A few summers ago I had the great pleasure of reading Phantastes. It was my first encounter with MacDonald, and I would echo what Lewis expressed upon having the same pleasure: it was the baptism of my imagination. This first encounter with MacDonald strongly compelled me to read more of his books, but I suspected I had read the best of his books first. But when I read Lilith, I was overjoyed to discover that I had found a book that not only contained the same glorious mythopoeic imagery, but a book that was (unimaginably) even better. One chapter entitled The Little Ones in particular struck me so soundly that I think it left an incurable mark on my soul. It brought so many passages from other favourite books to mind.
For instance, Lewis once wrote to his niece, “I forgot when I began to write this book that books grow more slowly than children. So by the time this book is finished you will be too old to read it. But maybe one day you will grow old enough to read fairy tales again. When you do, then maybe you can take it from the shelf, dust it off, and tell me what you think of it.” Lewis was quite fond of hidden elements in books. Beneath Lewis’s humour in this letter is a hidden allusion to an idea that pervades much of his writing, an idea which he inherited from MacDonald. It is the same idea MacDonald conveys in the immortal chapter in Lilith to which I have alluded. Lewis is expecting his niece to lose her astonishment at the world as she grows up. Children come into the world naturally delighting in simple, beautiful things: bubbles, fish tanks, squirrels, those furry caves they have in department stores (the clothes racks), the funny faces that dad makes, and fairy tales. Chesterton famously refers to this same idea in Orthodoxy when he observes a favouritism among children: “Do it again!” they love to say, “and the grownup does it again until he is nearly dead.” But, says Chesterton, it is actually the child who is more like our heavenly Father, for it is God who says, “Do it again!” to the rising sun every day and, “Do it again!” to each and every dandelion that springs from the ground…for it may be, says Chesterton, that we have grown old, and our heavenly Father is younger than we. God created us to be astonished, which in my view is the same thing as saying that God created us to be children. It is this same thing that Lewis is hitting on in the introduction to Narnia. We forget that we were made to be children. Lewis uses the characters of Susan and Eustace to illustrate this sin: with Susan, the one who refuses to be a child and is damned; and Eustace, whom Aslan redeems for childhood. Assuredly I say to you, says Christ, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
So what does this have to do with Reepicheep? Well, do you remember at the end of Prince Caspian when Aslan makes a door in the air through which the Telmarines may go if they wish to make a new life back in our world? At first they are terrified to pass through the gate, for they do not know what will happen and they do not trust Aslan. Reepicheep, ever the courageous one, volunteers to go himself, and would have proceeded if Aslan had not forbidden it. Then Aslan says a curious thing. When he forbids Reepicheep, Aslan warns him that if the people in our world met him they would catch him, lock him up, and show him at fairs and carnivals, for people in our world are not accustomed to talking animals. And it is precisely because of sin and rebellion that we would do such a thing. It is the sin of becoming weary of God’s glory: of “growing up.” It is because we have become bored of the countless, everyday splendours of this world that we would pack Reepicheep in a cage and show him at carnivals.
But why should we be amazed that a mouse would talk? Why would we be more amazed at talking mice than we are at talking people? A child learning speech is a marvel about which we should shout for delight, for it is a marvel that only God could have made. Why should a talking mouse be more astounding than the fur of a bear, or the wings of an eagle? And yet we are lazy, dead in our trespasses and sins, bored with the glory that the Lord sets before us each day. The real reason to put a talking mouse into a fairy tale is not to create a novelty at which to gape, but a moving reminder of how extraordinary speech itself is, an astounding wonder we encounter every day. It’s a fresh perspective on a familiar reality. Talking mice in Narnia help us escape boredom. And boredom is blasphemy.
Marvels are everywhere. For the Pharisees to demand a sign from Jesus was not only ridiculous, but wicked. Only a wicked and faithless generation seeks a sign, for we do not have the faith to see the signs and wonders that God reveals at every moment, in every place. We have put God in the dock, pestering Him for signs and wonders and proofs when He presents to us the equivalent of a talking mouse (and beyond) every moment of every day: with every breath, with every heartbeat, every thought, every word, every newborn babe, every bird’s wing.
You have been waiting for me to write in particulars about the chapter in Lilith that I have thus far only hinted at. But I can say nothing that will properly retell the beauty with which Macdonald describes these ideas in that passage of Lilith. You have heard me speak of it, but only a face to face encounter will do. It is a transportation into the very reality of which I write, the reality where we all must choose to either grow up and become too sophisticated to be children, or to diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel. For while Jesus will not go to glory and leave us behind, neither will he suffer any to steal the glory of what is rightfully only his. Every knee shall bow. The only question is: will I bow in shame as a conquered enemy before a victorious foe, or a loving soldier before his triumphant captain?
“They did not know very much, but they were very wise and seemed capable of learning almost anything.” -George MacDonald