A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit. An allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch.
-George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination,” introduction to The Light Princess and other Fairy Tales, 1864
I’m often at a loss to sum up George MacDonald, a great and nearly lifelong favorite, and unjustly unread, these days. I constantly tell other fantasy writers and readers to read him, but I rarely know how to make the pitch. I suspect I leave the impression that George MacDonald was the C. S. Lewis of the nineteenth century – the two are often connected, as though they were similar writers, due to Lewis’ own efforts in bringing MacDonald more readers.
MacDonald and Lewis are not similar writers at all, nor were they similar people or similar Christians. In fact, I would go so far as to put it this way: George MacDonald is the Anti-C.S. Lewis.
It’s good to leave childhood loves behind, particularly as regards literature. Sometimes we meet them again later and they’re as sweet as we remembered. Sometimes they’re not, and best left to memory. Often, what was previously regarded as treasure is now revealed as a pale imitation of deeper riches.
C.S. Lewis provides a fine example and was not shy about crediting writers he admired, learned and borrowed from – David Lindsay, Charles Williams, and George MacDonald primary among them. You may find, should you move on from Narnia and The Space Trilogy to Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus or Williams’ All Hallows Eve, that your estimation of Lewis lessens as you get to know his teachers better – both Williams and Lindsay wrote better fiction than Lewis.
Lewis’ message is simple: what you think of as modern achievement and progress is really deception and vanity, and what matters most in life is that you will very likely die tomorrow and wake up on fire forever. Essentially, it’s the same warning you could get any day of the week from Pat Robertson, delivered in a more sophisticated manner. But it’s still the same story. The Screwtape Letters is very amusing, but it’s also a more erudite version of every nasty little comic book Jack Chick ever produced.
Susan goes to Hell or at least misses out on Narnian Heaven in those books. This follows a sequence in which millions upon millions of Narnians and Telmarines and Calormen and whole civilizations made up of sentient moles and burros and bunny rabbits and trees all go to Hell, no doubt about it. The Space Trilogy’s got two different “going to Hell” climaxes. One comes at the end of Perelandra, when Ransom battles Weston – now Satan incarnate – in the flaming bowels of Venus. That Hideous Strength has virtually no plot and is all about waiting to see mustachio-twiddling progressive/left/modern stock villains wake up on fire forever.
George MacDonald haunts C.S. Lewis’ written output, from his adult conversion on, and this shows especially in his personal letters and theological writing. MacDonald even shows up as the Virgil analog in The Great Divorce, Lewis’ woefully modernist rework of The Divine Comedy.
This confused me when I was younger, about equally enamored of both authors, and still religious. I got what Lewis had to say about the writing, but his praise – his occasional bout of nigh-worship, even – for MacDonald, personally, and his beliefs in particular, never made a lot of sense to me. C. S. Lewis was, above all else, a very traditional Christian in all the worst ways – a self-proclaimed throwback, even – and George MacDonald was a heretic. Born a century or so earlier, or in a different place, his fellow Christians would have burned him alive out of a deep and very real concern for his eternal soul. In nineteenth century Scotland, they just kicked him out of his pastor’s seat.
What makes Lewis’ passion for MacDonald so strange are the specifics of MacDonald’s heresy: he was a Universalist. He did not believe in substitutionary atonement, either, and when his Calvinist family first explained predestination to him, it is said, he broke down sobbing. He could not possibly believe any of these things to be true about the God he loved intimately.
MacDonald, in other words, did not believe in Hell, the very doctrine to whose defense Lewis was so committed.
People talk often about “knowing God” or “loving God.” I was raised, myself, in churches that stressed this kind of language, in which everyone had “A personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” However that statement might grate on anybody else, I think it’s impossible to get across just how much you can grow to hate hearing people say that over and over for decades.
Humans say “I love” and “my friend” and we communicate much with few words – an untold story lies behind them, of shared hours and days and years, a life spent in this person’s company. If the person who claims a love or a friend goes on to talk about that person, you see the love and friendship as they speak, in their faces and gestures and eyes. They can’t help it. We tend not to trust people who claim friendship and love hastily, who talk as though they had a history with people they don’t.
In my life, encountering thousands of claimants to friendship with Christ, I can think of two people who I believed that about and still do. They had a lifelong loving relationship with something, and when they spoke of God, it was as a spouse, right next to them. Everybody could see it, even people who only encountered them once and briefly, in the most prosaic circumstance: they were more than human.
I don’t mean that I believe in Christ as these people did, and I have met people since with similar qualities who didn’t share their faith, a few, three maybe. I’m as dubious about Tibetan Buddhism as I am about Christianity, but I met a couple Tibetan monks, years ago, and they were that kind of people, too. This is a mystery – some very few of us embody all the greatest claims of religion and the specific religious belief doesn’t matter at all. It’s not the religion; clearly, it’s something about these people. Absent any other explanation, as they are as far from liars as you can get, I must take them at their word: they are friends and lovers of divinity all their lives, whatever that means.
I know why Lewis loved MacDonald: neither of us ever met him, but both of us knew who we’d met in his writing. C. S. Lewis wrote about joy and love and qualities of joy and types of loves, George MacDonald was joy and love. C.S. Lewis wrote allegories about things hoped for, MacDonald wrote about the real he lived every day. C. S. Lewis wrote about Aslan. George MacDonald wrote the book Aslan pops out of at the end of Voyage of The Dawn Treader.
George MacDonald was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1824, and had eleven children in when he lost his pulpit for preaching that Christ’s sacrifice was not a ticket to claim and escape everyone else’s misery and that no god you’d want to know could torture almost everyone forever. MacDonald, born to a farming family, was bookish from birth, never going to be any kind of tradesman, and his family starved and went without for a few years while he got his bearings, drifting from religious post to post.
A writer since his youth, he’d already had a book of poetry published, so George MacDonald did the obvious: he became a rich and famous author. In fact, in those facsimile editions of the Authors card game Cracker Barrel sells out of their faux-general store at the front, you’ll find a George MacDonald card.
The famous writers of the past are not generally still read passionately a century on and more. For the most part, this is justified, and fate and history are showing these authors no ill will. They wrote books that were popular and beloved at a specific time, but do not have a lot to offer a future age. We have our own penny dreadfuls and diet books, thank you.
We also have our own romance novels, and George MacDonald was most famous in his time as a romance novelist and travelling lecturer, and was very successful at both. He traveled the world, met and made friends with the great and occasionally powerful. When he lectured in America, he stayed with Emerson, Longfellow and Whitman, and was a mentor to Lewis Carroll. Even Mark Twain, who publicly despised MacDonald on first reading, eventually became his friend and reader.
MacDonald’s fantasy work was popular, but it was also regarded largely as children’s fiction, save for two books: his last fantasy novel, Lilith (1895), and his first novel, Phantastes (1858). Those with eyes to see didn’t need MacDonald to tell them “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” The romance novels that paid MacDonald’s way through life are largely forgotten. What little audience MacDonald has left, around the world, is devoted almost entirely to his fairy stories.
As fantasies tend to, most of MacDonald’s fantastic work is about journeys – walks, flights, quests, getting lost, pursuit, parade, the march to war, even a few grand tours here and there. The journey is a life, obviously, and his work is also highly moral, instructional even, again, as fairy tales tend to. But here is the difference between MacDonald and Grimm: when boys and girls go into Grimm’s woods, they emerge victorious over some monster, terrified into some life lesson, or they do not emerge at all. When they go into MacDonald’s woods, they come out the other side gentler, stronger men and women.
The stories are about failure and regret, and the eternal nature of both, wrong choices you can never undo, and becoming better anyway. They are about a guiding hand of love that is hard and relentless when it needs to be, but only then, Velveteen Rabbit love, the kind that makes you real. Interestingly, MacDonald presents that guide, consistently, as an old woman – a crone, in fact. And while he did not write allegories, he did include some allegory, and this old witch also clearly represents the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit’s.
There is no finger wagging, no impatience to MacDonald’s moral fables, and no sense of superiority, only an authority that need never raise its voice. Here is a father through and through, a man who knows what he knows about how to lead a good life and will show you the way if you’re willing, but won’t compel you or waste his or your time repeating adages you already know by heart. You can take the lesson or not, and if not, he has other riches for you.
MacDonald’s style and technique lie somewhere between Poe and Machen – neither as sentimental as Poe, nor as cold as Machen, his fantastic tales nevertheless bring both to mind. Phantastes, as a matter of fact, rather reads like “The White People” as told by a much kinder man. Where MacDonald heads off into his own territory, his fiction is not overloaded, but rich with glorious detail where others would practice brevity. If a clump of bluebells starts singing in a George MacDonald story, the entire choir is considered as characters themselves for a moment, and a little story written about their struggles and joys and efforts and the little one in the corner who’s always off-key, and you may not even notice that you dropped into a sub-story as you move on.
The characters are mostly fairy tale stock – any real depth reserved for the protagonists, the rest a bag of Bad People and Good People and People Who Get In the Hero’s Way. Except they’re not, really – MacDonald has a startlingly modern bent for turning extras into full characters on a dime to make a point about how the primaries and the reader regard that person (or don’t regard that person, more often), or just giving them stories for no reason at all. You will begin reading knowing this is a Proud King, this is a Vain Queen, this is an Evil Witch, and you have met these types before, and end sometimes knowing something entirely else and sorry for your assumptions, as though you’d made them about real people. The Evil Witch, as noted earlier, might even turn out to be God.
The stories are…no. You have to go there, yourself. There aren’t that many – you could read them all in a few days if you’re a fast reader. The editors of Fantasy Magazine have decided to make an introduction to MacDonald this week, via a particularly glowing chapter from Phantastes. You never get to say this enough times in your life as a reader: I envy anyone encountering MacDonald for the first time, here. You are in for nothing but delight, enough to last a lifetime, all of it brand new.
You will discover how deep the love for MacDonald goes for those who keep his name alive. You will see as you read how many of your favorite fantasy writers also love and learn from a man who died a century ago and whose heart burned so brightly that you can still sting your fingers on the pages he left behind. MacDonald’s most-quoted piece of verse, the puzzle holding the key to The Light Princess’ curse, which no one can solve but True Love, turns out to be absolute truth, the evidence of it in the words you’ll read soon for the first time:
Death alone from death can save
Love is death, and so is brave
Love can fill the deepest grave
Love loves on beneath the wave
This I have never said, one reader to another, but: you will never be the same after reading George MacDonald, and you will never be sorry. That, I can promise.
Robert N. Lee spent the beginning of his life in Vietnam, grew up all over the US, and now lives in Florida with the love of his life in a house full of pets named after Beverly Cleary characters. He works in technology design and marketing as well as publishing occasional fiction and non-fiction, and can be found online at his blog.