Saturday, March 04, 2023

'Of the Devil's party without knowing it'

Andrew Wall, dir. & writ.: The Fantasy Makers (2018)

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
- William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

Recently Bronwyn and I watched the documentary "The Fantasy Makers", hoping for some insights into the work of George MacDonald and his successors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I have to say that it was a somewhat disappointing experience. A succession of non-entities - obscure Academics and writers, none of whom I'd ever heard of - came on screen to proclaim the vital significance of the Christian faith to the works of these three authors, and the various ways in which that old-time religion had jump-started their imaginations.

Don't get me wrong. This is certainly a defensible proposition: indeed a pretty obvious one, given the tendency of MacDonald and Lewis in particular to incorporate a good deal of Christian allegory and even straightout preaching in their respective fantasy worlds. There's no doubt, either, about the significance of his Catholic faith to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Where I part company with this documentary is in its selective - and thus quite misleading - account of the growth of the modern Fantasy genre. It's strongly implied in context that reading MacDonald had a decisive effect on Tolkien - whereas it's really Lewis who was more influenced by him. It's true that The Hobbit is deeply indebted to MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin, but William Morris's series of heroic romances were the real catalyst for Tolkien's own peculiar fusion of mythology and folktale.

William Morris: The House of the Wolfings (1889)

So why leave out Morris? There were, of course - there always are - limitations of space. You can't put in everyone. In this case, though, there was a simpler reason: he wasn't a Christian. He was, admittedly, brought up as one, but in later life he espoused atheism, along with a very militant form of Communism. He was as independent a thinker as he was a writer and artist.

William Morris: William Morris (1834-1896)

It puts me in mind of an account I once heard of a Children's TV programme which one of my school friends inadvertently found himself watching one idle afternoon. The kids were all sitting around in a circle while the house band, called (I think) the Certain Sounds, performed various uplifting numbers.

This led to a "discussion" (i.e. harangue) where the hosts of the show denounced the excesses of contemporary Rock music - this was, admittedly, the era of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath - and stressed how wholesome, by contrast, were the songs they'd just been listening to. Those confirmed degenerates the Rolling Stones came in for a bit of a tongue-lashing, too.

All of a sudden a youth leapt up from the floor and shouted "The Rolling Stones are great - and the Certain Sounds are sh ..." They cut to commercial before he could finish what he was saying - but I think the audience got the message. Ah me, the perils of live TV!

When the programme resumed the lone rebel had, of course, been removed - and no doubt taken backstage for indoctrination. But, as the poet Horace once observed: "you can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but still she'll come back" [naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret]. His work there was done.

The more the speakers in The Fantasy Makers stressed how hip-hop-happening the Bible was, and how deeply it had influenced the whole course of storytelling through the ages, the more I could hear the voice of my sister-in-law trying to persuade the rest of us at one extended-family gathering that Christian Rock was cool, and it was we who were the fuddy-duddies in sticking to more conventional forms of Rock 'n' Roll.

The Bible is undoubtedly a great source of stories, and Tolkien and his friends were very religious, but the intense vehemence with which the assorted talking heads in the documentary asserted these simple truths was in itself enough to make one feel suspicious.

J. R. R. Tolkien: On Fairy-stories (2008)

It was, after all, Tolkien himself who stressed the vital need to make a distinction between the realm of Faerie and its two nearest neighbours, Heaven and Hell. In his classic 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories", he quotes from the old Border Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:
O see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset wi' thorns and briers?
That is the path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

And see ye not yon braid, braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about yon fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
Having first mistaken her for Mary Mother of God, Thomas is inveigled into accompanying the Fairy Queen down the third of these paths, and so:
Till seven long years were gone and done
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
He brings nothing back with him from this mysterious realm except the ability to make rhymes and music.

Mind you, it isn't all good - and there's certainly nothing safe about it. Thomas was lucky to get back home at all: centuries can easily go by in the blink of an eye for those who've been taken away to Faerie. And there is, of course, the little matter of the Devil's teind (or tithe) - a tax of souls enforced by Hell in exchange for allowing this realm to exist independently.

Henry Fuseli: The Faerie Queene (1788)

'Of the Devil's party without knowing it' - well, no, not quite. Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald were quite clear in their opposition to that gentleman, witness their respective portraits of him as Morgoth in the Silmarillion (along with his chief lieutenant Sauron in The Lord of the Rings); the Infernal Minister served by civil servant Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters; not to mention the gloomy landlord depicted in MacDonald's introduction to Valdemar Adolph Thisted's Letters from Hell.

It is undeniable, though, that - as a reader - you feel a certain sense of excitement in Tolkien whenever he allows himself to revel in the imagery and atmosphere of the pre-Christian Teutonic heroic age. The story comes to life. In Lewis, too, when he allows his English children entry to a country where fauns and centaurs and the other nature spirits of Classical Paganism are permitted to roam freely.

Milton, according to Blake, "wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell" - Tolkien, too, could write freely enough of both Middle-earth and Mordor, but when it comes to Valinor and the Blessed Realms, it all just fades off into sunlight and singing.

Pauline Baynes: Father Christmas (1950)

Think, too, of how embarrassing is the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in Lewis's first Narnia book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It just seems so jarringly wrong to drag St. Nick into the midst of all these talking animals and powerful magicians. Not even the superbly imaginative Pauline Baynes can do much with this intrusion. But Lewis must have learned from the experience, because he never did anything quite so crass again.

Tolkien detested Lewis's Narnia books precisely because of their imbalance of tone and seriousness. Nymphs and Their Ways: The Love Life of a Faun, the title of one of the raunchier books on Mr. Tumnus's bookshelf, exemplified for Tolkien everything that was wrong about this mish-mash of pagan and contemporary themes.

Ludovico Ariosto: Orlando Furioso (1516-32)

If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness. No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws; none so seemingly objective, so disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology; none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory. And what fine shading there is in the variations of style to meet the almost endless diversity of scenes and characters – comic, homely, epic, monstrous, or diabolic!
- C. S. Lewis, Blurb for The Lord of the Rings (1954)
Lewis, by contrast, was careful to praise Tolkien's "heroic seriousness", but suggested that his inventiveness might find a parallel (if not a rival) in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Tolkien, characteristically, bristled at the comparison, but one suspects that it was not made idly.

Lewis felt, it would seem, that Tolkien was at risk of starting to believe his own ideas about 'sub-creation' - that he was, in effect, within a hair of setting himself up as the god of his own creation. And there is certainly little that's ostensibly Christian about Tolkien's world: its values seem far more firmly based on Old Norse stoicism and blind courage.

Whatever bargain these writers may have struck with their own consciences, it seems clear to me whenever I read them that both Lewis and Tolkien were more in love imaginatively with the Queen of Faerie than they could ever could be with the minutiae of their own religion. That was theology; this was fantasy.

I don't question (or doubt) the sincerity of their faith, just as I don't doubt that of Milton - or Blake, for that matter. I may not share it myself, but I did in my younger days, so have at least some understanding of the mind-set involved.

The creative instinct, however, is an unruly thing: once you start to discipline it and push it in the directions demanded by dogma, you end up with (at best) Hymns Ancient and Modern; at worst, Socialist Realism.

C. S. Lewis: The Cosmic Trilogy (1938-45)

The reason, I suspect, that none of the more distinguished commentators on Lewis, Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings - the ones you might actually have heard of - could be persuaded to appear in this rather tin-eared documentary, is that they could see at once that it was attempting to shrink them to the size of mere Christian propagandists.

And yes, on one level, that is what they were - C. S. Lewis, in particular. But you don't have to be a Christian to delight in Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra, just as The Lord of the Rings cuts across creeds and cultures to engage with real human truths.

Both of them took the road to fair Elf-land, and both paid a certain price for doing so. George MacDonald is a more complex case - his guilt over such lapses from the party-line threatens time and again to overturn his fantasies in mid-course. But the greatness of his narrative gift keeps us reading At the Back of the North Wind and the 'Curdie' books despite any failures of taste or consistency within them.

The Marion E. Wade Center Museum (Wheaton College, Illinois)

There's a reason why this particular set of seven British authors have been granted their own research centre at a major American university, and it's not because of the orthodoxy of their belief systems:
  1. George MacDonald (1824-1905)
  2. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
  3. Charles Williams (1886-1945)
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
  5. Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
  6. Owen Barfield (1898-1997)
  7. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Barfield was an Anthroposophist, Chesterton and Tolkien were Catholics, Lewis and Sayers were Anglicans, MacDonald was probably more of a Unitarian than anything else, and it's very hard to say just what precisely Charles Williams was: he certainly dabbled in magic and occultism more than any of the others.

Where they stand together is in the superreal vividness of their imaginations. Their respective versions of Christian faith may well have been a help in this, but all seven of them had to cast their nets wider than that to write anything worth reading. The details of their individual bargains with Faerie remain sealed up with their bones.

George MacDonald: Phantastes: A Faerie Romance (1858)

George MacDonald (1860)

George MacDonald


  1. Phantastes & Lilith. 1858 & 1895. Introduction by C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.
  2. At the Back of the North Wind / The Princess and the Goblin / The Princess and Curdie. 1870, 1871, 1882. London : Octopus Books, 1979.
  3. The Princess and the Goblin. 1871. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  4. The Princess and Curdie. 1882. Illustrated by Helen Stratton. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
  5. The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for the Childlike. 1882. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.
  6. The Light Princess and Other Tales: Being the Complete Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. Introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. 1961. Kelpies. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1987.
  7. The Complete Fairy Tales. Ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

  8. Novels:

  9. The Marquis of Lossie. 1877. London: Cassell & Co., 1927.

  10. Non-fiction:

  11. 'Preface' to Valdemar Adolph Thisted. Letters from Hell. 1866. Trans. Julie Sutter. 1884. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1911.
  12. George MacDonald: An Anthology. Ed. C. S. Lewis. 1946. London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1947.

  13. Poetry:

  14. MacDonald, George. The Poetical Works. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1911.

  15. Secondary:

  16. Raeper, William. George MacDonald. 1987. Herts, England: A Lion Book, 1988.

George MacDonald: The Gifts of the Child Christ (1882)

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