This is one of George MacDonald’s later books, the story of a young, leisured man who discovers a world within (or beyond?) his own where he is challenged to “die indeed” by a raven who seems to be the first man, Adam. Plunged into a fantastical world of little children living at peace with their beasts in the forest, giants, dueling skeletons, and an evil princess attended by leopards who terrorize the land, the hero must face not only the terrors, but his own capacity to act, choose, and love. A MacDonald fairy tale is a world of spiritual realities made flesh. Not direct allegory, nor yet mere fantasy, Lilith is a journey into the regions of the soul, into grace, sin, suffering, and the fresh-sprung waters that come when we learn to lay down what keeps us from dying in order to live.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By the “Pearl Poet,” translated by J.R.R. Tolkien
OPD: late 14th century
This is a classic of Arthurian legend, an alliterative romance describing the challenge of a great green giant who arrives at King Arthur’s court to challenge any knight to cut off his head, as long as he can return the stroke a year and a day after. The bold Sir Gawain takes the challenge, but his courage is tested when the mysterious green giant simply stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain to report to him on the appointed day. In sparkling poetry with the rich backdrop of Arthurian legend, this tale follows the unfortunate Gawain through tests of his virtue, chastity, and courage. This was a favorite of Tolkien’s, and many editions have his translation of the 14th century text.
The Man Who Was Thursday
By G.K. Chesterton
This was the most discussed book of my teenage years. Several friends and I had an ongoing discussion regarding Chesterton’s topsy turvy, vivid, confusing story of a Gabriel Syme, a brave man plumbing the depths of an anarchist society and its dire plots in Victorian London. But all is not as it seems. For in a rollicking tale of pursuit and disguise with anarchist agents named after the days of the week, Syme finds he may not be hunting what he thinks he is after all. Not exactly allegory or fantasy, yet with the fantastical, symbolic elements of both, this dream, or “nightmare” (as Chesterton dubbed it) explores the confusing nature of a world so beautiful at times we cannot believe that evil is real, and so evil at others that we cannot believe that beauty will ever endure. Fascinating stuff.
“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front -”
The Pilgrim's Regress
By C.S. Lewis
Written soon after his conversion to Christianity, this is C.S. Lewis’ allegorical tale of his search through all the philosophical systems and world views for the beauty and home he glimpsed in his moments of “Joy.” In this story, a sturdy young pilgrim named John embarks on a quest through lands such as “Puritania,” “Zeitgeistheim,” and “Dialectica,” in search of the island of his desire, an image he has encountered in vision, the place where he will find the joy he seeks. He is guided on his way by various characters like Mr. Enlightenment, Mr Sensible, Drudge, Vertue, and Mother Kirk. The philosophical ideals behind each allegorical character are quite clear, but Lewis, in his usual flare and wit, dresses them up and sets them in a story that is at once a philosophical adventure and a lively quest story.
Tree and Leaf
By J.R.R. Tolkien
For any Tolkien lovers, this slim book will be a gem. In this collection of essays and stories, readers will recognize Tolkien’s winsome style in tales like Leaf by Niggle or Farmer Giles of Ham, and also get treated to his famous defense of the fantasy genre in his essay, “On Fairie Stories.” Also included is the poem Mythopoeia, written for C.S. Lewis after a discussion of the truth-bearing power of myth.