(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

George MacDonald 1824-1905

Scottish novelist, short story writer, poet, homilist, essayist, critic, and translator.

For further information on MacDonald's life and works, see TCLC, Volume 9.

MacDonald was a key figure in shaping the fantastic and mythopoeic literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such novels and fantasy stories as Phantastes (1858), Lilith (1895), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), and The Golden Key (1867) are considered classics of fantasy literature. These works have influenced C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other writers who sought divine truth, adventure, and escape from mortal limitations. During his long, prolific career, MacDonald also wrote in several other genres, achieving particular success with his novels of British country life. These, like his work in all genres but fantasy, are nearly forgotten today.

Biographical Information

MacDonald was raised and educated in rural Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and attended the University of Aberdeen. There he discovered and delighted in the literature of E. T. A. Hoffman, Novalis, and other German Romantics. MacDonald worked for two years in England as a Congregationalist minister, resigning his pulpit in 1853 because of protests against his universalism and pantheistic view of nature—he believed that the spirit of God is manifest in all beings and things and preached that, after death, all souls will be united in fellowship with God. After his resignation, MacDonald resolved to spread his beliefs through writing. He spent several impoverished years dependent upon the patronage of Lady Byron—the widow of the poet Lord Byron—before he enjoyed commercial success. This came in 1863 with MacDonald's first realistic novel, David Elginbrod, written in Scottish dialect. Thereafter, MacDonald's books found a ready audience, although he was still occasionally denounced in the press for his unorthodox Christianity. MacDonald was the friend of nearly all of Great Britain's noted nineteenth-century literary figures, including Lewis Carroll, Lord Tennyson, and John Ruskin, whose troubled affair with young Rose La Touche MacDonald was fictionalized in Wilfrid Cumbermede (1872). Throughout his career, MacDonald was a beloved and much-sought-after public speaker, attracting enthusiastic crowds to his readings throughout Britain and the United States. Because of poor health—he suffered from asthma and bronchitis—MacDonald spent his last years in near silence, waiting for death, which came in 1905.

Major Works

“Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald,” wrote Tolkien. C. S. Lewis defined this recurring theme as “good death,” or release from mundane reality and physical or spiritual limitations into a dimension of beauty, fulfillment, and unending wonder. Death and evil are seen as tools used by God to chasten and discipline humanity into renewing the search for the divine. The theme of the spiritual quest runs through much of MacDonald's fiction, reflecting the author's deep admiration for John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. MacDonald's treatment of the search takes its best-known form in his fantasy literature. Here, his protagonists are led through unexpected doorways into a supernatural realm inhabited by talking animals, mythical sylvan creatures, biblical characters, and spiritual beings. MacDonald's works share affinities with those of other nineteenth-century fantasists, including Carroll, Hoffmann, and Novalis, who is acknowledged as MacDonald's strongest influence. One of Novalis's aphorisms is often cited as MacDonald's credo: “Our life is no dream, but it should and perhaps will become one.” During his career, MacDonald published several volumes of poetry, each marked by a Wordsworthian religious spirit. MacDonald worked in this genre throughout his professional life, often sprinkling verse into his prose works. At the Back of the North Wind contains his best-known lyric: the often-anthologized “baby poem,” which begins “Where did you come from, baby dear?” This poem, which echoes Wordsworth's “Immortality Ode,” is emblematic of the pervasive theme of At the Back of the North Wind—that in the everyday world reality is seen “through a mirror, dimly,” but that worldly problems find their justification in another dimension. In this and all of MacDonald's other fantasy works, commonplace objects and beings are at once recognizable as such, while also conveying intimations of timelessness and a corresponding existence in the supernatural realm. MacDonald's stories and fairy tales for children, including The Princess and the Goblin, “The Golden Key,” and “The Light Princess,” are informed by unobtrusive symbolism and delicate fancy. Phantastes and Lilith, which stand respectively at the beginning and end of MacDonald's career, are deeper explorations of the quest theme, and they emphasize the biblical paradox that states, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This theme is also present, to varying degrees, in MacDonald's realistic character novels set in Scotland and England, of which Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865) is usually considered the best. The dialectical Scottish novels, including David Elginbrod, Alec Forbes of Howglen, and Robert Falconer (1868) exhibit a strong skill in characterization and portray the quiet dignity of honest rural labor. The moralistic English novels, such as Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1867) and Wilfrid Cumbermede often draw upon elements of the author's personal experience.

Critical Reception

In his seminal essay that serves as a preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology (1946), C. S. Lewis acknowledged the weaknesses of MacDonald's fiction. These include the Victorian tendency toward meandering wordiness, endowing his child characters with baby talk, and the inability to draw villains as interesting and believable as his heroes. Other critics believe MacDonald's writing is spoiled by a bent towards moralizing, while his admirers see his sheer imagination and his ability to create and sustain a sense of awe to be a redeeming strength. Regardless, MacDonald's role as an influence, rather than an artist in his own right, is emphasized by many contemporary critics. His themes of transdimensional travel and joyous spiritual rebirth are found throughout Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Ransom Trilogy, and evidence suggests that Phantastes and the story “Cross Purposes” may have inspired Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Madeleine L'Engle wrote, “Surely George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all—all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”