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a rocky hill and meadow on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Trying to Ignore His Christianity

Marianne Wright

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C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I was brought back … [from atheism to Christianity] by the strong influence of two writers, the Presbyterian George MacDonald and the Roman Catholic G. K. Chesterton.” He described many times his first experience of reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes and its effect on his life. One such account is given in The Great Divorce, published in 1945, where he recounts an imaginary trip to heaven where George MacDonald is his guide:

I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writing had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life. I tried to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connection with it, how hard I had tried not to see that the true name of this quality which first met me in his books is Holiness.

Elsewhere, describing his conversion, he wrote, “George MacDonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.” References to MacDonald’s books run through C. S. Lewis’s correspondence. What starts as literary appreciation – discussed in lengthy exchanges with his childhood friend Arthur Greeves – becomes a spiritual touchstone. After C. S. Lewis’s conversion, and as he became increasingly well-known as a Christian apologist, he was frequently asked to recommend books that would help other seekers, and as often recommended George MacDonald. In 1946 he published a collection of 365 short excerpts from MacDonald’s works, writing in the preface:

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.

The excerpts from the preface included below offer additional biographical information and, taken together with the selections from his letters, show both how much George MacDonald meant to C. S. Lewis and how MacDonald’s value to him was as a guide to understanding and following the gospel.


rocky hill and meadow with a lake on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Lewis had converted from atheism to theism in 1929. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves written on June 7, 1930, Lewis is discussing Charles Kingsley’s 1863 children’s novel The Water Babies. Lewis and Greeves shared an abiding enthusiasm for George MacDonald’s writing.

The book itself seems to me not very good. There is some fancy, and I don’t object to the preaching: but after Macdonald it is tasteless. Put the two side by side and see how Imagination differs from mere fancy, and holiness from mere morality.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, June 15, 1930.
I envy you your shelf of Macdonalds and long to look over them with your guidance. I have read both The Princess & the Goblin and The Princess & Curdie. In fact I read the former (the other is a sequel to it) for about the third time when I was ill this spring. Read it at once if you have it, it is the better of the two. There is the fine part about the princess discovering her godmother in the attic spinning…. Another fine thing in The Princess & the Goblin is where Curdie, in a dream, keeps on dreaming that he has waked up and then finding that he is still in bed. This means the same as the passage where Adam says to Lilith ‘Unless you unclose your hand you will never die and therefore never wake. You may think you have died and even that you have risen again: but both will be a dream.’ This has a terrible meaning, specially for imaginative people. We read of spiritual efforts, and our imagination makes us believe that, because we enjoy the idea of doing them, we have done them. I am appalled to see how much of the change wh[ich] I thought I had undergone lately was only imaginary. The real work seems still to be done. It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself – to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed, and then to find yourself still in bed.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, August 31, 1930.
I have had two delightful moments since I last wrote. The first was the arrival of the Macdonalds. Thank you over and over again! Perhaps the best way I can thank you at the moment is by trying to give you a share in my delight.

It is fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself.

Imagine me, then, seated in a shady, but even so sweltering, corner of the garden with a shade temperature of 88°, in the middle of the afternoon. Imagine the sound of Mr. Papworth barking and my rising wearily, as at the 100th interruption, to investigate. I took in the bulky parcel carelessly enough and looked at it without hope of interest, till suddenly your handwriting transformed the whole situation and in a minute I had it opened. Three distinguishable waves of pleasure went over me. The first was a welling up of all that Macdonald himself stands for: the second an added delight as this present, coming so appropriately from you, linked itself up with all our joint life and old times (I begin to see that it is not all rot – tho’ it often is – when people say they will value a gift more for the sake of the giver): the third a pleased surprise at finding three, at least, of the books respectably bound, and clean pages of decent type and paper within – for I had always taken it for granted that they would be hideous.

If I followed my inclinations I would have read them all by now: but fortunately work forbids me such a dangerous orgy. I have however finished Wilfrid Cumbermede – I took it down with me after tea that same afternoon to Parson’s Pleasure and read…under the willows. I shall not venture on my next Macdonald, tho’ tempted, for some time, for fear of spoiling my own delights.

As you said in one of your letters, his novels have great and almost intolerable faults…. Yet the gold is so good that it carries off the dross and I hope to read this book many times again….

Thanks, Arthur, again and again. I know nothing that gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing, of being washed, as to read G. MacDonald.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, December 24, 1930.
One reason I enjoyed [MacDonald’s] Quiet Neighbourhood so much was that I read it immediately after Trollope’s Belton Estate: quite a good book, but all the time one was making excuses for the author on the moral side: saying that this bit of uncharitableness and that bit of unconscious cynicism, and, throughout, the bottomless worldliness (not knowing itself for such) belonged to the period. Then you turned to Macdonald, also a Victorian, and after a few pages were ashamed to have spent even an hour in a world so inferior as that of Trollope’s.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, January 17, 1931.
I have read a new Macdonald since I last wrote, which I think the very best of the novels. I would put it immediately below Phantastes, Lilith, the Fairy Tales, and the Diary of an Old Soul. It is called What’s Mine’s Mine. It has very little of the bad plot interest, and quite frankly subordinates story to doctrine. But such doctrine. Some of the conversations in this book I hope to re-read many times. The scene and the characters are Highland Celtic, as opposed to the Lowland Scots of most of the novels: highly idealised. Yet somehow they convince me. Or if they don’t quite convince me as real people, they differ from most ideal characters in this, that I wish they were real….

Lewis dated his conversion to Christianity to September 1931.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, February 4, 1933.
And, talking of this sort of thing, would you believe it – I am actually officially supervising a young woman who is writing a thesis on G. Macdonald. It is very odd – and curiously difficult – to approach as work something so old and intimate. The girl is, unfortunately, quite unworthy of her subject: apart from everything else, she is an American.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, September 1, 1933.
I have just re-read Lilith and am much clearer about the meaning…. The main lesson of the book is against secular philanthropy – against the belief that you can effectively obey the 2nd command about loving your neighbor without first trying to love God.

During the 1940s, Lewis began to speak about Christianity on radio (these talks were collected and published as Mere Christianity) and write Christian apologetics.

From a letter to Professor Eliza Marian Butler on August 18, 1940, in which Lewis discusses the relationship between myth and allegory.
The same story may be mythical or symbolical to one person and allegorical to another. This I have tested in experience. When I read George Macdonald’s stories as a boy I was overwhelmed with a sense of significance, but couldn’t have identified any one thing in them with any idea, nor got the significance of the whole conceptually apart from the story. Now, when I re-read them, they are almost pure allegory to me – because, in the interval, I have discovered what they are ‘about’ by quite a different route.

From a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun, on November 4,1940.
Isn’t [MacDonald’s novel] Phantastes good? It did a lot for me years before I became a Christian, when I had no idea what was behind it. This has always made it easier for me to understand how the better elements in mythology can be a real praeparatio evangelica for people who do not yet know whither they are being led.

From a letter to Mr. H. Moreland, August 19, 1942, responding to a request for a reading list.
My own greatest debt is to George Macdonald, specially the 3 vols of Unspoken Sermons (out of print but often obtainable 2nd hand).

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, December 10, 1942.

I cannot love my neighbour properly till I love God.

What a series of rediscoveries life is. All the things which one used to regard as simply the nonsense grown-ups talk have one by one come true – draughts, rheumatism, Christianity. The best one of all remains to be verified. I have introduced such a lot of people to Macdonald this year, in nearly every case with success.

From a letter to Edith Gates, May 23 1944.
Certainly I cannot love my neighbour properly till I love God. As George Macdonald says in his Unspoken Sermons (long out of print but if you can get a 2nd hand copy by any means short of stealing, do! It is beyond price) “And beginning to try to love his neighbour he finds that this is no more to be reached in itself than the Law was to be reached in itself.”


George MacDonald: An Anthology, edited by Lewis and with a preface by him, was published in 1946.

From a letter to Arthur Greeves, May 13, 1946.

The Macdonald anthology, as you see, is not of his verse, wh[ich] I still consider greatly inferior to his prose. In the novels the three things I like are (a) The parts that have something of a fairy tale quality, like the terror of the trees and wind at the beginning of W. Cumbermede or the lovely journey “up Gaunside” in Sir Gibbie. (b) (Like you) the melodrama. The older critics are v.unjust to melodrama (c) The direct preaching. What I can’t stand is the indirect preaching – I mean Connie on her sofa in The Seaboard Parish. What between him and Scott and an Ulster upbringing I now find no difficulty with the Scotch dialect parts, indeed I like them. They enable him to make characters say strongly and racily things he w[oul]d spoil in English.

Excerpt from Lewis’s preface to the volume George MacDonald: An Anthology. The Preface begins with a summary of George MacDonald’s biography.

[MacDonald’s] lungs were diseased and his poverty was very great. Literal starvation was sometimes averted only by those last-moment deliverances which agnostics attribute to chance and Christians to Providence. It is against this background of reiterated failure and incessant peril that some of the following extracts can be most profitably read. His resolute condemnations of anxiety come from one who has a right to speak; nor does their tone encourage the theory that they owe anything to the pathological wishful thinking – the spes phthisica – of the consumptive. None of the evidence suggests such a character. His peace of mind came not from building on the future but from resting in what he called “the holy Present.” His resignation to poverty…was at the opposite pole from that of the stoic. He appears to have been a sunny, playful man, deeply appreciative of all really beautiful and delicious things that money can buy, and no less deeply content to do without them. It is perhaps significant – it is certainly touching – that his chief recorded weakness was a Highland love of finery; and he was all his life hospitable as only the poor can be.

In making these extracts I have been concerned with MacDonald not as a writer but as a Christian teacher. If I were to deal with him as a writer, a man of letters, I should be faced with a difficult critical problem. If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank – perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages, many of them in this collection, where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament…, sometimes an oversweetness picked up from Novalis. But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy – fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man….

His peace of mind came not from building on the future but from resting in what he called “the holy Present.”

Few of his novels are good and none is very good. They are best when they depart most from the canons of novel writing, and that in two directions. Sometimes they depart in order to come nearer to fantasy, as in the whole character of the hero in Sir Gibbie or the opening chapters of Wilfrid Cumbermede. Sometimes they diverge into direct and prolonged preachments which would be intolerable if a man were reading for the story, but which are in fact welcome because the author, though a poor novelist, is a supreme preacher. Some of his best things are thus hidden in his dullest books. I am speaking so far of the novels as I think they would appear if judged by any reasonably objective standard. But it is, no doubt, true that any reader who loves holiness and loves MacDonald – yet perhaps he will need to love Scotland too – can find even in the worst of them something that disarms criticism and will come to feel a queer, awkward charm in their very faults. (But that, of course, is what happens to us with all favorite authors.) One rare, and all but unique, merit these novels must be allowed. The “good” characters are always the best and most convincing. His saints live; his villains are stagey.

…[I]n MacDonald it is always the voice of conscience that speaks. He addresses the will: the demand for obedience, for “something to be neither more nor less nor other than done” is incessant. Yet in that very voice of conscience every other faculty somehow speaks as well – intellect, and imagination, and humor, and fancy, and all the affections; and no man in modern times was perhaps more aware of the distinction between Law and Gospel, the inevitable failure of mere morality. The Divine Sonship is the key conception which unites all the different elements of his thought…. Inexorability – but never the inexorability of anything less than love – runs through it like a refrain; “escape is hopeless” – “agree quickly with your adversary” – “compulsion waits behind” – “the uttermost farthing will be exacted.” Yet this urgency never becomes shrill. All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder which prevents it from doing so. MacDonald shows God threatening, but (as Jeremy Taylor says) “He threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.”

…It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought – almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions – the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete – by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun” – I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting. But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning. There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through.


From The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings.

rocky hill and meadow on the Isle of Skye, Scotland
Contributed By Marianne Wright Marianne Wright

Marianne Wright, a member of the Bruderhof, lives in southwestern Pennsylvania with her husband and four children.

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