BY JANA GERING
My sister and I have an especial love of George MacDonald’s fairy tale “The Light Princess,” which is the story of a princess who has the misfortune of not having any gravity. She floats and bounces around as if she were in Moon Boots, and the wind is her mortal enemy. Perhaps as a part of the problem (which is, as in all good fairy tales, the result of a curse), she also lacks gravitas, the ability to understand sadness, sincerity, or have empathy. The story follows her journey to finding her gravity. Clever, ironic, and subversively symbolic, it’s not your typical fairytale.
I remember discovering a beautiful hardcover and almost-untouched complete set of MacDonald’s books in the basement stacks of my college library. I would sit there with the whine of the fluorescent lights and the hum of the dehumidifiers going, just adjacent to the silent study area, flipping through ‘A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination and on Shakespeare’.
“All words, then, belonging to the inner world of the mind, are of the imagination, are originally poetic words. The better, however, any such word is fitted for the needs of humanity, the sooner it loses its poetic aspect by commonness of use. It ceases to be heard as a symbol, and appears only as a sign.”
I was in the middle of an english literature major and an art minor, and my mind was tangled up with questions and history and vocabulary. It was the right time to read MacDonald, a contemporary of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ author Lewis Carroll and ‘Tom Sawyer’ author Mark Twain. He constantly referenced Shakespeare, Keats, Carlyle, Bacon, Goethe, Tennyson, Chaucer, and more, and now I knew (mostly) who they were and why they were important.
Lord Bacon tells us that a prudent question is the half of knowledge. Whence comes this prudent question?…From the imagination. It is the imagination that suggests in what direction to make the new inquiry—which, should it cast no immediate light on the answer sought, can yet hardly fail to be a step towards final discovery. Every experiment has its origin in hypothesis; without the scaffolding of hypothesis, the house of science could never arise. And the construction of any hypothesis whatever is the work of the imagination. The man who cannot invent will never discover.
MacDonald certainly wasn’t a perfect writer or a perfect man. Many of his books are dense and difficult, especially by modern standards, and they’re filled up with words, pop culture references, names and jokes we no longer understand. He was a Scottish preacher, poet, a fantasy writer, and a novelist; a walking paradox. The main thing is, he wondered. He asked the questions and wrote literary experiments that were forerunners to today’s fantasy fiction. From novels like “Sir Gibbie” and “The Marquis of Lossie” to luminous fairy tales like “At the Back of the North Wind” and “The Princess and the Goblin,” MacDonald followed his own advice on invention and imagination. But imagination alone wasn’t enough; for him it had to go hand in hand with hard work and a “rightness” directly inherited from being a creation of God:
For the end of imagination is harmony. A right imagination, being the reflex of the creation, will fall in with the divine order of things as the highest form of its own operation; "will tune its instrument here at the door" to the divine harmonies within; will be content alone with growth towards the divine idea, which includes all that is beautiful in the imperfect imaginations of men; will know that every deviation from that growth is downward; and will therefore send the man forth from its loftiest representations to do the commonest duty of the most wearisome calling in a hearty and hopeful spirit. This is the work of the right imagination; and towards this work every imagination, in proportion to the rightness that is in it, will tend. The reveries even of the wise man will make him stronger for his work; his dreaming as well as his thinking will render him sorry for past failure, and hopeful of future success.
Imagination’s goal is to be in harmony with creation; this is accomplished through the hard work of tuning the instrument of imagination to bring beautiful order out of chaotic possibility. MacDonald saw the ordering of imagination as freedom, not restriction.
I struggle with this as an artist. I love possibility and open-ended, rabbit-trail thinking. I love the exploring and hypothesizing stage. But the work of developing my ear to tuning? The technical development that narrows possibility but enables order and harmony? The hours and hours of practice, of developing the right muscles and instincts. That stuff is hard. Art is subtraction, and subtraction is making choices, shutting doors, saying yes and saying no.
It doesn’t help that when a story stays in my head it doesn’t require those muscles. It’s perfect there, but it doesn’t get shared. I’m coming to grips with a latent perfectionism. I always associated perfectionism with those who worked fastidiously on the details; now I realize that they were just willing to do more work to match their vision. Those who have a perfect vision in their head, and never do the work, those are the slaves to perfectionism.
I am reminding myself often these days that perfectionism isn’t art. What I take from MacDonald, despite him being imperfect, is that because he wrote, invented, and did the hard work of practice and the “commonest duties of wearisome calling”, he profoundly influenced a huge audience of readers, among whom were other authors like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and many, many more.