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MacDonald was first and foremost a Christian minister: his total works include many on Christian theology and records of his sermons. In his fantastic fiction, however, he is surprisingly restrained in advocacy—which allows them to be literature, not thinly disguised tracts—but nonetheless the works mostly or wholly are in effect parables.
Much, arguably most, of his fantasy work was aimed at children; but, as with many “children’s authors”, most of those works are eminently enjoyable by adults. MacDonald also, however, wrote two novels for adults (Phantastes and Lillith), and both are classics of fantasy. Moreover, he produced the essay “The Fantastic Imagination”, a masterpiece that is essential reading for any even half-way serious devotee of speculative fiction (available as a one-off book, but better had either as an entry in the important essay collection Fantasists on Fantasy or in the Penguin edition of MacDonald’s Complete Fairy Tales).
As mentioned above, this comprises two novels, Phantastes and Lilith.
This relatively early work by MacDonald—only his third publication, and his first non-poem—was aptly sub-titled A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. The protagonist is a young man named Anodos (a name meaning “with no path”). One day, as he investigates the contents of an old desk, he sees an apparition—a Guardian of the Border figure—that soon leads him out of this world and into “Fairy Land”. There, in the classic mode of such tales, he will have a series of encounters and adventures that each further change how he thinks of himself and the world. At the end, naturally, he returns to our world materially changed, a new and much better person. That is, of course, the classic pattern of the hero story (see Joseph Campbell’s epic work The Hero With a Thousand Faces).
Such a brief outline sketch does not, of course, say much about this particular book—it is, after all, just a description of the universal quest tale. More closely, then, we can say that each episode in the journey of Anodos involves his realizing that he must surrender something he has held precious, often a lady love. As Nick Page writes in an Introduction to the Paternoster edition of the book:
[W]hat is needed is for him to…learn from the encounters which his journey brings. He has to die and emerge anew—‘expanded, enlarged, glorified’. Tolkien wrote ‘Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald’. And ‘inspired’ is the word: for MacDonald viewed death as the high point of existence…His theology of death was forged in the crucible of loss and bereavement. Phantastes may be a fantasy, but is not escapist.
(The remarks above allude to the many early deaths of those near and dear to Macdonald, often of tuberculosis: his mother when he was eight, two of his brothers, his step-sister, and four of his own children. Loss and bereavement indeed.)
I will not recount his experiences, because I do not do “spoilers”, but it is not inappropriate to mention that he encounters figures themselves out of myth and folklore, from Sir Percivale of the Round Table to kobolds to a statue by Pygmalion. But let us see some samples of his prose in this book.
‘But tell me how it is that she could be so beautiful without any heart all — without any place even for a heart to live in.’
‘I cannot quite tell,’ she said; ‘but I am sure she would not look so beautiful if she did not take means to make herself look more beautiful than she is. And then, you know, you began by being in love with her before you saw her beauty, mistaking her for the lady of the marble [statue] — another kind altogether, I should think. But the chief thing that makes her beautiful is this: that, although she loves no man, she loves the love of any man; and when she finds one in her power, her desire to bewitch him and gain his love (not for the sake of his love, either, but that she may be conscious anew of her own beauty, through the admiration he manifests), makes her very lovely — with a self-destructive beauty, though; for it is that which is constantly wearing her away within, till, at the last, the decay will reach her face, and her whole front, when all the lovely mask of nothing will fall to pieces, and she be vanished for ever. So a wise man, whom she met in the wood some years ago, and who, I think, for all his wisdom, fared no better than you, told me, when, like you, he spent the next night here, and recounted to me his adventures.’
From this time, until I arrived at the palace of Fairy Land, I can attempt no consecutive account of my wanderings and adventures. Everything, henceforward, existed for me in its relation to my attendant [his evil shadow]. What influence he exercised upon everything into contact with which I was brought, may be understood from a few detached instances. To begin with this very day on which he first joined me: after I had walked heartlessly along for two or three hours, I was weary, and lay down to rest in a most delightful part of the forest, carpeted with wild flowers. I lay for half an hour in a dull repose, and then got up to pursue my way. The flowers on the spot where I had lain were crushed to the earth: but I saw that they would soon lift their heads and rejoice again in the sun and air. Not so those on which my shadow had lain. The very outline of it coulkd be traced in the withered lifeless grass, and the scorched and shrivelled flowers, which stood there, dead, and hopeless of any resurrection. I shuddered, and hastened away with sad forebodings.
I should note that though the randomly selected samples above do not show it, mirrors are a key factor throughout the travails of Anodos; and even when none are present, not a few of his episodic adventures are in many ways mirrors of others of those adventures. Though I refer to them as sequential episodes, as if they were a series of unrelated happenings, in reality the entire tale is a tightly structured whole, with all its parts interacting in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle.
I should also note that the full text of the tale includes a number of songs and poems that even MacDonald’s greatest advocates will usually admit are rather poor versification (he wrote several works of poetry which were, and are, best forgotten). Indeed, the Ballantine “Adult Fantasy” series edition—which materially helped generate a renewal of interest in MacDonald— edited them out altogether. Most or all other editions include them, but even the scrupulous reader may skip over them as they appear with no loss.
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This was a significantly later work than his first adult novel: 37 years later, and his 4th from last publication. The Biblical Lilith is (per Wikipedia) “a female figure in Mesopotamian and Judaic mythology, alternatively the first wife of Adam and supposedly the primordial she-demon. Lilith is cited as having been ‘banished’ from the Garden of Eden for not complying with and obeying Adam.” The image of Lilith as a basically evil witch persisted well into the nineteenth century, as witness Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of and remarks about her. But in 1883—twelve years prior to MacDonald’s Lilith—Robert Browning portrayed Lilith as the woman who truly loved Adam, which Browning’s Eve did not. A revision of the conception of Lilith was afoot in English literature in that era.
To again quote Wikipedia, “MacDonald employed the character of Lilith in service to a spiritual drama about sin and redemption, in which Lilith finds a hard-won salvation.”
The novel is a mature work, dark, deep, and woven of the great concepts—life, death, and the possibility of salvation. The structure of the tale is that its protagonist, Mr. Vane (think about that name), lives in a house with a haunted library. Vane, after several attempts, finally encounters the haunt, who calls himself Mr. Raven (and, we later find, can shape-shift to a raven). Mr. Raven is what is commonly referred to in analyses of heroic tales as the Guardian of the Border, and he indeed conveys Mr. Vane through a mirror (as noted above, MacDonald placed great emphasis on mirrors in both his adult-fantasy works) into the world whence Raven comes (“the region of the seven dimensions”), and in which Mr. Vale will undergo the hero’s mandatory procession of tasks on his way to his fate.
I don’t do spoilers, so I will not recount Vane’s trials and adventures in that mysterious realm, save to say that he encounters certain archetypal Biblical figures, one of whom is indeed Lilith.
While the tale is, like all of MacDonald’s works, allegorical, the allegory is by no means intrusive. As a tale, it is dark and (as James Blish put it) “eerie”, and draws the reader ever on. Authors whom critics have compared to MacDonald based on this book include David Lindsay, C. S. Lewis, and T. F. Powys, which is certainly eminent company.
(Note that MacDonald did not consider any of his fantasy works to be allegorical. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination”, he wrote: A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.
I suspect he is there making a thin case (“There may be allegory in it”). I agree with him (and Profesor Tolkien, who also claimed to abhor allegory, “Leaf by Niggle” notwithstanding) that strict allegory is indeed a weariness, but I would say that few if any of MacDonald’s works are strict allegory, in the sense of this exactly standing for and equaling that. Rather say they are symbol-laden.
Let us now see a sample of MacDonald’s prose in the book:
“One of the cellars I am placed to watch!” remarked Mr. Raven — in a low voice, as if fearing to disturb his silent guests. “Much wine is set here to ripen! — But it is dark for a stranger!“ he added.
“The moon is rising; she will soon be here,” said his wife, and her clear voice, low and sweet, sounded of ancient sorrow long bidden adieu.
Even as she spoke the moon looked in at an opening in the wall, and a thousand gleams of white responded to her shine. But not yet could I descry beginning or end of the couches. They stretched away and away, as if for all the disparted world to sleep upon. For along the far receding narrow ways, every couch stood by itself, and on each slept a lonely sleeper. I thought at first their sleep was death, but I soon saw it was something deeper still — a something I did not know.
I was lying on my withered leaves in the corner of a splendid hall. Before me was a crowd of gorgeously dressed men and gracefully robed women, none of whom seemed to see me. Dance after dance they vaguely embodied the story of life, its meetings, its passions, its partings. A student of Shakespeare, I had learned something of every dance alluded to in his plays, and hence partially understood several of those I now saw — the minuet, the pavin, they hey, the coranto, the lavolta. The dancers were attired in fashion as ancient as their dances.
A moon had risen while I slept, and was shining through the countless-windowed roof, but her light was crossed by so many shadows that at first I could distinguish almost nothing of the faces of the multitude; I could not fail, however, to perceive that there was something odd about them: I sat up to see them better. — Heavens! could I call them faces? They were skull fronts! — hard, gleaming bone, bare jaws, truncated noses, lipless teeth, which could no more take part in any smile! Of these, some flashed set and white and murderous; others were clouded with decay, broken and gapped, colored of the earth in which they seemed so long ago to have lain! Fearfuller yet, the eye-sockets were not empty; in each was a lidless living eye! In those wrecks of faces, glowed or flashed or sparkled eyes of every colour, shape, and expression. The beautiful, proud eye, dark and lustrous, condescending to whatever it rested upon, was the more terrible; the lovely, languishing eye, the more repulsive; while the dim, sad eyes, less at variance with their setting, were sad exceedingly, and drew the heart in spite of the horror out of which they gazed.
The book is, to use a perhaps overworked adjective, spellbinding.
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“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
Of his works for children, there are three novels (two being the “Curdie” books) and his numerous fairy-tale short stories. All have a moral structure and implicitly embody a moral, but all are told most charmingly, which is what makes them not just readable but enjoyable for adults.
The “Curdie” books both star eight-year old (ten by the second book) Princess Irene and a humble lad named Curdie. Curdie manages to save the Princess from various dire threats; both demonstrate great courage and fortitude. As one reviewer put it, both tales start out as “normal fairytales but slowly become stranger”. An important secondary character in each is the Princess’s great-great-grandmother, whom we come to see as a guardian angel or good witch or something of that sort.
The eminent G. K. Chesterton is worth quoting about the first (and generally considered better) book of the two, The Princess and the Goblin:
I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.
Fairy tales nominally for children inevitably educe a moral (or, sometimes, multiple morals). To make a good fairy tale, the author needs to be able to speak convincingly to children while not yet boring adult readers. MacDonald succeeds, as did Oscar Wilde and some others one could name. Well, let’s see some of MacDonald’s prose in the Curdie books:
‘Now, Curdie,’ his mother said, as they sat at supper,‘tell us the whole story from beginning to end, just as it all happened.’
Curdie obeyed, and told everything to the point where they came out upon the lawn in the garden of the king’s house.
‘And what happened after that?’ asked his mother. ‘You haven’t told us all. You ought to be very happy at having got away from those demons, and instead of that I never saw you so gloomy. There must be something more. Besides, you do not speak of that lovely child as I should like to hear you. She saved your life at the risk of her own, and yet somehow you don’t seem to think much of it.’
‘She talked such nonsense!’ answered Curdie, ‘and told me a pack of things that weren’t a bit true; and I can’t get over it.’
‘What were they?’ asked his father. ‘Your mother may be able to throw some light upon them.’
Then Curdie made a clean breast of it, and told them everything.
They all sat silent for some time, pondering the strange tale. At last Curdie’s mother spoke.
‘You confess, my boy,’ she said, ‘there is something about the whole affair you do not understand?’
‘Yes, of course, mother,’ he answered. ‘I cannot understand how a child knowing nothing about the mountain, or even that I was shut up in it, should come all that way alone, straight to where I was; and then, after getting me out of the hole, lead me out of the mountain too, where I should not have known a step of the way if it had been as light as in the open air.’
‘Then you have no right to say what she told you was not true. She did take you out, and she must have had something to guide her; why not a thread as well as a rope, or anything else? There is something you cannot explain, and her explanation may be the right one.’
‘It’s no explanation at all mother; and I can’t believe it.’
‘That may be only because you do not understand it.’
It is hard to pick out some extract that embodies the tenor of the whole tale. But even in that fragment above, the discerning will perceive some points of interest: the invisible thread that one who believes in it can perceive but that another cannot; and that the thread leads the holder through literally dark danger to safety. There is a lot of that sort of thing in the books: if you don’t look, you don’t see it, but if you do look, you do see it.
His other children’s novel is At the Back of the North Wind, and it too is one extended parable, yet one that can be read lightly if one wants to give no deep thought to it. It is the tale of a profoundly poor little lad named Diamond who is visited by, and becomes friends with, the embodied North Wind. She starts as a child of about Diamond’s age, but rapidly grows to full womanhood. She carries little Diamond off from time to time to the land “at the back of the North Wind” and various adventures. The tale is told as by a man (presumably MacDonald) who knew Diamond, who recounted the tale to him. Perhaps a bit of the final chapter will be of interest:
I should have been astonished at his being able even to report such conversations as he said he had had with North Wind, had I not known already that some children are profound in metaphysics. But a fear crosses me, lest, by telling so much about my friend, I should lead people to mistake him for one of those consequential, priggish little monsters, who are always trying to say clever things, and looking to see whether people appreciate them. When a child like that dies, instead of having a silly book written about him, he should be stuffed like one of those awful big-headed fishes you see in museums. But Diamond never troubled his head about what people thought of him. He never set up for knowing better than others. The wisest things he said came out when he wanted one to help him with some difficulty he was in. He was not even offended with Nanny and Jim for calling him a silly. He supposed there was something in it, though he could not quite understand what. I suspect however that the other name they gave him, God’s Baby, had some share in reconciling him to it.
Again, if you choose to read the tale as a light entertainment, that entertainment is there to be had. But if you choose to look deeper, those deeps are there to be seen, too.
As to the Fairy Tales, these are, for adults, probably the most appealing of his nominally “for children” works, being that they are usually light-hearted and, to my tastes, more pleasingly written. This is already a quotation-laden page, but here are a few snippets:
Old Ralph Rinkelmann made his living by comic sketches, and all but lost it again by tragic poems. So he was just the man to be chosen king of the fairies, for in Fairyland the sovereignty is elective.
“My dear child,” said the king, “you must be aware by this time that you are not exactly like other people.“
“Oh, you dear funny papa! I have got a nose, and two eyes, and all the rest. So have you. So has mamma.”
Now be serious, my dear, for once,” said the queen.
No, thank you, mamma; I had rather not.“
For it was Saturday night, and her husband would wear nothing but white stockings on Sunday. To be sure, he did eat little children, but only very little ones; and if ever it crossed his mind that it was wrong to do so, he always said to himself that he wore whiter stockings on Sunday than any other giant in all Giantland.
Even in such drollery, lessons— such as hypocrisy.
MacDonald now being seen as a major writer (and theologian), there is no shortage of material about him on the web; indeed, there are not only pages but several wholly dedicated web sites. The foremost would probably be the site The Golden Key, followed by The Works of George MacDonald; but also there are: George MacDonald & Michael Phillips (Phillips supposedly helped “revive” interest in MacDonald’s work); The George MacDonald Informational Web; and Father of the Inklings.
Besides those dedicated sites, there are several useful pages: George MacDonald on the Victorian Web; the George MacDonald page at the American Chesterton Society site; a MacDonald page at Wheaton College; and an essay, “The Childlike in George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis”, at Dr. Donald King’s C. S. Lewis site.
In addition, there is a periodical, North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies.
There are also numerous brief biographies and individual book reviews, few or none of which add much, if anything, to what the links above provide.
And there is an interesting page displaying—and linking to larger versions of—numerous portraits of George MacDonald.
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As with the web, there are many possibilities. Here are a few:
(That list is indicative, not by any means exhaustive.)
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