Shadows and Stories, by John Patrick Pazdziora
artwork by Louise Dean

On Christmas Eve 1857, George MacDonald, a Scottish poet and mystic, told his children a story called ‘The Shadows’. It is a delightful, whimsical, and disquieting tale about Old Ralph Rinkelmann, who ‘made his living by comic sketches and all but lost it again by tragic poems’ (97). So disastrously unsuccessful a poet, with a genius for humour and a tenacious love of tragedy, was, MacDonald explains, ‘just the man to be chosen king of the fairies, for in Fairyland the sovereignty is elective’ (97).

His coronation proves some difficulty, as ‘it is only between life and death that the fairies have power over grown-up mortals, and can carry them off to their country’—a point of traditional fairy lore on which MacDonald was as usual correct (98). So Rinkelmann is only crowned when he falls deathly ill and was ‘not able to sit quite upright on the throne of Fairyland’ because of his sickness, and finds himself dealing with a goblin rebellion (98).

After this nightmarish experience, he wakes to find ‘the room full of dark creatures, which gambolled about in the firelight in such a strange, huge, though noiseless fashion, that he thought at first that some of his rebellious goblins had not been subdued with the rest (98-99). But in fact ‘these mad, grotesque hippopotamus-calves’ are the Shadows, ‘good-natured creatures, and more frolicsome than ill-mannered’ (99-100).
The Shadows have come seeking their king’s protection. Their existence is in danger from ‘various sorts of artificial light, both in houses and in men, women, and children’ (110). They explain:
It is only 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, that we show ourselves, and the truth of things. (109)
They carry the king on two consecutive nights to visit the great Church of Shadows, to hear their stories and observe their ways, to see if he can see fit to employ ‘the power of his art’ to restore us to our rights in the house itself, and in the hearts of its inhabitants’ (110). Rinkelmann, remember, was an author; the Shadows are asking him to save them—specifically, to help them find welcome in people’s homes—with stories.

‘The Shadows’ is a wonderful, complex, and engaging story, most likely the first literary fairy tale MacDonald ever wrote. It contains stories within stories, to the point that the actual identity of the narrator is never clear. And while among the Shadows, Rinkelmann hears fourteen stories, two nonsense songs, and a sermon. ‘The Shadows’ is a story about stories and their tellers, about stories within stories, the danger of stories and the greater danger of losing them.

Curiously, it is not, as might first be supposed with MacDonald, about a library—established, preserved texts and recorded literary tradition. The stories and storytellers here are fluid, changing, forgotten as soon as told. This is a living, perhaps an oral tradition of story. As such it may particularly be about folk story, and oral tradition, and how these tales and this fluid, transformative mode of story can endure in an age of print and library. It may be partly from considering his own attempts at fusing literature with folklore that MacDonald wrote this story.

With that in mind, the description of the Shadows is all the more intriguing. Rinkelmann is greeted by a great assembly when he arrives at the Church of Shadows:
All the Shadows came crowding round him, respectfully but fearlessly; and sure never such a grotesque assembly revealed itself before mortal eyes. The king had seen all kinds of gnomes, goblins, and kobolds at his coronation; but they were quite rectilinear figures compared with the insane lawlessness of form in which the Shadows rejoiced; and the wildest gambols of the former were orderly dances of ceremony beside the apparently aimless and wilful contortions of figure, and metamorphoses of shape, in which the latter indulged. (108)
MacDonald’s understanding of literature was heavily shaped by his reading of Novalis, a German Romantic poet. In December 1857, MacDonald was preparing to write Phantastes, and Novalis’s theories, so much in evidence in that longer work, seem to have influenced ‘The Shadows’ as well. The epigraph of Phantastes, MacDonald’s own translation from Tieck’s edition of Novalis, coalesces with this description of the Shadows:
One can imagine stories without rational cohesion and yet filled with associations, like dreams; and poem that are merely lovely sounding, full of beautiful words, but also without rational sense and connections—with, at the most, individual verses which are intelligible, like fragments of the most varied things. [...] In fairy-story the time of anarchy, lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of Nature makes itself felt in the world. (3)
The Shadows share this literary ‘lawlessness of form’, indulging in ‘apparently aimless and wilful contortions of figure, and metamorphoses of shape’. They inhabit ‘the time of anarchy’ taking their shape only from ‘fragments of the most varied things.’ They are, in a word, shapeshifters. To be a Shadow is to exist in a continual state of transformation. Continual metamorphosis is for them normality, rather than a startling and distressing occurrence.

Gregor Samsa, for instance, might wake up distressed to find himself an unwilling beetle. Jekyll might become Hyde of an evening. Lucius becomes a donkey when he uses the wrong potion. Harry, Ron, and Hermione use Polyjuice Potion to take on a classmate’s body and voice for an hour. But a Shadow might be a beetle before breakfast, the fire-tongs at elevenses, a dozen exaggerated household items for lunch, and something completely different in the afternoon.

The narrator’s contrast between the Shadows and the usual bogles of fairy tales is apt. Most folktales will only showcase one or two really substantial metamorphoses. The bones of a murdered child become a white bird, for instance, or a wizard can assume any of three shapes at will. Even a compendium of transformations such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses sees one transformation happen to each character in turn.

Curiously, where such wild profusion of transformations appear most commonly seems to be in the point of escape from fairyland. Tam Lin, for instance, cautions Janet his lover that when she tries to save him from the fairy folk:

They’ll turn me in your arms, lady,
                Into an ask and adder,
But hald [sic] me fast and fear me not,
                I am your bairn’s father.

They’ll turn me to a bear sae grim,
                And then a lion bold;
But hold me fast and fear me not,
                As you shall love your child.

Again they’ll turn me in your arms
                To a red het gaud of airn;
But hold me fast and fear me not,
                I’ll do you nae harm. (Burns, 133-144)

The ballad seems to employ the narrative element Joseph Campbell called ‘The Magical Flight’ (196-199). Though the nature of these ‘marvels of magical obstruction and evasion’ can take several forms, Campbell illustrates the relevant pursuit from Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion (1838-1849). When Carwiden learns that Gwion Bach has stolen a potion of wisdom from her, she sets off in pursuit:
And [Gwion Bach] saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and turned him. And he ran towards the river, and became a fish. And she in the form of an otter-bitch chased him under the water, until he was fain to turn himself into a bird of the air. She, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky. And just as she was about to stoop upon him, and he was in fear of death, he espied a heap of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn, and he dropped among the wheat, and turned himself into one of the grains. Then she transformed herself into a high-crested black hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her feet, and found him out and ate him. (Guest, 250)
Tam Lin, of course, risks Gwion Bach’s unfortunate fate, and for this reason the story centres on the ‘Rescue from Without’ (Campbell, 207ff). It is, after all, Janet who saves Tam Lin from being sacrificed to the devil. She must penetrate the threshold and fight the fairy folk for her lover and the father of her child. As so often in fairy lore, the fairies are in deathly conflict with women, particularly young mothers. In this case, however, Janet clings to her lover despite the ‘magical obstruction’ of his violent metamorphoses, and achieves his rescue.

The Shadows, then, seem to exist within this sort of rapidly oscillating transformation. Is it possible, then, that escape is the Shadows’ natural home? That the Shadows live constantly on the edges of things, among the in-between places?

Certainly the description of their native habitat—where people sit alone with a candle, or together in a shared, unifying experience—seem to suggest so. The lonely watcher with a solitary candle is a tableau of ghost stories and tales of the elves—if you have ever been in that situation yourself, chances are you know why. The shared, unifying experience seems to suggest sacred ritual. These are times and places in ‘the twilight of fire’, where the veil between worlds grow tenuous and thin. It is here, on the shifting, perilous borders, that the Shadows are to be found.

This place of uncertainty, and not any sensible connection to concrete, empirical reality, is the realm of the story. It is significant that this is not an escape from reality, but back into it. Tolkien, in his defence of Escape as a function of the fairy tale, asks: ‘Why should a man be scored if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about topics other than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it’ (69).

Strikingly, when Rinkelmann is carried to the Church of Shadows, he is borne over the Northern Sea,
and as the bearers slid along the blue-gray surface, with never a furrow in their track, so pure was the water beneath, that the king saw neither surface, bottom, nor substance to it, and seemed to be gliding only through the blue sphere of heaven, with the stars above him, and the stars below him, and between the stars and him nothing but an emptiness, where, for the first time in his life, his soul felt that it had room enough. (106)
The escape offered by the Shadows is not only move out of Rinkelmann’s dingy flat and the constriction of his soul, but into liminality and transcendent spaces, with nothing between him and the stars. Accompanying them and observing their whimsical, anarchic transformations, the entire substance of the cosmos seems to have dropped away. For once in his life, stripped of the confinements of corporeal space, Rinkelmann feels as though he truly fits. Daniel Gabelman, in his excellent analysis of ‘The Shadows’, explains:
The ecstatic movement out of the small dingy room into the grand sublimity of the cosmos reveals to Rinkelmann not his smallness but his largeness—he feels that his soul has always previously been cramped. Such a revelation is a call to ecstatic ascent: one must get out of the small worlds where one’s life is constricted and find the open spaces where there is “room enough”. (181)
This, then, seems to be the aim of the Shadows, and of stories: the estrangement of ‘small worlds’, shifting rapidly in form to display the inherent transformation of material things. G.K. Chesterton wrote that ‘it is the supreme function of the philosopher of the grotesque to make the world stand on its head that people may look at it’ (151). The Shadows make the world not only stand on its head, but flicker and vanish to appear changed, and unchanged, and changed back again.

Curiously, the chaotic transformations themselves are not the most astonishing aspect of the Shadows:
They retained, however, 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 alterations to which the form itself was every moment subjected. (108)
It is less remarkable that forms should mutate then that they stay recognisable throughout the permutations. The ‘fragments of the most varied things’ arrange themselves around ‘the primary idea of each form’. The Shadows retain identity, self-expression. To put it in literary terms, the story is recognisable, retaining its unique power of expression despite its disassociation from solid, particular objects and shapes.

Much of literature reflects fear of transformation. Dante, for instance, a writer MacDonald deeply admired, chillingly portrays metamorphosis as the dissolution of self. Inferno XXV portrays the transformation of a man and a six-legged serpent into a single creature, fusing together like melting wax, the destructive change sweeping over them like fire over coloured paper, faces and skulls and limbs blending together (XXV:61-75):
Ogne primaio aspetto ivi era casso:
due e nessun l’imagine perversa

parea; e tal sen gio con lento passo.

All trace of their first aspect was erased
and the unnatural figure seemed both two

and none and lumbered off at its slow pace. (Hollander’s translation, XXV:76-78)
The separate identities have been entirely effaced; the result is not a new creation but a noncreation, due e nessun, ‘both two and none’. The form and the substance are distorted, perverted, and lost. The selfhood is destroyed with the corporeal change. In bitter inversion of Plato’s Phaedrus §251, ‘L’anima ch’era fiera divenuta’—‘The soul just now become a brute takes flight’ (XXV:136, Hollander’s translation). The soul has been corrupted through corporeal change.

Small wonder, then, that the Shadows’ ‘preservation of the primary idea of each form was more wonderful than the bewildering and ridiculous alterations to which the form itself was every moment subjected’ (108). This idea is not necessarily comforting; whenever the Shadows stand still enough for the king to see them, he is troubled and moved to tears (111). Their levity and hilarity suggests that maintaining one’s identity is not perhaps a serious matter. Again, Gabelman provides an adroit explanation:
The fact that each successive transformation does not erase the informing identity further suggests that one need not fear that the true self will be obliterated in the continuous process of transformation. In fact, taking the self lightly might be the only ultimate way of having a self at all. Through all of this, the effect of the Shadows upon their audience is to remove illusory obstacles and to open up a space for the hearing of the question: “shall not the Possible become the Real?” (213)
The metamorphoses of the Shadows do not obliterate their individual identities. They make them visible.  Janet, remember, could rescue Tam Lin because she clung not to his form but his identity: the father of her child. She had to look through the changes to see him, not looking only at her own fear of snakes and bears and molten lead. In this sense, the Shadows do not cast the image of concrete things outside themselves, but the primary ideas within, beyond, and through themselves. By transforming their appearance to be ‘both and none’, they are seen into, like the shapes behind a window rather than the reflection on the glass. Their identities are established not by form and appearance, but by being, and being lightly.

If the Shadows are stories, they seem to suggest both a purpose and a form for literature, and the representation of metamorphosis in literature. A story such as the Shadows suggest is filled with ‘fragments of the most varied things’ yet bound together by a single ‘primary idea’—the tale itself, if you will. It associates the fragments and the idea in a way that pleases the individual idea, yet is not necessarily limpid.

The associations of changing forms, and the process of fantastic metamorphosis, matter more in this sort of story than the concrete, realistic object or substance. While the primary idea may be solemn, even tragic, it is expressed in levity and delight. It embeds stories within stories, phantasm within the mundane. For this reason, the picaresque, the literary fairy tale, the true Gothic, and nonsense might be the forms well-suited to these stories.

Like the Shadows, these stories hover unrecognised on the edges of fairy tale and folklore, not necessarily traditional or part of the indexes and anthologies, but manifestly from the otherworld when encountered. It draws the reader’s gaze into itself, rather than pointing beyond, into the challenging oscillation of substances to obscure occluding matter and give the soul ‘room enough’. The story could be said to use transformation and chaos to create space, and stillness. It holds the potential to transform not only the readers, but the author as well.

When Ralph Rinkelmann returned, on Christmas Eve, from the Church of Shadows he sees ‘the walls of his own chamber, on which flickered the Shadow of a Little Child. He looked down, and there, sitting on a stool by the fire, he saw one of his own little ones, waiting to say goodnight to his father’ (139). He sees a normal shadow with transformed vision; looking back to earth he can recognise the Child Christ in his own boy. For MacDonald, a devoutly religious man, this image would have been meant to suggest deep spiritual awakening. Rinkelmann’s vision, and the space from which he will create his stories, has been endued with the revelation of the divine in the immediate; every vision becomes ecstasis.

‘And Ralph Rinkelmann rejoiced that he was a man, and not a Shadow’ (139). Was he, perhaps, a Shadow before? Neither the author nor the readers may ever fully know, but certainly he has changed. The endless transformations of the Shadows have transformed him.

Works Cited
Alighieri, Dante, Inferno, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 2000) in Princeton Dante Project
Burns, Robert, ‘Tam Lin’, in The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. by James Kinsley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), II
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949 (London: Fontana Press, 1993)
Chesterton, G. K., Robert Browning (London: Macmillan & Co., 1906)
Gabelman, Daniel, “Divine Carelessness”: The Fairytale Levity of George MacDonald (unpublished doctoral thesis, PhD, Univeristy of St Andrews, 2011)
Guest, Charlotte E., trans., The Mabinogion, 1838-1849 (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005)
MacDonald, George, The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales, 1890 (Whitehorn, CA: Johannesen, 1997)
---, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance, 1858 (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1994)
Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, ed. by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2008)


wordpress twitter facebook 

      BROWSE BY:








   Help us
   raise money
   for charity