Doors In

The Fairy Tale World of George MacDonald

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Rolland Hein
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , November
     2018.
     142 pages.
     $19.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532643811.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Doors In: The Fairy Tale World of George MacDonald, the latest book on the Scottish master by Rolland Hein, is a unique work. Hein’s scholarship has well established the importance of MacDonald over the past half century, especially in the evangelical world. In light of this fact, this book seeks to accomplish a nearly impossible task: a complete summary of George MacDonald’s fantasies. From classic children’s tales like The Princess and the Goblin (Strahan & Co., 1872) to more impenetrable works like Lilith (Chatto and Windus, 1895), the book leads its reader through both the plots and their deeper theological meanings. In each section, Hein blends a summary of the events in MacDonald’s novels with an analysis of their major themes and their contribution to MacDonald’s ever-developing theology.

My main criticism of the work, therefore, is not necessarily what it contains but what it lacks. This criticism is in some senses an unfair one, as Hein is clear about his intentions early on: this book is not so much a work of scholarship as a labor of love. It therefore offers few of the recent developments in MacDonald scholarship. This fact is not necessarily a fault as Hein’s audience is clearly the new reader rather than the student of MacDonald, fantasy literature, or the Victorian world. Furthermore, Hein does an excellent job of summarizing the standard interpretations of MacDonald, many of which he has articulated in depth elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I found myself at points wishing that Hein stuck to his introductory warning that “Anyone, therefore, who would undertake an explanation of any of MacDonald’s fantasies would do well to keep in mind his strong denial that any given explanation is final” (6). As it is, Hein holds the standard American evangelical reading of MacDonald’s theology, and does not treat MacDonald’s heterodoxy with the seriousness it deserves. While MacDonald would share many concerns with contemporary evangelicals, it would be a mischaracterization to view him as one, and I worry that providing only an evangelical interpretation fails to present a comprehensive picture of MacDonald.

Take for example Hein’s treatment of Lilith in the final chapter of the book, where he never fully engages with the theological complexities of Lilith. Yes, he mentions MacDonald’s views on apocatastasis, but he seems to glance over the implications of this universalism on MacDonald’s wider theology of divine love. Instead, he asserts that Lilith is about what it means for the Christian to be “born again” (86). While in the broadest sense this is true, the use of this historically evangelical term places MacDonald firmly in the evangelical world—a world which the Scottish author resisted in his own time. Instead, locating MacDonald in the larger conversation of nineteenth-century Romanticism and the theological theories of his friend and mentor F. D. Maurice (1805-1872) would provide a richer point of reference for the reader.

These small academic issues are not to say that the book is weak. In fact, for one looking for a brief introduction to MacDonald’s fantasy, I can think of no better work. To summarize MacDonald’s thought is a herculean task, and Hein has proven time and time again to be a trustworthy apologist for the great Scottish mystic. This book is no exception. In broad strokes, he is able to topple many of the obstacles that face the casual Christian reader in approaching MacDonald. And after all, this was its intention, so can one truly fault it? As an introduction, a beginning to what can be a life’s pursuit to analyze MacDonald, Doors In succeeds completely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Rawleigh is a PhD student at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
October 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rolland Hein is Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Wheaton College.

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