George MacDonald, author and novelist, clergyman, poet and ‘Christian Fantasy’ writer, was born on the 10th of December, 1824.
If you’ve ever read ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’ you’ve got George MacDonald to thank. He wisnae the author of yon tales, but he surely inspired a generation of mythopoeic writers and, no doubt since, countless other authors. Amongst those writers were G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll, and W. H. Auden, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and J. R. R. Tolkien all admired his work. C. S. Lewis, who compiled an anthology of MacDonald’s work, said “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”. Lewis also featured MacDonald as a character in ‘The Great Divorce’ and his back-to-front namesake, Lewis Carroll, took the decision to publish ‘Alice in Wonderland’ following MacDonald’s advice and only after its enthusiastic reception by MacDonald’s children. MacDonald himself wrote, “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
George Macdonald published over fifty volumes of fiction, verse, children’s stories, and sermons after first making his name with a religious poem called ‘Within and Without’. His first real success came with his novels of Scottish country life, in which Doric, his local dialect, features in the dialogue. These titles, which include ‘David Elginbrod’, and ‘Alec Forbes of Howglen’, all published between 1862 and 1868, led to MacDonald being credited with founding the overly sentimental ‘Kailyard School’ of Scottish writing. However, his adult fantasy novels, ‘Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women’ and ‘Lilith’, a moral allegory, are probably his definitive works, which between them established a new genre in English. By definition, there wasn’t much of a market for his new fantasy genre, so MacDonald had to supplement his income by writing mainstream novels, of which he wrote more than twenty.
His most enduringly popular books are perhaps his fairy tales for children, of which ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ and ‘At the Back of the North Wind’ are classic examples. His books for kids take place in “a realm of bygone years in a distinctly Scottish landscape” and ‘The Marquis of Lossie’ is set to the north of Huntly, in the fishing town of Cullen. ‘Sir Gibbie’ (‘The Baronet’s Song’ or ‘Wee Sir Gibbie’) is said to have been MacDonald’s favourite and it is usually in print, albeit with much of the rich vocabulary of the old Scottish dialect watered down or ‘revised for the modern day reader’.
MacDonald was also a very spiritual man, whose life was dominated by religion in one way or another. His books are seemingly full of references to God and Christ – or good and evil – but can be enjoyed equally without any ‘godlical’ encumbrances. ‘Alec Forbes’, also known as ‘The Maiden’s Bequest’, is credited with being the book that led to C. S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity although Lewis famously remarked that while reading ‘Phantastes’ he “knew [he’d] crossed a great frontier” and went on to write, “I know hardly any other writer who seems closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself”.
MacDonald grew up influenced by his Congregational Church and Calvinism, but give him his due, he saw through that evil doctrine of predestination. The Christ he believed in was vastly different from the Calvinist’s other doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and their God’s love of some and denial of others. Far more palatable to most religious people, surely, is MacDonald’s teaching that Christ had come to save people from their sins and not from a ‘divine penalty’ for their sins. He saw the problem as not being the need to appease a wrathful God, but rather the disease of cosmic evil – a staple diet of any novel in the genre of mythopoeia.
George Macdonald was born in Huntly on the 10th of December, 1824. Instead of going to the local parish school, he went to an independent school, where the Calvinist discipline was harsh, but his attendance was patchy as he often suffered long periods of illness. However, he was bright enough to win a bursary to King’s College at the University of Aberdeen, where he was later granted an honorary doctorate. He attended during the academic years of 1840-41 and 1844-45, where he studied chemistry and natural philosophy. He read deeply in romantic literature and poetry and was described as a “strikingly colourful, if melancholy” student. He harboured ambitions of becoming a poet, but dutifully entered the Independent Theological College in Highbury, in London, where he studied for the Congregationalist Ministry. It was there that MacDonald eventually rejected all that Calvinist stuff and he left without taking his degree.
Instead, in 1850, he became the Pastor of the Trinity Congregational Church in Arundel, but had to resign after less than three years, because the congregation wanted more ‘fire and brimstone’. He was even accused of heresy and his salary was cut in half. He moved on to Manchester, where he founded his own Church and, in 1855, published ‘Within and Without’, which drew the admiration of Charles Kingsley and Lady Byron. After a sojourn in Algiers for the sake of his health, he returned to London, where he taught at the University of London and was also the editor of ‘Good Words for the Young’. In 1857, he moved to Hastings and it was there he wrote ‘Poems’ and ‘Phantastes’, in 1858. He converted to the Church of England in 1860, becoming a lay preacher and he also became the first Professor of English Literature at Bedford College.
He undertook a successful lecture tour of the United States between 1972 and 1873, and was turned down a well paid ministerial position. Despite being a published writer, he was often forced to rely on the charity of his friends, such as Lady Byron and John Ruskin. He was also granted a pension in 1877, at the request of Queen Victoria. From 1881 to 1902, because of his health and the British climate, MacDonald spent the winters writing in Bordighera on the Ligurian coast of Italy, and the summers lecturing and touring in Britain. After the publication of ‘Lilith’ in 1895, his health began to deteriorate. In 1898, he suffered a stroke and afterwards barely spoke a word until his death in Ashtead, in Surrey, on the 18th of September, 1905. His remains were cremated and taken for burial to Bordighera. There is a memorial to George MacDonald in the Drumblade Churchyard, in Aberdeenshire.