George MacDonald (1824–1905) was a Scottish author and Christian visionary whose fantasy novels pioneered the genre made famous by C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), and many others, all of whom claimed MacDonald as a major influence. His popular novels, without being explicitly religious, reflected a deep trust in an unfailingly merciful God and a positive moral path through life's challenges.
Although he began his career as a minister, George MacDonald's guiding theology proved far too broad, kind, and universal for his strict Calvinist denomination. When his congregation fired him, MacDonald started writing fantasy stories in which he conveyed his beliefs through characters and their symbolic adventures. These tales inspired a generation of highly educated Christian authors and produced some of the most beloved books in the modern world. He personally mentored Lewis Carroll, who decided to publish Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the enthusiastic encouragement of MacDonald's many children. The great theologian and fantasy author C.S. Lewis called MacDonald his “master,” publishing an anthology of MacDonald's religious writings as well as following in his footsteps as a popular author. Although MacDonald's work was eventually culled from modern bookshelves, his influence on modern fantasy literature has been considerable.
MacDonald was born on December 10, 1824, in the Scottish Highland village of Huntly, located in the western part of Aberdeenshire. The second son of George MacDonald, Sr., and his wife Helen McKay, MacDonald would long remember the fierce, snowy winters and idyllic summers of his boyhood. George Sr. was a farmer and a leading citizen of the village. He was particularly proud of being part of Clan Donald, which fought valiantly for Scottish independence before that struggle was quashed by the English at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Relatives on both sides of his family were highly literate, which was unusual at the time: his grandfather, a farmer as well as a banker, spoke Gaelic—the native language of the Scots—and helped fund the publishing of Celtic literature. An uncle on his mother's side edited a Gaelic dictionary and collected Celtic fairy tales and poetry.
In addition to having three sisters, MacDonald was one of six brothers, two of whom died in childhood, and Helen MacDonald died of tuberculosis, an infectious disease, when he was eight years old. By now the family had moved to a farm in another village and shared a tiny house with George Sr.'s brother James and his family. Although everyone made the best of the crowded living situation, the close quarters undoubtedly contributed to the spread of tuberculosis in the family. (A single sneeze from an infected person can spread up to 40,000 infectious particles.) MacDonald lost several more family members to the disease, and he suffered chronic ill health despite living to an advanced age.
The barren and windswept highlands were home to ancient clans of fierce yet poetic Celts, none more so than Clan Donald. Among the warriors and farmers were many poets, those especially gifted with extensive memory, imagination, and learning—called bards or sennachies—recorded the deeds of the clan in poetry and song. The clan's piper had a role second only to the chieftain: a near-magical respect was granted him, even in defeat. Although MacDonald's ancestors filled both extraordinary roles in the waning century of the Scottish fight for home rule, like other Highland families, clan members had long since settled into trades, farming, and higher education.
Like the bards, MacDonald's gifts of poetic imagination were considerable and his sense of devotion was rooted in clan loyalty, the romance of the brave warrior, and the love of freedom. As a boy, he attended a local school where he learned Latin and mathematics. He was also an avid poet, often reading his verse aloud to friends. After school, MacDonald regularly frequented the local pub where the crofters and drovers met, listening to their conversations. Most spoke in Gaelic, but he knew enough to get the gist of their stories.
A love of the wild Highlands and Celtic mysticism ultimately infused MacDonald's Christianity. Raised in the Protestant Calvinist faith founded by Reformation-era French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564), he was uncomfortable with his church's strict interpretation of Christianity. He had trouble accepting his minister's teachings that God was angry with his children for sinning and that Christ had stepped in to take the deserved beating for them. Calvinism also taught predestination: that one's salvation was already decided and those who were not of the “elect,” or specially chosen, would endure eternal punishment, no matter how sorry they were for their transgressions. When young MacDonald first heard this doctrine, it is said that he wept; he could not believe that God would be so unfair.
In 1840, MacDonald won a scholarship to the University of Aberdeen, where he studied moral philosophy and sciences under some of the leading thinkers of the age. Through conversation and debate, he was exposed to different ideas and began to formulate a personal philosophy. He enjoyed science and thought about becoming a chemist, but he also felt a strong calling to preach. After graduating with his master's degree in 1845, MacDonald moved to London to work as a tutor and plan his future. An opportunity presented itself in 1848: a year's training at Highbury Theological College in preparation for becoming a Calvinist minister. A gifted student, he was offered a pastorship in the town of Arundel, a country town in West Sussex, after completing his course of study.
Hearing of his decision, MacDonald's college friends encouraged him to reconsider, believing that his thoughts were too wide-ranging and his imagination too vivid for the daily responsibilities of a local minister. However, he remained committed to his decision, which was motivated by his sincere desire to serve. He was also now engaged to Louisa Powell, and he wanted to offer her a settled life once they married.
In 1850, MacDonald was established as the minister at Arundel's Trinity Congregational Church, and he married Louisa shortly thereafter. The congregation appreciated the young couple, who were ready to help church members at any hour. Unfortunately, MacDonald's sermons did not sit well with some of his congregants. Rather than honing to basic Calvinist doctrine, he preached freely about God's love and redemption, offering differing perspectives and sharing his hopes and questions regarding salvation. After his superiors received several complaints regarding his sermons, MacDonald was accused of spreading heresy, or false teachings. In 1852, his salary was cut in half, in the hope that he would quit. In 1853, he was asked to resign.
Once in Manchester, MacDonald's effort to work in church ministry was thwarted by ill health, and he decided to write for publication as a way to support his family, which ultimately included five daughters and six sons. First came a collection of spiritual poems, Within and Without, published in 1855. Its modest success drew the attention of a wealthy patron who helped support MacDonald in writing his first fantasy novel, 1858's Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. In this work, hero Anodos journeys through a psychological landscape called Fairy Land, in which twists and turns reflect his inner life. MacDonald wanted to convey spiritual truths by writing for children and adults alike; as he would later comment in The Gifts of the Child Christ, and Other Tales that he wrote for “the child-like, be they of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
MacDonald's first literary success was the novel David Elginbrod, which was published in 1862. He would become popular among adult readers for this type of novel, which featured rural characters and was set in the Scottish countryside, capturing the people and places of his youth. A strong moral message of redemption underpinned these novels, of which he wrote about two dozen.
As his fame grew during the 1870s, through stories such as At the Back of the North Wind (serialized in 1868 and published in book form in 1871), MacDonald met many illustrious authors of the day, some who became his friends. One writer friend, Charles Dodgson, shared a children's fantasy manuscript he had written with MacDonald's many children, all who were avid readers. They loved the story—about a girl named Alice and her adventures in a strange place called Wonderland—and urged Dodgson to publish it, which he did, under the name Lewis Carroll.
In 1872 MacDonald won over young audiences with The Princess and the Goblin, a fantasy for children in which a lonely eight-year-old princess meets a beautiful elderly lady (her great-great-grandmother) and is rescued from goblins by a valiant young miner named Curdie. Together with its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, this novel has remained a childhood classic, inspiring poems, ballets, television productions, and motion pictures as well as a poem by noted mid-20th-century writer Sylvia Plath.
Compared to the sword-and-sorcery and science-fiction novels of more recent times, MacDonald's spiritual-based fantasy works might seem tame or conservative. Yet they were quite radical for their time, even as his open-minded theology sounded radical to conservative churchgoers. Several of MacDonald's contemporaries were impressed with his unusual approach to fantasy stories reflecting the soul's journey. The possibility of exploring the human condition symbolically inspired the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and later, Madeleine L'Engle, all of whom wrote fantasy tales which became classics.
From 1867 to 1875, the MacDonalds settled in Hastings, near London, in a house they called The Retreat. Their youngest child, George Mackay MacDonald, was born there, and Louisa was glad to put down roots. Continuing to write and publish while at The Retreat, MacDonald's reputation expanded, and in 1872 he was invited to lecture in North America. This successful tour—huge crowds came to hear him—was a great help to his family, especially when his American patrons took up a collection to repay him for all the pirated copies of his work then circulating across the continent.
A government pension, requested for MacDonald by Queen Victoria herself, was awarded in 1877, and this allowed him and his family to winter in Bordighera, a coastal town near Italy's border with France that was popular with British ex-patriots. The visit helped their second-oldest daughter Mary, who had tuberculosis and would benefit from Italy's warm, dry climate. Although Mary did not long survive her illness, MacDonald's health improved and the family returned each winter for the next 20 years, in 1880 building a home there. Casa Coraggio (“Courage House”) boasted a huge living room in which the family hosted concerts, theater productions, and MacDonald's Wednesday-night poetry readings.
From the simpler themes of redemption in his bucolic novels, to the inner worlds suggested by early fantasy books, MacDonald progressed to more challenging ideas. His 1895 fantasy novel Lilith shares a dark and complex tale in which its hero, librarian Mr. Vane, traverses through seven dimensions of the unconscious mind, sleeping in order to awaken in parallel with the Christian notion of “dying in order to live.” Lilith was highly experimental for its time, and MacDonald felt inspired by God while writing it. Ultimately, however, it was his children's fantasy books that outlived him.
In 1898, after many happy winters with his family in Italy, MacDonald suffered a stroke that left him greatly debilitated, and he was unable to speak for the rest of his life. He and Louisa celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1901, and the following year Louisa died and was buried in Bordighera. MacDonald then moved to Surrey, England, to live in a house built by one of his sons. He died there on September 18, 1905, and his ashes were buried in the cemetery in Bordighera, next to Louisa's. A memorial honoring MacDonald was eventually erected in the graveyard of Drumblade Church, near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His grandson, Philip MacDonald, also became a writer, writing under various pen names and producing stories, genre novels, and scripts for radio, television, and films during the mid-20th century.
Macdonald, George, The Gifts of the Child Christ, and Other Tales, B. Tauchnitz, 1882.
Macdonald, Greville, George MacDonald and His Wife, L. MacVeagh, 1924.
Johnson, Joseph, George MacDonald, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1906.
Wolff, Robert Lee, The Golden Key: A Study of the Fiction of George MacDonald, Yale University Press, 1961.
British Broadcasting Corporation website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/N8DKT5rH8rhHmygmpwqSl7/george-macdonald (October 19, 2017), “George MacDonald.”
The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/gm/bio.html (October 19, 2017), “George MacDonald: Biography.”□