The fairy tales of George MacDonald have been read and loved for over one hundred years. In his influential essay "The Fantastic Imagination," first published in 1893, MacDonald posed and answered a series of questions exploring the nature of his chosen literary form. The questions are distinctly Victorian ones...and yet some critics of children's fantasy are still asking them to this day.
"You write as if a fairy tale were a thing of importance: must it have a meaning?
"It cannot help have some meaning; if it have propotion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairy tale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, and another will read another.
"If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning it to it, but yours out of it?
"Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.
"Suppose my child asks me what the fairy tale means, what am I to say?
"If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it mean that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it does not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.
"But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."
"But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?
"I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there, not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain is to say: 'Roses! Boil them or we won't have them!' My tales may not be roses, but I will not boil them. So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.
"If a writer's aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood but to escape being misunderstood; but where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it."
I'm reminded of a tale recounted about indigenous storytellers from Siberia to North America:
A story is told to a child (or to a tribal outsider). The listener asks, perplexed, "But what does it mean?"
The story-teller merely smiles. "If you don't understand, then I will tell it to you again."
The glorious pictures today are by the Ukrainian painter and illustrator Vladislav Erko. Though born in Kiev, he spent the first seven years of his life in the small village of Pirniv with his grandmother, where he acquired the love of nature which infuses all his work. He studied art at the Polygraphic Academy in Kiev, and began illustrating children's books in 1998. Since then, he has won the Grand Prize at the Ukranian Book Awards (2000), was named the best artist of 2002 by the Moscow Book Review, and received the Anderson House Foundation Award in 2006. He has illustrated many books including The Snow Queen, Alice in Wonderland, Russian Fairy Tales, The Tales of Foggy Albion, Young Roland, Gulliver's Travels, and The Little Prince, and has designed the cover art for the Ukrainian editions of the "Harry Potter" series. You can see more of his work on the Cizgili Masallar illustration blog and on Midori Snyder's In the Labyrinth.
More from George MacDonald's essay: "Sonatas, storms, and stories."