Yes. I know that this is a few days late. Over the Christmas weekend I decided to take it easy and not do too much writing. It is good to have a little break from writing every now and then. Instead, I focussed on relaxing and reading. Over recent months I have read some very interesting books, and I will review the best of them here on this site as time permits next year.
This Christmas was unusual in our household. Usually it is a time of gathering the family together for a meal or two (or more) and a time of catching up with relatives we do not get to see very often. This year it was just my wife and me, so our celebrations were very quiet. Our son and his family live in Sydney and that is two days’ drive away, so it is not practical just to ‘pop in’ for a meal. Our daughter is usually home at this time of the year too, but she is teaching in Ethiopia at present. It’s not the easiest to ‘pop in’ from Ethiopia, either. She has escaped for several days with colleagues, enjoying a break at the beach at Mombasa in Kenya.
Late on Christmas Day we had a lovely phone call from our grandchildren in Sydney. They were in a local park trying out their Christmas presents – new scooters. I have many fond memories of Christmas as a child. The celebrations began a few weeks before Christmas with the school concert in the local hall. Here the children in the small town in the South Australian mallee rehearsed and then performed plays, musical items, and gymnastics displays on the small stage.
All the parents came along to this concert, the highlight of the school year. We proudly showed off our best school work for the year on tables and display boards set up around the walls of the hall. At one of these events, I can still remember nervously playing several musical pieces on the piano, my only public musical performance ever. The supper at the end was worth all the hard work in preparation.
Another event I always looked forward to at Christmas time was at the small, local Lutheran church where my family worshipped every week. For the weeks leading up to Christmas we would rehearse the carols and readings to be included in the Christmas Eve service. The Sunday School children would all be seated out the front of the church in front of the large decorated tree in the corner. This was always a native pine from somewhere in the district. It was probably a Callitris preissii, common in the region. It was decorated in the traditional way with tinsel and baubles. It also had little bags of lollies hanging all around, and the children were able to take one each after the service. The tree also had many candle holders with real candles in them. I was always terrified that the whole tree would catch on fire! It never did.
The programme on Christmas Eve always told the story of the first Christmas. This retelling year after year was always something amazing to me. As I grew older the special nature of the story of the Christ-child remained precious to me. We had readings from the well-known accounts of that coming of Jesus, plus soul-stirring renditions of the old familiar hymns and carols. The evening ended with the giving of prizes to every child in the Sunday School. I always looked forward to adding another book to my growing collection.
After the service the adults would gather outside the church in the cool of an Australian summer night. Many of the men gathered here had just a few hours earlier come in from paddocks and the hot, dusty work of reaping wheat or barley crops. They always enjoyed a yarn and telling each other the joys or frustrations of the latest crop, depending on what kind of season they had endured – or enjoyed. While I waited quietly – but always impatiently – for my father and older brothers to be ready to go home, I remember gazing into that great expanse of sky above, star-bright against the black depth of the universe.
Star of wonder, star of night,
Star of Royal Beauty bright.
(See here for all the words to this carol)
I was always impatient to get home after the Christmas Eve service. we had a tradition in our family that presents were to be opened on Christmas Eve after the church service. We changed that to Christmas morning with our own children, and the same applies to our grandchildren.
I would eagerly unwrap my presents, hoping all the time for even more books to add to my library. The next few days were blissful; heaps of delicious food, family visiting often and plenty of time to read, read, read.
May you have a happy and blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year.
George MacDonald’s classic fantasy novel as retold by Mark Worthing.
Stone Table Books, 2016.
Some of my readers may well ask, “George who?” Fortunately, I was aware of who George MacDonald was before I was handed a copy of this book for review. MacDonald’s works usually do not appear on any of those “Best Books of the Week/Month/Year/Century.” His works were first published in the mid-1800s, so there is no surprise to realise that they are not on everyone’s To Read list.
Mark Worthing, the author of this retelling, gives a short introduction to George MacDonald at the beginning of the book. I will give an even shorter introduction. MacDonald’s novel Phantastes was first published in 1858 and is widely regarded as the first modern fantasy novel to be written in English. MacDonald was a Congregational minister, but he did not last long in this role because his theology was at odds with those who employed him. Although he continued in occasional preaching, his main income was derived from his many writings, though he was never really well off.
MacDonald’s contribution to fantasy
Readers should not be put off by MacDonald’s work, especially this title. Many great writers of fantasy have paid tribute to MacDonald for inspiring them to also write fantasy. These include J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, among others. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God, p.26)
The full title of the novel is Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women. This retelling of the original is just called Phantastes. In order to review this reworking of the novel, I felt I should at least attempt to read a part of the original story.
I came with a little trepidation to the original, mindful of the irony of reading it on an eReader – a work first published nearly 160 years ago. I should not have worried. I took to it easily and read right through over only several days. While I found the language somewhat stilted and archaic to my modern ears, I found it relatively easy to read and follow the plot. I had a similar experience several years ago when I read right through Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The many unfamiliar words MacDonald uses were easily located directly from the inbuilt dictionary in eReader. This made understanding the novel so much easier.
Worthing’s modern-day retelling was next on my reading list. Already being familiar with the general gist of the story I breezed through this new work. It is a very enjoyable story which will reward the reader on many levels. At its most basic, one could regard it as a simple quest story. The protagonist, Anodos, is also the narrator of the tale. It is his search for adventure, beauty and love which drives him to explore the Land of Faerie. Many of the classic characters we come to expect in fairy tales are encountered along the journey; fairies of course, goblins, ogres, monsters, dragons, giants, witches, kings, knights, princesses and many more.
Anodos faces many hardships, adventures, narrow escapes and puzzles in his quest to meet the Faerie Queen. Along the way he not only discovers that he has part fairy blood, he also explores what true love is, the many forms of beauty, the power of song and music, and what it takes to be truly brave and sacrificially selfless. Worthing has added a satisfying and romantic ending to the original tale, an ending which is implied but not stated in the MacDonald version.
Before commencing to write this retelling of Phantastes, Worthing realised that many present-day readers struggle with reading MacDonald’s version. He says in the introduction, “When I taught a tertiary level course some years ago on the history of fantasy literature, MacDonald and his novel Phantastes featured prominently. I managed to persuade several students over successive offerings of the course to attempt to read the book. Invariably they came back to me some weeks or months later, admitting defeat.” (p.8) It was this difficulty that was the inspiration for this retelling. The author was determined to keep true to the voice and style of the original, while modernising the language used. I believe that he has been very successful in this aim. The retelling is an easy read, while still capturing the voice of MacDonald. I am familiar with Worthing’s unique style and voice, and he has managed to suppress this in a retelling which beautifully reflects the intentions of the original.
MacDonald included many beautiful passages of poetry which are called songs in the original, some of them many pages long. Some of these can be difficult to read and follow, mainly due to the archaic language used. Worthing has incorporated many of them, many in edited form and some in a much-shortened form. I think he has retained the essence of the original songs, while allowing greater enjoyment and understanding by making the language far more accessible. I should add that this is a general first impression, not as a result of a line by line analysis.
Stories within the novel
MacDonald included a number of short stories within the novel. Chapter 13 includes the story of Cosmo and this is the longest of them. While at first glance this appears to have little bearing on the main plot, an understanding of this tale is essential to the story arc. It is a vital turning point of the story and the concentric nature of the whole work. Worthing has retained a shortened version of Cosmo’s story, and in one of the appendices he has explained the importance of this to the structure of the novel (p. 168 – 171).
There is ample evidence for the outstanding contribution of George MacDonald to the genre we know as fantasy today. His legacy is immense, but his works have largely been ignored by contemporary readers. This is a shame, for he evidently has much to offer, as this retelling bears testimony.
I thoroughly recommend this new version.
Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.
Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.
Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God:
A History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition
Mark Worthing, Stone Table Books, 2016
Mark Worthing’s latest book appears, at first glance, to be a relatively slim volume, but it certainly packs a solid punch. His in-depth knowledge of and passion for fantasy is quite apparent throughout, and he argues a solid case for the role of the Christian world-view, not only in the development of the genre, but also on its continuing place in literature.
While the sub-title says that this volume is a History of Fantasy in the Christian Tradition, it is far more than just a bland historical recount or a mere apologetic for the Christian traditions within the genre. It is a rigorous examination of the genre, and how many writers have expressed their Christian faith through their writing.
Victorian England fantasy
In the early chapters he considers the origins of modern fantasy as they appeared before, and during, Victorian England, from writers like Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and Edith Nesbit, among others. Worthing devotes a short chapter to the writings of Hans Christian Andersen and his influence on the Victorian era readers and writers.
This is followed by an in-depth chapter on the writings of George MacDonald, whom he considers to be the major influence upon early fantasy writing. Indeed, Worthing quotes from the writings of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, both of whom owe a great debt to MacDonald. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (p.26) MacDonald’s writing also heavily influenced other prominent fantasy writers, including Chesterton, Tolkien, Nesbit and even Dickens. He was also a major influence upon another great fantasy writer, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).
Tolkien and Lewis
Worthing, after setting the scene by considering some of the early fantasy writers, continues by devoting three chapters each to the lives, faith and works of arguably the two greatest fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their prominence in the genre continues to grow, with their influence and popularity magnified by recent cinematic versions.
Interestingly, the author also gives a serious consideration to what he calls “the atheist response” by considering the contributions to the genre of the likes of Pullman and Pratchett. Another chapter is devoted to the fantasy writers who focus on “earth spirituality”, writers like LeGuin, Bradley and Forsyth. From there he moves to the modern publishing phenomenon of “the Harry Potter debate”. He deftly negotiates the minefield of Christian criticism – and praise – of this series. He concludes that, because of some of the inherent themes of the Potter books, they could be considered within fantasy literature which deals with some major precepts of Christianity.
Christians and Creativity
Worthing concludes his book by considering some recent trends in the fantasy genre, along with a Christian defence of fantasy. One of his final statements has serious implications for creative artists who are also Christians: “Sadly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue with those who steadfastly hold to the view that imagination itself is not part of God’s creation, but something bad and quite dangerous.” (p.151) Sad, indeed, for these attitudes often close the potential dialogue between creatives who express their faith through their creativity, and Christians with closed and clouded minds unwilling to consider a valid alternative.
One of the interesting aspects of this work happens to be the footnotes. Normally, I find footnotes to be irritating at best, and highly annoying most of the time; they invariably interrupt my train of thought. Nearly every page of this book has a footnote, some of them very long and detailed, with the occasional note flowing over to the following page. My advice is: read them. There is much interesting, valuable and even crucial information contained in them. Many could easily have been included in the actual text.
I found that the lack of any index something of an oversight. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to be able to quickly use this work when looking for references to authors and titles mentioned in the text. I found that the author included references to many writers and titles I would like to explore further.
On the positive side, I found this work to be truly inspiring. Many of the titles mentioned I was already familiar with, but haven’t read in years – in some cases, decades. After reading this book I have decided that I need to revisit the works of Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and LeGuin, and I even concede that I might even need to put aside my initial reservations and fully explore the world of Hogwarts (I have only read the first in the Harry Potter series, and didn’t like it.) What is more, the author has mentioned many other writers I am quite unfamiliar with, or I have only read one or two of their works.
In conclusion, this volume is a valuable contribution to the academic discussion on fantasy in general, and its relationship with Christian traditions in particular. It is easy to read but thorough in its coverage. Highly recommended.
Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.
Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.
Melbourne-based publisher Morning Star Publishing will launch its new fantasy imprint this coming Friday 16th December 2016. The new imprint, to be known as Stone Table Books, will focus on publishing new and exciting books in the fantasy genre. Devoted readers of the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis will understand the symbolism encapsulated by this imprint’s name.
At the launch, the imprint’s first two titles will also be launched. Both titles have been written by the eminently suitable Mark Worthing who is an author, and pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in North Adelaide, South Australia. Fantasy has long been a passion of his. He has taught the writing of fantasy literature at tertiary level as the former head of the faculty of Humanities and Creative Writing at Tabor Adelaide.
The first title (with cover art shown above) is Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God: a History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition. This title explores the fascinating, and arguably, symbiotic relationship between Christian faith in all its manifestations, and fantasy literature. I will be posting a more thorough review of this book in the next few days.
The second title to be launched is also by Mark Worthing. It is Phantastes: George MacDonald’s Classic Fantasy Novel as retold by Mark Worthing. This modern retelling of an iconic work of the mid-1800s makes this significant novel far more accessible to today’s readers. Once again, I will give a thorough review of this title in the next few days. The cover artwork is shown below.
The launch of the new imprint, as well as the two titles mentioned above, will take place this coming Friday 16th December 2016, at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 139 Archer Street, North Adelaide, South Australia at 6:30pm for a 7:00pm start.
The editor of Stone Table Books and the CEO of Morning Star Publishing will be present to talk with prospective authors.
Tabor Adelaide Creative Writing programme and Stories of Life Competition will also have information stands on the night.
Come and celebrate the launch of these two books, as well as the launch of Stone Table Books. Drinks and nibbles provided.
Please note that there will only be cash sales on the night. The books may also be ordered via the publisher’s website (see below).