- George MacDonald: Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity by Daniel Gabelman
It may seem strange that the first three full chapters of Daniel Gabelman’s book George MacDonald: Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity barely mention the writer himself. Yet this is actually a strategic move by the writer of a book that spans a number of discourses with insightful balance. Gabelman seeks to address difficulties arising from misperceptions of George MacDonald, and through this, reveal the role of “lighthearted modalities” within the Christian imagination (4). As he points out, C. S. Lewis’s categorization of MacDonald as a writer of “moral and spiritual seriousness” does not always attract readers, especially readers who do not see the capacity for “a surprising sympathy between light, whimsical things and serious orthodox theology” (1–4). Among scholars who investigate MacDonald’s influence on the Christian imagination, his fairy tales have a reputation of not being serious enough, as can be seen in a quotation from Rolland Hein’s work regarding MacDonald’s fairy tales: “[T]he tales contain more of the absurd and the tone is more light and playful. . . . Fresh breakthroughs into the transcendent are more rare” (105). All of this means that MacDonald’s work is caught between not merely two, but multiple, points of perception.
Having outlined difficulties with critical perspectives on MacDonald’s work in his introduction, Gabelman offers a theoretical concept of “levity” as a productive standpoint from which to view MacDonald’s fairy tales (“The Light Princess,” “The Carasoyn,” and “The Wise Woman” are just three of many tales discussed). Following the introduction, he begins defining this “levity” framework, in ways that may be more familiar to academics than to MacDonald’s casual readers, considering abundant references to Plato, Dante, Erasmus, Bakhtin, Moltmann, Derrida, and Byron (among others). Gabelman identifies levity as a liberating and interrogative experience stemming from the Latin word levitas (“lightness, mobility”), linked to the word “levitation,” and often understood as representing frivolity (9). Levity, therefore, can mean a riotous elevation and a joyous lessening of weighty cares, leading to clarity of self-perception. In the context of religious, mystical, and philosophic literary tradition, Gabelman writes, levity may indicate saintliness and a lightening of the self arising from both spiritual ecstasy and aesthetic experience, as well as a propelling of metamorphic play (cf. Bakhtin).
Gabelman applies this concept of levity to interpretations of MacDonald’s role within contexts of Victorian and fantasy literature, noting how they contrast with concurrent social constructs including a Utilitarian focus on strict fact, an Evangelical tendency toward rigidly solemn morality and Matthew Arnold’s ideas of serious ethical humanism (cf. Literature and Dogma). He also explores the importance of MacDonald’s notion of the “childlike,” a [End Page 231] quality he defines as “a liberated three-dimensional ascension” with the potential to blur age boundaries, for transcending social categories (100). For example, Gabelman explains, MacDonald relies upon levity and the childlike in “The Golden Key” (90).
Gabelman thus views MacDonald’s work as uniting moral earnestness and lighthearted play, in revelatory contrast to the Victorian seriousness of Positivism, Utilitarianism, and Evangelicalism (represented in works by George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, and John Mill), as well as an insufficiently interrogative comic culture (typified by periodicals Punch and Fun and comic artists like George Cruikshank, for example) (73–86). He extends this Victorian context into wider fairytale literature by investigating how MacDonald’s texts play with tropes of time (in festive seasons, hours of the day, and parodically hopeful endings we see in texts like Adela Cathcart, “Cross Purposes,” and “The Light Princess”) and of space (quests for an integrated “Home” of “peace, harmony, and fullness” often take place within fairyland, as for instance in his story “The Carasoyn” [144–46]). He notes that contemporary fantasy work by Lewis Carroll (the Alice books) and Oscar Wilde (“The Young King”) does not offer this parodic playing with time and space to the extent that MacDonald’s texts do (119, 133). Gabelman considers the effect of MacDonald’s varying fairy tale spaces in comparison with...