Thursday, September 29 | 2:45-4:30 pm

ART FOR GOOD | Room 210 (Instrumental Hall)

A Call to Arts: George MacDonald’s Philosophy on Creativity
Joy Steem

In a culture often tyrannized by the dehumanizing and isolating impetus to demonstrate worth through materialism, consumption, and frenetic activity, the act of embracing and developing our creative impulse can serve to awaken and nourish our spirituality and sense of interconnection with our world. While much scholarship has been devoted to the baptizing effect George MacDonald has had on the imaginations of his readership, including influential writers such as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, less has been said about his views on how the artistic act itself can work to mature the artist’s understanding of what is of lasting import. MacDonald purports that it is first through developing the imagination, not reason or the intellect, that one is drawn nearer to the creator of beauty and true life. For MacDonald, “a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have.” Moreover, because of MacDonald’s emphasis on the artist as trouver (finder) and communicator of meaning, not original creator or maker of truth, the pure artist grows into a posture of humility and childlike wonder, recognizing the good world that God has made and learning to harmonize with its laws. For MacDonald, artistic endeavours require time to observe beauty, give form to divine truths, and ultimately allow for insertion “joyfully into the world.” In our fractured society, the affirmation of the creative impulse, if embraced, has the power to awaken us to real life.  


Since obtaining her MA in Engl. Lit (Queens), Joy Steem has resided in a tiny but luminous cedar cabin in the forests of B.C. where she enjoys engaging the flourishing intersections of spirituality and culture. Her work has appeared in White Gulls & Wild Birds: Essays on C.S. Lewis Inklings and Friends & Thomas Merton (ed. Ron Dart, St. Macrina Press)Converge MagazineClarion Journal, Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics and Mythlore. She regularly contributes to Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound and Off the Page: a Ministry of Our Daily Bread.

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The “mere stress of glory”: Poetry and the Poet in Charles Williams’ Arthuriad
Laura Van Dyke

Although Charles Williams is today best known either as a friend of C.S. Lewis or as a writer of decidedly unusual novels—or perhaps, increasingly within the Christian community, as a theologian—a recently published biography by Grevel Lindop entitled Charles Williams: The Third Inklingargues persuasively that Williams is best read as a poet, and furthermore as the kind of poet who has something to say about what poetry is and what the poet might offer society. Because Lindop reveals so many new details about Williams’ life and work, the time is right for a reconsideration of what Williams’ theological aesthetics entailed and what we can learn from his idiosyncratic understanding of art and the role of the artist. My paper will take as its primary focus Williams’ Arthuriad—a poetic cycle made up of Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) that most Williams critics agree was the culminating statement of his poetic career—and his portrayal of the poet Taliessin, its central figure. In one pivotal scene in the cycle, Taliessin participates in Arthur’s great battle at Mount Badon by, simply, “mak[ing] verse” (l.26); thus while the conflict on the ground goes on, Taliessin stands above watching, using his “hexameter” (l.43) instead of a sword to achieve Arthur’s victory: “the grand art mastered the thudding hammer of Thor, / and the heard of our lord Taliessin determined the war” (ll.67-8). While many critics have rightly interpreted this poem as Williams’ attempt, as Roma King asserts, to make “a statement about the poet and his function in a Christian society” (42), they have not come to a consensus about what this function is—in part, arguably, because Williams himself vacillated between exulting the poet as a semi-divinized figure, and recognizing the limitations of human language and the poet’s ability to communicate fully his or her vision of reality. However, in spite of his equivocation regarding the status of the poet, Williams nevertheless offers valuable insights into the nature of language, the function of poetry, and the role of the reader, insights that are worth closer consideration and more discussion than they have so far been given. 


Laura Van Dyke is a TWU alum and a current PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests include twentieth-century and contemporary British literature, ecotheory, hermetic philosophy, and the work of the Inklings. 

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MACDONALD + CULTURE | Room 210 (Instrumental Hall)

Literary Legacies, Contextual Art:  Phantastes  s key of cultural challenge and Arthurian reform

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

In Inkling scholarship Phantastes is George MacDonald’s best known work – not on its own merit, but because Lewis claims it ‘baptized his imagination.’ It is also the most frequently ‘started-but-not-completed’ of MacDonald’s texts; many confess to simply not ‘getting’ it. Yet in addition to its own decided literary worth, and the status granted by Lewis to both book and author, Phantastes is significant for being a model of effective cultural engagement and challenge. That it is an enigma to so many in the field is thus problematic. This paper proposes a key.

The methodology that provides the key has been widely scorned in English Literature, although propounded by the very founders of the discipline and by their student MacDonald: biographical and cultural context. In mid-19th century England, MacDonald was a passionate teacher in only the second generation of English Literature professors. When he observed that rising interest in a particular literary myth and related themes in the contemporary pop culture (Arthurian legend, medievalism, chivalry) was dominated by shallow misconceptions, he applied his unusually vast knowledge of Western Literature to challenge the trend. Pursuing the confluences of text, language, and culture with scripture, he re-rooted it in England’s actual literary inheritance. In doing so he not only modeled participation in the long tradition of literary engagement that made possible the mythopoeic literature so admired by Inklings, but he invoked social reform – still then an intrinsic objective of the new discipline. Hence was crafted MacDonald’s first novel, and arguably, a new genre.

This paper aspires, through close attention to both biography and context, to facilitate better access to the fantasy Phantastes. In so doing it also suggests that re-consideration of the methodological approach propounded by the very first professors of English Literature may not only lend greater insight to MacDonald’s appeal to and influence upon the Inklings, but may (re)call critics to riches of their own inheritance.  


Dr. Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, George MacDonald scholar and founder of the Linlathen Lectures, is based in the Ottawa Valley. Working in Theology & the Arts generally, her explorations include Inklings & associates, 19th century lit, art reflection (ArtWay), and significance of rootedness; interdisciplinarity, relationality, and Mythopoesis as understood by the Inklings are key concepts throughout. Many of her articles, chapters, and guest-blogs can be accessed via her website. She lectures in North America, Britain, and Romania (afterword for Romanian transl of The Golden Key[2016]; The Mythopoeic Making of George MacDonald [delayed publication: 2017]). Assoc member of IIC, she is also on the editorial board of Inklings journal SEVEN, and the MacDonald Society Committee.

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