The bright shadow on common things

Packing, packing, packing. It’s all I’ve done today. So now I am sitting down with a cup of Fireside Rooibos — have I mentioned before how much I like rooibos tea? — for a little rest. It’s been a splendid autumn day here, not that I have been out in it so much except for a jog this morning. Days like this make me very much look forward to the new north-facing courtyard. The unit I am currently renting is in a great location, but it faces east-west, and has the wall of the place next door jutting out to the north, is on the ground floor, and can be dark and cold inside. And Canberra is the sort of climate where if you just sit inside all day in autumn and winter you can get really cold, but if you can just go out in the sun, which is nearly always shining, somewhere you warm up. So it is a good thing to have access to a piece of sunshine without always having to go “out” to find it, which will soon be the case. I am trying very hard right now not to spend hours on design and furniture websites, and soon after I move I need to register the car so I have to take these things easy, but some kind of outdoor lounge set-up is going to be the thing!

But for now, something a little less mundane, or perhaps more gloriously mundane, than putting stuff in boxes and the weather. I have written about and quoted from Phantastes by George MacDonald many times, and also about and from CS Lewis, and I came at the whole association in reverse to the norm in that I was reading MacDonald before I was reading Lewis, and as a teenager was very taken with Phantastes. And so I have always loved the account in Surprised by Joy, where Lewis describes how Phantastes was instrumental in his conversion. Phantastes is now a book that is like a secret little litmus test I have for people (except it’s not a secret anymore). If I meet someone and somehow it comes up that they have heard of George MacDonald, and they then start enthusing about Phantastes, I know we are going to kindred spirits. This happened recently with a girl at church, and has proved true. I have since loaned her The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret, and we know what wavelength we are on.

Anyway, here is the part in Surprised by Joy where Lewis recounts his discovery of Phantastes. He has written of it in other works also (one of which I posted here).

Image from here.

Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names, Saxon and sweet as a nut—”Bookhamm, Effingham, Horsley train”. That evening I began to read my new book.

The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came to be alive in the new. For in one sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense all was changed. I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. For the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse. Here were old wives’ tales; there was nothing to be proud of in enjoying them. It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity—something too near to see, to plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge. It seemed to have been always with me; if I could ever have turned my head quick enough I should have seized it. Now for the first time I felt that it was out of reach not because of something I could not do but because of something I could not stop doing. If I could only leave off, let go, unmake myself, it would be there. Meanwhile, in this new region all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed. There was no temptation to confuse the scenes of the tale with the light that rested upon them, or to suppose that they were put forward as realities, or even to dream that if they had been realities and I could reach the woods where Anodos journeyed I should thereby come a step nearer to my desire. Yet, at the same time, never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself. Where the god and the idolon were most nearly one there was least danger of confounding them. Thus, when the great moments came I did not break away from the woods and cottages that I read of to seek some bodiless light shining beyond them, but gradually, with a swelling continuity (like the sun at mid-morning burning through a fog) I found the light shining on those woods and cottages, and then on my own past life, and on the quiet room where I sat and on my old teacher where he nodded above his little Tacitus. For I now perceived that while the air of the new region made all my erotic and magical perversions of Joy look like sordid trumpery, it had no such disenchanting power over the bread upon the table or the coals in the grate. That was the marvel. Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert—”The first touch of the earth went night to kill”. Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now 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. Unde hoc mihi? [Translation: “And why is this granted to me?” — or something like it.] In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised; the rest of me, not unnaturally, too longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.

It is perhaps attributable to Phantastes that I seemed to have learnt early an appreciation of simple and rather domestic delights. Or perhaps that I have something of the personality of Lewis’s friend Arthur who revelled in “homeliness”.

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