Lewis on MacDonald

Two great Christian authors:

OK, a piece on two of my all-time favourite authors. Any excuse will do to revisit these two champions. In case you wonder who exactly I refer to, let me fill you in. They are of course C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) and George MacDonald (1824-1905).

If you know nothing about either, you are, to say the least, somewhat spiritually and intellectually impoverished! But you can quickly come up to speed by perusing these two pieces if you need to learn a bit more about each one:



I began that second piece with these words:

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.”

Here I want to look at one book featuring both men. It is the 1947 volume by Lewis titled George MacDonald: An Anthology (Macmillan). It features a number of key quotes from MacDonald. But the 13-page Preface that Lewis wrote is well worth quoting from as well. Here in part is what he said:

We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.


His father appears to have been a remarkable man – a man hard, and tender, and humorous all at once, in the old fashion of Scotch Christianity. He had had his leg cut off above the knee in the days before chloroform, refusing the customary dose of preliminary whisky, and “only for one moment, when the knife first transfixed the flesh, did he turn his face away and ejaculate a faint, sibilant whiff.” He had quelled with a fantastic joke at his own expense an ugly riot in which he was being burned in effigy. He forbade his son to touch a saddle until he had learned to ride well without one. He advised him “to give over the fruitless game of poetry.” He asked from him, and obtained, a promise to renounce tobacco at the age of twenty-three. On the other hand he objected to grouse shooting on the score of cruelty and had in general a tenderness for animals not very usual among farmers more than a hundred years ago; and his son reports that he never, as boy or man, asked him for anything without getting what he asked. Doubtless this tells us as much about the son’s character as the father’s and should be taken in connection with our extract on prayer. “He who seeks the Father more than anything He can give, is likely to have what he asks, for he is not likely to ask amiss.” The theological maxim is rooted in the experiences of the author’s childhood. This is what may be called the “anti-Freudian predicament” in operation.


It was in this mythopoeic art that MacDonald excelled. And from this it follows that his best art is least represented in this collection. The great works are Phantastes, the Curdie books, The Golden Key, The Wise Woman, and Lilith. From them, just because they are supremely good in their own kind, there is little to be extracted. The meaning, the suggestion, the radiance, is incarnate in the whole story: it is only by chance that you find any detachable merits. The novels, on the other hand, have yielded me a rich crop. This does not mean that they are good novels. Necessity made MacDonald a novelist, but few of his novels are good and none is very good. They are best when they depart most from the canons of novel writing, and that in two directions. Sometimes they depart in order to come nearer to fantasy, as in the whole character of the hero in Sir Gibbie or the opening chapters of Wilfred Cumbermede. Sometimes they diverge into direct and prolonged preachments which would be intolerable if a man were reading for the story, but which are in fact welcome because the author, though a poor novelist, is a supreme preacher. Some of his best things are thus hidden in his dullest books: my task here has been almost one of exhumation. I am speaking so far of the novels as I think they would appear if judged by any reasonably objective standard. But it is, no doubt, true that any reader who loves holiness and loves MacDonald-yet perhaps he will need to love Scotland too-can find even in the worst of them something that disarms criticism and will come to feel a queer, awkward charm in their very faults. (But that, of course, is what happens to us with all favorite authors.) One rare, and all but unique, merit these novels must be allowed. The “good” characters are always the best and most convincing. His saints live; his villains are stagey.


So at least I have found him. In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it. And even if honesty did not-well, I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellenforschung) is perhaps in my marrow. It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought-almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions-the Everyman edition of Phantasies. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity.  Now Phantasies was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.  But when the process was complete-by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”-I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting. But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning. There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through.

Image of George MacDonald: An Anthology 365 Readings
George MacDonald: An Anthology 365 Readings by George MacDonald (Author), C. S. Lewis (Editor), C. S. Lewis (Preface) Amazon logo

And a few quotes from this terrific anthology will not go astray here. Of the 365 quotes, let me feature numbers 94 to 102:

[94] Small Prayers
In every request, heart and soul and mind ought to supply the low accompaniment, “Thy will be done”; but the making of any request brings us near to Him. . . . Anything large enough for a wish to light upon, is large enough to hang a prayer upon: the thought of Him to whom that prayer goes will purify and correct the desire.

[95] Riches and Need
There could be no riches but for need. God Himself is made rich by man’s necessity. By that He is rich to give; through that we are rich by receiving.

[96] Providence
“How should any design of the All-wise be altered in response to prayer of ours? How are we to believe such a thing?”  By reflecting that He is the All-wise, who sees before Him, and will not block His path…. Does God care for suns and planets and satellites, for divine mathematics and ordered harmonies, more than for His children? I venture to say He cares more for oxen than for those. He lays no plans irrespective of His children; and, His design being that they shall be free, active, live things, He sees that space shall be kept for them.

[97] Divine Freedom
What stupidity of perfection would that be which left no margin about God’s work, no room for change of plan upon change of fact-yea, even the mighty change that… now at length His child is praying! … I may move my arm as I please: shall God be unable so to move His?

[98] Providence
If His machine interfered with His answering the prayer of a single child, He would sweep it from Him-not to bring back chaos but to make room for His child…. We must remember that God is not occupied with a grand toy of worlds and suns and planets, of attractions and repulsions, of agglomerations and crystallizations, of forces and waves; that these but constitute a portion of His workshops and tools for the bringing out of righteous men and women to fill His house of love withal.

[99] The Miracles of Our Lord
In all His miracles Jesus did only in miniature what His Father does ever in the great. Poor, indeed, was the making of the wine in the … pots of stone, compared with its making in the lovely growth of the vine with its clusters of swelling grapes-the live roots gathering from the earth the water that had to be borne in pitchers and poured into the great vases; but it is precious as the interpreter of the same, even in its being the outcome of Our Lord’s sympathy with ordinary human rejoicing.

[100] They Have No Wine (John 2:3)
At the prayer of His mother, He made room in His plans for the thing she desired. It was not His wish then to work a miracle, but if His mother wished it, He would. He did for His mother what for His own part He would rather have left alone. Not always did He do as His mother would have Him; but this was a case in which He could do so, for it would interfere nowise with the will of His Father. . . . The Son, then, could change His intent and spoil nothing: so, I say, can the Father; for the Son does nothing but what He sees the Father do.

[101] Intercessory Prayer
And why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another? I can only answer with the return question, “Why should my love be powerless to help another?”

[102] The Eternal Revolt
There is endless room for rebellion against ourselves.

[2056 words]

4 Replies to “Lewis on MacDonald”

  1. One of my emails today reported that yesterday was another anniversary of Lewis’s birth – November 29, 1898.

  2. Thank you, Bill, for your tributes to George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis.

    Like Lewis, G.K. Chesterton was also a great admirer or MacDonald.

    In 1901 he wrote: “A curious glow pervades his books: the flowers seem like coloured flames broken loose from the flaming heart of the world: every bush of gorse is a burning bush, burning for the same cause as that of Moses.”

    In 1905 he declared: “If we test the matter by strict originality of outlook, George MacDonald was one of the three or four greatest men of 19th-century Britain.”

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