Saturday, February 24, 2018

George MacDonald

Photo from Wikipedia
One of my favorite authors is Scottish-born George MacDonald. (1824-1905)

His works range from fairytales like The Light Princess that deepen my sense of awe and gratitude for Christ's gift of salvation, to the deep spiritual insights presented in fresh ways in his children's books including The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind, to the examples of living out a growing faith through obedience shown in his novels such as What's Mine's Mine*, Sir Gibbie, and The Marquis of Lossie.

But lest you should go out, pick up some of his books, and lose any confidence in my opinion, I should qualify my recommendation. I do not agree with several points of his theology or social ideas rooted in the class system of 19th century England. In addition the Gothic fiction influence in several of his novels is often repulsive to me, and he can be too wordy.

Nevertheless, George MacDonald has positively influenced my faith more than probably any other writer of fiction. As C.S. Lewis said of MacDonald, "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."

Another quote I have heard attributed to C.S. Lewis says: 
"Good fiction is a ship carrying a cargo of truth."

Along the same lines (from Mildred Keith by Martha Finley):
"'I love the Bible,' said Effie, 'I never could do without it; its words often come to me when I am sad and suffering and are "sweeter than honey and the honeycomb," but reading other good books seems like talking with a Christian friend, and refreshes me in the same way.'"

That is why I keep coming back to MacDonald's works and listening to yet another 17 hour audio-book on LibriVox. The most recent was certainly not an overall favorite, but it still contained several gems that blessed me.

"The next day was very lovely. I think it is the last of the kind of which I shall have occasion to write in my narrative of the Seaboard Parish. I wonder if my readers are tired of so much about the common things of Nature. I reason about it something in this way: We are so easily affected by the smallest things that are of the unpleasant kind, that we ought to train ourselves to the influence of those that are of an opposite nature. The unpleasant ones are like the thorns which make themselves felt as we scramble - for we often do scramble in a very undignified manner - through the thickets of life; and, feeling the thorns, we grumble, and are blind to all but the thorns. 

The flowers, and the lovely leaves, and the red berries, and the clusters of filberts, and the birds'-nests do not force themselves upon our attention as the thorns do, and the thorns make us forget to look for them. But a scratch would be forgotten - and that in mental hurts is often equivalent to a cure, for a forgotten scratch on the mind or heart will never fester - if we but allowed our being a moment's repose upon any of the quiet, waiting, unobtrusive beauties that lie around the half-trodden way, offering their gentle healing.

And when I think how, not unfrequently, otherwise noble characters are anything but admirable when under the influence of trifling irritations, the very paltriness of which seems what the mind, which would at once rouse itself to a noble endurance of any mighty evil, is unable to endure, I would gladly help so with sweet antidotes to defeat the fly in the ointment of the apothecary that the whole pot shall send forth a pure savour.

We ought for this to cultivate the friendships of little things. Beauty is one of the surest antidotes to vexation. Often when life looked dreary about me, from some real or fancied injustice or indignity, has a thought of truth been flashed into my mind from a flower, a shape of frost, or even a lingering shadow - not to mention such glories as angel-winged clouds, rainbows, stars, and sunrises. Therefore I hope that in my loving delay over such aspects of Nature as impressed themselves upon me in this most memorable part of my history I shall not prove wearisome to my reader, for therin I should utterly contravene my hope and intent in the recording of them."

* I just finished the nearly two year project of recording What's Mine's Mine for LibriVox. Look for a later post when it has been proofed and catalogued.

NOTE: To attempt more of an answer to the questions this post has raised, see my later post  A George MacDonald Caveat


  1. Hi Hannah, I hope you are well. I should like an elaboration of your disclaimers please. The ones you made to "qualify" your recommendation of George MacD. What are those several points of his theology or social ideas that you disagree with? And in which of his works have you found the Gothic fiction influence the most repulsively pronounced? And can you give me examples of his wordiness? I am very interested in these questions, as I want as much as possible to understand or at least to know certain other perspectives in the appreciation of classical authors. You will oblige me greatly. Perhaps write it at length as a blogpost? I have not seen any blogpost so far this month, I do hope all is well with you, please God.

    1. Hello, ET. Thank you for all your encouragement and feedback on various posts! I don't know how soon I can get your questions answered about my comments on George MacDonald, as that takes a level of strength I don't often sustain in my battle with chronic illness. But hopefully someday!
      Thank you for your concern. Strength is lower these winter months, so daily life takes up what would otherwise be turned to blogging more often. But I have a few drafts in progress that I hope to finish and post soon.
      God is good, and He gives the grace needed for each day!

  2. Oh please don't let my lack of consideration tax your strength Hannah! Reply only if and when you can! I'm very sorry to hear of your poor health and I hope with all my heart that you get well again as the winter recedes and spring comes on. My regards to your sister :) Stay strong as always xoxo.

    1. Hello again, ET. Since last responding to you we spent a couple winter weeks living outdoors in Florida which helped set us ahead for the spring. And though the ups and downs of new treatments have our bodies really struggling again, God is often giving more strength to our spirits and minds. So I do want to try to give a little answer to your questions on my George MacDonald post. Please see below in a separate comment. Blessings!

  3. Re: ET's request for an elaboration of my disclaimers
    Q: "What are those several points of his theology or social ideas that you disagree with?"
    A: The two main theological points that come to mind right now are MacDonald's arguments against the Atonement (see Matthew 20:28/Mark 10:45, Hebrews 9:14, 1 Peter 3:18) and his belief somewhat along the lines of Purgatory which would eventually enable every sinner to reach heaven - even though they never trusted or followed God in their earthly life. From what I remember of reading Michael Phillips' biography of George MacDonald years ago, this was a deep struggle in MacDonald's faith - not being willing to believe that a God of love would eternally condemn any soul. Sounds familiar in our own day in age! Yet, he had to ignore or misinterpret so much of God's clear word to "comfort" himself with that view. (
    The disturbing social ideas include adopting an orphan baby but raising her as a servant to keep her in her own “class.”

    Q: "And in which of his works have you found the Gothic fiction influence the most repulsively pronounced?"
    A: 'Donal Grant' (republished and abridged as 'The Shepherd's Castle'), 'David Elginbrod' ('The Tutor's First Love'), 'Warlock O'Glenwarlock' ('The Laird's Inheritance'), and sections of others that I remember only partially right now. And yet entries in my quote book shows how each of these books held gems of beautiful truth that shone brightly to me out of the darkness.

    Q: And can you give me examples of his wordiness?
    A: Since my first experience of MacDonald's novels for adults was by way of Michael Phillip's abridged editions, coming to the originals was sometimes a slog to begin with. And while I appreciate so much of what he wrote - including the many sermons quoted in full in several books and long, detailed descriptions of nature that turn into philosophical parentheses, it takes the right mindset to read with patience and attention. I remember at least one time where MacDonald himself, under the guise of a first-person narrator/main character, commented on his getting too wordy and needing to get back on track! :-)

    Hope this helps!