is a poignant twist on the familiar Sleeping Beauty. Little Princess Daylight is cursed by an evil fairy to sleep all day and wake all night, and to wax and wane with the moon.

Cross Purposes: The Fairy Queen sends two messengers to bring her a boy and girl from a nearby village. The messengers soon lose the two young people, and the pair of them navigate the confusing borders of fairyland together in an attempt to return home to their village.

The Castle: A Parable: A large family of siblings living together in a wonderful castle resent their elder brother's iron-handed rule, and even try to imprison him.

Reading this book reminded me why George MacDonald's wonderful fairy-tales have always been so treasured by Christian writers from CS Lewis to Madeleine L'Engle. A word often used to describe these stories is "mythopoeic"--that is, the stories communicate eternal truth through the medium of fairy-tale and legend. Mythopoeic writing is not quite allegory (although, as CS Lewis pointed out, George MacDonald's fantasy "hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic"), since it tends to use but not be entirely dominated by symbols. On the other end of the scale from allegory you would have most contemporary "world-building" fantasies, where the major challenge for the author lies in subcreating a detailed world with specific geography, history, laws of nature, and technology rather than reproducing the "mythic" effect of a legend. Think of it as a sliding scale with pure metaphysical symbolism down one end (allegory) and raw geopolitical speculation up the other end (world-building). Mythopoeia would fall in the middle, able to overlap with either of the other two. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen is a good example of allegory; The Lord of the Rings is a good example of mythopoeia; The Chronicles of Narnia might fall slightly toward the allegory side of mythopoeia, and a book like KM Weiland's Dreamlander might lean towards world-building.

Where was I? Oh yes. So MacDonald's fairy-tales are primarily mythopoeic, with an allegorical slant. They are stories written to imitate myth, intended to explore and develop some aspect of Truth. Little Daylight, for example, with its wonderful eucatastrophe, has sweet things to say about Providence, humility, and selflessness (or charity, which is the same thing). The theme of Cross Purposes seems to be the misleading nature of appearances, and The Castle seems to be talking about Law and Grace.

George MacDonald
The Wise Woman, though, is the star attraction of this book, a little more allegorical than the other stories. It's an astoundingly rich story--I feel as though all sorts of things are happening here which I can barely even gesture towards. Then, one of the things MacDonald does very well (which I had forgotten until I had read this book) is to invent things and settings which take root in the imagination. In this book there is a cottage with no doors: you must knock at the blank wall before the door will turn out to have been there all along. Inside the cottage is a bed of living heather, which must be watered every day, and there is a little door behind the clock which leads to the hall of a palace, where the walls are covered in pictures so real that you can step through them into the scenes they represent. The imagery in each case is very simple. But you don't forget any of it. In an allegory each of these things would have some plain symbolic meaning. But in a mythopoeia, the imagery simply reminds you strongly of something on the edge of consciousness. Perhaps the doorless cottage is a commentary upon the verse "Knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Then, perhaps it isn't. But it feels as though it could be.

The imagery in mythopoeia is elusive. If it wasn't for MacDonald dropping a broad hint that his Wise Woman is somehow identified with Una of The Faerie Queene I would find it difficult to say what she might be a symbol of. Even so, I can only make guesses. Truth? The Holy Church? Or perhaps the best guess, Wisdom herself?


I'm not trying to nail it down, and I wouldn't recommend trying. Most mythopoeic imagery is best flying free; you must unmake it, clip its wings, and slice it open if you want to pin it down, and then it no longer looks like itself.

Besides, there is plenty of very plain teaching in this little story. It's primarily the story of two kinds of sin: the outright rebellion of Rosamond, and the sly conceit of Agnes. (Spoilers ho!) In the end, only one of them repents. Rosamond's hard heart is eventually broken, and she learns to rule herself; but Agnes, having been shown her sin and the ugliness thereof, continues obstinately in the same sin. To be honest, I am a little tired of the assumption, rather trendy these days, that religious hypocrisy is somehow the worst of sins, bordering on unforgiveable. But although MacDonald's story ends with the hypocrite unrepentant, I didn't get the feeling that he treated Agnes as any worse than Rosamond.

Perhaps this was the thing I found most compelling about the story as I read it this time: it portrayed repentance as a work of divine grace. Again and again, Agnes and more commonly Rosamond attempt to mend their ways, and pride themselves for a while on their newfound righteousness, only to slip right back into the same evil at the first temptation. Again and again, MacDonald cautions us that the little girl only happens to be in a good mood, or to be afraid of punishment, or something of the sort: but her heart is still sinful. One thing this drives home for the reader is the fact that both the girls are in need of the same thing: divine grace. Both of them are capable of being in a good mood, or temporarily mending their attitudes. But the fact that Rosamond mends, and Agnes does not, has less to do with how depraved they are, and more to do with grace.

(End spoilers).

George? The General Assembly sent me. They aren't happy.
The Wise Woman could be read with great profit by anyone old enough to feel the temptation of either rebellious wrath or self-satisfied pride. As a child, I found it an engaging and edifying story. As an adult, I'm in awe both of its artistry and of what it has to say about discipline and grace. We live in a culture that (like Princess Rosamond's parents) never disciplines their children, and then looks around them in surprise when the children turn into little monsters. Discipline and good training is certainly a step in the right direction, but discipline is not enough. After all, both Rosamond and Agnes had the benefit of the Wise Woman's training and admonition. And it's divine grace that makes all the difference in the end.

Now, before any of you comment and mention it, I am aware that George MacDonald was a Universalist, and I don't mean to excuse or endorse that in the least. I kept a close eye out (because my great-great-grandfather was SOLOMON KANE, PURITAN ADVENTURER *scare chord*) but I didn't spot anything particularly Universalist in this book. As far as I can tell at this point, MacDonald managed somehow both to hold a doctrine which believed all people would eventually be saved, and to retain a more or less robust view of total depravity and irresistible grace. Even a stopped watch is right twice a day, and this book was excellent. I warmly recommend it.

Find The Wise Woman at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg (as A Double Story), or Librivox (as The Lost Princess).

3 comments:

hopeinbrazil said...

I'm a huge fan of George MacDonald, but it's been a few years since I've re-visited his books. This is one title I don't think I've read. Thanks for reviewing it so well. I read once that his harsh calvinist upbringing caused him to (over?) emphasize the love of God. His emphasis on grace is what I love most about his books.

Suzannah said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the review!

I didn't feel that THE WISE WOMAN had an over-emphasis on the love of God. As a Calvinist myself (and if you could buy Calvinism by the drumful, mine would come with a skull and crossbones stencilled on the side) I think Calvinism really helps one to appreciate the tenderness and mercy of God so much more, because even though we are incapable of deserving it, He gives it anyway. That's what MacDonald seems to be saying in this book, and I love that aspect. I also thought his book LILITH included some magnificent Calvinist apologetics on the intersection of the will of God and the will of man. CS Lewis put it similarly in PERELANDRA when he said that "Apparently, predestination and free will were indistinguishable."

Of course, LILITH also included some Universalist apologetics. But Saint Augustine gave a magnificent (and rather proto-Calvinist) refutation of that doctrine as well when he said that if the Lord damned everyone, we would never have the opportunity to see and worship His mercy, while if He redeemed everyone, we would never have the opportunity to see and fear His wrath. Only by condemning some and saving others (and as a postmillenial Calvinist, I believe that the majority will be saved) does God have the full opportunity to demonstrate both His justice and His love.

Mazharul Islam said...

I'm the huge fan associated with George MacDonald, but It has been a series of decades considering that the I've re-visited his books. This really is sole title when i don't think I've read. Thanks for reviewing It so well. see more

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