George MacDonald: Life, Works, Legacy

I was 14-years-old the first time I saw the name George MacDonald. It appeared in C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (1955). It didn’t make an impression initially, but as I read Lewis more, MacDonald’s name became unavoidable. “Whoever this MacDonald was,” I surmised, “he clearly made a profound impact on Lewis.”

This may be your experience too: if you’ve heard of MacDonald at all, it’s been by way of Lewis. After all, he has been one of his greatest publicists. And if you’re like me, you well intend to read him, one day. For me, that day came when I was 24, and I found myself reading MacDonald’s “The Day Boy and Night Girl” (1882). Strange, intriguing, mysterious, unique, wonderful—all of the above. I quickly discovered why this man had so captured Lewis’ imagination.

It wasn’t that MacDonald simply told an enjoyable story. Certainly that was true. Rather, he caused me to think new thoughts altogether. Once in a while, we stumble across authors whose writings are magical, and we feel as if we’ve happened upon a gold mine. For me, MacDonald has had this effect. So who is this MacDonald? In this article, we will consider his life, work, legacy, and importance.

Early Life & Education

When we think of George MacDonald, Scotland should come to mind. Many of his book’s settings and themes are based on and/or inspired by it. And no wonder, for it was there that he was born on December 10, 1824 in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. As a boy and a young man, he attended a strongly Calvinistic church. As his life and writings would bear out, this confession troubled him. He enjoyed boxing and good health. But most importantly, he loved reading.

In the early 1840s, MacDonald began attending King’s College, Aberdeen. By 1845, he graduated with his M.A. He then began tutoring for a wealthy London family in 1846. While in London, he also began attending Highbury College, a Congregational Seminary, in 1848. Upon finishing a four-year program in two, he began preaching at Trinity Congregational Church in Arundel, England in 1850. He had also met his bride in London, Louisa Powell, whom he married by 1851.

Pastor & Author

Much like the church in which MacDonald grew up, Trinity was strongly committed to Calvinism. Unsurprisingly, he did not last long as their preacher. Although the congregants liked him well enough, the leadership did not. Some of his ideas were unusual, and he didn’t hold to a Calvinist interpretation of predestination and election. So insistent was the leadership on his leaving that they actually cut his salary. By May 1853, he resigned, as he didn’t have enough money to support his family. All said, he spent 2-3 years as a full-time pastor.

Despite these troubles, MacDonald was an effective and memorable lecturer and preacher. Throughout his life, he received many opportunities to speak—England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Canada, and America. Archibald Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England, once remarked that MacDonald “was the very best preacher he had ever heard.”[1] In the winter of 1872-73, he accepted a lecture tour in America, selling out many auditoriums, and giving lectures on literary characters such as Robert Burns and William Shakespeare. While in New York, the Fifth Avenue church even offered him the position of pastor, and for a generous sum. MacDonald declined.[2]

Unsuccessful behind the pulpit, MacDonald tried his hand at writing. This would prove a more meaningful pursuit and would consume the rest of his life. He had always loved reading, and had even written some poetry. In 1851, he had completed his own translation of Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis, giving away copies as Christmas gifts. In fact, MacDonald could read in Dutch, English, French, Germany, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.

Certainly his knowledge of language and culture would play an important role in his ability to paint such vivid, memorable pictures in his books. Some years later, poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) would write: “In his power to project his inner life into images, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.”[3] Finally, in 1855 MacDonald published his first work, Within and Without: A Dramatic Poem, a full-length play written in verse. Undoubtedly, MacDonald had found his life’s work.

Fiction & Fantasy

When we consider MacDonald the author, we should remember his time and place: 19th-century England—in other words, the Victorian era of literature. He would publish more than 50 books over the course of four decades. His works can roughly be divided into four categories: (1) realistic fiction, (2) fantasy and fairytales, (3) poetry, and (4) nonfiction. For the purposes of this article, we’ll briefly consider the first two.

a. Fiction

During his lifetime, MacDonald was most celebrated for his realistic fiction. He wrote about 30 of these novels. They are often set in and around agrarian life in Scotland, with about half of them containing Doric dialect. Although he is not presently celebrated as a great Victorian novelist (like Charles Dickins, Thomas Hardy, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot), he should be. He was certainly well liked in his day. In fact, Queen Victoria gave copies of his 1868 novel Robert Falconer to her grandchildren, and even granted him a Civil Lists Pension in 1877.

Part of the reason why our age has forgotten MacDonald is because of his strong commitment to Christian values and traditional morality. His novels are laced with implications for spiritual living, a characteristic that modern, academic culture leaders are often unwilling to abide. For example, Sir Gibbie’s (1879) protagonist is an orphan boy who serves as a Christ figure, challenging, convicting, and inspiring us every step of the way. Such characters and themes fill MacDonald novels.

b. Fantasy

As interesting as these novels are, MacDonald’s most important literary contribution to our world is his work in fantasy and fairytales. Phantastes (1858), “The Light Princess” (1864), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), “The Day Boy and Night Girl” (1882), and Lilith (1895): all of these deserve our attention. However, we’ll simply consider the influential The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1883) at this time.

If you read any one thing by MacDonald, I’d suggest this collection. These books follow the adventures of Irene, a princess, and Curdie, a miner-boy. Some of the themes that emerge include faith, honor, courage, character, belief, and kindness. The reason I pick these books is because they have made the most impact upon us, whether or not we realize it.

To illustrate, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis found their inspiration for The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937) and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) from these books, not simply in their tone, quality, and form, but even in some of their basic plot points. In fact, The Hobbit’s very title bears the name of MacDonald’s novel, There and Back (1891).[4]

G.K. Chesterton also offered high praise for these books, stating that the former had “made a difference to [his] whole existence,”[5] and describing the latter as “magnificent.”[6] Of The Princess and the Goblin, he went on to say, “Of all the stories I ever read . . . it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.”[7]

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), author of A Wrinkle in Time (1962), also offered commendations:

He has come to my rescue many times, has said to me just what I needed to have said in a moment of doubt or confusion. . . . I loved George MacDonald, beginning with The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Like all great fantasists, he has taught me about life, life in eternity rather than chronology, life in that time in which we are real.[8]

Much more should be said about MacDonald’s importance as an author, but we must return to these themes at a later time.

Later Life & Conclusion

By the late 1890s, MacDonald’s mind became foggy, and his health slowly deteriorated. In 1902, his dearest wife, with whom he celebrated 50+ years and fathered 11 children, died. And on September 18, 1905, at the age of 80, he followed her in death.

Despite MacDonald’s limited recognition today, he merits our attention. While he is not without his difficulties, I conclude that his positive contributions and qualities far outweigh his questionable ones—much like Lewis in that respect.

Indeed, MacDonald has much to teach us, if only we’ll read him. We’ve noted his impact upon others. In addition though, we should read him for our own sakes. Reading his books is much like searching for gold, except that you find it, over and over and over again.

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For more information on George MacDonald, please see the following:

The George MacDonald Informational Web

George MacDonald Society

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[1] Joseph Johnson, George MacDonald: A Biographical and Critical Appreciation (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.: 1906), 141; accessible at http://www.electricscotland.com/poetry/macdonald/georgemacdonaldb00john.pdf.

[2] Mark Galli and Ted Olsen (editors), 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Christianity Today, Inc., 2000), 125.

[3] W.H. Auden, “Introduction” to Lilith (1954); Back cover endorsement in George MacDonald, The Light Princess and Other Stories (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980).

[4] Much more could be said about his influence upon the Inklings, but suffice it to say, it is there. Especially when we look to Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams, this influence is clear.

At the same time, whenever we read Tolkien’s letters, their tone changes from positive to critical to negative through the course of his life. Much of this stems from the fact that Tolkien increasingly disliked Christian allegory as he got older, so much so in fact that he even regretted aspects of his very own work, The Hobbit, decades after it was written.

That said, Lewis couldn’t say enough good things about him. He once wrote, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him” (Preface in C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald: An Anthology, 365 Readings (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), xxxvii).

[5] G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction” to Greville MacDonald, George MacDonald and his Wife (1924); assessable at http://www.george-macdonald.com/resources/chesterton_introduction.html.

[6] G.K. Chesterton, “George Macdonald and His Work,” The Daily News, June 11, 1901; accessible at http://www.wheaton.edu/~/media/Files/Centers-and-Institutes/Wade-Center/Gabelman-GKConGM-Vol28.pdf.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction” to Greville MacDonald.

[8] George MacDonald—Timeline,” Taylor University, accessed on September 2, 2014, http://library.taylor.edu/cslewis/authors/timeline.shtml.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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