Introducing George MacDonald: myth-making fantasy author

By Andreas Gerster

In “Introducing William Morris: the grandfather of fantasy” I traced the origins of the fantasy genre, and especially the genre’s typical imaginary worlds, to Morris’ prose romances. However, there is another, less well-known author who wrote fantasy stories before Morris. His name is George MacDonald. Like Morris, he was also a major influence on many famous authors such as Lewis Carroll, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, E. Nesbit and G. K. Chesterton. Many staples of the fantasy genre, such as child protagonists, journeys and portals to a fantasy world, were introduced by him.

Born in 1824 into a Scots farming family, MacDonald was familiar with the hardships of rural Scottish life. Having lost his mother early in life, he describes his relationship to his father as almost perfect in his biography of his father’s life. Educated in country schools, he won a bursary to Aberdeen University, where he studied Moral Philosophy and Sciences. In 1842 he spent some time cataloguing a large private library in a stately house. What exactly happened during that period in his life is unknown, but due to the prominent place given to libraries in his works, many critics assume it must have been important. It is also very likely that it was during this time that he first came into contact with German Romanticism – especially Novalis – which was to influence him tremendously.

Although he was unhappy with the strong Calvinism taught in the Congregational Church he was brought up in, he decided to study in London in order to become a Christian minister and subsequently took on the pastorate of the Congregational Church in Arundel, West Sussex. Theological differences with the church’s leadership plunged him into poverty because they tried to rid themselves of him by reducing his salary to a pittance. With eleven children the MacDonald family would have been on the brink of starvation if not for the financial support of some of the loyal church members. Due to ill-health he left ministerial work and, after a short stay in Algiers, moved to London to take up a position as a university lecturer.

It was at this time he started publishing poems, fantasy stories of varying lengths and realistic novels. Especially his fairy tales have been a huge influence on later fantasy authors. He was mentor to Lewis Carrol and well-known in literary circles, travelling even to America to give lectures on literature. In his introduction to MacDonald’s first “Faerie Romance”, Phantastes, C. S. Lewis states that he loved its “goodness” and remarks that “the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death”. MacDonald’s greatest source of inspiration was death, and in his stories life and death are inextricably intertwined. G. K. Chesterton claimed that The Princess and the Goblin had “made a difference to [his] whole existence” and W. H. Auden lauds him as “pre-eminently a mythopoeic writer […] he is one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century”.

Later fantasy writers have acknowledged their great debt to MacDonald and so it is no surprise that many elements of his stories survive in later fantasy. An example is the portal to another world. He focusses less on the fantasy world’s internal logic than, for example, Tolkien does, emphasising the porosity of the boundary between ‘our’ world and the world of faërie instead. In Lilith the portal is a mirror, in Phantastes the secret compartment of a bureau. The portal between worlds is one of the many staples the genre has inherited from MacDonald.

One of MacDonalds tropes that did not become staples of fantasy is the figure of the “Grandmother”, a timelessly old woman, who is beautiful, yet can be terrible, sometimes a shoulder to cry on, sometimes a guiding hand, sometimes harsh and strict, but always loving, though the characters being disciplined may not appreciate it at the time. As a father of eleven children, MacDonald often slips naturally into a fatherly tone. He is wise but does not become moralising or try to ‘educate’. His wisdom is often in passing remarks of the narrator, such as when Anondos in Phantastes remarks:

Afterwards I learned, that the best way to manage some kinds of painful thoughts, is to dare them to do their worst; to let them lie and gnaw at your heart till they are tired; and you find you still have a residue of life they cannot kill.

It is not only in passing remarks that his wisdom shimmers through, but also in his particular kind of symbolism which flirts with allegory, though always remaining elusive and resisting any attempt to pin it down.

Nevertheless, around the turn of the century, only a few decades after MacDonald’s death, Oswald Chambers lamented that “it is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected” and to this day, not much attention is paid to the sterling fantasy author from Aberdeenshire. Perhaps not only the “shallowness of the modern reading public” is to blame, but also the particular genius of MacDonald. As C. S. Lewis points out in his introduction to Phantastes, MacDonald’s art is not, strictly speaking, literature, or being clever with words, but lies at a deeper level. He is a myth-maker, again, in W. H. Auden’s words, a “mythopoeic writer”. It is not his style that distinguishes him, but the rare ability to create myths that stir deep-seated human emotions.

Myths are not dependent on the medium by which they are conveyed; for example, the myth of Hamlet is an abstraction, timless in comparison with Saxo Grammaticus’ narrative version or Shakespeare’s  dramatic version or Disney’s The Lion King‘s cinematic version. And so it is possible to appreciate MacDonald’s myths despite his deficiencies in style. Perhaps myths are against the “trend of […] the modern reading public” and certainly his neglect in literary circles can be excused on the grounds of his work not always being first-rate literature. However, his stories remain excellently compelling pieces for anyone with a taste for myths.

My personal experience of MacDonald is that his stories do not get old when reread, instead they become richer without losing their haunting yet freshly innocent quality. Certainly any survey of nineteenth century literature without George MacDonald is missing an important piece of the picture, but it is the appeal of his fantasy stories for “children and the childlike” that makes them good reading, due to their simple beauty and truth. In an age where beauty and truth are big words and often avoided, MacDonald’s fantasy stories are a rare find of undogmatic substance worth rediscovering.

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