IT must be a very remote corner of America, indeed,
where the writings of George MacDonald would not only be known but
ardently loved. David Elginbrod, Ranald Bannerman. Alec Forbes,
Robert Falconer, and Little Diamond have many friends by this time
all over the land, and are just as real personages, thousands of miles
west of New York and Boston, as they are hereabouts. Now there must be
some good reason for this exceptional universality of recognition, and
it is not at all difficult to discern why MacDonald's characters should
be welcome guests everywhere.
The writer who speaks through his beautiful creatures
of imagination, imploring us to believe that
"Every human heart is human.
That in even savage bosoms
There are longings, yearnings, strivings
For the good they comprehend not.
That the feeble hands and helpless
Groping blindly in the darkness
Touch God's right hand in that darkness
And are lifted up and strengthened—"
that writer, if he be a master of his art, like
MacDonald, will be a light and a joy in every household, however
It is pleasant, always, to hold up for admiration the
authors who have borne witness to the eternal beauty and cheerful
capabilities of the universe around us, whatever may be our own petty
sufferings or discomforts; who continually teach us that Optimism is
better than Pessimism, and much more moral as a conduct of life, and are
lovingly reminding us, whenever they write books or poems, of the
holiness of helpfulness. All MacDonald's pages are a protest against
selfishness, and that mean and narrow spirit which would elevate our
petty selves above our contemporaries, and arrogate to an individual
catalogue all the virtues that are attainable by mortal acquirement.
Heine observes, somewhere, that we must not
investigate too curiously the lives of prominent men. "They are,
oftentimes," says the witty poet, "like the bright gleams of light which
glow so brilliantly that we think they must be jewels hung on leaf and
twig by king's children at play in the royal gardens—but if we search
for them by day we find no glittering gem, but only a repulsive little
insect, which crawls painfully away, and which our feet do not crush,
only for some strange compassion." The personality of the author from
whom these happily-chosen extracts have been made,
will bear the closest inspection at any and at all times. As a novelist,
an essayist, a poet, and a preacher, he stands always in broad sunlight,
and no dark shadow ever rests upon the dial of his pure and healthy
inspiration. Those of us who know the man, and love the sound of his
pleasant voice, so full of tender sympathy with all that is best and
strengthening in human life, on comparing notes, would not hesitate to
claim for him the eulogy expressed in these beautiful old sixteenth
century verses—verses embalming an exceptional character, and one which
the abiding Wisdom of Poesy never ceases to hold up for our pattern, in
all that exalts and dignifies the soul of man and woman.
"Within these woods of Arcadie
He chief delight and pleasure tooke
And on the mountain Parthenie,
Upon the chrystall liquid brooke:
The muses met him every day,
That taught him sing, to write and say.
* * * * *
A sweet attractive kind of grace,
A full assurance given by lookes,
Continuall comfort in a face,
The lineaments of Gospell bookes;
I trowe that countenance cannot lie,
Whose thoughts are legible in the eie.
Was never eie did see that face,
Was never eare did heere that tongue,
Was never minde did minde his grace,
That ever thought the travell longe;
But eies and eares, and every thought
Were with his sweet perfections caught."
James T. Fields.
GEORGE MacDonald, preacher, poet, novelist and
essayist, was born in Huntley, Aberdeenshire, in the year 1825. His
father was at that time one of the proprietors of the Huntley Mills; and
the annals of the little parish show that he was a lineal descendant of
the MacDonalds of Glencoe those "Lords of the Isles" whose stern
resistance to arbitrary rule form one of the most thrilling episodes in
The wild picturesqueness of that early home in the
heart of Aberdeenshire, its snow-capped peaks, its mountain torrents,
its lochs and its firths, its deep ravines, its dreary moors, must all
have exerted a strong, moulding influence upon the impressible nature of
the dreamy, enthusiastic boy. We can imagine him "going out to meet the
spring," as he himself describes Hugh, in David Elginbrod, and finding
in Nature "the grand, pure, tender Mother, ancient in years, yet ever
young . . . From the depths of air, from the winds that harp upon the
boughs and trumpet upon the great caverns, from the streams, from the
flowers, she spoke to him. And he felt that she
had a power to heal and to instruct; yea, that she was a power of life,
and could speak to the heart and conscience mighty words about God and
Truth and Love."
At an early age he entered the University of
Aberdeen, and after his graduation he studied for the ministry at Owen's
college, Manchester, and at Indiana college, in Highbury, London.
Upon taking holy orders, he
became a leader of the "Independents" and preached for some time in the
counties of Surrey and Sussex.
In the year 1855, he published his first book, a
dramatic poem entitled Within and Without, and this was soon followed by
A Hidden Life. Of these two poems, an able critic says, "We can find
nothing in the subsequent writings of MacDonald of which the substance
(by which we mean more than the germ) is not to be grasped here." Aside
from the fine dramatic passages in Within and Without, there are many
minor poems incidental to the scenes, such as the sonnet,
"And weep not though the beautiful decay,"
and the sweet child-poem,
"Little white lily sat by a stone,"
that have already become classical.
In 1857, MacDonald travelled on the continent, and
visited Algiers before his return home. Possibly to the bewitching
atmosphere of the East, as well as to these months of enforced leisure,
is due the fresh kindling of his imagination which bore fruit the
following year in his publication of Phantastes, that beautiful Faerie
Romance which received so many warm encomiums from Dickens. In this
wonderful story of the man who went out to seek
his ideal, and ended by being glad at having lost his shadow, the
symbols are easily interpreted, and the whole allegory is full of dainty
touches and fine episodes.
In the interval that followed, before the publication
in 1863, of his first novel, David Elginbrod, many charming poems
and thoughtful essays from the pen of MacDonald occur in the periodical
literature of the day. Among the poems may be
mentioned Light, which reminds one strongly of Wordsworth's
Ode to Immortality; and Somnium Mystici—an exquisite dream
picture of the soul laid asleep in the world beyond, awakened for the
new life, and trained through successive stages of discipline for the
coming of the Son of Man, in whom all beauty and
all love are seen to be consummated.
The Portent, published in 1864, is a highly
imaginative romance, founded upon the old Scottish belief of the Inner
Vision or Second Sight. As a story it is unsatisfactory, but it is an
original, masterly production—fulfilling throughout its own natural
conditions —and by some critics it is considered MacDonald's best work.
In 1865, Alec Forbes of Howglen, was
published; and in the two following years, Adela Cathcart,
Dealings with the Fairies, The Disciple and Other Poems, and
Unspoken Sermons, revealed still more clearly the growing power
of a writer whose name was now well known on both sides the water.
When, a few years later, he visited the United
States, it was no stranger, but an honored and dearly-loved friend,
whom we welcomed to our shores; and the
remembrance of his kindly face and "cheerful words" as he spoke to us in
church and lecture room comes up vividly before us, as we write.
In Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood, and its
sequel, The Seaboard Parish, we begin to realize the intense
sympathy of MacDonald, not only with the soul of Nature, but also with
the great throbbing heart of humanity.
As some writer has happily expressed it, ''Of all
life considered as a chain ; of its actions and reactions; of life as an
ascent of pulsations up to the Divine, MacDonald has an electrical
consciousness; and it runs through all his writings. This gives his
imagination a buoyancy which permits him to lay burdens on light wings —
but they float, and we are deeply impressed, though the brightness of
the page is not for a moment dimmed."
The breadth and manliness of tone and sentiment, the
deep perceptions of human nature, the originality, fancy, pathos, the
fresh out-of-door atmosphere, everywhere apparent—above all, the
earnest, wholesome, but always unobtrusive religious teaching, that
underlies all his writings, give to the works of George MacDonald a
certain magnetic power that is indescribable.
Robert Falconer, published in 1868, is one of
the most powerful novels of the nineteenth century; and yet as we peruse
some of the later works of the author, St. George and St. Michael,
for instance, Wilfred Cumbermede, Malcolm, Marquis of Lossie, and
Sir Gibbie, the steady growth of the writer's abilities incline
us to think that the best work of George MacDonald is yet to come.
E. E. B.
After being raised in Huntley, Aberdeenshire, by
devout Calvinist parents, he attended King's College in Aberdeen. At
Highbury Theological College, he received his divinity degree, and in
1850 he became a pastor of a Congregational church in Arundel. Early the
following year, he married Louisa Powell, with whom he enjoyed a long
and happy marriage.
The Scotsman was forced to resign his pulpit in 1853 because he liked to
dabble in "German theology," meaning the new higher critical approach to
biblical studies emerging from that country. He never took another
church but spent the rest of his life lecturing, preaching, and
Between 1851 and 1897, he wrote over 50 books in all manner of genre:
novels, plays, essays, sermons, poems, and fairy tales. And then there
were his two fantasies for adults, Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895),
which defy categorization. During these years, Lewis Carroll became a
good friend and gave him the first manuscript of Alice in Wonderland to
read to his children. Other British literary luminaries—like John
Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, Lord Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold—were among
his associates and admirers.
When McDonald visited the United States in 1872 for a lecture tour, the
likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf
Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain paid him homage. After
his stay in New York City, one large Fifth Avenue church offered him the
almost unheard of salary of $20,000 a year to become its pastor.
MacDonald thought the idea preposterous.
His success did not exempt him from more-than-ordinary suffering.
Poverty plagued him so much that his family occasionally faced literal
starvation. His own lungs were diseased, and tuberculosis killed two
brothers and two half-sisters. It also ravaged his children, four of
whom died before him. He himself had a stroke at age 74 and lapsed into
virtual silence for the last seven years of his life.
Still, MacDonald believed suffering was finally redemptive: "All pains,
indeed, and all sorrows, all demons, yea, and all sins themselves, under
the suffering care of the highest minister, are but the ministers of
truth and righteousness."
MacDonald eventually became an Anglican, but he never had much patience
with high theology or liturgy—he said it often stood in the way of
people encountering Christ personally. Furthermore, it wasn't just the
church but all of creation that revealed God: "With his divine alchemy,
he [God] turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant
mysteries, yea, every meal into a Eucharist, and the jaws of death into
an outgoing gate."
MacDonald's popularity has faded with time, though he retains a small,
loyal following, and his The Fairy and the Goblin (1872) and The Fairy
and Curdie (1883) are still read by children. But in his day, he
inspired not a few of the 20th century's favorite writers, like G.K.
Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L'Engle, and C.S. Lewis, to name
four. "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my
master," wrote Lewis; "indeed I fancy I have never written a book in
which I did not quote from him."
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