Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Adventure classics -- Love, time after time

The Portent

by George MacDonald


"If you see anything in it, take it and I am glad you have it: but I wrote it for the tale," George MacDonald told his wife when she asked him what the meaning was of his 1864 ghostly romance, The Portent: A Story of the Inner Vision of the Highlanders Commonly Called the Second Sight (to give its full title).

You can’t blame Mrs. MacDonald for being curious. The story’s hero had more than a passing resemblance to her husband. And, probably, if you consider yourself happily married but your husband’s writing a romantic story about a reincarnated lover from a past life, well, you’ve got to wonder¼

After all, MacDonald could get heavily into “meaning” at times. As a failed preacher (his conservative Calvinist congregations weren’t enthusiastic about his leanings toward a doctrine of universal salvation), he all too often turned to writing sermons in the form of books when no one would pay him to speak them.

But over a long and prolific life, he wrote a handful of short stories and several novels¾ and one of these is The Portent¾ that still endure. And in these best of MacDonald’s stories, “the deeper meanings came there almost by accident, for they were part of himself,” Oxford don Roger Lancelyn Green wrote in his introduction to The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald. “If we could explain the story it would not be there any more¾ just as if we tried to cut up a soap-bubble to see how the lovely colours were put into it.”

So, what is The Portent? A love story? A ghost story? An allegory (although not a heavy-handed one) about the transformative power of love between poor but proud Scottish tutor Duncan Campbell and the lovely, fey Lady Alice?

After finishing university but failing to obtain the military commission he longs for,
Duncan accepts a post as tutor in an English earl’s household. There he meets the earl’s ward, Lady Alice. Although the family considers Alice mentally deficient, her highly original remarks strike Duncan as “closely allied to genius.” He sympathizes with her position as a fellow outsider, but Alice shuns him.

One night, while exploring an uninhabited wing of the mansion, Duncan happens upon Alice sleepwalking. Startled, she faints. As he tries to bring her back to consciousness, he hears the sound which has been a portent of doom in his family, the sound of a galloping phantom horse, always distinguishable by the clanking of the loose shoe that caused it to fall to the death of its rider, Duncan’s long-ago ancestor.

Believing that only members of his family can hear the phantom, Duncan is amazed when Alice also admits to hearing the portent of disaster. As an attachment grows between them, he wonders if she is a distant relation of his. Or, as he begins to believe, is she the reincarnation of the beloved whose beauty doomed his jealous ancestor? And are he and she fated to repeat the tragedy or can love finally defeat the forces of darkness?

As an introduction to MacDonald’s writing, this is the story I recommend. His language is at both its most beautiful and most approachable, with no metaphysics heavier than a deliciously creepy legend of tragic love. And it’s short. Having read the book several years ago, I promised myself just to give it a quick scan to refresh my memory. Instead, I reread my 1979 edition from cover to cover. It’s also readily available at Amazon or free at And enjoy this post’s illustration of an eerily brooding MacDonald, 1870, found at wikimedia.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a December of spirited adventures with Lloyd Douglas’s The Robe.)

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