The Invisible Thread Symbolism in Three Great Authors

A fairy tale from a Christian minister. A mystery story from a famous Catholic convert and apologist. A tragic novel from a troubled revert. Three great stories with one common theme: the hand of Divine Providence.

Invisible Threads

Do you ever try to see the workings Divine Providence in your life- and fail? I certainly do. God’s wise plan for the universe can seem mysterious and opaque to our limited human intelligence. Many different symbols and analogies have been used over the centuries to help us grasp this challenging concept. But three very different stories over the course of three quarters of a century have used the same powerful imagery of an invisible thread to help us envision and contemplate God’s hand in our lives.

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The Princess and the Goblin

In 1872, George MacDonald wrote The Princess and the Goblin. A Christian minister of loosely Calvinist beliefs, MacDonald consciously wrote this fairy tale to illustrate Divine Providence in our lives. In the story, MacDonald uses several symbols for Divine Providence such as a lamp, a grandmother’s love, and pigeons. But his most powerful image is the invisible thread.

Princess Irene receives a ring with an invisible thread attached from her grandmother. Irene’s grandmother tells her that if she is ever in peril, she must place the ring under her pillow and feel the invisible thread with her fingers. By following the thread with a trusting heart, she will find her way to safety. Throughout The Princess and the Goblin, Irene trust in and follows the invisible thread when she feels afraid. By so doing she not only finds personal safety from the goblins but also rescues her friend Curdie. Obviously, the thread is an analogy for trust in God’s providence. As long as Irene trusts in God’s plan and follows it with childlike confidence, all things work for good in her life.

Father Brown

George MacDonald’s fairy tales were an inspiration to one of the most beloved writers and prodigious intellects of the 20th century: G. K. Chesterton. It’s little surprise to see Chesterton repeating MacDonald’s invisible thread motif in his Father Brown stories. In the story “The Queer Feet” in The Innocence of Father Brown, Father Brown describes his calling as being a fisher of men.

Father Brown has found a repentant thief. Explaining how the thief was caught, the good priest uses the analogy of a fisherman with an invisible thread: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

“The queer feet,” G. K. Chesterton

Brideshead Revisited

In 1945, Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited, the seemingly dark story of a Catholic family tragedy. On the surface, this book which portrays a dysfunctional Catholic family with an overbearing mother, two rebellious children who flee from God towards homosexuality and adultery. But paradoxically, Brideshead Revisited is in essence an apologia for the Catholic faith.

In the second half of the story, which Waugh titled “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” the various members of the Flyte family are called back to their childhood faith by circuitous paths. In the novel, Waugh doffs his hat to Chesterton’s influence by using the image of the thread to describe the Flyte children’s reversion to Catholicism. Cordelia even repeats the quote about the invisible thread from The Innocence of Father Brown at one point in the novel.

Life Lessons from Literature

In all three of these books, the imagery of Divine Providence as an invisible thread is used as a tangible, familiar image to describe the hand of God protecting and guiding all back to Him. When the Princess is in mortal danger, when the thief flees with his plunder, when the Flytes have rebelled in every imaginable way, we wonder how this can possibly be part of God’s plan.

Similarly, when we experience suffering, loss, misfortune in our lives, our faith in God’s good plan can waver. The imagery of the invisible thread can steady us in troubled times and help us trust in God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” We can believe that, like the Princess and the Thief and the Flytes, we too will find our way to safety and peace one day.

Needless to say, these are three of my favorite stories, all of which I highly recommend!

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