Love in The Gifts of the Christ Child

“The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald is the third book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?

To chasten, according to Merriam-Webster, means to discipline, to correct by punishment or suffering; to purify, to prune of excess, pretense, or falsity, to refine; and to cause to be more humble or restrained. In “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald, this word become an important foundation to the entire story. Sophy, who calls herself Phosy, and the purity of her love will be the mechanisms on which the action pivots. 

In her childlike logic, she prayers that the Lord would chasten her, for whomever He loves, He chastens. MacDonald tells us right away her life has held suffering and lament, if she only knew how she had suffered. 

MacDonald steps back to tell us the story. 

Sophy is pure, innocent, and neglected. Her virtues and attributes go unseen. It is not she who will change in this story but those whose lives work around hers in the periphery. She is neglected and she sees them move in and out of view, but they never see her.

Her mother died, but her father did not grieve too terribly. He remarried an immature woman for the odd selfish end of forming her character to be as his , to make her in his own image. Augustus’ fall from an interesting man to a man who has given up on life is summed up thus,

“He had given up reading poetry.”

The man who once read poetry and stops has stopped living. The interest in business, the disbelief in an ideal, takes away his ability to be present and delight in the moment. This, of course, is exactly what we encounter in children. Good material and fortune, in the absence of delight, erodes the spiritual side of himself.

Then we have their servant, Alice, whose poetry is John, the man she loves. In the face of good fortune, she wholeheartedly embraces the pride of position and rejects John, who appears to us a good man, in all respects.

This is the story. 

George MacDonald (10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of modern fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. In addition to his fairy tales, MacDonald wrote several works of Christian theology, including several collections of sermons. He influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein for his ability to make real both the physical world and the spiritual or phantasmic world.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote,

“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

It is on this plane that Macdonald brings us the transcendent. 

Rather than a goblin or a fairy, we enter into the imagination of a lonely child who longs for love.

Modern readers often shudder at reading stories that involve the death of an infant. They are indeed the most heartbreaking. I recognize that. It is a common theme for MacDonald. The infant is innocent, an undeveloped character in the story of life, and yet our complexities and stories swirl around the loss of life, our hopes and dreams, our past traumas, and for the mother, the most primitive, integral love she can offer is intimately bound up in that child. When a mother loses a baby, she loses part of herself. When a father loses a baby, he loses part of himself. And so there may be no clearer way to see who we are than to see ourselves as broken open as we are in the sight of an infant who has died.

Macdonald, who himself knew sorrow in fatherhood, explores the power of redemption not just through suffering, but grief. The utter purity of Sophy’s love is a revelation of the love of God. She is almost not a true character at all, but some incarnation of God to reveal himself to Augustus and Alice, according to Jessica W. H. Lim, who explores Sophy’s role in “Sacramental Grief: Embracing the dead infant in George MacDonald’s short stories.” 

The reader is carried along Sophy’s steps and actions. We know who she resembles as her halo and mantle are identified. We gasp with horror, the sobbing, revelatory horror of death when she cries, “Jesus is dead!” And if we have allowed our hearts this far into the story, we feel the light shine into the heart of Augustus as he folds Sophy into his arms. The moment of transcendence is neither remote, nor obscure, it comes brazenly into the lonely and longing hearts, hearts dulled by a life that seems to never change nor promise the ideals we once had, and a life of humility that idolizes prestige. 

Through this, on this vertical plane, God makes himself known. 

God is Love. Through this incarnate image of himself, this image of love in Sophy’s tender care and her unspeakable grief to discover the child is not alive, God reveals his father’s love for us. With a violent love, it breaks into the hearts of Augustus and Alice. Suffering and pain already exist in the world. The Lord need not send those. But it is through love itself, through the sight of love, the through love that burns in their hearts, that they know Him.

The scales drop from their eyes. They are transformed, loving and repentant. 

It is an act of God, a miracle; it is the answer to a prayer.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.
For explore reflections from the first and second week, clink the links below: 
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor

Discovering George MacDonald

Happy New Year! It’s Book List Time.

This is the time of year when many an avid reader begins collecting book lists for the new year. New editions of Well Read Mom come out, we republish our little book club’s schedule and list of readings. “What I read in 2021” posts hit the blogosphere. It’s a fun time or bibliophiles.

But book lists aren’t for me.

I hold in my mind a list of books. It is labeled the classics, books that stood the test of time and people still find worth reading. Then, not just the classics, but those classics that influenced other classics. And then within those classics, I find my other preferences. I like a bit of action, a bit of sadness, lots of personality and some weighty subjects.

Last year, I discovered Cluny Media. Browsing their website I purchased How to Read a Novel by Caroline Gordon, then on Black Friday, I fell down the rabbit hole in the discovery of their selected works by George MacDonald.


Who is George MacDonald?

MacDonald, best known for his novel The Princess and the Goblin, is hailed as a great influence of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. He was a pioneer in fantasy fiction. I do not actually read fantasy fiction, but my children do, and if the man could influence the greats, then I want to read him to know what the fuss is about.

Chesterton wrote in his introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville M. MacDonald (out of print), now reprinted in In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton,

“Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald.”

But what made it so real is not the obvious realness, but its skill in “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things,” Chesterton commented.

As G.K. Chesterton said, George MacDonald have the skill of “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.”
Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote,

“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

What does this mean?

The artist, poet, writer, or musician experiences the world, not so much in a different way than the non-artist, non-poet, non-writer or non-musician, but he sees it more deeply. He sees the tree as anyone sees the trees. But he may at the same moment see fairies flitting from branch to branch, or a troll hiding in the hollow of its trunk. Or even more accurately, he sees the possibility. The artist perceives that this world is not at all there is. The true artist is the most spiritual and in his art, brings out that quality in a way that makes it tangible for those who cannot see it. Thus the visual, written, or performative arts are modes of communication of this deeper world to the shallower one.

It is this quality that Lewis and Chesterton speak of. And I love it.

I purchased the three volumes of collected tales, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Thus far, I finished two of the three volumes of Collected Tales.

An Honest Review of George MacDonald

As a caveat. I cannot yet make a sweeping recommendation of MacDonald at this time. We should know that Lewis also wrote,

“Few of his novels are good and none is very good”.

MacDonald can be uneven, he can preach a little too often. To a modern reader, these works may be predictable, but it takes a greater knowledge of literary history for me to know if these are clichés that he used or that they became clichés because he used them so well.

As a reader and not a critic, I find comfort in the structure of the story, its predictable arc, that I knew it would turn out well. I appreciate his straight gaze at grief and loss and the way that through grief we have the opportunity to find more than we lost if we are willing to open our eyes.

The fantasies are magical indeed, but for this reader, the deeper magic lies in his ability to communicate the spiritual through the physical events of our lives, the births, the deaths, the events in between and how they have the power to change us. For that, I read on.