Child death is a common topic in Victorian literature, with many writers focusing on the pain that comes with the loss of a child. George MacDonald also includes child death in his writing, but in a very different way; MacDonald’s works tend to portray death in a much more positive manner, straying away from the sadness surrounding a death and instead focusing on journeys of purification for the characters, with death simply as a transition into the next stage of life. MacDonald combines his religious beliefs with his interest in chemistry and alchemy to create these purifying journeys, each of which involve one or more of the classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The essay explores how MacDonald uses each element as a vehicle for sharing his beliefs about life and death. The use of the element of water in “The Light Princess” and “The Golden Key” can relate to both the alchemical and Christian traditions of baths or baptism as symbolic of leaving behind old ways and becoming renewed. In The Princess and the Goblin, MacDonald uses the element of earth to represent burial and rebirth, and he uses fire to relate the alchemical concept of fire as a strong purifying agent with the Christian idea of baptism by fire. The element of air actually takes the form of a character in At the Back of the North Wind, which is reminiscent of the concept that the path to achieving the philosopher’s stone is representative of coming to Christ for purification. All of the purifying journeys clearly portray MacDonald’s belief that death is not an end, but a continuation of the journey of life.
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Downing, Kaitlin M.
"The Journey to Death: Elemental Imagery in the Works of George MacDonald,"
Crossing Borders: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship: