Romanticism in Victorian Mythopoeic Fantasy

The following is a presentation proposal for the Fall 2013 conference of the International Conference on Romanticism.

Romanticism in Victorian Mythopoeic Fantasy: The Relationship between Coleridge’s Cognitive Theory and George MacDonald’s Redemptive Imagination

In this presentation I examine the influence of S. T. Coleridge’s literary cognitive theory on George MacDonald’s theological view of the redemptive imagination, illustrating this relationship with an analysis of how MacDonald explores the imaginative and spiritual dynamics of metafictional reading in his classic fantasy novel Phantastes. For MacDonald, the ultimate purpose of writing his fantasy novel was to share theological truths with readers. Even though early in his pastoral career he was forced out of his church for heterodoxy, he was still very much a preacher at heart, and if he could not reach people with the truth of God’s love, the moral law, and scriptural insight through the pulpit, then he hoped to do so through writing mythopoeic fantasy literature. Reading becomes the cognitive mechanism through which MacDonald hoped to ignite the sacramental imagination of his readers and to open their minds to eternal truths creatively expressed through mythopoeic fantasy.

MacDonald was quite fond of German and English Romanticism, and he borrowed explicitly from Coleridge’s theorizing about the primary and secondary imaginations as distinguished from the fancy. He considered the world to be sacramental in that material objects point to the sacred, and the imagination, according to MacDonald, is the primary faculty for comprehending these sacraments in nature. Since purely naturalistic and materialistic assumptions blind the modern mind to sacramental nature, imaginative fantasy literature, MacDonald reasoned, would enliven, indeed resurrect, the latent and languishing redemptive imagination and thus tune readers to perceiving and contemplating mythopoeic truth. As Chris Brawley notes, “[H]ere is the defining characteristic of mythopoeia, that of a sense of wonder which may be awakened so that the divine element present in the world is recovered” (94).

I argue that MacDonald desires the process of reading Phantastes to be one of imaginative baptism, transformation of self, and, through practical application in our own lives, an ultimate transformation of the world in which we live and have our very being. MacDonald intended this transformative, redemptive process for his own Victorian world, but it has a direct application to our world as well, for as Monika Hilder concludes, MacDonald’s mythopoeic literature captures and restores “our sense of identity, meaning, and transcendent truth. As he addressed the nineteenth-century spiritual vacuum, so his mythic education continues to speak to the current sense of existential crisis by inviting readers inside an experience of the transcendent as well as stimulating an imaginative response, and so challenging postmodern sensibilities with the sense that all of life is, to borrow from Huebner, ‘suffused with the spiritual’” (180).

Works Cited

Brawley, Chris. “The Ideal and the Shadow: George MacDonald’s Phantastes.” North Wind 25 (2006): 91-112.

Hilder, Monika. “George MacDonald’s Education into Mythic Wonder: A Recovery of the Transcendent.” In Sublimer Aspects: Interfaces between Literature, Aesthetics, and Theology, edited by Natasha Duquette, 176-93. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.