Fantastic Literature: MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis


JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis are perhaps the most well-known of a group of British writers who deeply influenced 19th and 20th century Literature, with their Christian faith as their foundation.   Their writings so popularized the explanation and defense of their faith that they became known as a school of Literary Apologetics, or the British School of Apologetics.  Each author produced popular works of either fiction, fantasy or detective novels in addition to their essays and non-fiction books.  Here, we will take a closer look at 19th century fantasy novelist George MacDonald (Scottish poet, author, journalist and pastor, 1825-1904), English journalist, essayist and author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in addition to Tolkien and Lewis, 20th century figures who claimed MacDonald and Chesterton as fundamental influences on their own writing.

Christian History Magazine vol. 113, 2015 an excellent source on this literary group  Special Issues on Lewis (#88, 2005), Tolkien (#78, 2003), MacDonald (#86, 2005) and Chesterton (#75, 2002) also available online


Popular Science Fiction writer, Greg Bear[1]

            Literature, poetry and the arts can often capture and communicate the deep truths of existence quite as well as their counterparts in philosophy, theology or the sciences.  Consider this ending to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town:

Emily: “Let’s really look at one another!…It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed… Wait! One more look.  Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize         you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every,every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.[2]


George MacDonald, nineteenth century fantasy writer, along with the later G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, pioneered what has come to be known as the literary approach to apologetics, or imaginative apologetics.[3]  What MacDonald addresses as ‘imagination,’  Chesterton , Lewis and Tolkien in particular get at with their discussions of fantasy and fairy tales.  As it is MacDonald to whom  Chesterton and Lewis in particular pay homage and claim as their inspiration (in addition to others such as Lewis CArroll, W.H. Auden and Madeleine L’Engel) , it behooves us to follow his rabbit trail, however (or not) Beatrix Potteresque, of the ‘imagination.’

MacDonald cites the power of the poetic imagination as fundamental to the process of human understanding:

All words,then, belonging to the inner world of the mind, are of the imagination, are originally poetic words… Not merely in literature does poetry come first, and prose afterwards, but poetry is the source of all the language that belongs to the inner world, whether it be of passion or of metaphysics, of psychology or of aspiration.[4]

The poetic imagination thus illuminates the study of history, as MacDonald cites fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlysle’s History of the French Revolution as “a philosophical revelation, a noble poem.”[5] And MacDonald summons a writer no less than William Shakespeare to the cause of history as poetry, highlighting his handling of  ‘time’ (essentially, ‘history’) as a battlefield for truth and justice:

Time’s glory is to call contending kings, / to unmask falsehood, and bring to light, / To stamp the seal of time in aged things, / To wake the morn and sentinel the night, / To wrong the wronger till he render right; / To ruinate proud buildings with the hours, / And smear with dust their glittering  golden towers.[6]

And not even mathematics and the sciences are without debt to the imagination:  MacDonald notes how Coleridge predicted that only a poet would ever make any remaining great discoveries in mathematics, while Francis Bacon claimed  “wonder is the seed of knowledge.”[7]

Not only does the imagination offer itself in the service of what we otherwise think of as ‘the intellect,’ – in fact, it provides the terms on which the intellect forms its sentences, and relies on for its own understanding.  Back to the sciences for a moment: MacDonald notes how Bacon equates the half of knowledge to the questions it asks, which come from the imagination.  MacDonald further cites the eighteenth century German Romantic poet Novalis as stating the relation plainly: “the imagination is the stuff of intellect,” that is, the image of the world upon which one’s reason operates. MacDonald’s own summary casts imagination as “the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of the understanding.”[8]

At a more personal level, the imagination can be plainly seen.  For instance, MacDonald cites the doomed efforts of Lady MacBeth (from Shakespeare’s MacBeth)  to engage her will to suppress her (moral) imagination (bringing a knife or pea-shooter to a gun-fight as it were):  “These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so it will make us mad”[9] she says, vainly trying to suppress her conscience.  Such recriminations from conscience thus buttress MacDonald’s claim that “we dare to claim for the true, childlike, humble imagination, such an inward oneness with the laws of the universe that it possesses in itself an insight into the very nature of things.”[10]   You don’t have to read Shakespeare to feel this connection: the pangs of a guilty conscience, or happiness from some occurrence of joy, can be felt both emotionally and even physically, and are common experiences we all share.

It is thus difficult to find any but the most determined and hard-boiled materialist who would accord no value to this “imagination,” but the question remains, exactly how does it work? And from where does it bring its insights? And of what ultimate worth are they, aside from simply being what the pre-converted Lewis cast as merely “lies and therefore worthless though ‘breathed through silver?’ ”[11]   A major clue, if not the bulk of the answer, is suggested by the observation that MacDonald’s argument for the imagination is never far from Christian Scripture (and one does well to recall that MacDonald was a pastor as well as a story-writer). MacDonald claims that a wise imagination is the “presence of the spirit of God … the best guide that man or woman can have.”[12]  Echoing scripture, MacDonald instructs us that this ‘wise imagination’ is in fact influenced not by the things most obvious to us, but instead by “undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard … We live by faith, not by sight.”[13]

The mechanics of how the imagination works suggests that it is like an Ariadnean thread of understanding informing our sojourn of wonder on the planet.  But whereas the modern tendency is to see the world as reflective of our imagination, for example art reflecting our own moods,  when MacDonald states that “the world is … the human being turned inside out”[14] he has a much more inclusive image in mind.  As “He hath placed eternity in our hearts” [15] the imagination thus suggests “what might be a form of things … a harmonious relation of parts and operations” and ultimately, its “inward oneness with the laws of the universe” culminating in our “insights into the very nature of things.”[16] MacDonald’s influence on C.S. Lewis may be seen here, as Lewis similarly cites this necessary harmony of  the human mind with scientific laws of the cosmos in the essay De Futilitate.[17] But however perhaps pedantic, MacDonald’s description of the mechanics of the poetic imagination helps complete his ‘proof’ : “construction of an invisible whole from the hints afforded by a visible part”affords “the only guides to a multiplex harmony, completeness and end, which is the whole.”[18]  So, the metaphysical construction commences, “with the combined lenses of science and imagination” and making holistic sense of the human experience.  Individual imagination is perhaps not quite sufficient, as MacDonald suggests that nowhere else than in individual interpretations of life can the imagination be “more healthily and rewardingly occupied” than in constructing meaning from the joint history of the “noblest of our race.”[19]

However (poetically) formulaic this account of the mechanics of imagination may seem, it allows a glimpse into the ways in which literary apologetics provides its worth.  In the joint exercise of the poetic imagination, the search for inclusive, universal truth is best served: “no man is capable of seeing for himself the whole of any truth: he needs it echoed back to him from every soul in the universe; and still its center is hid in the Father of Lights.”[20] Following the poets, the reassembly of stories and perspectives allow truths “half hidden and half revealed” to be completed.[21]

But the chief value of literary apologetics lies in it what MacDonald cites as “the first and essential means” for the culture of the imagination: the “ordering of our life towards harmony with its ideal in the mind of God.”[22] It is the poet “that shall behold the Beautiful”[23] though simply following the “mechanism of spirit” thus described is no guarantee of ultimate truth: “we hope for endless forms of beauty informed of truth” when “our hope lies in … the wisdom wherein we live and move and have our being.[24] [25] “The Maker is our Light”[26] is MacDonald’s conclusion.

A distinction must be made, however, between the poet’s ability to capture beauty and meaning, and their ability to create it on their own.  MacDonald follows Coleridge’s distinction between Primary and Secondary imagination on this point,[27] granting God the power to ultimately create beauty, meaning and order.   Man, the poet, and his literature do not create anything new, but instead his thought-forms, either the result of his own intention or nature, are instead given to him.  “Would God give us a drama? He makes a Shakespeare”[28] MacDonald quips, then continues “All the processes of the ages are God’s science; all the flow of history is his poetry.”[29]  Man, and his and/or her literature, instead is given to play the roles of Poet as both maker and finder, following in a sense the divine roles of poeima (a work of God) and logos (the word of God).  As maker, the poet can present creatively arranged revelations, but revelations of pre-existent material.  Poetry, or literature, “has created none of the material … nor does it work upon raw material. But it takes forms already created and gathers them about a thought so much higher than they, that it can group and subordinate and harmonize them into a whole which shall represent, unveil that thought.”[30]

Literature can thus aid us in finding (finder of logos) the whole picture, unobscuring and revealing truths otherwise lost to us in the fog of ordinary existence. This is accomplished through the work of the poet, as his imaginative literature is a poeima, the poet a maker or arranger, revealing the logos that was otherwise obscured.  But the intrinsic nature of the poet’s work, or apologetic literature, is just the beginning of the story.

It is a corollary of the subordinate relation between primary acts of imagination (divine Creation) and the poet’s works, that the essential laws of humanity, and the nature of man himself, is not violated. To do so is to risk irrelevance if not an outright misleading.  And the laws in operation in a piece of literature must be consistent for the same reasons.  In a rather poetic formulation, MacDonald summarizes the situation thus:

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow;

            Beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed;

            and you may, if you will, call Imagination that tailor that cuts her garments to fit her,

            and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button- holes.

            Obeying law, the maker works like his creator;

            not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.[31]

The worth of the poem lies not just in its illuminating construction, but in the poeima it works in us. Just as Lewis pointed out in Abolition of Man’s chapter “Men without Chests” that “the chest – magnanimity – sentiment … serve as indispensable liason officers between cerebral man and visceral man,”[32] so does well-functioning literature move to noble action.  Just as cultivating the intellect will not reduce the passions, MacDonald notes, even more does “the imagination, seeking the ideal in everything … elevate them to their true and noble service.” Such well-crafted literature then moves not us merely to see visions and dreams dreams, but that we should “see true visions, and dream noble dreams.”[33]


Chesterton pays homage to the child-like wonder for which MacDonald’s pioneering of the imagination paved the way.  The sense of plain and simple wonder at the world itself is the fundamental first step for the imagination.  The ordinary things common to all men, rather than “the things peculiar to any men” are the valuable, extraordinary and awe-inspiring facts of life, according to Chesterton in his essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” from the collection titled Orthodoxy.  The fact that we have such odd things as noses themselves roves far more interesting than the queerness or even genius of any one particular nose.  And one can easily imagine that Chesterton’s homage to fairy tales had  works in mind such as MacDonald’s Lilith and  Phantastes, as Chesterton credits “the color and tone of certain tales” and “stories of magic” for “express(ing) my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege.”[34]

Chesterton’s appreciation for Elfland and its Ethics, as it were, seems to have been fueled by the dull ordinariness that the worlds or materialism and scientific regularity offered.  Instead of considering the regular motions of say the sun as evidence of a designerless, regular cosmos, Chesterton has us consider that God might just possess  “eternal appetite of infancy,” so that like the child that says over and over “do it again,” so does He cause the sun to rise in just the same awe-inspiring way day after day.[35]  The “scientific fatalism” that lay behind the near-worship of the regular, Chesterton finds antithetic to what MacDonald so promoted as acts of imagination and (secondary) creation.  The modern scientific mind admits of not only nothing interesting going on behind the scenes of nature, but of nothing at all.  Blades of grass grow for no particular reason for the materialist, whereas for the reader of fantasy as well as the stolidly Orthodox (“poets and saints” as Thornton Wilder began for us), they exhibit a wild and enthusiastic sense of life (or elan vital, if you like).  Further, the scientific worldview stifles  the senses of awe and meaning that the fairy tales build and reveal, as the universe looms large while man becomes something next to nothing.

Instead of the imagination and soul-stifling ways of science, reason and regularity, Chesterton finds in fairy stories (and the Orthodoxy with which it is a curious partner) the romance which feeds both his faith and his soul.  This anti-material view hearkens ultimately to his view of language, shared by MacDonald and Lewis.  That “all descriptions of the creating or sustaining principle in things must be metaphorical because they must be verbal,”[36] as Chesterton states , hearkens to MacDonald’s argument for the primacy of the poetic imagination, as well as Lewis’s own insistence that our language is metaphorical.[37]

This romance Chesterton also finds, typically (for Chesterton) ironically enough, in the unbreakable laws of fairyland!  The romance of a quest which might end in failure, owing to “the poetry of limits,”[38] further inspired Chesterton’s understanding of life in romantic, fantasy terms than in those of the scientific.  This poetry of limits underlies his remarks about how “the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable”[39] and “man have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.”[40]  Ultimately, it derives from the sense of a story and story-teller that undergirds our lives, and that implies a purpose and a will on our part.[41]

Just such a sense of adventure and romance is explicit in J.R.R. Tolkien as well as C.S. Lewis.  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford University Professors of Literature and Languages (Philology), respectively, are likely best known for their fictional, fantasy books, The Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis) and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien).  Both were influential Christian intellectuals, yet it can be puzzling to understand why they invested so much effort into what might be simply thought to be entertaining novels.  Lewis in fact phrases the question for us:

“’But why,’ (some ask), ‘why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?”

Answering his own question, Lewis explains:

“One of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality.  The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.’”[42]

On the nature and role of fantasy (or literary apologetics one could equate), Tolkien echoes much of what MacDonald said a century earlier on the poetic imagination.  Where MacDonald spoke of the primary and secondary imagination and acts of creation, Tolkien spoke of man as a subcreator.[43] In Tolkien’s poetic Mythopoeia, the subcreator’s likeness to the image of God is spelled out:

“man, sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White /to many hues, and endlessly combined.” [44]  As to the role of fantasy to provide the overall context of our vaguely understood human experience (what Lewis would refer to as the “deep magic” which underlay the mythical, fantasy land of Narnia), Tolkien similarly follows MacDonald in holding that fantasy requires a sense of Recovery, a regaining of a clear view … seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.”[45]  But it is with the further elements of fantasy held by Tolkien, Escape and Recovery, that the search for MacDonald’s beauty and truth, or Chesterton’s romantic adventure, can be seen.

The fantasy story itself provides the act of Escape which Tolkien felt to be crucial for the fantasy narrative, while Consolation  provides the ultimate resolution. Escape  is not simply desertion from an unsavory world of the present, “the Flight of he Deserter” as Tolkien describes many fantasy works, but instead “the Escape of the Prisoner;”[46]  and in fact it is “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.”[47]  Anyone viewer, let alone reader, of Tolkien’s Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, will identify such a role played by either Smaug or armies of Orcs, putting at risk the very survival of not just a merry band of dwarves and hobbits,and their Shire, but the entire race of man.

But is is with Consolation that Tolkien makes his most poignant point about fantasy tales.  The ending of a story will involve a certain amount of catastrophe, “of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure.[48] But it is the eucatastrophe, the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn … the sudden and miraculous grace” that Tolkien claims is “the true form of fairy tale.”[49]  The all too possible sorrowful fate of dyscatastrophe”is necessary to the “joy of deliverance” and “universal final defeat … evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief”[50] In this, Tolkien’s contribution to the role and work of fantasy follows the contributions of MacDonald optimistic imagination and Chesterton’s romantic adventures.

George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, along with a smidgen of C.S. Lewis, thus demonstrate the power of well-crafted imaginative works – of fiction, poetry, or even other fine arts, in communicating the truths of the gospel. Word count violation and poetic citation already abundant in this paper limit the poetic extravagance of this conclusion, but suffice it to say, however ironically unpoetically here, the role of poetic imagination, fairy stories, fantasy or other imaginative endeavor, owes a great deal to the writings of these members of the avant garde of literary apologetics.

[1]    Bear’s website includes more of his achievements and works:, though as the source quote itself requires a search beyond internet search for OurTown quotes on poets, it is beyond available current resources to identify in which SciFi book this quote may be found.  The Forge of God (1987) appears a good place to start, though one would not want to miss such titles as Psychlone (1979), The Mongoliad 92012-2013), Dinosaur Summer (1998) or Rogue Planet (2000, a Star Wars series  novel) in one’s search for further gems of literary theory.

[2]    Thornton Wilder, Our Town (theater play), 1938.

[3]    Or the British  School of Apologetics. The magazine Christian History, vol. 113, 2015 titled “Seven Literary Sages: Why we still need their wisdom today” cites MacDonald, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers and Owen Barfield as the originative core of this modern era group. Issue 86, Spring 2005 “George MacDonald: The Victorian poet, pastor, and storyteller who inspired C.S. Lewis” is another issue that may be of interest. Backorders available

[4]    George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and its Culture “(1867) in A Dish of Orts (USA: Editora Griffo), 11.

[5]    Ibid., 16.

[6]    William Shakespeare, Rape of Lucrere (1594) cited in MacDonald, A Dish of Orts,16.

[7]    MacDonald, A Dish of Orts, 15.

[8]    MacDonald, A Dish of Orts, 14.

[9]    William Shakespeare, MacBeth ( – – – ) cited in ibid., 26.

[10]  MacDonald, DO, 13.

[11]  Http://  Written by Tolkien, to Lewis, in 1931 after the famous Addison’s Walk by Tolkien, Lewis and Hugo Dyson.

[12]  MacDonald, DO, 24.

[13]  Ibid., 24.

[14]  Ibid., 11.

[15]  Ibid., 13.  Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[16]  Ibid., 13.

[17]  C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

[18]  MacDonald, DO, 15.

[19]  Ibid., 17.

[20]  Ibid., 20.

[21]  Ibid., 20.

[22]  Ibid., 29.

[23]  Ibid., 29.

[24]  Ibid., 22.

[25]  Acts 17:28, John 11:25.

[26]  MacDonald, DO, 22.

[27]  Malcolm Guite, “Chapter 6: Journeying with Coleridge to the Source of the Imagination” in Faith, Hope and Poetry (Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2014). Guite cites Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria in which Coleridge states “The primary imagination I hold to be … the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former … which dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create”

[28]  MacDonald, DO, 7.

[29]  Ibid., 8.

[30]  Ibid., 18.

[31]  Ibid., 214.

[32]  C.S. Lewis, Abolition of Man (New York: Collier Books, 1987), 34.

[33]  MacDonald, DO, 25.

[34]  G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 64.

[35]  Ibid., 60.

[36]  Ibid, Chapter 5 “The Flag of the World.”

[37]  C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Falansferes: A SemanticNightmare” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[38]  Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 64.

[39]  Ibid., Ch. 7.

[40]  Ibid.

[41]  Ibid., 61.

[42]  C.S. Lewis quoted in Diana Glyer, Bandersnatch (Kent, Ohio: Black Squirrel Books, 2016),  49-50.

[43]  J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 351.

[44]  J.R.R.Tolkien, Mythopoeia, composed in 1931 after the apologetically famed Addison’s Walk with Lewis beforeLewis’s conversionto Christianity. Available online

[45]  Ibid., 373.

[46]  Ibid., 377.

[47]  Ibid., 383.

[48]  Ibid., 384.

[49]  Ibid., 384.

[50]  Ibid., 384.

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