Why George MacDonald Matters

Timothy Larsen on the Victorian writer

Once upon a time, when young princesses were still plentiful, there nevertheless was a scarcity of children’s literature throughout the kingdom. The Scottish author George MacDonald (1824-1905) recalled of his own childhood: “We had very few books for children in those days.” There were multiple reasons for this famine of words of wonder.  At the most practical level, a whole series of technological innovations and trade and business developments would allow the Victorian world of MacDonald’s adulthood to be awash in affordable printed material beyond what previous generations ever could have imagined.  Moreover, in the early nineteenth century, many adults were illiterate, and many families that were literate owned only a handful of books, with by the far the most common ones all being religious texts, most notably the Bible, prayer books, hymn books, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and other devotional or theological works, sermon collections, or biblical commentaries.

Given such pickings, generations of children adored Pilgrim’s Progress. Although it was written for adults—and even has for its protagonist a married man with four children who has a mid-life crisis—nevertheless, as MacDonald later observed, it also had material to fire young imaginations: “there were swords, and armour, and giants, and demons there.”

If a child was fortunate enough to get their small hands on a volume specially written for young people it was a near certainty that it would be an improving tale with a heavy-handed moral. The derisive term, “goody two-shoes”, was made famous through one such attempt, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765).  (Hint: you were supposed to admire and learn to emulate the virtuous girl with the paired footwear.)

MacDonald was raised in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, a small town a cold and dark 162 miles north of Edinburgh. The Protestant Reformed faith ruled over the land.  You were free to join any denomination you liked, but they were all Calvinist. For the MacDonald family, the Reformed faith meant a strong sense that art and culture could easily tempt one away from God and thus were sometimes better avoided altogether. MacDonald’s grandmother decided that the musical interests of one of her sons were becoming idolatrous and so she threw his violin into the fire.  Likewise, MacDonald’s own father confiscated a copy of a novel by Sir Walter Scott that the future author had managed to get his youthful hands on.

George MacDonald is a central figure in the generation that changed all this. One possible way for children to escape from relentlessly didactic and moralizing literature was to find a portal into fairyland. When MacDonald’s mother died, his father remarried.  The family patriarch also mellowed with age and regretted his Puritanical decision regarding the Waverly novel.  As a young adult, MacDonald insured that his little half-sister, Bella, received a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

In 1858, George MacDonald published his novel, Phantastes. He called it “a sort of fairy tale for grown people.”  On his twenty-first birthday, Anodos is transported into his fairyland.  He watches as the quotidian world of his bedroom simply dissolves and is replaced by an enchanted forest:

My dressing-table was an old-fashioned piece of furniture of black oak, with drawers all down the front. These were elaborately carved in foliage, of which ivy formed the chief part. The nearer end of this table remained just as it had been, but on the further end a singular change had commenced.  I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy-leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakable ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers.

To this day, readers often find Phantastes to be a deeply strange novel. Nevertheless, we are steadied and orientated by all the fantasy literature that has grown out of it like realist novels suddenly animated by magic. We have Tolkien, but Tolkien only had MacDonald and his followers. To put the point bluntly, no MacDonald, no Tolkien.  It is still a curious book, but as it was the starting point of something new, Phantastes was immeasurably weirder for its original readers.  In fact, MacDonald had gotten ahead of the market.  He turned back to the tried-and-true genre of realist fiction, churning out close to thirty such books.  He was always frank about the fact that he wrote the realist novels because they paid the bills. Still, if you are a reader of Victorian novels who is willing to move beyond Dickens—maybe even one who has already delighted in Anthony Trollope or Elizabeth Gaskell—then there are some worthy contributions by MacDonald waiting for you as well. Start with his first, David Elginbrod (1863), or perhaps the semi-autobiographical Robert Falconer (1868), and see how you get on.

Late in life, with his children raised and the battle of the bills behind him, our Scottish author returned to his early love and wrote another disorientating and uncanny “fairy tale for grown people,” Lilith (1895). Its protagonist is Mr. Vane who crosses over from the materialistic banality of his library to “the region of the seven dimensions” where he can learn how to stop being a mere “man of the world” and broaden into a “man of the universe.” Phantastes and Lilith might perplex even you—my sophisticated, time-and-space travelling readers of the universe; a generation raised on Bunyan was at its wit’s end.  Beside realism, all they knew was allegory.  Pilgrim’s Progress was not a hard nut to crack.  One soon learns to trust someone named Hopeful, but to be wary of Lord Hate-Good; to brace oneself when asked to climb the Hill of Difficulty, but to count on having a good time in the House of the Palace Beautiful. After writing Phantastes, MacDonald was besieged with letters from readers who assumed that it was an allegory too subtle for them to grasp.  Like giving up and asking for the solution to a crossword puzzle, readers appealed to the author to send them the “key” for interpreting it. MacDonald wearily explained that there was no master key – that readers were free “to take any meaning they themselves see in it.” Once again, readers have long learned to accept such a state of things, but MacDonald is the one who made it possible.  It is hard to imagine a bewildering romp of a novel such as G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) were it not for MacDonald.

After Phantastes, in addition to realist novels, MacDonald would also make the turn to children’s literature, writing fairytales for the young.  “The Light Princess”, which appeared in 1862, is an exquisite example. It contains both drama and romance, but the real mark of something new is its high-hearted, absurd, zany streak.  Likewise, “The Golden Key” is a touching and beautiful story. It too demands that the reader accept the realities of an alternative world on their own terms. One wonders if MacDonald was teasing his po-faced readers by telling them that the only “key” he would give them was a mystical one conferred by a fairy grandmother at “the place where the end of the rainbow stands.”  Both were included in MacDonald’s short story collection, Dealings with the Fairies (1867).

MacDonald also wrote three book-length stories for children, all of which were beloved by whole generations and continue to find appreciative readers to this day: At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1882).  There is nothing else like At the Back of the North Wind in all of literature, and its originality and mysteriousness still has the power to haunt readers.  Mark Twain’s children loved it so much that they read it until their copy fell to bits.  In time, Twain and MacDonald became friends, even fantasizing about co-authoring a novel. Some literary scholars make the case that Huckleberry Finn was influenced by Robert Falconer.  G. K. Chesterton enthused that The Princess and the Goblin was a “book that made a difference to my whole existence.” Curdie is a major character even in that first volume.  Although he is only twelve-years old, Curdie is a full-time miner, who even works the nightshift.  It is a reminder of what a different world MacDonald was raised in that the fact that Curdie is a child laborer is so casually taken for granted.  Like moving from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, or the journey from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, so The Princess and Curdie is clearly written for a reader who is older than the presumed audience of The Princess and the Goblin.  Curdie is at that dangerous stage where one is so afraid of being duped that he is in danger of ending up believing in “nothing but his dinner.”  That will not do, for the universe is filled with mystery and magic and wonder: “There are more moons than you know of, Curdie.”

In his realist novel,  Adela Cathcart (1864) MacDonald rather cleverly included some of his previously published short stories—and alluded to others.  Adela is suffering from a mysterious illness and some friends hatch a plan to try a literary cure, forming themselves into a storytelling club during the twelve days of Christmas.  The first story that Adela hears is “The Light Princess.”  Her stern and stuffy aunt, however, is rattled by its failure to conform to the approved didactic pattern: “‘What is the moral of it?’ drawled Mrs. Cathcart, with the first syllable of moral very long and unaccented.”  She therefore becomes the one who is in need of catechizing: “Even if wholly fictitious, a good story is always true.”

Unlike Mrs. Cathcart, someone who did enjoy “The Light Princess” was MacDonald’s close friend, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll).  MacDonald and his wife, Louisa, had a passionate and loving marriage. With undiminished energy and ardor, Louisa would complain in retrospect that their completed family of eleven children was “the wrong side of a dozen.”  The MacDonald children adored Lewis Carroll, who was made an honorary relation and addressed as “Uncle Dodgson.” He had written a story that he was calling Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Another friend encouraged him to have it published, but he was not sure it was any good.  He decided to test it out on the MacDonald children. They gave it their approval, and it was published in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll with the revised title, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

MacDonald was not merely helping to create a more playful and less earnest form of children’s literature—he was helping to foster a new attitude toward childhood. Maybe a child’s imagination should be cultivated rather than curbed.  Maybe even it was not just that children needed to learn how to become adults, but that adults also needed to learn how to become children again. Jesus himself had said as much, but the Victorians were apt to assume that the Master was confining the thought to one specific trait of childhood such as a willingness to trust.  What if the wild imaginative play and fantasy worlds of children were also a part of what adults needed to recover?

Not unrelatedly, MacDonald was an early adopter of the kind of enthusiastic prioritization of Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year that has come to mark the English-speaking world ever since.  It is not an accident that so much of what we think of as how to celebrate Christmas comes from the Victorians.  (The town where I live, Wheaton, Illinois, promotes all its holiday events under the general banner, “A Dickens of a Christmas.”) In MacDonald’s Scottish childhood, New Year’s (Hogmanay) would have been the biggest annual celebration and many determinedly Protestant people would not have celebrated on December 25th at all.  The Victorians firmly established Christmas as the biggest holiday of the year partially because they were won over to the new cult of childhood.  MacDonald’s poignant and powerful Christmas story, “The Gifts of the Child Christ” (1882), unquestionably deserves to have a place alongside classics of the genre such as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” (1845) and O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (1905).

In Adela Cathcart, MacDonald has the minister preach a Christmas sermon which articulated this new privileging of childhood:

The winter is the childhood of the year.  Into this childhood of the year came the child Jesus; and into this childhood of the year must we all descend.  It is as if God spoke to each of us according to our need, “My son, my daughter, you are growing old and cunning; you must grow a child again, with my Son, this blessed birth-time.  You are growing old and selfish; you must become a child.  You are growing old and careful; you must become a child.  You are growing old and distrustful; you must become a child.  You are growing old and petty, and weak, and foolish; you must become a child—my child, like the baby there, that strong sunrise of faith and hope and love, lying in his mother’s arms in the stable.”

MacDonald himself set a good example by collecting and playing with toy soldiers throughout his adult life.

The father of fantasy literature took this line of thought one step further and put forward a theology of the child side of the Almighty himself: “God is child-like. . . . And he was, is, and ever shall be divinely childlike.”  Once again, we are at the font which flows on to that delightful, paradoxical passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908):

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

At the end of “The Golden Key,” the two protagonists, Tangle and Mossy, having gone on their adventure, are “younger and better, and stronger and wiser, than they had ever been before.” For a friend’s fifty-sixth birthday, MacDonald wrote her a poem that began: “Up the hill of years / To the peak of youth!” Jesus wants us to grow young.

As with Tangle and Mossy, so with all of us: we grow wiser as we grow younger.  I think this holds the clue to why the authors that have made the deepest impression on us, the ones that we return to again and again to gain the wisdom to live, the ones whose genuine profundity we find beyond all question or cavil, are so often writers of children’s literature. I think maybe the reverse is true as well: the fact that children were so thoroughly enraptured by Pilgrim’s Progress shows that Bunyan had found his way to bedrock, myth-level truth in the same way that good children’s literature so often does.  In the end, it hardly matters if The Lord of the Rings is a fairytale for grown people being enjoyed by children, or youth fiction being delighted over by octogenarians.

And so we reach the Inklings, because George MacDonald is the fairy godfather of the Inklings.  None more so than C. S. Lewis, who referred to MacDonald as his “Master,” and who credited his first reading of Phantastes as a life-changing event:

The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change.  It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.  For in one sense the new country was exactly like the old.  I met there all that had already charmed me in Marlory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats.  But in another sense all was changed.  . . . That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized . . .

No Phantastes, no Narnia.  In Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce (1945), MacDonald himself is a character who acts as a guide to the spiritual realm much as Virgil does for Dante in The Divine Comedy. Madeleine L’Engle, who was a generation younger than Lewis, also credited the Scottish pioneer of fantasy fiction, and she never outgrew his works, testifying: “George MacDonald gives me renewed strength during times of trouble.”  No MacDonald, no A Wrinkle in Time.

One of America’s leading public intellectuals, Alan Jacobs, in his wise and comforting book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2001), addresses the case of a true literary fan: “the person who has read all the Narnia books or all of Dickens’s novels, and who wonders where to turn.” Jacobs invites readers to accept the adventurous but admittedly sometimes arduous task of going “upstream” – to make the effort to read some of the works that shaped the authors they so admire:

If you turn upstream to see where your favorite authors came from, intellectually speaking, you may discover all sorts of works that are fascinating, illuminating—but also, yes, challenging. “Challenging” is precisely what the (downstream) imitators usually are not, but that means they’re not all that rewarding either.  . . . Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble.

My fellow readers who continue to read even in this age of distraction, if you will look closely at your desk, you will notice the pattern of foliage that is carved into it. Follow it with your eyes until you begin to see vibrant, living leaves.  Nearby you will see a rippling brook curving its way through an enchanted forest. Follow it upstream.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, and an Honorary Fellow in the School of Divinity, the University of Edinburgh.  He has written eight books, including George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment (IVP Academic 2018).