IT HAS often been remarked that the most comforting of comfort foods is the food that we enjoyed as children: soft-boiled eggs dipped with little toast “soldiers”, jam roly-poly covered with custard, crumpets toasted on long brass forks in front of an open fire.
And, if we’ve all been turning to comfort food amid the stresses of this year, then I think that the same is true of comfort reading. I have certainly been returning to the reassuring familiarity of the classic stories that I read as a child, and yet discovering afresh, amid that familiarity, how piercing, how poignant, how beautiful some of them were. I’ve been re-reading the Narnia stories, of course, and The Hobbit, but I’ve also gone back behind them to the stories of George MacDonald, the inspired Victorian writer who was such a huge influence on Lewis and Tolkien, as he was also on E. Nesbit.
In particular, I’ve been resavouring the first of his books that I read as a child: The Princess and the Goblin. It really is a remarkable book; indeed, G. K. Chesterton said that it was the most “lifelike book” he had ever read. This was something of a Chestertonian paradox; for, of course, the magical tale of little Princess Irene — roaming the hidden passages and stairs of the King’s house which seem to appear and disappear and change, venturing out into the woods and down the mines that are full of Goblins who intend to undermine the house, and discovering that somewhere up in the attic is the mysterious beautiful great-grandmother who keeps doves, spins magic threads, and has a fire made out of roses — is scarcely realistic, in the ordinary sense of that term.
But Chesterton maintained that the Princess’s situation was a perfect expression of our own. We find ourselves, as living bodies and souls, inhabiting and exploring the great house of our life, finding at the top of its winding stairs beautiful glimmerings of the divine, and yet knowing that its deepest recesses, its very foundations, are in danger of being undermined by dark or greedy forces. Like the Princess, we have to seek and submit to the divine, and let her put into our hands the mysterious, invisible thread that will guide us when we are lost, and eventually lead us back to her.
And that, of course, is the other very remarkable thing about this book. Lewis’s divine figure, his rescuer and guide, is a magnificent but very masculine lion; but Lewis’s master, George MacDonald, offers us a quasi-divine feminine figure: a woman who sometimes seems ancient, sometimes young and radiantly beautiful, always wise and kind; and it is she who mediates the divine presence.
Re-reading the wonderful passage in which the Princess first sees the grandmother’s fire of roses, I was struck by how explicit, and yet at the same time infinitely suggestive, MacDonald is about that, about the refining fire of the divine presence, as he gently alludes to the ark of the covenant: “what she had taken for a huge bouquet of red roses . . . was in fact a fire which burned in the shapes of the loveliest red roses, glowing gorgeously between the heads and wings of two cherubs of shining silver.”
I wonder if it wasn’t just Lewis and Tolkien, but also T. S. Eliot, who remembered MacDonald — as well as Dante — when he ended The Four Quartets with the line “And the fire and the rose are one.”