Tag Archives: Fiction

Review: Phantastes (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: This book is a mixed genre foray into fantasy, written very early in MacDonald’s career. The story is framed as an episodic journey, but it incorporates many sideplots and poems, so that many chapters are only loosely strung to the narrative. This relatively difficult book has some dark themes and is written primarily for an adult audience.

The plots and subplots deal with themes of imagination, bondage and freedom, love and infatuation. Anodos falls in love with a statue, but cannot free her from her pedestal; Anodos is warned about the Ash Tree, which is precisely who he finds himself encountering; and so on.

Meat: This book had great appeal for C. S. Lewis—before his conversion—and wrote in Surprised By Joy that it “baptized [his] imagination.” For my own part, I can say that some of the images and metaphors were profound; others, rather protracted. This is definitely one of MacDonald’s most ambitious works of fiction, and may appeal to more ambitious readers.

Bones: When C. S. Lewis recommends a novel, one expects to see sweeping themes like those of the Space trilogy, or elegant metaphors like those of Narnia; I didn’t find either to be in large number here. The fantasy is more of art for art’s sake, or language for language’s sake; it was costly reading with no payoff.

I am a great fan of George MacDonald, but not a fan of his darker work. (I should add, Lewis has pointed me to other fantasy works that I found disappointing, like those of Charles Williams.)

Quotes: “We receive but what we give.” (loc. 854)

“The waters lay so close to me, they seemed to enter and revive my heart. I rose to the surface, shook the water from my hair, and swam as in a rainbow, amid the coruscations of the gems below seen through the agitation caused by my motion. Then, with open eyes, I dived, and swam beneath the surface. And here was a new wonder. For the basin, thus beheld, appeared to extend on all sides like a sea, with here and there groups as of ocean rocks, hollowed by ceaseless billows into wondrous caves and grotesque pinnacles. Around the caves grew sea-weeds of all hues, and the corals glowed between; while far off, I saw the glimmer of what seemed to be creatures of human form at home in the waters. I thought I had been enchanted; and that when I rose to the surface, I should find myself miles from land, swimming alone upon a heaving sea; but when my eyes emerged from the waters, I saw above me the blue spangled vault, and the red pillars around. I dived again, and found myself once more in the heart of a great sea.” (loc. 1089)

“Hardly knowing what I did, I opened the door. Why had I not done so before? I do not know.” (loc. 2448)

This book is free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, and on LibriVox.

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Review: That Hideous Strength (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Overview: The third installment of C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy is by far the most ambitious of the three. Set on Earth, That Hideous Strength begins with a new protagonist: This time a snarky academic is being reeled into a plot that could determine the fate of England—even Earth. But how deep does the intrigue go? And who else will resist the relentless expansion of the N.I.C.E.?

Meat: A few readers claim this as their favorite of the trilogy, but not many. It is replete with symbolism, and it may be in a different genre from that of the first two installments of the trilogy. Lewis tries hard to plant all three in the world we know—but in the third book, the cosmic crises of the first two books come crashing into England’s villages. The action comes home.

While the first two books deal with innocence and temptation, the third installment focuses on the advance of deception. For this reason, many reviewers take it as Lewis’ figurative eschatology.

Bones: The plot of the book was quite slow to pick up. Lewis sacrificed accessibility for literary flare. That Hideous Strength is a far cry from the universality of Narnia. If you don’t enjoy the esoteric, this book may be a bore for you.

A side point: In my opinion, Lewis was unduly influenced by Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion. Both are fantasy novels set in England with a long exposition involving a few cynical academics, eventually culminating in a conflict that combines spiritual, magical and historical elements.

Quotes: “Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

“This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough.”

Review: Heather and Snow (The Peasant Girl’s Dream) (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Where: Rural 19th-century Scotland.

Overview: Heather and Snow, which Michael Phillips republished as The Peasant Girl’s Dream, is one of George MacDonald’s Scottish novels. The novel opens on Francis and Kirsty running a race on a highland hillside. Both are ambitious, even stubborn. Kirsty and her family are tenant farmers on the land of Francis’ family. But as they grow, tension comes between them. Kirsty and her feeble-minded brother Steenie grow in tenderness and maturity in the light of Christ, while Francis becomes proud. The story turns on Francis’ pride, and Kirsty’s refusal to let him waste his life.

Meat: MacDonald, in the characters of both Steenie and Francis, deals with various forms of mental illness and even retardation. As in almost all of his novels, in the end, the love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self. MacDonald has a refreshing way of showing the impact of friendship on spiritual life.

Bones: The original edition fully justifies Michael Phillips’ mission of updating the language of MacDonald’s books; speaking as a linguist, armed with a dictionary, the Scottish dialect here is challenging. I wouldn’t recommend MacDonald’s Scottish novels in the original editions unless you just love language. You can pick up the updated edition, The Peasant Girl’s Dream, very cheaply.

Quotes: “The story of God’s universe lies in the growth of the individual soul.” (p. 21)

“The Lord’s gowk’s better nor the warl’s prophet.” (Or, “The Lord’s fool is better than the world’s prophet.”) (p. 125)

“One of the hardest demands on the obedience of faith is—to do nothing; it is often so much easier to do foolishly!” (p. 148)

“It seems to me there’s no shame in being frightened, so long as you don’t serve and obey the fright, but trust in him that sees, and do what you have to do.” (updated, p. 186)

Review: Out of the Silent Planet (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview: Lewis takes us on an unexpected space journey with Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist (or linguist). Much of the book deals with his encounters with exotic beings and his attempts to communicate with them. This book would be appropriate for teens or middle-school children, although the rest of the trilogy treats more mature themes.

Meat: The strengths of this book are essentially the same as those of The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’ description in this book is simple and beautiful, and the metaphors are plain and elegant. The crux of the book lies in Ransom’s realization that his species, is, in fact, the strange one. Through this lens he explores what it means to be human, and imagines the possibility of an unfallen species. The insights on this line deepen in the sequel, Perelandra.

Bones: As in Narnia, Lewis’ metaphors for divinity are thinly veiled, but to the believing reader this is merely Lewis being himself. Critics point out that Lewis’ explanations are unscientific—but then, that’s not really the point of the trilogy. Others might find, on the contrary, that he uses too much of the scientific perspective in the book. As a scientist and a believer, I found the book concise, elegant and readable.

Quotes: “At length he understood that it was his species that was the strange one.” (ch. 11)

“Like a silence spreading over a room full of people, like an infinitesimal coolness on a sultry day, like a passing memory of some long-forgotten sound or scent, like all that is stillest and smallest and most hard to seize in nature, Oyarsa passed between his subjects and drew near and came to rest, not ten yards away from Ransom, in the centre of Meldilorn.” (ch. 18)

“The very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply ‘the heavens.'”