George MacDonald, The Father of Modern Fantasy

George MacDonald is one of those Victorian authors whom people dislike, don’t understand, or simply have never heard of. I love The Princess and the Goblin, but try reading At the Back of the North Wind, which is Dickensian in its depiction of London, or The Princess and Curdie, which is a baffling and disturbing sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, written ten years after the first book. More baffling still are his fairy tales. These are not the beautifully written and finely drawn fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. MacDonald’s fairy tales can be dark, strange, and metaphorically jarring.

Here’s a passage from “The Golden Key” that will give you an idea:
“The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.”
MacDonald, George. “The Golden Key.”)

George MacDonald worked as a clergyman, but left the church to pursue writing full-time. He knew Charles Dodgson—yes, Lewis Carroll—and was a fan of the Alice books. People often think British fantasy for children gets its start with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But it doesn’t.
MacDonald is a father to British fantasy in the way that Daniel Defoe is the father to the survival story. Virtually every survival story, from Coral Island to Gilligan’s Island to Survivor, can be traced back to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. As for MacDonald, people may know about him, but they probably haven’t read his books, and they usually don’t know how profoundly this writer influenced the development of fantasy in the twentieth century, particularly for such writers as C. S. Lewis.
If you want to know more about MacDonald, his life and influence, check out this truly fabulous online exhibition,
George MacDonald: The Forgotten Father of Fantasy Fiction.
The canvas was created by Live Life Aberdeenshire in conjunction with the BBC. It includes prints, photographs, and everything you will ever want to know about MacDonald. Just remember to read one of his books as well.

On Writing Memoir, Part 4, Reading

This is the fourth in my series on memoir. We are three weeks in to the COVID19 pandemic, so I, like many people, am finding more time to read and think, in spite of the term still grinding on like a virtual glacier. I haven’t found working from home any hardship either—until yesterday, the last day of March, when winter decided to return to Edmonton. So it’s back to more layers while spring decides to hurry up and arrive.

For this fourth in my series, I’m turning to my blog. After I lost my sight in 1974, I started reading in a different way. I began listening to recorded books, and my internal landscape changed radically.
I’m including several links here, all of which grew out of my early reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Reading this book was truly formative for me—it introduced story into my life in a different way, and it gave me a new way of seeing the world.
I first posted “A Life-Long Adventure” in June of 2014. It describes my early experiences of reading Tolkien. The second, “In the Company of Hobbits,” first posted in October of 2019, continues the story and describes the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on my teaching life.
“A Visit to Oxford” describes my first visit to Oxford in 2016 with my youngest daughter. This trip was a way for me to explore those places where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked, which felt for me more like a pilgrimage than anything else. And finally, “A Hobbit Odyssey,” first posted in September of 2019, describes a trip with my eldest daughter, driving down New Zealand’s north island and checking out all the locations dedicated to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of Lord of the Rings. I’m very lucky to have such indulgent daughters, both of whom have listened to my stories over the years, and both of whom have helped me to explore this part of my life in interesting ways.

Lest WE Forget, Remembrance Day, 2019

This day, November 11, 2019, we honour those who have lost their lives in military conflicts around the world. Nations fight wars. Women, children, and men die as a result; families are displaced, and survivers are left to find their lives amidst the wreckage.

From, L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside: Walter’s Last Letter (Chapter XXIII)
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”

A Friendship and a Great War

C. S. Lewis met J. R. R. Tolkien on May 11, 1926, during an English faculty meeting at Merton College. Lewis was a tutor in the English faculty at Magdalen College at the time. He had already discovered a love of northern myths through his boyhood friendship with Arthur Greeves, but he had yet to publish a book of fantasy. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College. He was a father and husband, but it would be over ten years before he published The Hobbit, and decades before the first volume of Lord of the Rings would appear.
It was a Tuesday. Here’s what Lewis writes in his diary about that first meeting:
“I had a talk with him [Tolkien] afterwards. He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap—can’t read Spenser because of the forms—thinks the language is the real thing in the school—thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty…. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
This friendship would become important in both men’s lives, both creatively and academically, but it also would become the basis for the Inklings, a group of Oxford intellectuals, who met regularly for almost two decades.
An experience Lewis and Tolkien also had in common was the Great War. They didn’t know one another at the time, but the war had a profound effect on both men and their writing. You can read more about their experience of the war in Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. A documentary is also in production, and you can see the trailer here.
I have taken great joy in reading about Lewis and Tolkien and their friendship over the years. Loconte’s book is only one of many. And I do wonder sometimes—what would it have been like to join Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends, as they gathered on a Tuesday morning at The Eagle and Child to discuss books and writing. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a word in edgeways, but it would have been something to just listen

In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.

Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.