Strange creatures | From an Old Soul

by Elouise

In this sonnet, George MacDonald is in a state of terror. The moans and screams are more than enough to keep his imagination working overtime. He seems lost in one of his fairy tales for children, uncertain what’s going on.

July 2

It must be, somewhere in my fluttering tent,
Strange creatures, half tamed only yet, are pent—
Dragons, lop-winged birds, and large-eyed snakes!
Hark! through the storm the saddest howling breaks!
Or are they loose, roaming about the bent,
The darkness dire deepening with moan and scream?—
My Morning, rise, and all shall be a dream.

George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
© 1994 Augsburg Fortress Press

Before I comment, here are a few terms that may not be familiar to everyone.

  • pent – a verb used with an object (here the strange creatures). Normally it means confined for safekeeping.
  • lop-winged birds – birds with large floppy wings, especially those that have long, skinny legs that flop around in the air as they fly. Think, for example, of herons and cranes.
  • large-eyed snakes – snakes with eyes (sometimes heads, as well) larger than their long, thin bodies, able to see you in the dark perhaps?
  • the bent – stiff grass, a moor, or grassy land used as a pasture.

Though MacDonald seems to be lost in one of his fairy tales, he’s also praying. These sonnets are addressed to God. The fairy tales aren’t irrelevant, but hearing this as a prayer may be a good place to start. I hear him expressing something like this:

Don’t You hear these horrific beasts in my tent? That would be the ‘tent’ that’s already torn to shreds and flapping around in the wind! It seems someone has locked them up in here with me. What a nightmare! Then again, they could very well be lurking out there in the fields, just waiting to devour me! 

No, I’m not making this up! Even with that wretched wind storm, I still hear them howling their heads off. 

Can’t You do something? You’re the Morning Star! All You need to do is just show up. That’s all! They’ll be gone in a heartbeat! Hello? Are You still there?

I hear something like that—a mix of terror and faith. Here are a few observations and questions.

  • In MacDonald’s fairy tales for children, strange, even enemy-like creatures often appear. Sometimes the challenge is to befriend them. But not always. Discernment is important.
  • The ‘strange creatures’ here are as yet ‘half-tamed only.’ Does this suggest they could be or are on their way to being fully tamed? Right now they seem untameable. But….? I don’t know.
  • MacDonald sometimes tames the strange creatures in his fairy tales by coming to understand them, not by magic. What are their strengths? Their personalities? What does their shape and behavior suggest about them? For what might they have been created—if, that is, they aren’t manufactured by our fear and aren’t evil creatures.

MacDonald doesn’t have answers. He seems to be flailing around without a narrative or direction that would make sense of what he’s experiencing.

He also seems perfectly willing to have these strange creatures disappear into thin air when he wakes up in the morning and realizes his terror was ‘all a dream.’ But was it?

What does MacDonald mean by ‘My Morning’? Perhaps it’s as simple as a new day that will bring light, and relief from night terrors and fears. On the other hand, perhaps ‘My Morning’ refers to God.

In either case, what will happen with the strange creatures? Will they be banished? Or will he learn something about himself by learning about them? Especially those parts of his life that seem too scary to face, even though they may be half-tamed.

Like the July 1 sonnet, this seems also to end with a question that only God can answer. In that case, it’s right to pound on the door, insisting that God attend to him as one of God’s beloved sons and daughters.

One thing is clear: MacDonald isn’t going to figure this out on his own.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 July 2015