The Christian Goddess
The Christian Goddess: Archetype and Theology in the Fantasies of George MacDonald. Bonnie Gaarden. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2011. 9781611470086 $65.00.
Reviewed by Scott McLaren
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 30.3/4 (#117/118) (2012): 147–50.]
When Robert Graves was looking for a publisher for his landmark book The White Goddess in the early 1940s, he entertained high hopes that its imaginative arguments and dense erudition would appeal to Charles Williams of Oxford University Press. He was right. Williams thought the book was extraordinary and attempted to persuade the Press’s Director, Sir Humphrey Milford, to publish it. But Milford refused on the grounds that the Press was too hampered by wartime paper shortages for such an undertaking. When Williams died unexpectedly after stomach surgery in May 1945, Graves attributed his death to Oxford’s refusal of The White Goddess. By failing to persuade Milford, Graves believed that Williams had catastrophically failed in his poetic duty. The judgment was as unfair as it was telling. For Graves, the Goddess was not just a literary trope or a figure of myth. She was real. And she could be dangerous. One comes away with very much the same sense after reading Gaarden’s book about goddess figures in the work of George MacDonald. For Gaarden, there seems to be something more at stake here than just a discussion of literary figures shaped by MacDonald’s universalist theology, his panentheism, and his mysticism. By exploring these supernatural figures in MacDonald’s stories through the lenses of Jungian psychology, Hindu religion, Biblical Sophia literature, and Greek myth, Gaarden does something more than just impart to her readers a deeper understanding of the centrality of these figures in MacDonald’s mythopoeia. She also gestures toward something transcendent that has a life of its own beyond these texts. Thus there is something in this book to interest literary critics as well as theologians.
Although the introduction does not make this entirely clear, Gaarden’s book seems to be divided into two parts. The first part, comprising the first five chapters, concerns itself with unfolding the four types of goddess figures that populate MacDonald’s fantasies: the Great Mother, the Terrible Mother, the Soulmaker, and the Muse. The Great Mother is typified for Gaarden in MacDonald’s figure of The Green Lady in “The Golden Key,” and, to a lesser extent, in Mother Nature in Phantastes and Mother Eve in Lilith. Gaarden relies on Jung and his disciple Erich Neumann to explore the way these figures function as nature goddesses by symbolizing a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The theme of death sets the stage for the second chapter where Gaarden explores the figure of the Terrible Mother. Gaarden begins with a discussion of the Hindu goddess of death Kali to prepare the ground for her analysis of one of MacDonald’s most frightening and certainly most terrible mothers: Lilith. According to Jewish mythology, Eve replaced Lilith as Adam’s first wife only after Lilith refused to return to the Garden of Eden following a sexual encounter with a fallen angel. In MacDonald’s narrative, Lilith is a beautiful but dangerous supernatural figure whose treachery reaches its climax when she murders her own daughter in a misguided effort to prolong her own life. Despite committing such an unspeakable crime, MacDonald allows Lilith to find redemption at the end of the novel after a salutary confrontation with Adam. But even with its promising ending, the journey itself was so dark that the book did not escape controversy and was particularly disliked by MacDonald’s wife. The third chapter, entitled “The Magic Cauldron,” concerns, in Keats’s phrase, the figure of the “Soulmaker”—that is, the goddess who educates those around her about the redemptive nature of human suffering. Gaarden titles her chapter as she does to indicate that MacDonald’s Soulmaking goddesses don’t educate through lecturing, but by “cooking” their pupils in much the same way that the earth transforms coal into diamonds through the application of immense pressure. What follows is a perceptive reading of Lilith’s Mara and the eponymous Wise Woman as archetypal figures who bring about redemption in others through the imposition of suffering. Less convincingly, Gaarden also interprets the mother figure in MacDonald’s stubbornly enigmatic short story “The Gray Wolf” as Soulmaker. The fourth chapter considers the White Lady in Phantastes as a figure of the Muse and the children in The Wise Woman and in the “The Golden Key” as images of archetypal Divine Children.
In the fifth and arguably most engrossing chapter, Gaarden brings all this together in a remarkable reading of At the Back of the North Wind. Interestingly, she begins the chapter with a somewhat ominous gesture in the direction of Robert Graves when she refers to the story’s central supernatural figure, North Wind, as “MacDonald’s Great Goddess” (92). Despite the critical attention this figure has attracted, North Wind has remained one of MacDonald’s most inscrutable creations. But Gaarden’s analysis helps her readers to understand not only how the twists and turns in this difficult book illustrate aspects of his universalist theology, but also how North Wind herself is central to that theology as a multifaceted spiritual agent possessed of what only seems a contradictory nature. At the Back of the North Wind recounts the adventures of a boy named Diamond who accompanies North Wind—personified as a beautiful woman with long flowing hair—on nighttime journeys as she works weal and woe across the countryside. At various points throughout the story, Diamond plies North Wind with questions about her role in the destruction of property and the loss of human life as he attempts to discover whether she is good or evil. Eventually, North Wind allows Diamond to visit the land “at her back”—a land where North Wind herself cannot go but where there is no pain and no death. When Diamond returns from this land, however, he seems sunk in an abnormal state of simplicity and peace. The visit and its psychological results together foreshadow Diamond’s death at the end of the book. North Wind’s presence throughout the story is morally problematic since she seems both loving and sinister as she educates Diamond by causing him and those around him to suffer. In her ministrations to Diamond, Gaarden argues that North Wind functions as Great Mother in her role as an agent of the unconscious (she visits him only at night) and as a force that encourages the emergence of his ego (she never forces anything on him but always asks him what he wants to do or believe). North Wind also functions as Soulmaker as she transforms Diamond into a Christ figure through illness and suffering. As Muse, North Wind inspires Diamond to see things as they truly are both when awake and in his dreams. This inspiration empties Diamond of all his fears, including his fear of death. Most enigmatically, North Wind adopts the guise of Terrible Mother when she blows on Diamond’s frail chest and thereby helps to bring about his death. Reprising her role as Muse, however, North Wind is able to comfort Diamond by inspiring him with a vision of the world to come—the genuine world at her back—that is too wonderful for words. Thus North Wind is Great Mother and Terrible Mother, Soulmaker and Muse—and it is only through these various and varying roles that, Gaarden persuasively argues, we can finally understand all her actions in the context of MacDonald’s own benevolent theology.
Gaarden charts a slightly different course in the second part of her book by partly setting aside these four types of goddess figure to explore resonances between MacDonald’s female characters and some of the goddess figures found in Biblical and Greek myth. Concerned mostly, though not exclusively, with the traditions of divine Wisdom in these literatures, Gaarden offers a deft reassessment of several of MacDonald’s female figures in the Princess stories, Phantastes, Lilith, and other texts. Gaarden also considers how MacDonald’s awareness of these multivalent Sophia traditions allowed him to frame his stories as critiques of what he perceived to be an overreliance on rationalism in Victorian culture—specifically the ascendency of materialistic rationalism in the sciences on the one hand, and the ongoing dominance of Reformation-era Calvinistic rationalism on the other. In her concluding chapter, Gaarden provides a fascinating gloss on two evil female figures in MacDonald’s stories who, unlike Lilith, seem not to find any redemption: Princess Makemnoit from “The Light Princess” and Watho from “The Day Boy and the Night Girl.” Princess Makemnoit and Watho are not merely destroyed, Gaarden argues, but erased in a way that is consistent with the Augustinian view of evil as a privation of good and a privation of being. At the same time, while the human heart may harbour such witches, she writes that “no real person is a Makemnoit or Watho” (184). Thus these figures, unlike the goddess figures explored in the earlier parts of the book, are ultimately unreal—another hint that gestures beyond MacDonald’s own mythopoeia to something larger and transcendent.
I have only one quibble. In one or two places Gaarden appears to state her argument rather too bluntly when she claims, as she does in the first paragraph of her introductory chapter, that in these figures MacDonald “presented God as a woman” (1). Bald statements of this kind in fact fall far short of capturing the highly nuanced and much more subtle arguments that Gaarden advances about these polysemous female figures throughout her book. Indeed, nowhere in any of his sermons, novels, or critical essays did MacDonald once refer directly to God as a woman, or, for that matter, to any of the many female figures Gaarden considers as goddesses. Although one might counter that MacDonald felt sufficiently free to set forth his true beliefs about the feminine divine only in the more veiled forms afforded by fantasy and children’s literature, to do so would be to forget that MacDonald was not one to shrink from controversy. After all, he lost his pulpit and his livelihood for espousing his views about God’s inexhaustible love and the eventual salvation of all creatures—good and evil, human and animal. Such a man, it seems to me, would not have been afraid to be more straightforward. And yet, there is no denying that for MacDonald, God did possess attributes that were most commonly associated with the feminine in his own Victorian world. And in this way his work truly does anticipate that more modern quest for the feminine face of God. Thus my quibble is not with Gaarden’s book, but merely with those few instances where she seems to overstate her argument with too bold a claim. Notwithstanding this bit of hair-splitting on my part, it seems clear to me that this book—thoroughly researched, elegantly argued, and engagingly written—should be essential reading not only for MacDonald scholars, but also for historians of Victorian religion and those interested in feminine spirituality more generally.