This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
In 1916, C.S. Lewis was in his mid-teens and preparing to enter the university at Oxford. At the end of a week, he stood on a railway platform waiting for the train that would take him back to his lodgings after a day in town. As Lewis’s mind was fixed on “the glorious week end of reading” that awaited him, his attention turned to the station’s bookstall. On it sat a curious looking volume, an Everyman edition of George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women.
Having journeyed through this station every week, Lewis had seen this book before, but had never bothered to buy it. This afternoon as he waited for the train, Lewis picked up the book and took a closer look. During that stage in Lewis’ life he was, to use his own term, “waist deep in Romanticism”, and this book seemed similar to other Romanticist literature he enjoyed. Providentially, he decided to buy the book.
That evening Lewis opened Phantastes and entered into MacDonald’s imaginary landscape. Lewis was haunted by the dream-like narrative in which ordinary life becomes transformed into the world of Fairy. The story, he later reflected, “had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death.”
But while Lewis found in the narrative of Phantastes all the qualities that had charmed him in other romantic writers such as the novels of William Morris, there was something else that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “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 alive in the new.” Lewis was later able to convey something of this feeling in his story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when the Pevensie children first hear the name of Aslan:
“None of the children knew who Aslan was…but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning…so beautiful that you remember it all your life.”
Though the young Lewis felt that Phantastes had some enormous meaning, there was one problem: at the time he was an atheist and MacDonald was a Christian. Initially, MacDonald’s theism was merely an annoyance to the young atheist, who felt “it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.”
As he grew and read more of MacDonald’s writings, however, Lewis eventually came to understand that the peculiar quality he encountered in Phantastes was not separate to MacDonald’s faith, but because of it. “….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.”
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis described his discovery of MacDonald as having baptized his imagination. It would be many years before his intellect would follow. Nevertheless, that afternoon at the station was the beginning of the slow and twisted spiritual journey that would eventually culminate in Lewis’ conversion to Christ. When Lewis did convert, he looked upon MacDonald as his spiritual master, saying, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself….I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master…”