I can’t remember the last time a fiction book ministered this much to me. Scratch that. I can’t remember the last time any book ministered this much to me, besides the Bible.
Written in the late nineteenth century, I stumbled across this gem called There and Back by George MacDonald while re-reading The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind for a new blog series I’m rolling out next week, “10 Allegories Worth Reading.”
(Not at all to be confused with J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbit tale, There and Back Again.)
Until this week, Charles Dickens was my absolute favorite author (followed very closely by J.R.R. Tolkien). I love the mournful atmosphere of a Dickens novel, born of social consciousness. I love his characters, and how he connects them all. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to connect with another author’s work the way I have with Dickens’.
I should have known.
You see, there’s a level below social consciousness and connectedness in me that longs to be fed, and that’s spiritual consciousness and connectedness.
In There and Back, George MacDonald did for me what Dickens never could: he went to that deepest level and he lived there with the story and characters. The story takes place in nineteenth-century England, and follows the aristocratic Lestrange family and those who cross their paths, from other aristocrats to tradesmen to clergy. MacDonald explores the social, emotional, and spiritual standing and evolution of every character he introduces. It’s a complex look at how people’s philosophies shape how they relate to God and one another. No less important is the gritty look at why a good God allows bad things to happen – an age old question, I think.
“Father, it would take the life out of me to believe there was no God; but the God I hope in is a very different person from the God my mother’s clergy have taught her to believe in. Father, do you know Jesus Christ!”
“I know the person you mean, my boy.”
“I know what kind of person he is, and he said God was just like him, and in the God like him, if I can find him, I will believe with all my heart and soul—and so would you, father, if you knew him.”
Also unlike a Dickens novel, there are no absolute saints or caricatured sinners in There and Back. Everyone is flawed, but none are portrayed as ridiculous in their shortcomings; instead, they are met with grace and empathy from their author, even when they are dead wrong. Beyond that, there’s not a dull character in the cast. Of course, Richard and Barbara shine the brightest in their search for God, being the protagonist and his love interest, but I think Wingfold was my favorite. The sage parson met people where they were at and conversed on their level, a quality I long to better develop.
He gave her strong hopeful things to read—and in the search after such was driven to remark how little of the hopeful there is in the English, or in any other language. The song of hope is indeed written in men’s hearts, but few sing it. Yet it is of all songs the sorest-needed of struggling men.
Here’s where Dickens and MacDonald are very similar: creating atmosphere. I was in the library as the nurse presented the baron with his infant son; I was with Richard and Wingfold on the road just before dawn; I was with Alice in chilly London; I felt the moments of majesty as presented over a literary work, or a concert, or a moonlit night. As in Bleak House, I was immersed in There and Back – not just in the world, but how the characters responded to it.
When she saw her spread out her arms as if to embrace the wind that flowed to meet them, then too she wondered, but presently began to feel what a thing the wind was—how full of something strange and sweet. She began to learn that nothing is dead, that there cannot be a physical abstraction, that nothing exists for the sake of the laws of its phenomena. She did not put it so to herself, I need hardly say; but she was, in a word, learning to feel that the world was alive.
And the romantic element…Can MacDonald ever do romance! There’s this independence and mutuality and growth between Richard and Barbara that I can’t begin to explain. It just struck me as healthy and wholesome (which is not to say they didn’t have problems, it was more how they dealt with them), especially in a culture where dysfunctional is normal and even expected.
He saw her far away like the moon she spoke of. She was growing to him a marvel and a mystery. Something strange seemed befalling him. Was she weaving a spell about his soul? Was she fettering him for her slave? Was she one of the wild, bewildering creatures of ancient lonely belief, that are the souls of the loveliest things, but can detach themselves from them, and wander out in garments more immediately their own? Was she salamander or sylph, naiad or undine, oread or dryad?—But then she had such a head, and they were all rather silly!
And, to make my joy complete, there was this lovely metaphor presented in Richard’s trade – bookbinding and restoration. Oh my heart. It’s this whole idea of making something – not new, but the way it was intended to be. Again, I say, oh my heart.
I shan’t be master of my trade till I know all that can be done now to stop such a book from crumbling into dust!
This book reached me on all of my levels, and yes, I shed a few tears reading the last paragraph, not just because it was beautiful, but because I really didn’t want it to end.
“My tears were flowing now with the old earth-pain in them, with keenest disappointment and longing. To have been there and to have come back, was the misery. But it did not last long. The glad thought awoke that I had the dream—a precious thing never to be lost while memory lasted; a thing which nothing but its realization could ever equal in preciousness. I rose glad and strong, to serve with newer love, with quicker hand and readier foot, the hearts around me.”
There’s a public domain version free on Amazon for Kindle. I warn you, though: it’s not an easy read. It’s slowly distilled and meant to be savored.