The Fantastic Imagination
by George MacDonald, LL.D.
THAT we have in English no word corresponding to the
German Mährchen, 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
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 at 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 do not
hold by the laws of them, or if he make 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 a meaning?"
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
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
"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 is 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 at 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 recognizable?
"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 like
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 a 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 the 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
fairytale, 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 meant!"
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 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 with
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 æolian
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 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, how. ever, 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.