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Most students of C. S. Lewis are aware of his connection with George MacDonald, but I think very few realize the scope and profundity of MacDonald's influence on Lewis. This book is the most thorough and in-depth treatment I've seen on the subject and it not only increased my appreciation for the relationship between these literary giants, but also deepened my understanding of their individual works and ideas.
In the first chapter, "Shadows," McInnis explores the effects of pain and suffering on the lives and writings of both Lewis and MacDonald, beginning with the loss of their mothers at almost the same young age. These experiences led Lewis to atheism and a search for escape through Romantic literature and poetry. MacDonald, on the other hand, saw that the shadows lay within man and the only escape was the "good death" to self, and with his sermons, novels, and transcendent fairy tales he drew Lewis to the same conclusion.
Next, McInnis compares and contrasts the views of MacDonald and Lewis regarding the manner of light that would banish the shadows and lead to a higher realm of morality and goodness. As a consummate intellectual, Lewis, first turned to reason for this light, but the writings of MacDonald helped him to see that reason needed the aid of a transcendent morality to guide and nurture conscience. Comparing the Princess fairy tales of MacDonald with the poetry and Narnia chronicles of Lewis, McInnis shows how Lewis developed and sharpened his ideas about belief and unbelief, and how belief could not only reconcile the existence of suffering with a good God, but transform the believer into a condition capable of seeing and bearing the weight of His glory. This is most fully and potently developed in a superb analysis of Lewis' final novel, 'Till We Have Faces'. In my opinion, this section alone makes the book worth purchasing and reading.
One aspect of the book that I appreciate most is the author's focus and clarity on one of MacDonald's key precepts: that the transformative power of belief is effected through action in the midst of suffering and trials. As he sums up after expounding on this theme by comparing MacDonald's 'Within and Without' with Lewis' 'Till We Have Faces', "In both instances, ultimate reality cannot be reached by merely wishing for it or thinking about it." This helps both men understand not only the existence of evil in the world, but how God uses it to our benefit and rescues us from the hell of self. McInnis explores in great detail the ideas of MacDonald and Lewis on the nature of evil and its cure for us---death to self---before moving on to what is surely the most controversial topic of the book: their views on the purpose and permanence of Hell.
Having laid the foundation of Lewis' and MacDonald's most defining and crucial philosophies, McInnis proceeds to the pinnacle of his book in the penultimate chapter, "The Chivalry of God." The concept of chivalry is a metaphor that combines the paradoxical elements of both authors' writings, but most particularly the "Divine Sonship" in MacDonald's writings that Lewis described as a "Christ-like union of tenderness and severity." The basic image is that of a regal king in the role of a humble servant and it presents itself in a host of inspiring characters: a rusty knight in 'Phantastes', a fierce, self-sacrificing lion in 'The Chronicles of Narnia', a severe, kindhearted great, great grandmother in the 'Princess' fairy tales, a humbly intimidating Director in 'That Hideous Strength', and many more. A common theme of all these picturesque characters is to help us understand how the multifaceted nature of God is like that of a knight whose "chivalrous combination of strength and tenderness, and readiness to serve and save the weak is made manifest in his actions," as McInnis describes the knight in 'Phantastes'. God's ultimate objective for us is to acquire the same chivalrous nature through a difficult and unnatural process that requires supernatural intervention to deliver a "good death," as portrayed by the un-dragoning of Eustace and the fairy baths of Mossy, Tangle, and Anodos.
Finally, then, we see how Lewis learned two central lessons from his master, MacDonald: First, that the key to understanding properly the shadow of evil in a world created by a perfectly good God is not found in escapist Romantic ideas but comes from an accurate perception of where the shadow lies and a true knowledge of the chivalrous nature of God, and second, how to follow by faith the threads of light through the Valley of Shadows to a death that transforms us into sons and daughters real enough to stand in His presence and live in His land. MacDonald and Lewis use poetry, fairy tale, reason, and homily to fire our imaginations, rekindle sparks of joy, encourage faith in the face of adversity, submit to death of self, and draw us near to God; always going "further up and further in." This book will help readers of Lewis and MacDonald recognize these themes more clearly and engage both authors at a deeper level. I re-read 'The Golden Key' in the gloaming of McInnis' book, and experienced this myself.
Disclaimer: The publisher provided a copy of this book for my review, but I also purchased a copy for myself so I could give one away.