rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
The internet has all the George Macdonald I was never able to find in my youth. Which would appear to have been a lot of it-- the man was incredibly prolific. Mari Ness's review pointed me at this one.

It's quite unusual, because it is filled with numinous but has almost nothing supernatural in it at all. There is one unequivocally magical thing, and one thing that might be but no one is sure, and the rest is just, well, the sort of atmosphere you expect from a fairy tale, and therefore it is one.

A witch of a rather scientific turn of mind obtains two infant children. The boy she raises to know nothing about darkness: he is kept asleep whenever the sun is not in the sky, all things colored black are kept away from him, and his rooms are arranged so that there aren't even any shadows. The girl is kept in an underground prison lit only by one very weak alabaster-shaded lamp, so that, the witch thinks, she will know nothing about light.

A major reason that I keep reading George Macdonald is that in a less intelligent story, she would know nothing about light. As it is, she has spent hours contemplating the single lamp she has, considering every property of it and learning how to use her eyes best to see everything in her rooms by its glow, and so she is terrified of complete and utter darkness. I find this infinitely more plausible than the alternative.

The two escape their respective boundaries and meet, of course, and the girl then proceeds to be awesome. Seriously. She is competent, intelligent, kind, fascinated by everything she sees in the world outside her prison, and not the least frightened of daylight, though she can't cope with it because it hurts her eyes and skin after years of dimness. The sequence in which she first gets out into the garden, on a moonlit night, and sees the stars and river and feels the wind for the first time, is one of the most bravura setpieces I have seen Macdonald deliver, one long outpouring of loving, rational, numinous discovery as she creates her own theory of what the lights in the sky are and how the water flows.

The boy, unfortunately, is a young arrogant twit, but at least the narrative knows it, and towards the end he is starting to know it too.

This is one of the better pieces by Macdonald I have read, and is something I had not expected from him: a fantasy without religion and without most of his usual symbolism which nevertheless delivers all his strengths in very high form, and almost none of his weaknesses. I may have to find myself a print copy.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.

“That is the way,” he said.

“But there are no stairs.”

“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

She turned and looked him full in the face— stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year— then threw herself headlong into the hole.


There is something Stephen King said once, in I think Danse Macabre, which has stuck with me, which is that you can tell whether something is good at what it is doing by the resonance it makes in you. He was talking about horror movies, and saying that sometimes it is worth sitting through an entire film full of dreadful schlock, for the sake of the instant when everything comes together and chimes like crystal struck. You can hear that ring in the oddest of places, and sometimes it is for only one instant, and sometimes you can't put your finger on it but can only say that, there, that thing, yes. That is the ring of the authentic and the true.

And sometimes there is something that is from start to finish one resonance of that clear tone.

George Macdonald is a wildly erratic writer for me; as I have mentioned I love both Lilith and Phantastes, and also The Princess and the Goblin, but I read The Light Princess day before yesterday and-- well. There are sentences of it that resound, mostly involving the moon on the water, but. And The Princess and Curdie is terrible.

So my thanks to those of you who recommended The Golden Key, as it is an antidote to that side of Macdonald. I have no idea whether anyone else likes this sort of thing, although I expect so, because it is full of things that are beautiful and unusual: a land in which shadows are piled in drifts, higher than snow; feathered fish that swim through the air.

But it is a kind of story that resonates so strongly with me that I cannot say much about it. It is the kind of story that acts on me like the clapper of a bell: in short, why I read fantasy. I have spent a lot of my reading life listening for that resonance in the tiny instances, so so much of it at once can be a little overwhelming, although entirely delightful. If there is a kind of book you love, I hope that every so often you have the joy of running into something that is nothing but that. It doesn't happen frequently, and wouldn't be as valuable if it did.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A fairy tale I had somehow missed in the phase when I was going through and reading lots of George Macdonald for the first time; mind you, that was before Project Gutenberg.

The plot is fairly traditional. There is of course a christening curse, and it is that the princess will lose all her gravity. The most interesting aspects of the book are the implications of this, which are carried through pretty thoroughly-- not only does she float, but she has nothing grave in her character; she cannot cry, cannot love, and greets every situation with a laugh. There's a note missing in her laugh, too, the note that comes from the possibility of eventual sadness.

And of course there's a prince, and they spend a great deal of time in a lake together, because when she is in water the princess is pulled down by it as other people are, and also comes her closest to human emotions. And the way he finds to save her is more of a test than this sort of story usually has.

This is one of those books where there are some wonderful images and some really well-thought-out things and some genuine emotions in it, but it just does not move me. I may be too old, or too annoyed by the totally extraneous labeling of the caricatures of metaphysicians who attend the princess as Exotically Oriental, or I may be sick of Macdonald's poetry, or I may just be in a bad mood.

Or expecting too much of Macdonald, who has written several things I find much more beautiful. Lilith is one of my comfort rereads, and I know that apparently these days not many people like Phantastes, but I always have.

Ah well. There is plenty more of his catalog for me to work through, now that vast quantities of it are online and I am no longer dependent on the caprice of libraries and the things at the back of the piles on the shelves of used bookstores.

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