Happy Birthday - George MacDonald

George MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister. Though no longer a household name, his works (particularly his fairy tales and fantasy novels) have inspired deep admiration in such notables as W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle. C. S. Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master". Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day in a train station, he began to read; "a few hours later," said Lewis, "I knew I had crossed a great frontier." G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had "made a difference to my whole existence". Even Mark Twain, who initially despised MacDonald, became friends with him, and there is some evidence that Twain was influenced by MacDonald.


The man who was to inspire such feeling was born on December 10, 1824 at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. MacDonald grew up influenced by his Congregational Church, with an atmosphere of Calvinism. But MacDonald never felt comfortable with some aspects of Calvinist doctrine; indeed, legend has it that when the doctrine of predestination was first explained to him, he burst into tears. Later novels, such as Robert Falconer and Lilith, show a distaste for the Calvinist idea that God's electing love is limited to some and denied to others. Especially in his Unspoken Sermons he shows a highly developed theology.

He took his degree at the University of Aberdeen, and then went to London, studying at Highbury College for the Congregational ministry.

In 1850 he was appointed pastor of Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel. Later he was engaged in ministerial work in Manchester. He left that because of poor health, and after a short sojourn in Algiers he settled in London and taught for some time at the University of London.

His best-known works are Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith, all fantasy novels, and fairy tales such as — "The Light Princess", "The Golden Key", and "The Wise Woman". "I write, not for children," he wrote, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five." MacDonald also published some volumes of sermons, the pulpit not having proved an unreservedly successful venue.

MacDonald also served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson); it was MacDonald's advice, and the enthusiastic reception of Alice by MacDonald's three young daughters that convinced Carroll to submit Alice for publication.

MacDonald was acquainted with most of the literary luminaries of the day; a surviving group photograph shows him with Tennyson, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Ruskin, Lewes, and Thackeray. While in America he was a friend of Longfellow and Walt Whitman.

He died on September 18, 1905 in Ashstead (Surrey).

As hinted above, MacDonald's use of fantasy as a literary medium for exploring the human condition greatly influenced a generation of such notable authors as C. S. Lewis (who featured him as a character in The Great Divorce), J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle. MacDonald's non-fantasy novels, such as Alec Forbes, had their influence as well; they were among the first realistic Scottish novels, and as such MacDonald has been credited with founding the "kailyard school" of Scottish writing.

In C. S. Lewis's introduction to Lewis's book, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Lewis speaks highly of MacDonald's theology:

"This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald's literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help-sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith. . . . I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined. . . . In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. 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. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it."

From the Wikipedia article here.

No comments: