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A Dish Of Orts by George MacDonald

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our heads, merely throwing over us a wide-spread benevolence. You can
imagine the tenderness of a mother's heart who takes her child even from
its beloved nurse to soothe and to minister to it, and that is like God;
that is God. His hand is not only over us, but recollect what David
said--"His hand was upon me." I wish we were all as good Christians as
David was. "Wherever I go," he said, "God is there--beneath me, before
me, his hand is upon me; if I go to sleep he is there; when I go down to
the dead he is there." Everywhere is God. The earth underneath us is his
hand upholding us. [Footnote: The waters are in the hollow of it.] Every
spring-fountain of gladness about us is his making and his delight. He
tends us and cares for us; he is close to us, breathing into our
nostrils the breath of life, and breathing into our spirit this thought
and that thought to make us look up and recognize the love and the care
around us. What a poor thing for the little baby would it be if it were
to be constantly tended thus tenderly and preciously by its mother, but
if it were never to open its eyes to look up and see her mother's face
bending over it. A poor thing all its tending would be without that. It
is for that that the other exists; it is by that that the other comes.
To recognize and know this loving-kindness, and to stand up in it strong
and glad; this is the ministration of God unto us. Do you ever think "I
could worship God if he was so-and-so?" Do you imagine that God is not
as good, as perfect, as absolutely all-in-all as your thoughts can
imagine? Aye, you cannot come up to it; do what you will you never will
come up to it. Use all the symbols that we have in nature, in human
relations, in the family--all our symbols of grace and tenderness, and
loving-kindness between man and man, and between man and woman, and
between woman and woman, but you can never come up to the thought of
what God's ministration is. When our Lord came he just let us see how
his Father was doing this always, he "came to give his life a ransom for
many." It was in giving his life a ransom for us that he died; that was
the consummation and crown of it all, but it was his life that he gave
for us--his whole being, his whole strength, his whole energy--not alone
his days of trouble and of toil, but deeper than that, he gave his whole
being for us; yea, he even went down to death for us.

But how are we to learn this ministration? I will tell you where it
begins. The most of us are forced to work; if you do not see that the
commonest things in life belong to the Christian scheme, the plan of
God, you have got to learn it. I say this is at the beginning. Most of
us have to work, and infinitely better is that for us than if we were
not forced to work, but not a very fine thing unless it goes to
something farther. We are forced to work; and what is our work? It is
doing something for other people always. It is doing; it is ministration
in some shape or other. All kind of work is a serving, but it may not be
always Christian service. No. Some of us only work for our wages; we
must have them. We starve, and deserve to starve, if we do not work to
get them. But we must go a little beyond that; yes, a very great way
beyond that. There is no honest work that one man does for another which
he may not do as unto the Lord and not unto men; in which he cannot do
right as he ought to do right. Thus, I say that the man who sees the
commonest thing in the world, recognizing it as part of the divine order
of things, the law by which the world goes, being the intention of God
that one man should be serviceable and useful to another--the man, I
say, who does a thing well because of this, and who tries to do it
better, is doing God service.

We talk of "divine service." It is a miserable name for a great thing.
It is not service, properly speaking, at all. When a boy comes to his
father and says, "May I do so and so for you?" or, rather, comes and
breaks out in some way, showing his love to his father--says, "May I
come and sit beside you? May I have some of your books? May I come and
be quiet a little in your room?" what would you think of that boy if he
went and said, "I have been doing my father a service." So with praying
to and thanking God, do you call that serving God? If it is not serving
yourselves it is worth nothing; if it is not the best condition you can
find yourselves in, you have to learn what it is yet. Not so; the work
you have to do to-morrow in the counting-house, in the shop, or wherever
you may be, is that by which you are to serve God. Do it with a high
regard, and then there is nothing mean in it; but there is everything
mean in it if you are pretending to please people when you only look for
your wages. It is mean then; but if you have regard to doing a thing
nobly, greatly, and truly, because it is the work that God has given you
to do, then you are doing the divine service.

Of course, this goes a great deal farther. We have endless opportunities
of showing ourselves neighbours to the man who comes near us. That is
the divine service; that is the reality of serving God. The others ought
to be your reward, if "reward" is a word that can be used in such a
relation at all. Go home and speak to God; nay, hold your tongue, and
quietly go to him in the secret recesses of your own heart, and know
that God is there. Say, "God has given me this work to do, and I am
doing it;" and that is your joy, that is your refuge, that is your going
to heaven. It is not service. The words "divine service," as they are
used, always move me to something of indignation. It is perfect
paganism; it is looking to please God by gathering together your
services,--something that is supposed to be service to him. He is
serving us for ever, and our Lord says, "If I have washed your feet, so
you ought to wash one another's feet." This will be the way in which to
minister for some.

But still, when we are beginning to learn this, some of us are looking
about us in a blind kind of way, thinking, "I wish I could serve God; I
do not know what to do! How is it to be begun? What is it at the root of
it? What shall I find out to do? Where is there something to do?"

Now, first of all, service is obedience, or it is nothing. This is what
I would gladly impress upon you; upon every young man who has come to
the point to be able to receive it. There is a tendency in us to think
that there is something degrading in obedience, something degrading in
service. According to the social judgment there is; according to the
judgment of the earth there is. Not so according to the judgment of
heaven, for God would only have us do the very thing he is doing
himself. You may see the tendency of this nowadays. There is scarcely a
young man who will speak of his "master." He feels as if there is
something that hurts his dignity in doing so. He does just what so many
theologians have done about God, who, instead of taking what our Lord
has given us, talk about God as "the Governor of the Universe." So a
young man talks about his master as "the governor;" nay, he even talks
of his own father in that way, and then you come in another region
altogether, and a worse one. I take these things as symptoms, mind. I
know habits may be picked up, when they get common, without any great
corresponding feeling; but a wrong habit tends always to a wrong
feeling, and if a man cannot learn to honour his father, so as to be
able to call him "father," I think one or the other of them is greatly
to blame, whether the father or the son I cannot say. I know there are
such parents that to tell their children that God is their "Father" is
no help to them, but the contrary. I heard of a lady just the other day
to whom, in trying to comfort her, some one said, "Remember God is your
Father." "Do not mention the name 'father' to me," she said. Ah! that
kind of fault does not lie in God, but in those who, not being like him,
cannot use the names aright which belong to him.

But now, as to this service, this obedience. Our Lord came to give his
life a ransom for the many, and to minister unto all in obedience to his
Father's will. We call him equal with God--at least, most of us here, I
suppose, do; of course we do not pretend to explain; we know that God is
greater than he, because he said so; but somehow, we can worship him
with our God, and we need not try to distinguish more than is necessary
about it. But do you think that he was less divine than the Father when
he was obedient? Observe his obedience to the will of his Father. He was
not the ruler there. He did not give the commands; he obeyed them. And
yet we say He is God! Ah, that is no difficulty to me. Obedience is as
divine in its essence as command; nay, it may be more divine in the
human being far; it cannot be more divine in God, but obedience is far
more divine in its essence with regard to humanity than command is. It
is not the ruling being who is most like God; it is the man who
ministers to his fellow, who is like God; and the man who will just
sternly and rigidly do what his master tells him--be that master what he
may--who is likest Christ in that one particular matter. Obedience is
the grandest thing in the world to begin with. Yes, and we shall end
with it too. I do not think the time will ever come when we shall not
have something to do, because we are told to do it without knowing why.
Those parents act most foolishly who wish to explain everything to their
children--most foolishly. No; teach your child to obey, and you give him
the most precious lesson that can be given to a child. Let him come to
that before you have had him long, to do what he is told, and you have
given him the plainest, first, and best lesson that you can give him. If
he never goes to school at all he had better have that lesson than all
the schooling in the world. Hence, when some people are accustomed to
glorify this age of ours as being so much better in everything than
those which went before, I look back to the times of chivalry, which we
regard now, almost, as a thing to laugh at, or a merry thing to make
jokes about; but I find that the one essential of chivalry was
obedience. It is recognized in our army still, but in those times it was
carried much farther. When a boy was seven years old he was sent into
another family, and put with another boy there to do what? To wait with
him upon the master and the mistress of the house, and to be taught, as
well, what few things they knew in those times in the way of
intellectual cultivation. But he also learned stern, strict obedience,
such as it was impossible for him to forget. Then, when he had been
there seven years, hard at work, standing behind the chair, and
ministering, he was advanced a step; and what was that step? He was made
an esquire. He had his armour given him; he had to watch his armour in
the chapel all night, laying it on the altar in silent devotion to God.
I do not say that all these things were carried out afterwards, but this
was the idea of them. He was an esquire, and what was the duty of an
esquire? More service; more important service. He still had to attend to
his master, the knight. He had to watch him; he had to groom his horse
for him; he had to see that his horse was sound; he had to clean his
armour for him; to see that every bolt, every rivet, every strap, every
buckle was sound, for the life of his master was in his hands. The
master, having to fight, must not be troubled with these things, and
therefore the squire had to attend to them. Then seven years after that
a more solemn ceremony is gone through, and the squire is made a knight;
but is he free of service then? No; he makes a solemn oath to help
everybody who needs help, especially women and children, and so he rides
out into the world to do the work of a true man. There was a grand and
essential idea of Christianity in that--no doubt wonderfully broken and
shattered, but not more so than the Christian church has been;
wonderfully broken and shattered, but still the essence of obedience;
and I say it is recognized in our army still, and in every army; and
where it is lost it is a terrible loss, and an army is worth nothing
without it. You remember that terrible story from the East, that fearful
death-charge, one of the grandest things in our history, although one of
the most blundering:--

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die;
Into the valley of death
Rode the Six Hundred."

So with the Christian man; whatever meets him, obedience is the thing.
If he is told by his conscience, which is the candle of God within him,
that he must do a thing, why he must do it. He may tremble from head to
foot at having to do it, but he will tremble more if he turns his back.
You recollect how our old poet Spenser shows us the Knight of the Red
Cross, who is the knight of holiness, ill in body, diseased in mind,
without any of his armour on, attacked by a fearful giant. What does he
do? Run away? No, he has but time to catch up his sword, and, trembling
in every limb, he goes on to meet the giant; and that is the thing that
every Christian man must do. I cannot put it too strongly; it is
impossible. There is no escape from it. If death itself lies before us,
and we know it, there is nothing to be said; it is all to be done, and
then there is no loss; everything else is all lost unto God. Look at our
Lord. He gave his life to do the will of his Father, and on he went and
did it. Do you think it was easy for him--easier for him than it would
have been for us? Ah! the greater the man the more delicate and tender
his nature, and the more he shrinks from the opposition even of his
fellowmen, because he loves them. It was a terrible thing for Christ.
Even now and then, even in the little touches that come to us in the
scanty story (though enough) this breaks out. "We are told by John that
at the Last Supper He was troubled in spirit, and testified." And then
how he tries to comfort himself as soon as Judas has gone out to do the
thing which was to finish his great work: "Now is the Son of Man
glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God be glorified in him, God
shall also glorify him in himself." Then he adds,--just gathering up his
strength,--"I shall straightway glorify him." This was said to his
disciples, but I seem to see in it that some of it was said for himself.
This is the grand obedience! Oh, friends, this is a hard lesson to
learn. We find every day that it is a hard thing to teach. We are
continually grumbling because we cannot get the people about us, our
servants, our tradespeople, or whoever they may be, to do just what we
tell them. It makes half the misery in the world because they will have
something of their own in it against what they are told. But are we not
always doing the same thing? and ought we not to learn something of
forgiveness for them, and very much from the fact that we are just in
the same position? We only recognize in part that we are put here in
this world precisely to learn to be obedient. He who is our Lord and our
God went on being obedient all the time, and was obedient always; and I
say it is as divine for us to obey as it is for God to rule. As I have
said already, God is ministering the whole time. Now, do you want to
know how to minister? Begin by obeying. Obey every one who has a right
to command you; but above all, look to what our Lord has said, and find
out what he wants you to do out of what he left behind, and try whether
obedience to that will not give a consciousness of use, of ministering,
of being a part of the grand scheme and way of God in this world. In
fact, take your place in it as a vital portion of the divine kingdom,
or--to use a better figure than that--a vital portion of the Godhead.
Try it, and see whether obedience is not salvation; whether service is
not dignity; whether you will not feel in yourselves that you have begun
to be cleansed from your plague when you begin to say, "I will seek no
more to be above my fellows, but I will seek to minister to them, doing
my work in God's name for them."

"Who sweeps a room as for Thy law,
Makes that and the action fine."

Both the room and the action are good when done for God's sake. That is
dear old George Herbert's way of saying the same truth, for every man
has his own way of saying it. The gift of the Spirit of God to make you
think as God thinks, feel as God feels, judge as God judges, is just the
one thing that is promised. I do not know anything else that is promised
positively but that, and who dares pray for anything else with perfect
confidence? God will not give us what we pray for except it be good for
us, but that is one thing that we must have or perish. Therefore, let us
pray for that, and with the name of God dwelling in us--if this is not
true, the whole world is a heap of ruins--let us go forth and do this
service of God in ministering to our fellows, and so helping him in his
work of upholding, and glorifying and saving all.


That we have in English no word corresponding to the German _Maehrchen_,
drives us to use the word _Fairytale_, regardless of the fact that the
tale may have nothing to do with any sort of fairy. The old use of the
word _Fairy_, by Spenser at least, might, however, well be adduced, were
justification or excuse necessary where _need must_.

Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, _Read Undine: that
is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what
is a fairytale_. Were I further begged to describe the _fairytale_, or
define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of
describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to
constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is
just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think _Undine_ the most

Many a man, however, who would not attempt to define _a man_, might
venture to say something as to what a man ought to be: even so much I
will not in this place venture with regard to the fairytale, for my long
past work in that kind might but poorly instance or illustrate my now
more matured judgment. I will but say some things helpful to the
reading, in right-minded fashion, of such fairytales as I would wish to
write, or care to read.

Some thinkers would feel sorely hampered if at liberty to use no forms
but such as existed in nature, or to invent nothing save in accordance
with the laws of the world of the senses; but it must not therefore be
imagined that they desire escape from the region of law. Nothing lawless
can show the least reason why it should exist, or could at best have
more than an appearance of life.

The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in
the way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they
themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases,
invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that
in him which delights in calling up new forms--which is the nearest,
perhaps, he can come to creation. When such forms are new embodiments of
old truths, we call them products of the Imagination; when they are mere
inventions, however lovely, I should call them the work of the Fancy: in
either case, Law has been diligently at work.

His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is,
that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has
begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must
hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the
story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in
an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those
broken, we fall out of it. The imagination in us, whose exercise is
essential to the most temporary submission to the imagination of
another, immediately, with the disappearance, of Law, ceases to act.
Suppose the gracious creatures of some childlike region of Fairyland
talking either cockney or Gascon! Would not the tale, however lovelily
begun, sink at once to the level of the Burlesque--of all forms of
literature the least worthy? A man's inventions may be stupid or clever,
but if he do not hold by the laws of them, or if he make one law jar
with another, he contradicts himself as an inventor, he is no artist. He
does not rightly consort his instruments, or he tunes them in different
keys. The mind of man is the product of live Law; it thinks by law, it
dwells in the midst of law, it gathers from law its growth; with law,
therefore, can it alone work to any result. Inharmonious, unconsorting
ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work
will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is
the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in
which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination
the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman
that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders
their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not
obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms,
and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing.
He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not
meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man
must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were
no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of
attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale
representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man
it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is
absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things
he must obey--and take their laws with him into his invented world as

"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have a

It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it
has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it
than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the
fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story,
will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will
read one meaning in it, another will read another.

"If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning
into it, but yours out of it?"

Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your
meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than
the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to

"Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?"

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you
do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work
of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will
mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of
art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter
that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there
not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even
wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not
for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name
written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of
the painter is not to teach zoology.

But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the
meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be
too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the
childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is
not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode,
produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit. An
allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch.

A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips
at every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to
my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means
something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable
vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach
mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or
less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat
down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to
definite idea would be the result? Little enough--and that little more
than needful. We should find it had roused related, if not identical,
feelings, but probably not one common thought. Has the sonata therefore
failed? Had it undertaken to convey, or ought it to be expected to
impart anything defined, anything notionally recognizable?

"But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a
precise meaning!"

It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user
of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it
does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are
live things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can
convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child's dream on the
heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of a
dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in
them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a
meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and
breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only
to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but
the definite? The cause of a child's tears may be altogether
undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery?
That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairytale,
a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps
you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its
power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the
mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man
feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to
another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is
a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march
of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but
as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of
the uncomprehended.

I will go farther.--The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to
rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but
to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for
himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in
which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but
one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she
make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same
thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it
nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding--the
power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking
at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not
after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such
ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.

"But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will
draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of
art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter
whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot
claim putting them there! One difference between God's work and man's
is, that, while God's work cannot mean more than he meant, man's must
mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is
layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same
thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God's things,
his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and
adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts;
therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such
combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so
many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the
relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every
symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he
was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his

"But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?"

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE
under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination
would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there, not to
hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your
door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say,
"Roses! Boil them, or we won't have them!" My tales may not be roses,
but I will not boil them.

So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

If a writer's aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains,
not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where
his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him
assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If
there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of
mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash
again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an
insignificant, ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our
intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part
of us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless precious things by
intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child,
must--he cannot help himself--become a little man, that is, a dwarf. He
will, however, need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a
very large creature indeed.

If any strain of my "broken music" make a child's eyes flash, or his
mother's grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

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