Votaries: The Blue Flower in Novalis, MacDonald, Lewis, and Robinson

‘It is not the treasures,’ said he to himself, ‘that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. I have never been in such a mood. It seems as if I had hitherto been dreaming, or slumbering into another world; for in the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower?’[1]

Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, better known by his pen name Novalis, passed away on March 25th 1801, aged twenty-eight, leaving behind the unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Novalis was a German Romantic poet, author, and philosopher. Whilst familiar to scholars and the very well-read, he remains fairly little known—and yet his great unfinished novel has been a profound (albeit similarly little known) influence on some of the greatest Christian storytellers of the last century and half. Novalis was a literary gardener, planting the image of “the blue flower,” and along with it the Germanic concept of sehnsucht, in the collective imagination. From the unfinished story of Heinrich came a tradition of description—a way of explaining desire and longing passed down from one writer to another, making its way from Novalis in Electoral Saxony in the late 1700s, through George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, to Marilynne Robinson in Iowa in 1980. A fresh look at the writings of these literary luminaries allows us to trace the tradition of the blue flower and sehnsucht from Romantic poetry to the modern novel, demonstrating how Novalis’s concept lends image and shape to a recurrent theme in the work of all three: “a longing of a kind that possession”—in this world—does “nothing to mitigate.”[1]


“[The Blue Flower] is the fundamental motif of all writings of Novalis. [U]sing [the flower’s] own image metaphorically, we might describe the role of the Blue Flower in Novalis’ works as follows: The motif of the Blue Flower slumbers as a seed within the early writings of the fragmentary thought: it blossoms within the tales, hymns and songs, and it ultimately matures as fruit in Heinrich von Ofterdingen.”[2]

The story opens with the protagonist Heinrich, at home with his parents, sleeping. When Heinrich first encounters the flower—one that “bears the face of his unknown beloved”—it comes to him as a dream.[3] He beholds a field with a variety of flowers, yet “what most attracted his notice, was a tall, light-blue flower, which stood nearest the fountain, and touched it with its broad, glossy leaves. Around it grew numberless flowers of varied hue, filling the air with the richest perfume. But he saw the blue flower alone, and gazed long upon it with inexpressible tenderness.”[4]Here, his mother wakes him, ending the dream. In discussing the dream with others, he is told both that “dreams are froth, let the learned think what they will of them… you will do well to turn your attention from such useless and hurtful speculations” and also to “take notice particularly of a little blue flower, which you will find above here; pluck it, and commit yourself humbly to heavenly guidance.”[5] The remainder of the unfinished novel tells of how Heinrich chooses the second path and not the first, pursuing the blue flower for the rest of his days.

Austrian writer Frederick Hiebel (1903-1989) explains that “both, love and religion, are the ‘flowers’ of the supernatural world that help, in a higher sense, to awaken us.”[6] It is this awakening desire that Heinrich pursues to the close of the story. This is the desire for virtue (the practice of love) and for the telos or end of all virtue (God himself, who is love). Although the book was never completed, a few lines preserved from the end of Novalis’s notes explain that Heinrich eventually finds and picks the Blue Flower, and through it, turns from stone into Man (capital M).[7] Hiebel writes, “The picking of the Blue Flower thus is not the attainment of a treasure, but the experience of change into a higher order of man. This change is the birth of the perfected man… Whoever possesses it attains happiness and wisdom. In the legendary sense, however, happiness and wisdom do not mean wealth and learning, but rather true humanity.”[8] Love is no longer merely practiced and pursued; it is finally grasped, fully known, face to face. The longing that is the blue flower is the longing for perfection—for the last fullness of things.

Love is no longer merely practiced and pursued; it is finally grasped, fully known, face to face. The longing that is the blue flower is the longing for perfection—for the last fullness of things.

It is with the concept of fullness that the novel would have ended. According to one of the characters towards the close of the story, “The dream is World, the World is Dream.”[9] In other words, the dream that Heinrich receives becomes the real world, and the seemingly real world to which he awakes is less true than his dream. What began as faint and seemingly falsified at the beginning of the novel is the entire reality as the story continues—just as what looks like a reflection, as in a mirror, becomes the true image in 1 Corinthians 13.  This is to say “that the world of fable has become reality, that it is an enhanced dream, and that this dream becomes an enhanced world… ‘The dream is World, the World is Dream.’ The dream of the Blue Flower, at the outset of the first part of the novel, becomes the world of the tale told at its very end.”[10] In other words, for Heinrich, as for Novalis, desire is verified, and the true and full longing of the dream is more real in the end than the first waking world.


In 1842, the Scottish novelist George MacDonald discovered the works of Novalis through German translation projects. According to William Raeper, “The life and thought of Novalis so gripped MacDonald that he returned to him again and again, finding some deep affinity in the spiritual, sad and simple poetry of the afflicted German.”[11] Yet the inheritance of ideas Novalis passed down to MacDonald did not merely leave a mark on MacDonald’s writing; in many ways, it was MacDonald’s writing. Michael J. Partridge explains,

Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen was the story of a journey and the search for a mysterious blue flower. It was a symbolic parable (‘Erziehungsroman’) that, in many ways, prefigured Phantastes and Lilith. Representing in dramatic form a step by step ascent and deliverance from the bonds of this earthly life. However, with MacDonald the quest was an inward one. Like MacDonald’s Scottish novels it was also deliberately set in a removed but recognizable past.[12]

One of the most significant elements of Novalis’s writing for MacDonald was the validity of the dream. “MacDonald prefaced Phantastes with some quotations from Novalis including, ‘A fairy story is like a disjointed dream-vision… nature itself… ‘. It was a dream exploring the hidden unconscious inner meaning of the soul.”[13] This respect for dream, fairy, and fantasy story passed from Novalis through MacDonald to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others—authors and poets we recognize specifically for their love of dream.[2]  “One of MacDonald’s favourite sayings came from Novalis, ‘Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one, and perhaps will,’ which he quoted in Phantastes, Lilith, The Portent and elsewhere. Novalis also wrote, ‘We are closer to things invisible than to things visible.’ His belief was that the heart was the key to the world and life itself, and that all men and women were on a journey Homeward.”[14] In other words, for George MacDonald, all men are on a journey to the blue flower.


“That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”[15] C.S. Lewis’s introduction to George MacDonald was itself a step along the path to the blue flower, for he writes after reading him that “all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed.”[16] This search for joy was nothing less than a lifelong pursuit of the blue flower.

Lewis writes of his first Heinrich-like “dream” of the blue flower when he describes the view out of his nursery window. “[E]very day there were what we called ‘the Green Hills’; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing – Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.”[17] In claiming this devotion, Lewis joined the ranks of Novalis and MacDonald in his dedication to the blue flower—the longing, the dream that becomes reality in the end.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines this German sehnsucht as “longing” or “yearning”—the pursuit of the blue flower, a pursuit that became for Lewis at six years old a deeply religious one.[18] In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his pursuit as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy… [I]t might almost equally be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.”[19]

This respect for dream, fairy, and fantasy story passed from Novalis through MacDonald to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others—authors and poets we recognize specifically for their love of dream.

The idea of Joy is integral to the blue flower for Lewis. As he writes in Till We Have Faces, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most.”[20] It is in experiencing Joy in the world that he was most drawn away by a desirable dissatisfaction. In other words, it was through reality that he encountered Heinrich’s dream that would become the world. He describes the blue flower as “that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well and the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”[21] The life of the votary is not a gnostic one; instead, for Lewis it is the beauty of the physical, tangible world that evokes the beauty of the blue flower, leaving him joyful—and still wanting. [3] To possess the physical, tangible world is not to possess the blue flower—it is only to possess the desire, however delightful, for it.

 That desire for the flower is the desire of a homesick man for his own country. As Lewis famously writes in Mere Christianity,

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.[22]

Elsewhere, Lewis describes this pressing on as pursuing the bright shadow of holiness.[23] It is the long work of receiving the Joy granted to him and, through this, keeping his vision steadily upon the Joy of the world it promises. This means neither ignoring the Joy nor idolizing it but keeping the continual tension holy men must hold.

On the one hand, Lewis was not one to despise “blue flower moments” for not fulfilling him in the moment. The life of the votary is not devoted to a mirage. For Lewis, “Joy was not a deception. Its visitations were rather the moments of clearest consciousness we had, when we became aware of our fragmentary and phantasmal nature and ached for that impossible reunion which would annihilate us or that self-contradictory waking which would reveal, not that we had had, but that we were, a dream.”[24] Like both Novalis and MacDonald, Lewis’ pursuit of the blue flower led him to an understanding of the present life as a dream and the coming glory as the true wakening.

At the same time, Lewis was not to mistake the moment of sehnsucht for the moment of picking the blue flower at the end of the story. As he ends his spiritual autobiography, he writes,

[Joy] was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem.’[25]

The bonfire, the ducks calling overhead, the fairy stories of MacDonald, Heinrich’s dream of the flower: these are all signposts pointing to the coming Jerusalem. They are markers, not the destination.

What, then, of the time before Jerusalem, when the dream is not yet world? Here again is a tension, for what-is-already and what-is-not-yet leave man with both blessing and burden. Lewis writes in the preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress,

[T]hough the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth…For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.[26]

Unlike Heinrich, whose pursuit of the longing is fictionalized, Lewis never picked the blue flower—at least, not on this earth. Throughout his life, the blue flower remained just out of reach, possession always marked by desire.


It is the blurred distinction between wanting and having that Marilynne Robinson engages in her novel Housekeeping. She writes of the protagonist’s grandmother Sylvie that, “When she had been married a little while, she concluded that love was half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate.”[27] For little Heinrich, love (the height of all virtue) in this world is intrinsically connected to desire for something—or Someone—that cannot be possessed here. For Sylvie, as for Lewis, desire cuts across the ordinary distinctions.

Robinson describes how Sylvie’s husband gave her a pendant on which a circle of seahorses was painted. “It was the seahorses themselves that she wanted to see as soon as she took her eyes away, and that she wanted to see even when she was looking at them. The wanting never subsided until something—a quarrel, a visit—took her attention away. In the same way her daughters would touch her and watch her and follow her, for a while.”[28] Even when possessing the joy of the seahorses, Sylvie desires to possess them more. It is a delight that is a wanting, a wanting that is itself a delight, as Lewis attests. These seahorses serve in the novel as Lewis’s green hills, as Robinson’s own blue flower. For Novalis, MacDonald, and Lewis, present possession of beauty never mitigated the desire; rather, it intensified it. Until this dream becomes the world at the end, the dream will continue to break forth upon the world for those who live as votaries.

Robinson goes on to describe further the ideas of longing and need in her comparison of craving and having—reaching again for sehnsucht.

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it[…]Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.[29]

For Robinson, as for Lewis, to have the beauty of this world is to crave the beauty of another. Man rightly desires more beauty from the world than the broken world can lend; he is sometimes nearest to the true thing when he wants it, for he desires more fully than he receives in part[4] . Man knows joy best in the moments of blue flower longing, when he desires what he does not possess and knows most fully what is withheld from him. The thirst is better than all the world’s slaking, for the thirst keeps us following the signposts.

The danger that must be noted here is in the potential of losing Lewis’ tension—of either ignoring or idolizing thirst itself, the moments of longing. The berry breaking upon the tongue must be a signpost to Jerusalem—significant, yet no city itself. The call to follow the flower is not a call to asceticism, nor worldly gain, but to seeking first the kingdom of heaven, believing that the true dream will be added unto us. For Robinson—as for Lewis, MacDonald, and Novalis—that dream is more real than reality. It is the ultimate reality—the foreshadowing of the redemption of the world, of the stone man becoming Man again. The dream is world, the world is dream, and it is in dreaming that man best knows the world. For Lewis, this life of dreaming is characterized by serving as a votary of the blue flower; for Robinson, it is characterized by being fostered by longing. Nevertheless, Robinson is the inheritress of the great tradition of Germanic poetry, of the images of longing passed down from poet to poet.

For Robinson, as for Lewis, to have the beauty of this world is to crave the beauty of another. Man rightly desires more beauty from the world than the broken world can lend; he is sometimes nearest to the true thing when he wants it, for he desires more fully than he receives in part.


Thus far, we have traced the tradition of the blue flower and sehnsucht from romantic poetry to the modern novel and seen how Novalis’s concept lends image and shape to “a longing of a kind that possession”—in this world—does “nothing to mitigate.”[30] Yet every tradition meets resistance, especially in modernity. Walter Benjamin writes in his essay “Dream Kitsch,” “No one really dreams any longer of the Blue Flower. Whoever awakes as Heinrich von Ofterdingen today must have overslept.”[31] Romanticism is ever besieged by those who question the validity of the dream and the dreamer. The reasons for this are manifold; progressivism will always doubt the old philosophies, and modern thinking questions the substance of that which is not seen. There is nothing industrial about the blue flower, nothing economic. Instead, it is, as the poets have noted, a joy tinged with something of grief. It requires of its followers the acknowledgement that they are not fulfilled and cannot fulfill themselves.[5] 

To give oneself over as a votary to a dream is foolishness to the world. To believe that the dream will in the end become the world—with desire fulfilled and every stone man made man again—is as foolish as faith, because it is faith. By faith Novalis told of the boy who followed the blue flower of his dream and committed himself to heavenly guidance. By faith MacDonald followed the boy, writing and retelling his own series of dreams for the sake of the world he believed would come. By faith Lewis followed MacDonald, preferring this unsatisfied desire beyond any satisfaction the earth could offer. By faith Robinson followed Lewis, trusting that the best possession is found in the craving for the blue flower and that, at the end of all desire, the world will be made whole.

There is nothing industrial about the blue flower, nothing economic. Instead, it is, as the poets have noted, a joy tinged with something of grief. It requires of its followers the acknowledgement that they are not fulfilled and cannot fulfill themselves.

Lewis describes this tradition of faith, writing of the role of sehnsucht in The Pilgrim’s Regress:

It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle—the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the merely argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defense of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity.[32]

That which Novalis, MacDonald, Lewis, and Robinson defend in their devotion to the blue flower is nothing less than Christianity itself: the faith that every desire, in the end, will be fulfilled, that the world and all its beauty serve as signposts here, that the dream will become the world, and the world will be whole. We would be at Jerusalem.

Insofar as Christianity will always be under siege, so will the blue flower. As Heinrich asks at the beginning of Heinrich von Ofterdingen, “[I]n the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower?”[33] To live as these poets have done—as a votary wholly given—is to live wholly for another world. To dream of the blue flower is not to oversleep but to insist upon staying awake, keeping vigil through the night with confidence in the coming dawn.

Hannah Hubin (B.A., New College Franklin) is a writer, poet, and lyricist. Her projects include All the Wrecked Light: A Lyrical Exposition of Psalm 90 and the online visual poetry project Brown Brink Eastward. Hubin teaches humanities, writing, and Latin just south of Nashville and is currently pursuing graduate studies in Biblical languages.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 12.

[2] Frederick Hiebel, “The Blue Flower,” In Novalis: German Poet—European Thinker

Christian Mystic, 111-18 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), accessed May 8, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469657554_hiebel.24, 117.

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, and Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2008), 238.

[4] von Hardenberg, Henry of Ofterdingen.

[5] von Hardenberg, Henry of Ofterdingen.

[6] Hiebel, “The Blue Flower,”116.

[7] Hiebel, “The Blue Flower,” 116.

[8] Hiebel, “The Blue Flower,” 116-117.

[9] Quoted in Hiebel, “The Blue Flower,” 113.

[10] Hiebel “The Blue Flower,” 113.

[11] Quoted in Michael J Partridge, “George MacDonald & Novalis,” The Golden Key (The George MacDonald Society, 2014), http://www.george-macdonald.com/resources1/novalis.html.

[12] Partridge, “George MacDonald & Novalis.”

[13] Partridge, “George MacDonald & Novalis.”

[14] Partridge, “George MacDonald & Novalis.”

[15] C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1955), 181.

[16] Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 180.

[17] Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 7.

[18] Cambridge Dictionary Online, s.v. “sehnsucht,” accessed April 4, 2022, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/german-english/sehnsucht.

[19] Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 17-18.

[20] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1956), 74.

[21] C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, version by Faded Page, eBook #20150649, 3rd ed., 1933, file:///C:/Users/eucat/Downloads/20150649-a5.pdf, 9.

[22] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co, Inc, 1943), 120.

[23] Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 179.

[24] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 222.

[25] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 238.

[26] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 7-8.

[27] Robinson, Housekeeping, 12.

[28] Robinson, Housekeeping, 12-13.

[29] Robinson, Housekeeping, 152-153.

[30] Robinson, Housekeeping, 12.

[31] Benjamin, The Work of Art, 236.

[32] C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10.

[33] von Hardenberg, Henry of Ofterdingen.

[1] Friedrich von Hardenberg, Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance, version by Project Gutenberg (Cambridge: John Owen, 1842), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31873/31873-h/31873-h.htm.


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