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George MacDonald

Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity

Daniel Gabelman

Publication Year: 2013

The Scottish poet, author, and Christian minister George MacDonald is widely known as an inspiration for the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll, among others. Nineteenth century photographs of MacDonald present a forbidding visage, embodying Victorian-era solemnity. Yet behind the facade, as Daniel Gabelman writes, lived a whimsical and fantastical muse. Indeed, MacDonald imbued theological weight through childlike lightheartedness. Gabelman ably reveals in MacDonald’s writings a bridge between playfulness and seriousness in the modern imagination. George MacDonald delivers a balanced reading of its subject that ultimately lends a new theological and literary weight to whimsy.

Published by: Baylor University Press

Series: The Making of the Christian Imagination

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

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Series Introduction

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pp. 6-9

The current rash of books hostile to religious faith will one day be an interesting subject for some sociological analysis. They consistently suggest a view of religion which, if taken seriously, would also evacuate a number of other human systems of meaning, including quite a lot of what we unreflectively think of as science. ...


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: The Gravity of a Child at Play

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pp. 1-6

Levity is probably not the first word that most readers associate with George MacDonald. On the contrary, unlike his contemporaries Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde—fellow writers of fantasy known for their whimsicality—MacDonald tends to be linked with moral and spiritual seriousness rather than lighthearted playfulness. ...

Part I: Modalities of Levity

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1. The Levity of Saints and Angels

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pp. 9-22

When someone speaks of “levity” today, they are probably referring to something humorous, ridiculous, or frivolous. Used positively, it can mean that which elicits laughter or fleeting joy, or that which calls forth—however briefly—a startling perspective of the world. ...

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2. Ecstasy and Folly: Lightening the Self for Its Journey

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pp. 23-36

One of the most famous visual representations of a saint and an angel levitating is Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (see facing page). Despite its massive heft of white marble and gilded metal, this is probably one of the lightest works of art ever created. ...

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3. Vanity and Play: Liberation from Seriousness for Metamorphosis

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pp. 37-50

After a vision of God’s glory, immutability, and eternality, the mystics see the world clearly for what it is—fleeting, transient, perishable, fallen. This gaze of contempt reduces what it looks at to vanity, and, for Augustine, vanity affects “whatsoever exists in transition,” that is, the entire created order and all of existence.2 ...

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4. Carnival and Sabbath: A Time for Renewal, Rebellion, and Revelation

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pp. 51-68

By drawing attention to the evanescence of existence, vanity not only liberates an individual for present playfulness but also discloses the importance of different times and seasons. Weeping cannot take precedence over laughter nor death over life, for God has “made everything beautiful in its time.” ...

Part II: MacDonald’s Fairytale Levity

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5. “Never so Real as When They Are Solemn”: Victorians and Seriousness

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pp. 71-106

While most modern cultures set up levity and seriousness as diametrical opponents, this has not always been the view of every society. Medieval Catholic Europe, for instance, though girded round with strict laws and hierarchical structures, gave laughter and play a prime position within its cultural life ...

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6. Time: Fairyland’s Festive Sabbath

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pp. 107-142

Fairytales love to manipulate time. Tolkien says that part of the “magic of Faerie” is in the “satisfaction of certain primordial human desires,” among which is the desire “to survey the depths of space and time.”1 Fairytales are metaphysically curious; they ask and play with the most fundamental questions of existence. ...

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7. Space: Fairyland’s Ecstatic Cosmology

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pp. 143-172

Tolkien defines a fairy story as anything which deals with “the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country,” but, with the humility of an anchorite, he warns against speaking directly about this realm: “I will not attempt to define [Faerie], nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. ...

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8. Transformation: “Shall not the Possible Become the Real?”

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pp. 173-202

Despite the arguments of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, most people still view fairytales as primarily for children.1 While fantasy has become an acceptable (if slightly dubious) genre for adults, fairytales have yet to evade their association with children. Many adults have a difficult time “entering into” a fairytale. ...

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Conclusion: The Haunting Force of Levity

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pp. 203-208

There is a strange irony in the way physical gravity operates through waves and particles that are massless and “pass unchanged through any material in their path and so [. . .] carry signals with absolute clarity across the vast reaches of space.”1 With an infinite host of heavenly angels (angelos, as we know, is Greek for “messenger”) backing up gravity, ...


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pp. 209-244


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pp. 245-256


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pp. 257-261

E-ISBN-13: 9781602587847
E-ISBN-10: 1602587841
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602587823
Print-ISBN-10: 1602587825

Page Count: 270
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: The Making of the Christian Imagination