Reviews 2010

Death and Fantasy: Essays on Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald and R.L. Stevenson

Death and Fantasy: Essays on Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald and R.L. Stevenson. William Gray. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. 126 pages. $24.99 (hardback).

William Gray’s intriguing work of nine chapters first appeared in periodicals and book chapters over the past decade, but his consolidated volume emphasises the complex discourse on death within the texts of Pullman, Lewis, Macdonald, and Stevenson. Reflecting a multi-layered and sophisticated reading of these masters of fantasy, Gray draws on psychoanalysis, spirituality, and philosophy to support his arguments. Furthermore, he produces a work richly layered with references to other important scholars and theorists.

Gray proposes that an important role of children’s fantasy is to encourage its readers to reflect on ‘big philosophical questions’ (3). In Chapter One, ‘George Macdonald, Julia Kristeva, and the Black Sun,’ Gray investigates MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), which details the protagonist’s trip into Fairyland, where he seeks the perfect manifestation of female beauty. Gray discusses important themes in Macdonald’s Phantastes including death by suicide, identity, love, and the maternal while offering a psychoanalytical reading of the text. In his reading, Gray applies Kristeva’s idea that one must reject the mother figure in order to gain subjectivity (18). In Chapter Two, ‘The Angel in the House of Death: Gender and Subjectivity in George Macdonald’s Lilith,’ Gray continues to investigate the maternal, this time in MacDonald’s Lilith (1895). Gray follows other scholars in noting that in MacDonald’s fantasy fiction, one must separate from the mother in order to gain freedom. Furthermore, the absence of a clean break with the mother results in self-destruction. Gray points out that the novel focuses on the tension between two notions of the ‘woman’—Eve and Lilith—the pure and the impure.

In Chapter Three, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. MacDonald and Mr. Hyde: Robert Louis Stevenson and George MacDonald,’ Gray reminds readers of several links between the two authors. Both MacDonald and Stevenson hailed from different parts of Scotland and different social classes, pondered religious issues, and questioned Calvinism. Gray argues that MacDonald had an influence on Stevenson’s fiction. For example, Stevenson mentions MacDonald in a letter written when the former was seventeen, indicating that he read Phantastes. Stevenson’s collection, Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893), is discussed in Chapter Four, ‘The Incomplete Fairy Tales of Robert Louis Stevenson.’ Here, Gray details the difference between folktales and fairy tales and points out that the term ‘Marchen’ sometimes can refer to both. Stevenson’s use of the term, Gray suggests, is to illuminate how the literary fairy tale both draws on and extends the folktale. Gray also notes the incompleteness of Stevenson’s fairy tale collection, highlighting that its published form was not at all what the author initially desired.

‘Death, Myth and Reality in C.S. Lewis,’ Chapter Five, introduces Gray’s argument that death is a constant companion in Lewis’s writing. He proposes that Lewis used his fiction writing to work through his grief over the death of his mother when he was nine. It was through writing the Chronicles of Narnia that Lewis was able to deal with the loss he suffered as a young boy. Gray proposes that Lewis’s desire for the ‘land of peace’ is actually a longing for reconnection with his mother—a return to the space of ‘reliable happiness’ and ‘lost wholeness’ (56).

Chapter Six, ‘Spirituality and the Pleasure of the Text: C.S. Lewis and the Act of Reading,’ includes a discussion of Lewis’s space trilogy. Edward Weston’s quest encourages the growth of spirituality, but this is a spirituality that supports a ‘pure spirit’ rather than the binaries of God and the Devil. Weston sets himself up as the ‘universe’—containing both God and the Devil. In The Screwtape Letters, Gray highlights the importance Lewis accorded to the act of reading. Lewis describes that what happens during the act of reading is an expanding of the self—a reaching outside of the self to take in a different perspective (69). The pleasure of reading, like other pleasures, ultimately leads the individual to the greatest target—God.

Continuing the Lewis discussion in Chapter Seven, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Atlantean Box: Psychoanalysis and Narnia Revisited,’ Gray suggests that we can approach the Narnia chronicles for their religious message as well as for their reference to Lewis’s loss of his mother (75). He outlines different scenes in the Narnia applying his earlier hypothesis from Chapter Five regarding Lewis working through the grief of his mother’s death. In this way, Gray illuminates particular episodes from the Narnia Chronicles, providing a closer look at the application of that idea.

Bringing in Philip Pullman’s fiction in Chapter Eight, ‘Pullman, Lewis, Macdonald and the Anxiety of Influence,’ Gray begins with Bloom’s notion of the ‘anxiety of influence’ and considers Macdonald’s influence on Pullman’s writing. Bloom famously argued that an author must accomplish an inaccurate reading of an important literary ancestor in order to be situated in his/her own identity as a writer. Gray notes that while Macdonald had an impact on Pullman, Lewis misread Macdonald and Pullman, in turn, misread Lewis on his message about death and life in the conclusion of The Last Battle. Gray suggests that Pullman and Macdonald actually have more in common in terms of theological positions, as they both reflect a ‘faith in stories,’ and are both proponents of German Romanticism and postmodernism as well as English Romanticism.

Finally, in Chapter Nine, ‘Witches’ Time in Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and George Macdonald,’ Gray discusses how the witches in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy illuminate themes about the passing of time and the notion of death. In this way Pullman presents younger readers with heavy themes in an indirect manner. In addition, Gray argues that Lewis’s treatment of death in his works is not as superficial as Pullman implicates. Pullman, on the other hand, constructs a pantheistic and mystical treatment of death in The Amber Spyglass. Gray concludes the chapter by discussing both the wicked witches and good witches in Macdonald’s work and their manipulation of time.

Gray’s collection of essays offers a refreshing, fascinating perspective on important writers of children’s fantasy in terms of their dialogue on death and spirituality. Much has been written about Lewis and Pullman, for example, but Gray provides a different perspective on how they engage with the concept of death. Additionally, framing the authors in relationship with one another activates an even more interesting exploration of these timeless classics of children’s literature. Though each chapter can stand on its own, Gray orders them in a way that the reader can understand some thought-provoking echoes and influences among them. This point of view may inspire further research into such works of children’s fantasy that are engaging with meaningful, intense topics through implicit and innovative methods.

Catherine Posey
Pennsylvania State University, USA