Biography

George MacDonald was born in Huntly, Aberdeenshire in 1824. The MacDonalds were a prominent family in the community both in terms of business and with the religious community. The family was a member of the Missionar Kirk, an extreme version of the established church, which MacDonald was to reject. In his writing, he asserts that there is a God and that it is through art and the imagination that we are closest to Him. This contradicts the Calvinist disapproval of art as fanciful and iconoclastic.

MacDonald went to university in Aberdeen where he studied Moral Philosophy and Sciences under some of the leading thinkers of the age, an experience which was to colour his liberal and heterodox thinking. He considered becoming a chemist but instead chose to follow another path, training as a Congregational Minister at Highbury College. He was forced to resign from his first position at Arundel in 1853 after being accused of heresy. Believing in divine presence but not divine providence, he asserted that everyone was capable of redemption.

Prevented from preaching from a ministerial pulpit, MacDonald turned to writing. His first publication was a religious poem, Within and Without (1855) which was followed by Phantastes (1858), one of the defining works of his career. Fantasy works for both adults and children are to be found throughout his career but he turned to writing novels in order to provide for his large family. He wrote more than fifty books over five decades. During his lifetime, he was best known as a novelist but in modern times it is his works for children and his fantasy literature which are more commonly known and which remain in print.

Despite the turnover and success of his novels, he was often unable to support his family. He relied heavily on the charity of his friends such as Lady Byron, who acted as his patron until her death in 1860, and John Ruskin, whose donations would often be the only source of income to the MacDonalds.

In the 1870s MacDonald was invited to give a lecture tour across America. Speaking at a number of locations to huge audiences, he was received warmly by writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and was even offered a well paid ministerial position. Despite this, he chose to return to his large and continually expanding family in England. However, the ill health which had dogged him from childhood, forced him to relocate every year to warmer climates in Europe.

He died in Ashtead, Surrey, in 1905. A memorial to him has been erected in Drumblade Churchyard, Aberdeenshire.

Works

George MacDonald is often regarded as the founding father of modern fantasy writing, without whom we may not have had the work of Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkein. His first work in prose, Phantastes, draws from many sources including German and English Romantic poets and the religious poets of the Renaissance. The protagonist, Anodos, journeys through Fairy Land, which could be a psychological landscape, with its twists and turns, descents and ascents representing various aspects of Anodos’s own internal journey. At the end of the text, Anodos ‘awakens’ as though from a dream only to be told that he has been missing for twenty-one days. During that time he has matured from a child to an adult who takes responsibility for his actions. Just before he returns to his own world, Anodos sacrifices himself to save his beloved and her lover, a chivalric knight. He seems to be a changed person recognising that it is by loving others rather than by receiving love that a person is closest to God.

MacDonald’s work possesses an assertion of his belief system as well as an artistic agenda. One of his final works, Lilith (1895), reiterates the power of the unconscious mind. Where Phantastes is essentially a fairytale for adults, Lilith is probably MacDonald’s darkest work. It expresses his vision in its entirety and despite the sombreness, it is far from being a negative text. The main protagonist, Vane, journeys through the land of the Seven Dimensions until he can accept that he must lie down in Adam’s house with the dead. Lilith challenges notions of life and death, wakefulness and the unconscious. Ultimately everyone must sleep so that they may awaken, die so that they might live. Long before Freud and Jung began their studies, MacDonald was exploring the imagination, the power of dreams and the layers of the mind. From this arises MacDonald’s belief that God exists in the unconscious mind. If art is the expression of the imagination, and God exists in the imagination, then art is essentially the path to God. MacDonald told his son Greville that Lilith seemed to be ‘a mandate direct from God, for which he himself was to find form and clothing.’ Lilith is an experimental, radical text pushing the boundaries of what art can say. MacDonald’s work flouts a rationalist approach to the world and concentrates on the advocacy of the unconscious imagination as the source of truth.

In Lilith, the characters grow physically younger as they sleep in Adam’s house. This process reflects the internal journey of returning to innocence and the purity of the child that MacDonald emphasised was the path to God. This belief is inherent in MacDonald’s writings. In his earlier work, ‘The Golden Key’, MacDonald does not question if God exists, but instead reflects upon what kind of God exists? MacDonald is often portrayed as conservative, but within the spiritual elements there is radicalism.

The short story, ‘The Golden Key’ demonstrates a religion beyond dogma or creed. Through the journey of the two protagonists, Mossy and Tangle, the values of human existence are examined. The extremes of good and evil found in Fairy Land mean that MacDonald can ask the ‘big’ philosophical questions about humanity. The journey is to find out what door the golden key opens. There is only spiritual not material gain to be found by opening the door. The protagonists do not know where they are going or what they are looking for and this mirrors the journey that MacDonald believes everyone faces in life. MacDonald is an eclectic writer setting up allegory or philosophy with implications to be taken out of the text and applied to real life.

Despite the difference in form, the fantasies, children’s tales and the novels should not be limited by reading them in only one way. The novels contain many elements found in his more fantastical works. In addition, many of the children’s tales could be read as simplified versions of the novels themselves.

MacDonald’s first novel David Elginbrod was published in 1863 and was to be the first of around two dozen novels. The novels are often set wholly or partly in nineteenth century Scotland. In David Elginbrod, Hugh Sutherland, who works as a classical and mathematic tutor for a Scottish laird's family, is redeemed and finds his true connection with God with help and instruction from David Elginbrod, a humble cottar and his family, who also work for the laird. David is thought to be based on MacDonald’s father.

Another novel, Alec Forbes of Howglen, is also thought to be semi-autobiographical: MacDonald spent his boyhood at Upper Pirriesmill, the ‘Howglen’ of the novel. The familiarity of location is betrayed by MacDonald’s use of North-East Scots, the dialect of his youth. The novels tend towards strong moral messages but MacDonald emphasises that the road to enlightenment is not easy. Alec must leave behind a past that included gambling, drink and prostitutes in order to find God. The novels are representative of MacDonald’s belief in universal redemption, the very charge for which he was accused of heresy. It is easy for us now to overlook how radical MacDonald’s religious beliefs were in his time.

Reading Lists

Within and Without, a Poem (1855) 

Poems (1855)

Phantastes: a Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858) 

David Elginbrod (3 volumes) (1863) 

Adela Cathcart (3 volumes) (1864) 

The Portent: a story of the Inner Vision of the Highlanders commonly called the Second Sight (1864)

Alec Forbes of Howglen (3 volumes) (1865)

Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood (3 volumes) (1867)

Dealings with the Fairies (including 'The Golden Key') (1867) 

Unspoken Sermons, 1st Series (1867)

Unspoken Sermons, 2nd Series (1885)

Unspoken Sermons, 3rd Series (1889)

Guild Court (3 volumes) (1868)

Robert Falconer (3 volumes) (1868)

The Seaboard Parish (3 volumes) (1868)

The Miracles of our Lord (1 volume) (1870)

At the Back of the North Wind (1871)

Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood (1871)

Works of Fancy and Imagination (chiefly reprints) (10 volumes) (1871)

The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

The Vicar's Daughter (3 volumes) (1872)

Wilfred Cumbermede (3 volumes) (1872)

Gutta Percha Willie: the Working Genius (1873)

England's Antiphon (1874)

Malcolm (3 volumes) (1875)

The Wise Woman, a Parable (1875)

Thomas Wingfold, Curate (3 volumes) (1876)

St George and St Michael (3 volumes) (1876)

Exotics: a Translation (in verse) of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis, the Hymn Book of Luther and other Poems from the German and Italian (1876)

The Marquis of Lossie (3 volumes) (1877)

Sir Gibbie (3 volumes) (1879)

Paul Faber, Surgeon (3 volumes) (1879)

A Book of Strife, in the form of the Diary of an Old Soul (1880)

Mary Marston (3 volumes) (1881)

Castle Warlock, a homely romance (3 volumes) (1882)

Weighed and Wanting (3 volumes) (1882)

The Gifts of the Christ Child, and other Tales (2 volumes)

n.d. Later published with title of Stephen Archer and Other Tales (1 volume) (1882)

A Dish of Orts (1882) 

Donal Grant (3 volumes) (1883)

A Threefold Cord, Poems by Three Friends, edited by George MacDonald (1883)

The Princess and Curdie (1883)

The Tragedie of Hamlet - with a study of the text of the Folio of 1623 (1885)

What's Mine's Mine (3 volumes) (1886)

Home Again, a Tale (1 volume) (1887)

The Elect Lady (1 volume) (1888)

Cross Purposes, and The Shadows: Two Fairy Stories (reprinted from Dealings with the Fairies) (1886)

A Rough Shaking, a Tale (1890)

The Light Princess and other Fairy Stories (reprinted from Dealings with the Fairies) (1890)

There and Back (3 volumes) (1891) 

The Flight of the Shadow (1 volume) (1891)

A Cabinet of Gems, cut and polished by Sir Philip Sydney, now for their more radiance presented without their setting by George MacDonald (1891)

The Hope of the Gospel (1892)

Heather and Snow (2 volumes) (1893)

Poetical Works of George MacDonald (2 volumes) (1893)

Lilith, a Romance (1 volume) (1895)

Rampolli: Growths from a Long-planted Root, being translations chiefly from the German, along with A Year's Diary of an Old Soul (Poems) (1897)

Salted with Fire, a Tale (1 volume) (1897)

Secondary

Fremantle, Anne (ed.), The Visionary Novels of George MacDonald, Intro by W.H. Auden (1954)

Gifford, D., ‘Myth, Parody and Dissociation: Scottish Literature 1814-1914’, The History of Scottish Literature, vol. III , ed. D. Gifford (1988)

Hein, Rolland, The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald (1989)

Manlove, Colin, Scottish Fantasy Literature; A Critical Survey (1994)

Raeper, William, George MacDonald (1987).

Saintsbury, Elizabeth, George MacDonald: A Short Life (1987)

Wolff, Robert Lee, The Golden Key: A Study of the Fiction of George MacDonald (1961)



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