Storm's Journal

The Fantastic Imagination
Interview with George MacDonald

That we have in English no word corresponding to the German Märchen,
drives us to use the word Fairytale, regardless of the fact that the tale
may have nothing to do with any sort of fairy. The old use of the word
Fairy, by Spenser at least, might, however, well be adduced, were
justification or excuse necessary where need must.

Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a
fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a
fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what
it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the
abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being.
A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all
fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.

Many a man, however, who would not attempt to define a man, might venture
to say something as to what a man ought to be: even so much I will not in
this place venture with regard to the fairytale, for my long past work in
that kind might but poorly instance or illustrate my now more matured
judgment. I will but say some things helpful to the reading, in
right-minded fashion, of such fairytales as I would wish to write, or care
to read.

Some thinkers would feel sorely hampered if at liberty to use no forms but
such as existed in nature, or to invent nothing save in accordance with
the laws of the world of the senses; but it must not therefore be imagined
that they desire escape from the region of law. Nothing lawless can show
the least reason why it should exist, or could at best have more than an
appearance of life.

The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in the
way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they themselves
may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a
little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which
delights in calling up new forms--which is the nearest, perhaps, he can
come to creation. When such forms are new embodiments of old truths, we
call them products of the Imagination; when they are mere inventions,
however lovely, I should call them the work of the Fancy: in either case,
Law has been diligently at work.

His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is,
that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has
begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold
by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by
its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined
world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall
out of it. The imagination in us, whose exercise is essential to the most
temporary submission to the imagination of another, immediately, with the
disappearance of Law, ceases to act. Suppose the gracious creatures of
some childlike region of Fairyland talking either cockney or Gascon! Would
not the tale, however lovelily begun, sink once to the level of the
Burlesque--of all forms of literature the least worthy? A man's inventions
may be stupid or clever, but if he does not hold by the laws of them, or
if he makes one law jar with another, he contradicts himself as an
inventor, he is no artist. He does not rightly consort his instruments, or
he tunes them in different keys. The mind of man is the product of live
Law; it thinks by law, it dwells in the midst of law, it gathers from law
its growth; with law, therefore, can it alone work to any result.
Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use
one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack
of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is
the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will,
call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy
his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most
embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his
creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and
calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms,
and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He
may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle
with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold,
alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to
suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the
things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it
called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always
doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical
things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey--and take their laws
with him into his invented world as well.

"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have

It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it
has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than
the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the
fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story,
will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will
read one meaning in it, another will read another.

"If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning
into it, but yours out of it?"

Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your
meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the
mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

"Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?"

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do
see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of
art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will
mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art
that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that
neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so
much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an
interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you.
If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under
it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is
not to teach zoology.

But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning.
They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much.
For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether
of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an
allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a
strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit. An allegory must be
Mastery or Moorditch.

A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips
every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to my
mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and
where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and
choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the
interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting
consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each
what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be
the result? Little enough--and that little more than needful. We should
find it had roused related, if not identical, feelings, but probably not
one common thought. Has the sonata therefore failed? Had it undertaken to
convey, or ought it to be expected to impart anything defined, anything
notionally recognisable?

"But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a
precise meaning!"

It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of
them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does
not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are live
things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a
scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child's dream on the heart of a
mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of dissected map,
or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for
nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore
to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they
nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress?
Has nothing any claim to their use but definite? The cause of a child's
tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote
for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident
outline. A fairtytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night,
seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it
and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of
each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way,
another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and
beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy
rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a
majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing
their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in
the region of the uncomprehended.

I will go farther.--The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to
rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but to
wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for
himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which
thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one
thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any
two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she
therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she
rouses the something deeper than the understanding--the power that
underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work?
Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many
fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the
sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.

"But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will
draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art!
If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I
meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim
putting them there! One difference between God's work and man's is, that,
while God's work cannot mean more than he meant, man's must mean more than
he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is a layer upon layer
of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher
and higher kinds of that thought: it is God's things, his embodied
thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own
purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his
words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as
he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every
other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many
the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in
what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time things that came from
thoughts beyond his own.

"But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?"

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE
under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination
would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there not to hide,
but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to
it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say, "Roses!
Boil them, or we won't have them!" My tales may not be roses but I will
not boil them.

So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

If a writer's aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains,
not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his
object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail
the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be
music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a
firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a
hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly
thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our
intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of
us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless precious things by
intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child,
must--he cannot help himself--become a little man, that is, a dwarf. He
will, however need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a very
large creature indeed.

If any strain of my "broken music" make a child's eyes flash, or his
mother's grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

(George MacDonald, Introduction from The Light Princess and 
 other Fairy Tales, also reprinted in a Dish of Orts) 


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