Daniel Gabelman’s George MacDonald: Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity spends a lot of time developing a historic perspective on seriousness, lightness, and levity. Dante, Shakespeare, Byron, the book of Ecclesiastes, and a somewhat revisionary analysis of Victorian culture all contribute to the argument.
But that is mainly background to Gabelman’s winning presentation of what we really can call George MacDonald’s theology of levity. Though developed mainly in MacDonald’s fairy tales, it’s a perspective on life - better, a feel for life - rooted in Scripture and Christian faith.
MacDonald, for instance, makes much of Jesus’ first sign, turning water to wine: “There is a glad significance in the fact that our Lord’s first miracle was this turning of water into wine. It is a true symbol of what he has done for the world in glorifying all things. With his divine alchemy he turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries, yea, every meal into a eucharist, and the jaws of the sepulchre into an outgoing gate. . . . From all that is thus low and wretched, incapable and fearful, he who made the water into wine delivers men, revealing heaven around them, God in all things, truth in every instinct, evil withering and hope springing even in the path of the destroyer” (quoted p. 66).
This leads into a reflection on laughter: “I wonder how many Christians there are who so thoroughly believe God made them that they can laugh in God’s name; who understand that God invented laughter and gave it to his children. Such belief would add a keenness to the zest in their enjoyment, and slay that sneering laughter of which a man grimaces to the fiends, as well as that feeble laughter in which neither heart nor intellect has a share. It would help them also to understand the depth of this miracle. The Lord of gladness delights in the laughter of a merry heart” (quote on 67).
For MacDonald, laughter and levity are Christologically grounded. Taking a cue from both Romanticism and the gospels, he wrote that “There is a childhood into which we have to grow, just as there is a childhood we must leave behind; a childlikeness which is the highest aim of humanity, and a childishness from which but few of those who are counted the wisest among men, have freed themselves in their imagined progress toward the reality of things.” Jesus is the true, eternal child, His childishness foorted in “confidence in God,” the “one principle by which men shall live.” In His childlikeness, Jesus is true and complete. We, however, “are not complete men, we are not anything near it.” As a result, we are “out of harmony, more or less, with everything in the house of our birth and habitation.” When we become children “the universe will be our home, felt and known as such, the house we are satisfied with and would not change” (quoted, 102-3).
And the resurrection lurks in the background. In one story, he observes “‘In the midst of life we are in death,’ said one; it is more true that in the midst of death we are in life. Life is the only reality; what men call death is but a shadow . . . a negation, owing the very idea of itself to that which it would deny. But for life there could be no death. If God were not, there would not even be nothing” (quoted 126).
Sprinkled liberally with quotations from MacDonald’s work, Gabelman’s book is not only a study of MacDonald but a call to divine carelessness and fairytale levity.