It’s Christmas, and you’ve promised the children a story. Now dinner’s over and, if you’re at all like me, you’re beginning to panic as the children crowd round. They want a fairy tale but—and they’re very insistent on this point—not one they’ve heard before. A new story. A new fairy tale.
It’s Christmas, and what sort of story are you going to tell?
Maybe a story about your wacky uncle, and the Christmas he dressed up as a Christmas tree to deliver an inordinate amount of presents to your house? And how that was the Christmas things had been hard, and you hadn’t expected to get any presents at all…
Maybe a story about a little girl who wanted very much to see the Christkind, so she tried to be very, very good and to stay awake all Christmas night. And how—was it the Christkind who came?
Or maybe, if you’ve a more devious bent, a story about fire-breathing dragon-monster-things with fangs. And a lot of villages blowing up.
The scenario is hypothetical, of course, when addressed immediately to you and me. But, as best we can determine, that’s exactly how George MacDonald’s story ‘The Shadows’ came to be written. And that just makes the story stranger.
Among the more delightful pieces of MacDonald memorabilia is a letter from his wife, Lousia, to her parents, describing in loving detail how she, George, and the children celebrated a certain Christmas. Included with the letter was a copy of the story George told the family, called ‘The Shadows.’
This was in 1857. MacDonald had attained modest success through the publication of several books of poetry. It’s not clear whether, by Christmas, he’d already begun writing his first major prose work, Phantastes (1858). Certainly, he’d begun writing it in January. ‘The Shadows’ is thus among MacDonald’s earliest tales.
And it is a Christmas tale—of a sort. In fact, it’s difficult to say what sort of tale it is, since part of it effect is to tear down, interrogate, and restructure notions of tales and tale telling. At the cusp of his career as a storyteller, MacDonald wrote a story calling into questions the coherence of story.
‘The Shadows’ is ostensibly the story of Ralph Rinkelmann, who ‘made his living by comic sketches, and all but lost it again by tragic poems. So he was just the man to be chosen king of the fairies, for in Fairyland the sovereignty is elective’ (MacDonald, 97). With mock-historical solemnity, MacDonald relates the chaos, the neglect of pomp, and strange lack of circumstance surrounding Rinkelmann’s coronation.
In keeping with Scottish tradition, ‘it is only between life and death that the fairies have power over grown-up mortals,’ so Rinkelmann can only be crowned when he is half-dead with fever (98). But crowned he is, and even manages to quell and command the respect of his subjects. Throughout the rest of the tale, however, he carries himself with an air of exhaustion. He is hovering between life and death, between sleep and waking, between fancy and fact. Although he is the alleged protagonist, his role is apparently passive; he observes and asks questions, but does not overtly act.
After the chaos of his coronation, he awakes to find his room filled with Shadows. They are his subjects, inhabitants of Fairyland but not Fairies. MacDonald describes them as ‘mad, grotesque hippopotamus calves’—a description he later seems to contradict (99). They are, in fact, a sort of shape shifter, with ‘insane lawlessness of form,’ and ‘apparently aimless and wilful contortions of figure, and metamorphoses of shape’; nevertheless, ‘they retained [...] all the time, to the surprise of the king, an identity, each of his own type, inexplicably perceptible through every change. Indeed, this preservation of the primary idea of each form was more wonderful than the bewildering and ridiculous alternation to which the form itself was every moment subjected’ (108).
They repeat their self-identification several times: ‘We are the Shadows’ (108, 109). But they are not mere grotesqueries; there is a meaning, a ‘primary idea,’ behind each seemingly haphazard distortion, behind every fracturing of form. The take themselves with the utmost seriousness: ‘And when we do jest, sire, we always jest in earnest’ (101). They are ‘Shadows of men, and women, and their children,’ but ‘do not belong to the sunshine at all’ (108, 109). They belong instead ‘in the twilight of the fire, or when one man or woman is alone with a single candle, or when any number of people are all feeling the same thing at once, making them one’; it is then ‘that we show ourselves, and the truth of things’ (109).
The Shadows are storytellers. They tell stories not only to those few who see them, but to each other. They use their grotesquery and earnest jesting to expose human folly and irrationality, and then meet together at the Church of Shadows to tell their stories to each other.
They have appeared before Ralph Rinkelmann to petition the King of Fairyland for his aid: ‘our very existence is in danger. The various sorts of artificial light, both in houses and in men, women, and children, threaten to end our being’ (110). They are being driven out by gaslight and electricity, and by the growing lack of perception and imaginative sensitivity of the people who live there. That they are, somehow, necessary is difficult even for the King of Fairyland to grasp; the Shadows do not fit easily into even the cosmologies of poets and artists. The following exchange is the thematic centre of the tale:
“We therefore petition our king, by the power of his art to restore us to our rights in the house itself, and in the hearts of its inhabitants.”
“But,” said the king, “you frighten the children.”
“Very seldom, your majesty; and then only for their good. We seldom seek to frighten anybody. We mostly want to make people silent and thoughtful; to awe them a little, your majesty.”
“You are much more likely to make them laugh,” said the king.
“Are we?” said the Shadow.
And approaching the king one step, he stood quite still for a moment. They diamond of the king’s sceptre shot out a vivid flame of violet light, and the king stared at the Shadow in silence, and his lip quivered. He never told what he saw them; but he would say:
“Just fancy what it might be if some flitting thoughts were to persist in staying to be looked at.”
The Shadows invite the king to the Church of Shadows to hear their stories. Over the course of two nights, Rinkelmann visits the Church of Shadows and hears no less than fourteen stories, two songs, and a sermon. These embedded narratives form the bulk of the story. The stories range from humorous incidents, like the story of the vain clergyman who prepared his sermons ‘in the looking-glass,’ to elaborate Victorian set-pieces, like the domestic drama about the kindly but curmudgeonly old man who doesn’t want his ward to marry a dashing young sailor.
They are stories of transformation and redemption, the spiritual world challenging the mundane, of story and wonder breaking through the occluding complacency. For through all the stories dance the weird and unsettling ministrations of the Shadows. They are telling the tales, true, but they are tales they have already shaped and written; the narratives and changed and accented through the presence of the shadows, sorrowful beneath their gaiety, hilarious despite their sorrow.
And once they tell their tales, they forget. They do not even remember each other from one day to the next. The author and the tale are both erased at the moment of the telling. The narrative shifts, constantly changing and never retained, like the Shadows themselves. It is never entirely clear who is telling the tale itself—this strange, disjointed tale with so many other tales in.
The purpose of the king’s visit is, as noted, that he might save the Shadows by the power of his art. But, remember, his art is that of an unsuccessful tragedian and successful humorist. In other words, the Shadows want him to save them through his poems and stories—through his improbable mingling of hilarity and tragedy. They want Rinkelmann to write tales that reinstate their horror and beauty and weirdness in the hearts of those who hear, stories that, through their absurdity and terror, render the world beautiful again.
MacDonald never reveals if this is what happens. The story ends with Rinkelmann waking on Christmas Eve, to see the Shadow of the Christ Child on his wall, and to realise that it is being cast by one of his own children. Through his recognises the presence of the sacred in the ordinary—more correctly, he realises through his encounter with the Shadows that nothing is ordinary—everything is tragic and beautiful and sacred and weird. ‘And,’ MacDonald tells us, ‘Ralph Rinkelmann rejoiced that he was a man, and not a Shadow’ (139). The shifting, fleeting stories of the Shadows have illumined and transformed his own.
Might the Shadows, in fact, be fairy tales? Thought to be too terrible for children, too uncouth for civilised life and society, strange and unsettling, meant to interrogate the way people behave? Are they, instead, mortality and sorrow, the fear of unknowing, the subconscious or dream-conscious erupting into the mundane to distort and thus reveal? Are they a third thing? Are they all of the above?
The Shadows defy easy explanation, and so does the story that bears their name. What we are sure of is that these dark, flitting thoughts make stories less easy to tell, make morals less easy to draw, make happy endings harder to understand.
So this is MacDonald’s Christmas story, or one of them: the eruption of the incomprehensible into fragile shell of mortality, the intrusion of chaos into the order of Christmas. The Shadows, ultimately, represent an overturning of the order of the world, an otherworldly intrusion that shatters previous conceptions and challenges easy answers, a confrontation of the world with its wickedness and with the hope of redemption.
Which really does seem to make it a Christmas story, after all.
There’s so much more in this story that I’ve not even looked at. So, what do you see? What interests or puzzles you? What strikes you or bores you? What are the Shadows? And who is the teller of the tale?
Questions, comments, and corrections always welcome.
*All the stories in the example, in fact, were told by MacDonald. (Except for the one with dragons. Sorry.)
MacDonald, George. The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales. 1890. Whitehorn, CA: Johannesen, 1997.
MacDonald, Greville. George MacDonald and His Wife. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1924.