In a widely reproduced photograph from an 1876 book titled English Celebrities of the Nineteenth Century, George MacDonald appears among a group of nine British literary giants.1 Charles Dickens is there, of course, as well as Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and W. M. Thackeray. The photograph – a montage created by a commercial publisher – is a visual monument to Victorian eminence: big black-cloaked men with big beards who wrote big, famous books.
When this picture was first published, it was apparently uncontroversial to rank George MacDonald among the great writers of his age. Not so today. It has been at least a century since MacDonald has been widely read, and scholars outside his small fan base tend to approach his works as period pieces rather than as literature. So it is reasonable to ask: can we truly consider MacDonald a great writer?
“A little more of God will make up for a good deal less of you.” George MacDonald
C. S. Lewis, like many of MacDonald’s admirers, had his doubts, writing that: “MacDonald has no place in [literature’s] first rank – perhaps not even in its second.”2 Today’s reader, when first confronted with MacDonald’s writing, may well be tempted to agree. His books are long, his nineteenth-century mannerisms do not all age well, and several of his novels include patches of intimidating Scots dialect.
All this. Yet mention MacDonald’s name, and it will not be long before you find yourself speaking with someone who, like C.S. Lewis, has found MacDonald’s books “beyond price” despite their literary deficiencies.3 Lewis goes on:
I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly 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.4
I was introduced to George MacDonald early in life by my grandfather, Richard Arnold Mommsen. He could read aloud better than anyone in the world, and among the dozens of books he read to me and my siblings were MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie. My grandparents’ house was full of books, but it was obvious even to a child that George MacDonald meant something special to him. At a time when most of MacDonald’s books were out of print and difficult to find, Grandpa would spend long weekend afternoons combing the catalogs of secondhand booksellers for titles he hadn’t read. The books, when they came, were generally in poor condition. He mended and rebound them with loving precision, letting us help paint on the stiff bindery glue and select ribbons to bind in as markers. Into the back of each book he pasted a glossary of Scottish terms, and in the front he placed a photocopied overview of MacDonald’s life along with a list of his works. The list was annotated in Grandpa’s decisive handwriting to save future readers from wasting time on titles he considered inferior. There are marks of A plus for his favorites (Robert Falconer, Sir Gibbie, Warlock o’ Glenwarlock). Lilith, which he could never see the point of, rates a D minus.
“If you do not obey Him, you will not know Him. … Obedience to Christ is Christianity. Let me die insisting upon it. For my Lord insists upon it.” George MacDonald
Like many people who love MacDonald’s writings, Grandpa made collections of extracts. It was from one of these – ninety-one short selections manually typed on a vintage Smith Corona and bound into a little volume he gave my father for his birthday – that I first discovered, at a time when I badly needed it, MacDonald’s great-hearted, practical, but uncompromising account of the New Testament message. I read that collection numerous times before I read MacDonald’s novels for myself, and, although I have since read almost all his published work, I still return to that little book for inspiration and reflection.
That George MacDonald is known at all today is likely due to the influence his writings had on two of the twentieth century’s most important Christian apologists, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Both men gladly acknowledged their debt to him, and both were eager that he should be more widely read. Chesterton wrote, “When he comes to be more carefully studied as a mystic, as I think he will be when people discover the possibility of collecting jewels scattered in a rather irregular setting, it will be found, I fancy, that he stands for a rather important turning point in the history of Christendom.”5 For both men, MacDonald’s imaginative stories first provided a new view of the world: Chesterton described The Princess and the Goblin as “a book that has made a difference to my whole existence,”6 while C. S. Lewis said that after reading Phantastes as a young atheist, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.”7 Lewis went on to explain this when he looked back later in life:
The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round – in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness.”
As Lewis indicates, for MacDonald the ordinary events of each day – the “holy present,” as he called it – are messages to us direct from God. He was convinced that the kingdom of heaven can be a reality in the here and now, and that it requires daily acts of obedient discipleship to bring it about. As a character in his novel Thomas Wingfold puts it: “I begin to suspect … that the common transactions of life are the most sacred channels for the spread of the heavenly leaven.”8
This quote was one of several that my grandfather never tired of repeating. In May 2002 he was found to have advanced incurable cancer. During his final summer, his appreciation for the joys of daily life remained vivid, but he never (that I know) questioned or regretted that his time on earth was ending. During those months he referred us to a passage from one of MacDonald’s A-plus titles, What’s Mine’s Mine, that could have been written about him: “I do care to live – tremendously, but I don’t mind where. He who made this room so well worth living in, may surely be trusted with the next!”
Love of life and an uncomplicated trust in its Author: these are the gifts George MacDonald offers his readers. In an age when the daily news seems increasingly complex and terrible, it is high time for many more to discover with him the joy and promise of simple discipleship. As he wrote to a friend near the end of his life: “Then hail to the world with all its summers and snow, all its delight and its aching, all its jubilance and its old age. We shall come out of it the sons and daughters of life, of God himself the only Father.”
From the introduction to The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings.
- English Celebrities of the Nineteenth Century (London: Hughes and Edmonds, 1876).
- C.S. Lewis, preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, ed. C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946).
- C. S. Lewis to Edith Gates, May 23, 1944, in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper (Harper Collins, 2004), 616.
- C. S. Lewis, preface.
- G. K. Chesterton, introduction to George MacDonald and his Wife (London: Allen & Unwin, 1924), 13.
- C. S. Lewis, preface.
- George MacDonald, Thomas Wingfold, Curate (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1876).