Thursday, August 19, 2010

Grandmaster G-Mac - Write back atcha

This is my review of George MacDonald's "A Letter to American Boys" written in 1878.

I've tried a few times to prod some folks into a discussion of George MacDonald's "A Letter to American Boys". I haven't run across anyone who has read the letter yet. G-Mac is a master story teller and wrote MANY stories so it's no surprise. He also wrote in the late 1800's and a small snippet isn't as likely to survive as his other tales. He was especially skilled in the fairy tale and fantasy genre. I do have to toss in that I was especially moved by Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood although it was fiction not fantasy. "Letter.." is fairly short and includes a parable pushing it into more of the fantasy genre. Parables are great word riddles for illustrating a point. It's easy to cheat and read the answer on the parables of Jesus before truly wondering about the meaning; probably too easy. No such luck with G-Mac. My wife may soon call me out on this by providing insight of her own. So here's my thoughts before they get shaped by the views of others. Of course there may be some interpretation that screams of being true and I may have missed it. I'd be happy to read it. That's the point of discussion.

WARNING: my review is full of spoilers - you've had you're whole life to read it (assuming you're less than 132 years old). So read it now before scrolling too far (6-ish pages or 15 minutes).

Letter to American Boys - text

Or the audio: (about 1/2 down the list)
Letter to American Boys - audio

Here's my interpretation(s).
Wizard - saves the boy and cares for him for a brief time
Prisoner - character in the boy's dream. imprisoned by his own built chains

The boy is America. Young in age relative to every other character. America is a relatively young country. It's a letter to American boys and the boy is the primary character. No big leap here.

The Wizard is a God or guiding character. I don't think it is any specific country. He's described as being able to impart dreams and visions to people who would listen. Probably more of a trait: freedom, bigger though; a divine freedom.

The tricky part of the letter is that the boy has a dream and now as the reader you're interpreting a dream within a parable. Or is the dream the entire point of the parable?

Mom = England
The ending with the child rebellious to his mother & then reconciliation could point to this view. The boy visits with freedom for a while and then returns home. The weather is stormy and he becomes rebellious towards the mother - "I only want to be left alone". The boy is in misery and the mother returns after she is visited from the wizard. He cleans his room, they reconcile and move forward - "we will go out together." The storm has passed, it is sunny and pleasant. This seems rational with Mother England and the relationship that did develop after the revolution.

What then of the prisoner? It may be a vision of example of oppression or corruption. A prisoner of freedom, he forged his own chains and put them on himself. In being free he can also make poor choices and limit himself. The chains slowly come off as he cleans the area around him and resists being a jailer of smaller animals although in prison himself. A nation shackled with corruption (dirt) and oppression (spider). Set free as it cleans and respects life (bird).

Prisoner = England
Mother = freedom, or lady liberty-ish
The boy in a short time away from home gets a vision of a recognizable person stuck in a self made prison. The prisoner is crying out for it's mother, but the only remaining caretaker is the wizard.
This would serve more as an example parable. The boy should be careful not to lose its relationship with mother (freedom). Learn from the mistakes of the prisoner. Also learn from the success of the prisoner.

I can convince myself of either interpretation - kind of like forcing a checkerboard to be red on black OR black on red (a Chesterton analogy). Whatever the interpretation (and I hope some folks have other ideas) there are excellent pictures painted. MacDonald shows through as a true story teller and weaver of tales.

He also knows how to close a letter:
The Father of all the boys on earth and in heaven be with the boys of America!
and when they grow up, may they and the men of England understand, and love, and help each other! Amen!


  1. I guess I'll wait and read it before reading the rest of your blog. Then I'll work on swaying your opinion. :)

  2. This is sooooo different from how I saw it. I'll have to read it again with your perspective in mind before commenting much.
    I know GMac lived in England for a long time, but would a Scotsman living 100 years after the revolution still be writing about re-unification between England and the US? Feel free to smack that argument down if appropriate; I have 0 knowledge of history.

    My thought was that it was that there was work that God expected of us, and though the curtain was torn in two, people were still in bondage until they were willing to put some effort into being free. This didn't happen to the boy until he returned to his mother, which was after his death? He didn't quite learn the lesson on earth. (Women are often the saviors/ Christ figures in GMac tales, although in this one she seems more like the Spirit.)
    I'm not saying it's good theology, but it seems consistant with what I know of the author.

  3. "It was long years ere the boy understood all the meanings of the vision. I doubt if he understands them all yet."
    Maybe George just made up a story, called it a parable, and then waited for the discussions to begin. I wouldn't put it past him.

  4. I had to do some history, just now actually. (UK & US relations on wiki). The relation was rocky until some unofficial joint action around 1859 where the US was to be neutral and helped the Brit navy. Things went continually smoother from there. To me this points to them going along together is a different relation that has been reconciled.

    Yeah, he might have just made it up and had no point at all.

  5. I saw the mom as Great Britain, since it was typically called the Mother Country. Maybe the dove was the Spirit and the wizard was the Father? Not sure where Jesus would fit in. Hmmmm, I'll have to read it again.