C.S. Lewis’ Master: The Moral Imagination of George MacDonald

George Macdonald was a deep-set jewel in the fabric of nineteenth-century literary life. His fantasy works for children, At the Back of the North Wind, The Golden Key, The Princess and the Goblins, The Light Princess, are generally acknowledged as classics, and his adult fantasies, Phantastes and Lilith, are pioneer explorations into dimensions of the human spirit.

G.K. Chesterton, that passionate verbal swordsman battling modern illusion and despair, paid this tribute to the man:

 “In a certain rather special sense I, for one, can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin.

C.S. Lewis, perhaps the best known Christian apologist of the twentieth century, wrote, “I have never concealed the fact that I regard him as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” Lewis Carroll, a close friend, tested Alice’s Adventures Underground upon the enthusiastic MacDonald children after first seeking their father’s opinion of the work.

John Ruskin, the most influential art and literary philosopher-critic of the time, leaned heavily upon MacDonald’s friendship during a difficult and critical period of his life. Later, acting as a referee for MacDonald in his application for the Edinburgh Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1865, Ruskin the critic paid MacDonald the writer perhaps the highest possible compliment: “I am always glad to hear you lecture myself, and if I had a son, I would rather he took lessons in literary taste under you than under any person I know, for you would make him more than a scholar, a living and thoughtful reader.” Yet as Greville MacDonald, MacDonald’s son and first biographer, pointed out, at least the early biographers of Ruskin omitted to mention his father at all.

MacDonald is virtually unknown when compared to the fame achieved by his contemporaries Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, or Anthony Trollope. The bulk of his work is long out of print, and he is often only recalled as a foot-note in the literary biography of another. During his own lifetime, reviewers of works such as Lilith or Phantastes simply did not know what to make of this “wild phantasmagoria of nonsense,” as one contemporary put it. Currently, however, we seem to be witnessing a minor renaissance of interest in MacDonald with two new biographies and a growing recognition of his place in university courses on fantasy and children’s literature.

MacDonald was born in 1824 as the second of six sons to George MacDonald, Sr., who ran a farm and bleaching field in West Aberdeenshire, Scotland. MacDonald lost his mother when he was eight. His father’s second marriage eventually added three daughters to the family. Correspondence between parents and children, as well as between the children themselves, reveals astonishing love and respect for one another. George, especially, had a frank and loving relationship with his brave, generous, and infinitely caring father. This relationship formed the model for his own understanding and experience of the Heavenly Father, as his dedication of his first book of poems to his father indicates:

Thou hast been faithful to my highest need:

And I, thy debtor, ever, evermore,

Shall never feel the grateful burden sore.

Yet most I thank thee, not for any deed,

But for the sense thy living self did breed

That fatherhood is at the world’s great core.

MacDonald was a bright, physically frail child. Throughout his life he suffered from the lung disease that plagued his family and killed two brothers and a sister, as well as a number of his own children later, at an early age. As a youth George read for hours, walked alone and melancholy by the wild sea, and wrote poetry. Yet, winning a scholarship to Aberdeen University, he chose to study chemistry and natural philosophy. He did so perhaps for practical reasons, as well as for love of the scientific precision involved and the wonders of the universe that unfolded before him. MacDonald stood out among the rank and file at university not only because of the colorful high-land tartans that he wore, but also because others, hearing him in debate, sensed the depth of his intellectual and spiritual development; he seemed to them to possess great and as yet unrealized talent.

During his university years MacDonald came to suspect and reject his Calvinist religious background. It was embodied, for him, in his maternal grandmother, a grim and watchful lady who ordered MacDonald’s young mother to wean young George at three months and let him cry unconsoled through the night, prayed constantly for individuals seduced by the “Scarlet Woman” of Rome, and who burned one son’s violin in order to save his soul. MacDonald certainly inherited her religious zeal, but not her creed. Later in life he was to reminisce thus: “I can well remember feeling as a child that I did not care for God to love me if he did not love everybody: the kind of love I needed was the love that all men needed, the love that belonged to their nature as the children of the Father, a love he could not give me except he gave it to all men.”

University years began to uncover the yearning in MacDonald for God, a longing that characterized his personal life, writing and preaching. He sought for a perfect relationship with God, which for him, as he told his father, besides being possible for all men, must be as intimate, tender, and personal as father and child. To be carried in the Father’s heart and to live as a true son of that wonderful Father was MacDonald’s heart’s desire.

No; thou must be a God to me,

As if I stood alone;

I such a perfect child to thee

As if thou hadst but one.

The level of his self-awareness and search for truth at this time is apparent in a letter written by MacDonald to his father when he was just 21. It was written, it should be pointed out, amidst the ferment in West Aberdeenshire caused by the Chartist movement, which asked the British people in general to question their political and theological assumptions, and the Calvinists in particular what need they had for the Gospel if the elect and no others were predestined to be saved. “My greatest difficulty always is ‘How do I know that my faith is of a lasting kind such as will produce fruits?’ My error seems to be always searching for faith in place of contemplating the truths of the gospel which produce faith. My spirit is often very confused.”

In 1845 MacDonald met Louisa Powell, whom he married six years later. He came into her family’s life, as one of her sisters wrote, “not like a conventional youth, with polite smooth talk but like a prophet of old. Long before we thought of him as having any religious message to us, gradually we found he knew about everything and could put any difficulty right, be it to answer ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘What is poetry?’ or ‘What about ghosts or fairies?'” One of the freedoms of the children of the Father, MacDonald believed, was the freedom to question and doubt without fear.

My soul with truth clothe all about,

And I shall question free:

The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt,

In that fear doubteth thee.

He came into their lives like a breath of unsettling and refreshing clean air and won from Louisa a love that was always laced with awe. Indeed, she often called herself his child when signing her letter to him, always feeling inadequate before what she knew was his deepest vocation, to know and reveal the Father’s love, to be a lover of God.

Their marriage was a long and happy one, although fraught with poverty, illness, and death.

A letter written by MacDonald to Louisa just before their marriage shows how he early took their relationship into the full depth of his spiritual life:

Is love a beautiful thing, dearest? You and I love: but who created love? Let us ask him to purify our love to make it stronger and more real and more self-denying. I want to love you forever — so that, though there is not marrying or giving in marriage in heaven, we may see each other there as the best beloved. Oh Louisa, is it not true that our life here is a growing unto life, and our death a being born — our true birth? If there is anything beautiful in this our dreamy life, shall it not shine forth in glory in the bright waking consciousness of heaven? … But we can only expect to have this light within us and on our faces — we can only expect to be a blessing to each other — by doing that which is right.

The MacDonalds had 11 children. They lived in great uncertainty and hardship since MacDonald’s unorthodox beliefs made it impossible for him to earn a living by preaching. He resorted to writing, producing a large and uneven body of work including poetry, drama, sermons, and adult and children’s fiction. MacDonald also struggled to introduce the work of the late eighteenth-century German romantic writer, Novalis, into Britain. Novalis, often quoted in MacDonald’s books, is best known for Hymns to the Night, which MacDonald translated carefully into English and paid to have published, and the fantasy novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. His writing is steeped in strong, disturbing and unusual symbols and images expressing deep longing for truth, for a new Christianity. Despite MacDonald’s industry, however, the family was often saved only by the timely intervention of benefactors. Lady Byron was one of these ministering angels; in return she shared in the joy and peace of the MacDonald home, which she described as a place of light.

Through vicissitudes of worldly fortune MacDonald trusted in God and kept his heart fixed on the prize. He suffered the early death of some of his children and was finally caught himself by a mental disorder. Withdrawing into deeper and deeper silence as his mental faculties failed, MacDonald had to be nursed constantly. His own pain and confusion at his state added greatly to both his and Louisa’s suffering at this time. Louisa died in 1902, MacDonald followed her in 1905, leaving a largely unappreciated body of work behind him.

Explanations of both the obscurity and the power of MacDonald’s writing become apparent as one reads him. MacDonald is not a consummate artist. The combination of form and content is often awkward and clumsy; plots move in random leaps and bounds that frustrate our sense of development even in fantasy land, characters and events (and readers) stagger under the strain of being made to bear too many meanings for which they are not properly prepared. Yet our literary disappointment occurs only because the ideas and experiences being disturbed, dug out, and examined by this rough craftsman, lie deep in our own psyche’s hopes, fears, and attempts at maturation. The focus and depth of MacDonald’s vision into the human spirit is his achievement.

At his best, in Lilith or The Golden Key, for instance, Macdonald uses a form which does not need to control or contain the roaming of his spirit; and even at his worst, some of the Scottish novels, parts of Phantastes, his words flash with homespun and mystical wisdom, symbolism, and beauty of imagination amid the cloyingly sentimental bogs by which they are occasionally surrounded.

If Chesterton’s skill lay in bringing modern life into the perspective of the ancient wisdom of the ordinary man and in challenging the modem assumption that our age is better, MacDonald’s skill lies in moving the reader quite out of time as he knows it and into the realm of his own personal and universal spirit, so that “development” is marked solely by spiritual growth. This is the “certain way” of seeing things described by Chesterton in his reading of MacDonald. Both writers are intent on expressing the same reality — spiritual growth and the lack of it — by a different technique.

One of MacDonald’s favorite sayings was “I wis we war a’ deid!” Death or “good Death,” as C.S. Lewis put it, is perhaps the dominant theme played out in many variations in MacDonald’s canon. It is death in the Christian sense that MacDonald constantly explores; dying to the false self so as to inherit the true identity and life that God, through all the twists and turns of our personal lives, leads us to choose. Furthermore, MacDonald believed and preached, to the outrage of his more orthodox Calvinist congregations, that God continued to pursue and save his children after physical death, infinitely. There was no egg-timer measuring salvation for MacDonald, and so death held no fear for him. God’s love, he believed, was such that He would never leave a soul alone in its personal hell, but would continually plead, argue, command, wait, and care until the person was able to die willingly. Children as well as adults are tested to the utmost; there is no other route to Heaven and resurrection for us.

In The Golden Key, for instance, the children Mossy and Tangle watch in amazement and confusion as the air fish that has led them to safety through the dark forest, flies straight into a large pot boiling in Grandmother’s hearth. When the pot is opened so as to serve the fish, Tangle finds that all her senses are heightened; she is herself more alive as a result of the air fish’s sacrifice.

The most powerful illustration of this belief is found in MacDonald’s last book, the adult fantasy Lilith. He wrote this over a five-year period, beginning when he was sixty-six years old, working and re-working the material. Phantastes, published in 1858, the only other attempt at adult fantasy writing, contains similar themes and motifs; in both the hero suddenly finds himself in Fairyland, and through a series of decisions and experiences, arrives at greater self-knowledge and awareness of the workings of God in the world. In Phantastes, the series of events has a random order — deliberately so, as the quotation from Fletcher’s “Purple Island” prefacing the book indicates: “Phantastes from ‘their fount’ all shapes deriving,/ In new habiliments can quickly dight.” Lilith, however, has a far more developed plot. In this book MacDonald has found a story that expressed the wisdom gained from his own inner journey towards God, and he no longer needs to dress up his thoughts in different garments; 37 years after the Phantastes exercise he has found the clothing that fits best.

Mr. Vane steps through a mirror in the attic of his house into another world, the land of seven dimensions. He follows a creature that looks like an old man from the back and a raven from the front. When he demands to be allowed to return to his house, he is told that he has never left it; that a lady is playing the piano in his world, where a bed of hyacinths exists in this one. Mr. Raven tells him that he must become a man of the universe, not a man of the world. In order to get back home he must go through himself, a way which no man can show another, and he must first make himself at home in this new region, since home is the only place he can go out and in. To make himself at home in a place that seems strange he must do something in it; he must act. He watches the Raven dig up worms, toss them into the air where they turn into the most beautiful winged creatures and is told that he is doing what all sextons should be doing, filling the air with worms. Later, Vane realizes that the pascal death and resurrection journey in his world is what Raven is uncovering in his own.

It should be emphasized that the strange beings and events Vane encounters in the land of seven dimensions are not in Lilith for shock or sensation; the reader is drawn through these images into the regions of his own spirit, however he or she may find himself — questioning, willful, uncertain, waiting to be recognized. “What is at the heart of my brain? What is behind my think? Am I there at all? Who, what am I?”

MacDonald’s writing is rough enough to be seminal. Reading him, grasping the truths and questions with which he grappled, catapults the reader into areas of his own inner experience and battlefield. MacDonald is not definitive. He is a rough-hewn diamond whose very incompleteness exhorts us to begin and continue the inward work of growth, good Death, and maturity — the Christian life he honestly lived and questioned. MacDonald awakens the child within, speaks to it of a loving Father, and encourages us to go to Him.

[Readers wishing to sample MacDonald’s fiction may consider listening to Tom Whitworth’s excellent reading of “The Grey Wolf and Other Fantasy Stories of George MacDonald,” available from Classics on Tape.]


  • Bernadette C. Barber

    At the time this article was published, Bernadette C. Barber was a critic for the Toronto Star and lecturer at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.

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