What we should know about George MacDonald:
The famous Scottish author, poet and Christian Congregational minister has had a huge impact on so many. His numerous works are still widely read today. As C. S. Lewis once said about MacDonald: “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him my master.”
The former atheist also said this in his 1955 biographical volume, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
A good way to give you a taste of his work is to quote from them, so I will be rather brief in recounting his life. He was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1824. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1845 with a science degree, but began theological training in 1848.
He was a minister in West Sussex, England from 1850 -1853. He then ministered in Manchester, and taught for some years at the University of London. His first novel appeared in 1863. For two decades he and his family lived in Italy (he had 11 children). He returned to England in 1900, and he died in September of 1905.
He wrote plenty of fiction, fantasy and children’s books. But he said this: “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” He certainly had an influence on many, and was even a mentor to Lewis Carroll (of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fame). In another article I discuss one of his more beloved short stories: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/04/04/george-macdonald-the-light-princess-and-redemption/
He rejected aspects of the Calvinism he had grown up with. As to his theology, his views on the atonement and his incipient universalism will not please conservative evangelicals. Even Lewis rejected his universalist emphasis. I will not belabour all that. But for those who wish to explore this further, here are a few articles on the latter issue:
So I do not go along with all that he held to, but I can still feature an article on someone like MacDonald and urge others to be aware of him. One can benefit much from this man without agreeing to all that he might have said or believed.
Someone who has done so much to promote MacDonald and his work is Michael Phillips. In his 1990 volume (see below) he said this about the man and his writings:
George MacDonald was no teacher of “theology” in the usual sense of the word. His writing was varied. Among his 53 published books are included more than 400 poems, 25 short stories, a dozen literary essays, 50 sermons (some ranging more than 50 pages in length), a number of book-length fairy tales, several fantasies, as well as some 30 realistic novels of between 300 and 800 pages each. And on nearly every page, in nearly every poem, and certainly in every sermon, the two things George MacDonald cared most about–the character of God, and obedience to his commands–were clearly visible.
Some of his more well-known fiction includes these works:
Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Men and Women (1858)
At the Back of the North Wind (1871)
The Princess and the Goblin (1872)
The Gifts of the Child Christ (1882)
The Princess and Curdie (1883)
Lilith: A Romance (1895)
Two helpful collections of his writings and sermons have been put together by Michael Phillips:
Discovering the Character of God. Bethany House, 1989.
Knowing the Heart of God. Bethany House, 1990.
For further reading
Hein, Rolland, The Harmony Within: The Christian Vision of George MacDonald. Christian University Press, 1982.
Hein, Rolland, ed., George MacDonald: Creation in Christ. Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976.
Larson, Timothy, George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles. IVP, 2018.
Lewis, C. S., George MacDonald: An Anthology. William Collins, 1946, 2016.
Phillips, Michael, comp., George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller. Bethany House, 1987.
Phillips, Michael, comp., George MacDonald’s Spiritual Vision. Yellowood House, 2016.
Raeper, William, George MacDonald. Lion, 1987, 1988.
As mentioned, perhaps the best way to let those who are unfamiliar with his work get a feel for what he said is to simply feature a number of quotes from his work. Here are a few of many that could be offered:
“God wants to build you a house whereof the walls shall be goodness; you want a house whereof the walls shall be comfort. But God knows that such walls cannot be built, that that kind of stone crumbles away in the foolish workman’s hands. He would make you comfortable; but neither is that his first object, nor can it be gained without the first, which is to make you good. He loves you so much that he would infinitely rather have you good and uncomfortable, for then he could take you to his heart as his own children, than comfortable and not good, for then he could not come near you, or give you anything to be counted worth having for himself or worth giving to you.” The Vicar’s Daughter
“There was once a little princess who—”But, Mr. Author, why do you always write about princesses?” “Because every little girl is a princess.” “You will make them vain if you tell them that.” “Not if they understand what I mean.” “Then what do you mean?” “What do you mean by a princess?” “The daughter of a king.” “Very well, then every little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it, except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud. I have seen little princesses behave like the children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need, to be told they are princesses.” The Princess and the Goblin
“That’s all nonsense,” said Curdie. “I don’t know what you mean.” “Then if you don’t know what I mean, what right have you to call it nonsense?” The Princess and the Goblin
“But to try to make others comfortable is the only way to get right comfortable ourselves, and that comes partly of not being able to think so much about ourselves when we are helping other people. For our Selves will always do pretty well if we don’t pay them too much attention. Our Selves are like some little children who will be happy enough so long as they are left to their own games, but when we begin to interfere with them, and make them presents of too nice playthings, or too many sweet things, they begin at once to fret and spoil.” At the Back of the North Wind
“Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing not to be afraid depends on what the fearlessness is founded upon. Some show no fear because they have no knowledge of the danger; there is nothing fine in that. Some are too stupid to be afraid; there is nothing fine in that. Some who are not easily frightened would yet turn their backs and run the moment they were frightened; such never had more courage than fear. But the person who will do his or her work in spite of his or her fear is a person of true courage.” The Lost Princess: A Double Story
“People are so ready to think themselves changed when it is only their mood that is changed! Those who are good-tempered because it is a fine day, will be ill-tempered when it rains: their selves are just the same both days; only in one case, the fine weather has got them, in the other the rainy.” The Lost Princess: A Double Story
“The library, although duly considered in many alterations of the house and additions to it, had nevertheless, like an encroaching state, absorbed one room after another until it occupied the greater part of the ground floor.” Lilith
“The part of philanthropist is indeed a dangerous one; and the man who would do his neighbor good must first study how not to do him evil, and must begin by pulling the beam out of his own eye.” Lilith
“We are often unable to tell people what they need to know, because they want to know something else.” Lilith
“(Malcolm) A library cannot be made all at once, any more than a house or a nation or a tree: they must all take time to grow, and so must a library….
(Lady Florimel) You could get somebody who knew more about them (the books) to buy them for you.
(Malcolm) I would as soon think of getting somebody to eat my dinner for me.” The Fisherman’s Lady
“The beauty of love is, that it does not take care of itself, but of the person loved.” Donal Grant
“It is by loving and not being loved that one can come nearest to the soul of another.” Phantastes
“Every gift of God is but a harbinger of his greatest and only sufficing gift—that of himself.” Unspoken Sermons Series I, II, and III
“The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.” Unspoken Sermons Series I, II, and III
“Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it.” Unspoken Sermons Series I, II, and III
“Everything depends on the kind of God one believes in.” Unspoken Sermons Series I, II, and III
“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.”
“Doing the will of God leaves me no time for disputing about His plans.”
“You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.”
“Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.”