Online Conversation | The Golden Key with Jerry Root
We are releasing our exclusive conversation between Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder and Dr. Jerry Root from The Rabbit Room’s 2021 “Hutchmoot Homebound” conference. Root gives a beautiful defense of the imagination that edifies our need to explore fantasy, fiction, and beauty as spiritual beings. G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis were all profoundly influenced by the Scottish preacher and storyteller George MacDonald; in fact, Lewis claimed that MacDonald’s stories had “baptized” his imagination. “The Golden Key” tells of the boy Mossy who finds a golden key at the edge of a forest and sets out to discover its lock. He is soon in his quest by a young girl named Tangle. As they search for the lock, they open their own capacity for wonder and beauty, even as they long for a country never seen.
Find the Trinity Forum Reading of George Macdonald’s “The Golden Key” here: https://www.ttf.org/product/the-golde…
We think you’ll find this enchanting tale both evocative and even numinous – perhaps baptizing your own imagination of the beautiful and transcendent.
Online Conversation | Jerry Root | November 19, 2021
Cherie Harder: Welcome, I’m Cherie Harder, the president of the Trinity Forum, and welcome to a special online conversation that we’re holding in cooperation with Trinity Forum and the Rabbit Room. We have so enjoyed partnering with the Rabbit Room on a number of different online conversations on all manner of topics: poetry, words, creativity, arts, beauty and the imagination, and we appreciate their gracious invitation to host this special one for Hutchmoot members and members of the Trinity Forum Society today.
One of the many gifts that should have been in your moot-kit was a gift of great literature, a copy of George MacDonald’s fairy tale “The Golden Key.” We hope you that you will enjoy this gift, and we also hope that you will read it, ponder it, savor it, and discuss it. It’s an unusual work, a fairy tale of sorts, that may perhaps seem a bit foreign to a modern sensibility, and I hope that our conversation today will serve both to pique your curiosity, but also orient a new reader towards more enjoyable discovery.
“The Golden Key,” the Trinity Forum Reading that you received, is brilliantly introduced by Wheaton College professor, prolific author and lecturer, and C.S. Lewis expert Jerry Root, whom I’m delighted to talk with today. Just a few things to share with you about Jerry. He’s currently the professor emeritus of evangelism at Wheaton College, where he has been on the faculty for, I believe, over 25 years. He’s lectured on C.S. Lewis at last count at least 78 different universities in 18 different countries and written quite a few books on Lewis, including C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil, Dymer: Splendor in the Dark, The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis, and The Neglected C. S. Lewis with Mark Neal and others. And I’m so glad to be able to welcome him here today to discuss “The Golden Key” with us.
Jerry, great to see you.
Jerry Root: Thank you, Cherie. It’s great to be with you.
Cherie Harder: Well, I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation, and it’s really kind of remarkable—G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, Auden, C. S. Lewis, also Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie, Oswald Chambers, Madeleine L’Engle and so many others, all claim to be hugely influenced by George MacDonald. And yet not many of us actually know who he is. So who was George MacDonald? We’ll just start there. And why did he have such an outsized influence on so many literary luminaries?
Jerry Root: He was born in Scotland, in Huntley, Scotland. He grew up in a very strict Calvinist home. He would later go to school, and he prepared for ministry as a Congregationalist. He had difficulty in his church because he had a very universalist position, but it was not like you’d see universalism today. He felt eventually hell would be emptied, but nobody would leave hell unless they had bowed the knee to Christ and confess with the tongue that Christ was Lord, even if it took a million years of somebody being in hell. Well, that view did not put him in a good position with the Congregationalists at the church he pastored, so they cut his salary in half. He had 11 children, and he was trying to make ends meet, and it was difficult. And so eventually he ends up leaving the church, but after they kind of pushed him out. And so he’s got to make it. So he’s preaching, he’s lecturing, he’s writing books. And Lady Byron, Lord Byron’s widow, heard about him and became his patron and helped him through this difficult time. Well, then he’s eventually asked to come and do a lectureship in America, and he comes to America out of the popularity of his books in America, and due to copyright laws, he didn’t get any royalties from any of the books that were published in America. They were stolen. But he ends up, while he’s here, becoming a friend with Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Mark Twain and he enjoyed a correspondence throughout the rest of MacDonald’s life.
But while he was in America, also, he preached several times. The greatest lecture on preaching is by Phillips Brooks, who pastored Holy Trinity just outside of Boston’s Harvard University. And when Brooks defined preaching, he said preaching was “truth mediated through personality,” in his lectures on preaching. Virtually every preacher knows that definition. But if you read it in the context, he says, the one person that he saw do it so well was George MacDonald. And I think this is a hint to why he was so influential. He had a first-rate mind. He had a big heart. He had a great faith. And he had a tenderness about him that had a severity to it, but a positive severity that expected that people would be nurtured and grow. And I think there was a God-like quality to him. And I think people were attracted to him. He was able to balance truth and love. And, like you say, he influenced many. Lewis, of course. The way most people get to MacDonald today is through C. S. Lewis. Lewis said he was the greatest of his unofficial teachers and he never wrote a book where he didn’t at least quote a thought from MacDonald. It’s interesting.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. I read once that C. S. Lewis had actually said that George MacDonald “baptized his imagination,” which is such an interesting phrase. And, you know, I think it was Chesterton who called The Princess and the Goblin a book that had made a difference for his entire existence. How do you think that MacDonald’s writings baptized Lewis’s imagination? Why did they have such an impact on his sense of wonder and his literary vision?
Jerry Root: Well, Lewis says that in Surprised by Joy. And he says it after he had read Phantastes, this fairy romance, and he bought it while he was in Surrey, studying under William T. Kirkpatrick. And he writes to his good friend in Belfast, his very close friend Arthur Greaves, and he says, “Whatever you’re reading now, put it aside and go buy Phantastes by George MacDonald.” And he says, in that context, his imagination was baptized. But he tells him, particularly the story of Anados—the Greek word anados would mean “no way”; hodos is the Greek word for “way.” Jesus says, “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. He says hodos. So it’s a man without a way who has to find his pilgrimage. Lewis was a guy without a way who was trying to find his pilgrimage. He knew Greek. He knew what hodos meant. And Anados finds himself on this pilgrimage, and he’s guided. And where’s this thing going to lead? He comes to a manor house and he reads a story of Cosmo. It’s a story within the story, and Lewis says that story awakened in him a sense of longing. That story, Chapter 13 of Phantastes, is the best story I’ve ever read. And Lewis said it awakened his imagination.
So I think part of it is the pilgrimage feature. But also, Lewis said he grew up in a home piled with books, but he never saw beauty, never read a story he thought was worthy of being read. You know, he was sort of bored in this house. And then his brother brought in a toy garden on the lid of a biscuit tin, and he said what all the real gardens failed to do to him, that garden did, and it awakened in him a sense of beauty and, with that beauty, longing. Well, that leads Lewis then to start reading Norse mythology, fairy stories, and so on. But when he gets to MacDonald, there was a quality that came through in that story. And I think for Lewis, it started to feed the longing that had awakened way back when he saw this biscuit-tin garden. And I don’t know where you’re at theologically, but usually before there’s going to be repentance and confession of sin and all this sort of thing, there has to be regeneration. God needs to be wooing us. And I think Lewis’s gestation period before he was born again was about a 30-year gestation period. And MacDonald started speaking words that started to bring ideas into crystallization, and he begins to see and understand.
That’s why I think this is going on with Lewis. Lewis actually does an anthology of George MacDonald, and of course, George MacDonald, interestingly enough, when Lewis writes The Great Divorce—it’s sort of his satirical Divine Comedy—well, just as Virgil was the guy that was the guide for Dante through the first half, through all of hell and through half of purgatorio until Beatrice comes out to intercept him, George MacDonald is Lewis’s Virgil, guiding him in the pilgrimage to the place where he would have the vision of God. It’s very interesting, I think.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating.
Jerry Root: That helpful?
Cherie Harder: Oh, absolutely. So if George MacDonald is essentially kind of igniting and baptizing the imagination of such luminaries as Lewis and Chesterton and Berrie and Lewis Carroll and whatnot, how did George MacDonald’s own imagination become so developed?
Jerry Root: Well, he was a man of deep faith, and I’m confident that a lot of it came from his own commitment to scripture and so on. But he was also deeply influenced by the German romantic authors and the English romantic authors, particularly Novalis, I think. There’s a concept in romantic literature from that period, late 1700s, early 1800s, of the blue flower, the flower blume. And the blue flower is always seen as something off in the distance. And you can’t quite get to it. It’s like a mirage flower. And when you get there, it seems to disappear. But it represents the idea of longing for something that is never quite fully articulated and so on. And it has a little bit of a sounding in it or resemblance to the quest for the lock that would fit the golden key. And you can see a little bit of that influence, even in this particular book. So I think that those were the things that triggered MacDonald’s imagination, but also, I think, he was a deeply imaginative man. I think it was in his DNA, if that’s permissible to say.
Cherie Harder: Oh, absolutely. You know, in some ways, it makes one wonder why so few of us have read or really even heard of George MacDonald now.
Jerry Root: Well, it’s not only why we haven’t read him, but why he intrigues us so much. Lewis and Tolkien, when they would write about fairy stories, said that one element of fairy story was the element of escape, not the concept of escapist, like trying to leave the troubles of our world and escape into this world as sort of a running away. Tolkien and Lewis both talk about the fact that you don’t want to confuse the escape of the deserter from the escape of the prisoner. Tolkien even says you can’t fault the prisoner if he wants to think of things other than bars on windows and stone walls. And we live in a world where we need to be reminded that this world is not all there is. And in the materialist encroachment and imprisoning of people, it’s amazing to me how shortsighted we could be, and I mean shortsighted in the real sense; we need the long view.
I’ll give you an example. I was teaching a Lewis course at Wheaton College and I had this young woman in the class who told me that her best friend was coming from one of the Ivy League schools to visit her. They’d been best friends since kindergarten, and she wanted to know if she brought her to class if I would talk with her about spiritual things because her friend was an atheist and a materialist. So I said, “Sure.” They came to class and afterwards I met her. This woman was delightful. She was a great person. I said, “Where do you go?” And she told me one of the Ivy League schools. I don’t want to say the names. I don’t want to embarrass anybody from there. And so I said, “Well, what are you studying there?” She said, “Biochemistry.” I say, “Wow, it’s a challenging major. You go to an Ivy League school, you’re studying a tough subject. You must be brighter than I first imagined.” And then I said, “Well, in the midst this class, we talked about spiritual things. What do you think about that?” She says, “Well, frankly, as a biochemist—” And I thought that was a little premature since she was only a sophomore, but nevertheless, she says, “As a biochemist, I live by the principle if I can’t perceive it empirically, I just will not believe it.” I said, “That’s a principle you believe in, if you can’t perceive something empirically, you won’t believe it?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, would you please set forth that principle empirically for me?” And she got it. She saw the total incongruity and inconsistency within her own principal, and she freaked out.
And I said, “Now don’t get me wrong. I love the sciences, but like Polkinghorne said, the physicist who was at Cambridge University, said, “If you ask a scientist, why is the kettle boiling? The scientist will tell you, well, it’s boiling because heat from the burner is agitating the molecules in the water, and it’s boiling at one hundred degrees centigrade, and it’ll do that constantly at sea level.” He said, “But that’s one answer that could be given. But the other answer you could give is it’s boiling because I wanted a cup of tea and would you want one too? And by a mere quantification, you could never get to the second answer.” Martin [inaudible] the philosopher once said, “In four generations, we’ve gone from saying ‘that which is measurable is that which is important for science’ to saying ‘that which is measurable is the only thing that’s important.'”
- S. Lewis said, “We need spells to break spells” and to break things so that we can see greater clarity, as well as things that are cast that maybe keep us confined. And MacDonald is a person who cast spells, who breaks us out of our materialism and awakens in us a sense of wonder and longing that breaks us out of this confinement of our modern time.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned several times in the introduction the ways that fairy tales can “break a spell” of materialism. And I would like to ask you more just about how they do that. Is it the imaginative capacity itself? Is it a sense of showing us or leading us to a place where we can apprehend that which is not measured? What is the power of the fairy tale to break the spell of materialism?
Jerry Root: Well, I think it’s all of that, Cherie. And again, Tolkien and Lewis talk about, in fantasy, the awakening of desire; they awaken in us a desire. Even in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis says if I find in myself a desire that nothing in this earth can satisfy, it doesn’t mean this world is a crock. But it means maybe it was to awaken desire, and I find the solution or the object of my desire elsewhere. And I think the fairy story can do that. And in the fantasy, the concept of awakening desire is really important. But Lewis and Tolkien will talk about the concept of myth. Mythos simply in Greek means story, but it’s a story that awakens me into something further away. Even when we read the fairy stories, we start, right, “Once upon a time”? So there’s a world that’s already functioning apart from our world. And it ends, “And they lived happily ever after.” It continues to go on apart from our world. The story has this embedded. Even, Lewis says, if you read a child a story, and at the end of the reading, they say, “Could you read it again?”—they know the twists and turns of the plot. They know how it ends. And Lewis says he thinks it’s because they long for the world of the story, which touches them at the place where they long for the only other world they could ever really know, which is heaven.
So Lewis talks about this making of myths, this making of stories that can awaken this kind of desire in us. And he uses the word mythopia. So poeio is a Greek word for “to do” or “to make.” We get the word poem from that word. So it’s story-making, but it’s story-making with the idea of not trying to tell a person what that world is like, but to give them the flavor of that world, or at least give them the flavor and the aroma of something beyond what they’ve experienced, and it sets their heart questing. Even—the word definition means “of the finite.” We define a thing by its limitation and its function. How do you define God? How do you define the things of God? He breaks the mold. Even Jesus, when he tells about the Kingdom of Heaven, he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” He’s appealing to your imagination. He’s appealing to something that’s beyond mere tight definition. And MacDonald’s stories do that, and I think that that becomes significant. And I think Tolkien and Lewis loved it. They said they like to write the kind of stories that they like to read. And so I think you see the DNA coming from MacDonald to Tolkien and Lewis.
Cherie Harder: Oh, you definitely see it. I’m thinking of Eustace. Eustace Clarence Scrubb. And one of the ways, besides his name, that we know right away that Eustace Clarence Scrubb has growing up to do is Lewis tells us that he was the kind of boy who’d only read about imports, exports, and plumbing drains and had never read any fairy stories. So he didn’t know what to do when a dragon appeared. It seems like something borrowed just from George MacDonald. But many of us have read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Not many of us have read “The Golden Key.” So as we kind of start out, I’d love for you just to kind of summarize this fairly unusual little fairy tale and would also just love to get your thoughts in that it has an unusual ending. It’s not a tidy—you know, there’s not necessarily a sense of poetic justice where all conflicts are resolved. It strikes some readers as an unusual ending. So maybe you could just walk us through sort of the plot and why MacDonald chose the ending that he did.
Jerry Root: It’s not an allegory, so we have to get that off the table. It’s a myth. It’s a kind of myth, or it’s certainly a fairy story, too; it would qualify. But there’s a boy named Mossy. And he goes to his great-aunt’s house, and she tells him a story that in Fairyland—and she lives on the border of Fairyland—if you find a rainbow and you dig, you don’t, like in Ireland, find a pot of gold that the leprechauns are protecting, instead, you find a golden key. And he says, “What’s the golden key to?” And in fact, he’s in Fairyland and he sees a rainbow and he digs up a golden key and he goes and he says, “What’s it to?” And he finds himself on a quest to find the lock that will satisfy the golden key, a lock that will fit it. And I think MacDonald is definitely talking about something that’s true for all of us. Each of us at some level has a golden key in our soul, and we’re looking for the lock. We are looking for the thing that it will open. In the midst of the story, there are several other little things that cause this girl, Tangle, to come on the scene. And Tangle then joins Mossy in the quest to find the golden [lock].
Now I have to say something about Tangle, though. She’s a girl whose mother has died. Her father, concerned to support her, is always busy at work, and the governesses who are supposed to take care of her don’t take care of her, and she just seems to be lost. And she was nicknamed Tangle because her hair’s never done right. It’s always in a tangle. And she comes to this woman’s home, and the woman is beautiful but old, but very beautiful. Looks younger than she is. She asks her, “How old are you?” She says, “I’m thousands of years old.” But when Tangle comes into the room, the woman says to her, “I’ve been waiting for you. You were expected.” So here’s Tangle, who nobody has really time for her: father, mother’s gone, the governesses. But here she comes into a place where she’s expected. She matters.
It’s interesting to me that this idea of the young girl who matters is big in a lot of George MacDonald’s work. There’s The Princess and Curdie, the original edition. Most of the Christian elements were edited out of later editions. Go to the Wade Center at Wheaton College. Look at the original in Good Words for the Young. Here’s how it begins: Two voices, the narrator and an interrupter.
“There once was a little girl who was a princess.”
“Oh, but Mr. Author, why do you always write about princesses?”
“Well, because every little girl is a princess.”
“You’ll make them vain if you tell them that.”
“Not if they understand what I mean.”
“Well, what do you mean by a princess, then?”
“What do you mean by a princess?”
“Well, I mean the daughter of a king.”
“Very well, then. Every little girl is a princess. And that’s why she needs to have stories told about her because she’s often in trouble of forgetting her rank and acting as if she grew up out of the mud.”
And here’s Tangle, who comes into the situation, who needs to find out her princess quality. And this starts to come through in the book.
So they go on this journey, and they have to go to the Old Man of the Sea. When they get to the Old Man of the Sea, he looks very, very old. But later, when they encounter him, he doesn’t look so old. And one of the things you begin to find here is that the grandmotherly woman that Tangle finds, she looks young, but she’s really old. And here’s the Old Man of the Sea. We find out he’s not quite the same age, and then he sends them off to the Old Man of the Earth who looks middle aged, but he’s even older than the Old Man of the Sea. He sends them off to the Old Man of the Fire, all in the quest to find the lock for the key. And the Old Man of the Fire is a child, but he’s the oldest of all. And MacDonald is trying to show the kinds of things that Lewis certainly does with issues of age. What time are you in when you’re in Narnia? Narnian time isn’t like our time. And in stories, it’s often this way too.
I think they’re all deeply influenced by Boethius who Lewis says in his Discarded Image that Boethius was the most influential author of medieval literature after the Bible, and his chapter five of the Consolation of Philosophy answers the problem of foreknowledge and freewill with such simplicity that we say to ourselves when we read it, why did we ever struggle with that? But we don’t read these old books, so there you go. But God is omni-temporal. All moments are in his time. And our past is still in his present; our future is already in his present. And consequently, this idea of time and age being different than what we’re used to is, I think, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, even Chesterton to a degree, trying to show us that there’s a world out there beyond this world that is not bordered by time. It transcends time. It’s eternal. And he awakens in us a hunger and desire for that.
Well, eventually they find the rainbow. Should I finish this? Is this a spoiler alert? Should I tell people?
Cherie Harder: Oh, go ahead.
Jerry Root: All right. So eventually they end up, through the Old Man of the Fire, they end up in this room, a moss-filled room, and there’s a rainbow. And they go to the rainbow and the rainbow has pedestals, and there’s one color on the rainbow that isn’t necessarily visible in our world. And they go to it and find that the key fits the rainbow. Well, when Mossy first finds the key, the old woman, his old aunt, tells him, “Maybe the key is the rainbow’s egg.” I love that term. The rainbow’s egg. Well, he finds out the key actually unlocks this one color in the rainbow, and they take that back out of our world and into the next world. And it’s very wonderful. There’s a great passage, you know, where the Old Man of the Fire says, “You’ve tasted of death now,” said the old man. “Is it good?” “Is it good?” said Mossy. “It’s better than life.” “No,” said the old man. “It’s only more life.” It’s only more life. And I can’t help but think a child reads this and it strengthens their courage that whatever is up ahead in their life, whenever it comes, or when their grandparents die or their parents die or something like that, there’s more. There’s more still to come.
Cherie Harder: So just to ask you about a few things, one of the things that sort of strikes the reader is that MacDonald not only depicts the older characters as looking younger—it’s almost like the older they get, the younger they look—but also the older they get, the more beautiful they look. What is MacDonald doing with not just sort of like the redeeming of age but the accompaniment of beauty with it?
Jerry Root: I’m not exactly sure, Cherie, but I know this: The quest to find the lock for the key is matched by the desire to find the land from which the shadows fall. So the land from which the shadows fall is the land of light. And consequently, we see, from the light you can see the shadows that are cast, but also if we can move into the light, the shadows are removed. There are no shadows in the world where the light is. And we begin to see things as they really are. So who is there that lives in this world, that has ever been created by God, who is not beautiful? The weakness is not with their lack of beauty; the weakness is with our lack of perception. And the closer we get to the light—and the Old Man of the Sea, the Old Man of the Earth, the Old Man of the Fire, these are people who are aware of the way to the land where the shadow falls. So I think it’s to see things as they really are. Now, certainly, I think there’s an objectivity to beauty. I think Lewis writes about this, too, especially in the Reflections on the Psalms. But I do think that—you think of the lines that have been assigned to you.
I grew up poor. I lived in south central Los Angeles. I had to earn my own way through school and stuff like that. And I go to college and I think, “OK, this is tough.” You know, I got to work all these jobs to stay in school and stuff. And there was one of the auto manufacturers’ sons who came to my college the next year after I got there. Came with the hottest car of that company. Every year he got a new car. When he turned twenty-one, 29 million dollars was deposited in his bank account that day. And I go, “Wow, that guy’s got it made.” But then I watched him and everybody glammed onto him, expecting him to pick up the tab, expecting him to do this, expecting him to do that. And I go, “How does he know if a person is hanging around because they want to be with him or because they really like him?” And I realized he’s got his challenges, too. Everybody’s got their lines drawn to them, and the liabilities that we think have been given to us are maybe places where God’s trying to extract from us a particular kind of character that he couldn’t extract from us any other way. And the benefits that we have been given, maybe those are benefits that we’ve been given because he wants us to use them as gifts, not for self, but to serve others. And all of a sudden, we begin to see, from the land where the shadows fall, we begin to see the light of God’s purposes in all of these things and the liabilities then become assets as well as the gifts. I think that that’s part of it.
Cherie Harder: Now you said earlier that this is not an allegory. So taking that in mind, I still wanted to ask, are there any illusions that the reader should be aware of to help guide their reading? You know, for example, you mentioned the character Mossy is in a moss-filled room. That doesn’t seem coincidental. The land where shadows fall, I mean, is obviously a land full of light, but by naming the shadows rather than the light, that seems to evoke a different way of thinking about it. Are there any kind of literary or just, you know, kind of scholarly guide to some of these illusions or scenarios that might help make this a little bit more explicable for the reader?
Jerry Root: I don’t think you want to allegorize it, for sure, because then you end up dissecting it to the degree that you lose the mythological creating of a flavor or an aroma of that other world. But the light where the shadow falls, it’s repeated so many times in that book. I counted them up. I think the word “shadow” itself is used twenty-five times, and the quest for “the land where the shadow falls” is used eight times. So I do think that that image awakens in us that even this world, which Lewis often referred to as the shadowlands, even this world is still touched. Those shadows still come from someplace, and they are in some senses still awakening in us a longing and setting for us a path. I don’t know about you, but I’m always intrigued by paintings that have a path on them or paintings of rivers and so on. And in his book English Literature in the 16th Century Excluding Drama, a book nobody reads by Lewis—but I love this book; I’ve read it several times; my copy is falling apart—but he talks about Michael Drayton, this poet. I’d never heard of Drayton before I read Lewis, but I’ve since read Drayton’s ideas and stuff like that, and it’s just fabulous poet. And he says Drayton was always interested in rivers and paths and stars, things that are out there that drive us or draw us deeper in. And I think that concept, even as Lewis used, “further up and further in.” And this story is a “further up and further in” story. There’s more.
And I’ve often thought about this, too: the Old Man of the Sea. With each of these people that they meet who are old but appear younger, there seems to be in them a natural curiosity. They haven’t lost the childlike wonder. Remember that story G. K. Chesterton told? It’s called “Tremendous Trifles.” He tells this big story and he says, “Maybe you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I have to remind you, molehills are mountains if one was only small enough to see them as such.” And then he says, “The world will never starve for want of wonders, only for want of wonder.” And this story awakens in us wonder. It feeds it. If wonder is already awakened in us, it feeds us and it throws logs on the fire. And so I don’t know if that answers your question, but that would be the way I would take it.
Cherie Harder: Well, it’s a great answer to the question. Let me ask you kind of about reading writ large, in that, you know, there are all sorts of studies that have shown that reading literature is in decline. Reading among boys in particular is in decline. Reading for pleasure is in decline. There’s a gendered aspect to it. Boys are less likely to read literature than girls are. And, you know, just in conversation with different men I’ve respected and really known, sometimes there’s almost an impatience with fiction. And so one question I had for you is, what would you say to the busy executive who says he does not have time for fiction? Why should leaders read fairy tales?
Jerry Root: I would say if he doesn’t have time for it, he’s bereft. It’s as nonsensical as saying, “I don’t have time to eat. I don’t have time to breathe. I don’t have time to bathe.” If in fact we are spiritual people, it seems to me we need to feed that spiritual side of us. And this kind of literature does, to some degree. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read theology, but I think that good theology, as Jesus modeled, is filled with story. You know, the people have eyes to see, but they cannot see; they have ears to hear, but they cannot hear. And he says to them, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” And he’s trying to awaken in them and break them out of their coarse materialism and help them see the transcendent, in all the ways that we can, which is going to have to be as much with the imaginative eye, maybe more so than with the actual visual eye.
But this idea is all about why don’t boys particularly, right? Well, I’m an embodiment of that. I didn’t go to college to study. My academic interest was to stay eligible. And you have to take it by faith, but I was an athlete back then and my bare minimum academic interest was to make sure I was on the football team that next season. And in the midst of it, my sister, who was teaching fifth grade, told me the story. I was a brand new Christian. I did read through the Bible already by that time. She told me the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I go, “Come on, there are stories like this?” I went and bought a set, read through them. I go, “This is fascinating.” I bought Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, the second book, and it was a book that talked about his longing and the quest to find the object of longing. I knew the longing, but I never had an author give me a vocabulary for my soul like Lewis had done. Well, the thing about Lewis that’s interesting—and with MacDonald and with Tolkien and so on—they open more than wardrobe doors. And you read the authors they refer to, and all of a sudden you start seeing there are all kinds of people who have written about this longing and this desire. And once you get caught up into that world and you’re reading these things, the wonder, the awe, the way it feeds your soul and so on, it’s fascinating. It becomes almost a liberal arts education, too. You can’t read Lewis without wanting to read Plato and Homer and Aristotle. You want to read Augustine, Anselm, Boethius. You’re going to want to read Dante and Milton and Chaucer and all these authors.
I was a P.E. major in college, and you’d never believe I loved The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. You know, I’m a goofball. When my college buddies, football buddies, saw me reading Philip Sydney’s In Praise of Posey, they thought I had lost my mind. But I love that book! You know, it’s this book on literary criticism and poetry. It’s fabulous. So anyway, I think that it’s because people aren’t exposed to it. And I think—I forget who it was—maybe it was Evelyn Underhill, it might have been Dorothy Sayers, who said “good teaching is one person loving something publicly.” And I can’t help but think one of the reasons why kids aren’t catching the wonder is they’re not in classrooms full of teachers who are loving something publicly. Lewis is a great communicator because he stands shoulder to shoulder with his audience, and he describes something so well that we get caught up in the wonder of that thing. And we want to go further up and further in.
So there’s a lot of reasons for the tragedy. I have noticed those students. I’ve lectured at a lot of different colleges and so on, and I’ve noticed over the last twenty-five years, say, the level of student work has dropped dramatically. I don’t think the level of their intelligence has dropped at all; they’re really bright students, but they’re so distracted. You know, I know you’ve had Alan Jacobs on some of your things before, and he wrote that book Reading in an Age of Distraction. Somehow we’ve got to— If we can’t do it by— We just need to encourage people to turn off their social media for a while, to turn off their phones and to start small. I don’t care. Start with Amelia Bedelia and then go from there to something bigger. Lewis Carroll. You mentioned Lewis Carroll, by the way, in George MacDonald. George MacDonald was the one who encouraged Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland. And all the pictures of George MacDonald’s family when his kids were young, they were all taken by Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson. But start small, start with “The Golden Key.” It’s not very long. And then from there, it’s like a weightlifter going into the weight room. You don’t throw 400 pounds on the bar. You go in and you start with 25 pounds. Next time, 35. Next time, 50. Next time, 100, and so on. And I think you build girth, and it’s a girth, not just of mind, but a girth of wonder and awe and a hunger for the transcendent. Is that fair?
Cherie Harder: That’s more than fair. Jerry, we could talk for a long time. It’s really been a pleasure to chat with you, and I want to give you the last word in just a moment. But before that, I just want to thank our friends at Hutchmoot once again for the invitation to do this special online conversation with their members and Trinity Forum society members, and I just encourage you to pick up “The Golden Key,” George MacDonald’s wonderful fairy tale with an introduction by Jerry Root. You can find those on our website at www.ttf.org, as well as some of the other online conversations that Jerry has mentioned in the course of our conversation are all there on our website. Thanks again to Hutchmoot, and, Jerry, the last word is yours.
Jerry Root: Well, just to give you a flavor of MacDonald as we close out: I struggled when I did my PhD. And I finished it up, I did my doctorate, over in England, and it was just a rough ten years. I did it part-time while I was working full-time; I had a family and so on. When it was over, I just was heavy-hearted. And I went with two other friends, and we went into London and we decided to go to bookstores and look for some books. And we walked into this one bookstore. My one friend said, “Do you have any C. S. Lewis?” Well, that means I can’t buy a Lewis because he’s already asked for it. The other friend says, “Do you have any Tolkien?” I can’t buy Tolkien. So I said, almost by default, “Do you have any George MacDonald?” And the guy said, “Yeah, I have this one MacDonald book, second edition of Diary of an Old Soul, signed by MacDonald and autographed to his sister-in-law, who had been going through a hard time with one of her kids, and it has an unpublished poem in it.” I said, “Let me see that.”
Here was the poem. I bought the book. It was 450 pounds, which was way beyond what I should have spent, and I donated it to the Wade Center. The Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College has the biggest collection of these authors in the world, and you can go there and see it if you want for yourself. But I memorized the poem. And it’s to his sister-in-law who was struggling.
Go not forth to call thy sorrow
From the dim fields of tomorrow.
Let her roam there all unheeded;
She’ll come when she is needed.
But when she arrives at my door,
She will find God there before.
Unpublished poem, George MacDonald, and this is probably the first time that poem has ever been made widely public, here at your Trinity Forum discussion of “The Golden Key.”
Cherie Harder: Jerry, that was fabulous. Thank you so much. It’s been great to talk with you.
Jerry Root: Thank you, Cherie.
Cherie Harder: Thank you for joining us.