George MacDonald Essay - Critical Essays

MacDonald, George


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.”

Principal Works

Within and Without (poetry) 1855

Poems (poetry) 1857

Phantastes (novel) 1858

David Elginbrod 3 vols. (novel) 1863

Adela Cathcart 3 vols. (novel) 1864

A Hidden Life and Other Poems (poetry) 1864

The Portent: A Story of the Inner Vision of the Highlanders, Commonly Called the Second Sight (short story) 1864

Alec Forbes of Howglen 3 vols. (novel) 1865

Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood 3 vols. (novel) 1867

Dealings with the Fairies (short stories) 1867

Unspoken Sermons (sermons) 1867

Robert Falconer 3 vols. (novel) 1868

The Seaboard Parish 3 vols. (novel) 1868

At the Back of the North Wind (short story) 1871

The Princess and the Goblin (novel) 1872

Wilfrid Cumbermede 3 vols. (novel) 1872

England's Antiphon (criticism) 1874

Malcolm 3 vols. (novel) 1875

The Wise Woman (novel) 1875; also published as The Lost Princess, 1895

Thomas Wingfold, Curate 3 vols. (novel) 1876

The Gifts of the Christ Child and Other Tales (short stories) 1882

Donal Grant (novel) 1883

The Imagination and Other Essays (essays) 1883

The Princess and Curdie (novel) 1883

Unspoken Sermons [second series] (sermons) 1886

What's Mine's Mine (novel) 1886

Unspoken Sermons [third series] (sermons) 1889

The Light Princess and Other Fairy Stories (short stories) 1890

There and Back (novel) 1891

The Hope of the Gospel (sermons) 1892

A Dish of Orts (essays) 1893

Heather and Snow (novel) 1893

Lilith (novel) 1895

Salted with Fire (novel) 1895

George MacDonald: An Anthology (aphorisms) 1946

The Golden Key (short story) 1967

Getting to Know Jesus: Sermons (sermons) 1987


Robert Lee Wolff (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “Lilith,” in The Golden Key: A Study of the Fiction of George MacDonald, Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 326-71.

[In the following essay, Wolff discusses the events in MacDonald's life that led up to his writing of Lilith.]

“This River has been a Terror to many, yea the thoughts of it also have often frighted me.”

The Pilgrim's Progress


For the MacDonalds, the eighties and nineties were decades of trial. They named their house in Bordighera “Casa Coraggio”: MacDonald had long before discovered that “Corage, God Mend Al,” was an anagram...

(The entire section is 13905 words.)

Richard H. Reis (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “The Imaginative Fiction,” in George MacDonald, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, pp. 75-105.

[In the following essay, Reis examines the symbolism and prose style that distinguish MacDonald's fantasy fiction from his conventional writings.]


Compared with his conventional novels, MacDonald's “imaginative fictions” are few, but that deplorable circumstance has its compensating advantages. It means, for instance, that I shall be able to treat these few stories with the fuller attention which they deserve because of their superior merit as literature by presenting a more or less detailed summary of each...

(The entire section is 13119 words.)

Rolland Hein (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “‘I Wis We War A' Deid!’: Lilith,” in The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald, Christian University Press, 1982, pp. 85-111.

[In the following essay, Hein examines MacDonald's theological beliefs as they are expressed in Lilith.]

“There is no joy belonging to human nature, as God made it, that shall not be enhanced a hundredfold to the man who gives up himself—though, in so doing, he may seem to be yielding the very essence of life.”

—From the sermon “Self Denial,” Unspoken Sermons II

Almost thirty-five years after writing Phantastes,...

(The entire section is 9585 words.)

Rolland Hein (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Showing the Unshowable,” in The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald, Christian University Press, 1982, pp. 148-55.

[In the following essay, Hein summarizes MacDonald's literary and religious beliefs as they appear in his fiction and nonfiction.]

“Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her. …”

—Preface to the 1893 American edition of The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales

Today, many who think about...

(The entire section is 2490 words.)

C. N. Manlove (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Circularity in Fantasy: George MacDonald,” in The Impulse of Fantasy Literature, Kent State University Press, 1983, pp. 70-92.

[In the following essay, Manlove examines MacDonald's use of the typical pattern of fantasy literature wherein the hero returns to his home after an adventure.]

Unlike the traditional fairy tale, in which the hero often betters himself in the world and may move place, most modern fantasy involves the notion of a return to a starting point so that one ends where one began. This motif of circularity is an image of the preservation of things as they are, and thus one expression of fantasy's delight in ‘being’. It may take the form...

(The entire section is 11267 words.)

Roderick McGillis (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “George MacDonald's Princess Books: High Seriousness,” in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Vol. I, ChLA Publishers, 1985, pp. 146-62.

[In the following essay, McGillis discusses the many ways MacDonald's Princess books can be interpreted.]

If influence testified to greatness, then The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie would be assured an honored place in the history of children's literature. These works (and George MacDonald's other tales for children) began a tradition of romantic fantasy for young readers that includes such writers as Mrs. Molesworth, Mrs. Ewing, E. Nesbit, J. R....

(The entire section is 7441 words.)

Karen Schaafsma (essay date Spring 1987)

SOURCE: “The Demon Lover: Lilith and the Hero in Modern Fantasy,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 52-61.

[In the following essay, Schaafsma includes MacDonald's fiction in a discussion of the role of the archetypical Lilith character in fantasy literature.]

In The Great Mother, Erich Neumann asserts that “the peril of present-day mankind springs in large part from the one-sidedly patriarchal development of the male intellectual consciousness, which is no longer kept in balance by the matriarchal world of the psyche.” He warns, “Western mankind must arrive at a synthesis that includes the feminine world—which is also one-sided in...

(The entire section is 4773 words.)

Joseph O'Beirne Milner and Lucy Floyd Morcock Milner (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Sacred and Secular Visions of Imagination and Reality in Nineteenth-Century British Fantasy for Children,” in Webs and Wardrobes: Humanist and Religious World Views in Children's Literature, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 66-78.

[In the following essay, Milner and Milner include MacDonald's works in a discussion of religious and poetic symbolism in nineteenth-century fantasy literature.]

Writing classic British children's fantasies in the 1860's and 1870's, George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll essentially established the traditions of modern fantasy. Though they were personal friends and admired one another's work, these two writers held profoundly...

(The entire section is 6585 words.)

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Allegory, Orthodoxy, Ambivalence: MacDonald's ‘The Day Boy and the Night Girl’,” in Children's Literature, Vol. 16, 1988, pp. 57-75.

[In the following essay, Marshall examines MacDonald's use of generic fantasy elements in “The Day Boy and the Night Girl.”]

“Since polarization dominates the child's mind,” writes Bruno Bettelheim, “it also dominates fairy tales” (9). The characterization in George MacDonald's fairy tale “The Day Boy and the Night Girl” evinces such polarization: Photogen knows and loves only light, Nycteris can survive and flourish only in darkness. But the story, the last fairy tale MacDonald ever wrote,1...

(The entire section is 7136 words.)

Susan E. Howard (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: “In Search of Spiritual Maturity: George MacDonald's Phantastes,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 280-92.

[In the following essay, Howard analyzes the role of stories in Phantastes.]

Of all of the many seemingly unrelated episodes in George MacDonald's adult fairy tale, Phantastes, one of the most puzzling is the narration by Anodos of two tales that he reads during his sojourn in the fairy palace. At first reflection, the two tales appear merely yet another instance of the many curious adventures that Anodos experiences in Fairy Land. Whatever text he might choose to read, Anodos relates, he finds himself actively...

(The entire section is 6271 words.)

Judith Gero John (essay date December 1991)

SOURCE: “Searching for Great-Great-Grandmother: Powerful Women in George MacDonald's Fantasies,” in Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 15, No. 2, December, 1991, pp. 27-34.

[In the following essay, John suggests that MacDonald's fantasies are valuable for feminist study because of the positive light in which they portray older women.]

And when she was married and had a child of her own, Sylva plucked the silver strands from her own hair and wove them into the silver ribbon, which she kept in a wooden box. When Sylva's child was old enough to understand, the box with the ribbon was put into her safekeeping, and she has kept them for her own daughter to...

(The entire section is 3134 words.)

Daniel Boice (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “A Kind of Sacrament: Books and Libraries in the Fiction of George MacDonald,” in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 27, 1992, pp. 72-79.

[In the following essay, Boice argues that libraries are the most significant settings in MacDonald's fiction.]

“Collecting jewels in a rather irregular fashion,”1 is how G. K. Chesterton describes reading the fiction of George MacDonald, whose wordiness is indisputable, but whose literary gems continue to excite interest. Chief among the jewels is a remarkable, often startling use and recurrence of settings, character types, and, especially, symbols. Castles, attic bedrooms, tutors, reflected light, and...

(The entire section is 3184 words.)

Colin Manlove (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “George MacDonald's Fairy Tales,” in Christian Fantasy from 1200 to the Present, University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, pp. 164-82.

[In the following essay, Manlove discusses Christian elements in MacDonald's fairy tales.]

What we shall see with MacDonald and Kingsley is something quite new in the development of Christian fantasy. We shall find both trying by literary means to show, to make us feel, that God is present in nature and this world. In earlier literature God's existence could be assumed, but now it is necessary to prove it. And, in order to do this convincingly, one must start from the apparently empirical facts of existence, not from any...

(The entire section is 8949 words.)

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Reading ‘The Golden Key’: Narrative Strategies of Parable,” in For the Childlike: George MacDonald's Fantasies for Children, The Children's Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992, pp. 99-109.

[In the following essay, Marshall discusses the ways in which MacDonald's pilgrimage plot contributes to the loose form of “The Golden Key.”]

“The Golden Key” is regularly recognized as George MacDonald's masterpiece in the fairy tale mode. The work may not be, however, without its problems for modern readers, who may question the integrity of the tale's structure. “The Golden Key” seems, for example, repeatedly to be on the verge...

(The entire section is 4142 words.)

Michael Mendelson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald and the Evolution of a Genre,” in For the Childlike: George MacDonald's Fantasies for Children, The Children's Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992, pp. 31-49.

[In the following essay, Mendelson provides a close reading of three fairy tales that are exemplary of MacDonald's use of the genre.]

My intention here is to provide an overview of George MacDonald's fairy canon. I will approach this task by first examining the relation between these fairy tales and MacDonald's other literary output, most notably his critical essays and his adult fantasies. Following this general orientation, I will look more...

(The entire section is 7227 words.)

Adrian Gunther (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Multiple Realms of George MacDonald's Phantastes,” in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 29, 1996, pp. 174-90.

[In the following essay, Gunther disagrees with the notion of dualism in MacDonald's writing, positing instead that his works explore multiple realms of spiritual and psychological reality.]

Critics have often referred to George MacDonald's dualism. Recently a book has been published centered around this concept and opening with an essay entitled “The Two Worlds of George MacDonald.”1 These two worlds are variously seen as those of “reality” and “fantasy”, of “intellect” and “imagination”, of the...

(The entire section is 8528 words.)

U. C. Knoepflmacher (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Erasing Borders: MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind,” in Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity, University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 228-68.

[In the following essay, Knoepflmacher explores the ways in which At the Back of the North Wind diverges from expected themes and forms of its genre.]

As still was her look, and as still was her ee
As the stillness that lay on the emerant lea,
Or the mist that sleeps on a waveless sea.
For Kilmeny had been she ken'd not where,
And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare.
.....But O, the words that fell from her mouth
Were words of wonder and words of truth!

(The entire section is 16465 words.)

Further Reading


Triggs, Kathy. The Stars and the Stillness: A Portrait of George MacDonald. Cambridge, England: Lutterworth Press, 1986, 182 p.

Illustrated biography that includes a select bibliography of primary and secondary works.


Auden, W. H. “George MacDonald.” In Forewords and Afterwords, pp. 268-73. New York: Random House, 1943.

Asserts that MacDonald succeeded as a fantasy writer because he was endowed with a “mythopoeic imagination.”

Benson, A. C. “George MacDonald.” In Rambles and Reflections, pp. 145-54. London: John Murray, 1926....

(The entire section is 361 words.)