George MacDonald Biographical Introduction

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George Macdonald is often considered the ‘grandfather’ of Modern Fantasy in English – but he was also so much more. A professor and lecturer in the discipline of English Literature for more than 40 years, MacDonald was a novelist, essayist, writer of faëry and short stories, poet, pastor, thespian, and social reformer. Born in rural Scotland in 1824, into a highly literate family and an ecumenically diverse community (perhaps most coloured by the dichotomy of Federal Calvinism and Celtic Christianity, as represented in his extended family), he attended Kings College (a forerunner of Aberdeen University), taking prizes in chemistry and natural philosophy.  His initial intent to further study medicine, chemistry, or mathematics in Europe was deterred by lack of finances. After three years tutoring in London, he attended seminary and became a Congregational pastor in the English town of Arundel. Well-loved by some of his congregants, others were displeased with certain theological expressions, resulting in a lowered salary. After 28 months he resigned (having fared better than the two clergy before, who were both fired). However he never ceased giving creative expression to such passions as the persistent loving-kindness of God, the divine call to childlikeness, and the standing invitation into a love-impelled obedience. MacDonald moved to Manchester with his wife Louisa and growing family, to be closer to his mentor A.J. Scott – and whilst there taught chemistry, gave Literature lectures, and helped pastor a home-church. Tubercular issues (with which he struggled throughout his life) became quite serious, and Lady Byron (widow of the poet) funded a trip to Algiers for recovery. When he returned to England MacDonald became fully committed to his vocation as a teacher of Literature – whether in the classroom, lecture hall, or upon the page.

MacDonald began publishing in 1845 with some short poems and literary criticism, followed by his first translations in 1851 (Novalis’ Hymns of the Night; he later published more translated poems, mostly from German and Italian – he was fluent in multiple languages). His first book-length publication, the epic poem Within and Without (1855), was followed by Poems (1857), and Phantastes (1858). Although some critics were confused and unimpressed by the new genre represented by Phantastes, more reviews were laudatory, and a few years later literary journals claimed it a decided success. MacDonald’s realistic novels proved more financially successful however – beginning with David Elginbrod (1862/3), Alec Forbes (1865), and Robert Falconer (1868). He was acquainted with, or friends with, most London literati and artists of his day, but invested more time in family (11 children, plus 2 adopted, and many seeking respite in their home), close friends, and persons in need. Many of those close friends and confidents – such as John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, F.D. Maurice  –  were friends with the whole family. Tennyson, Carlyle, Arnold, Rossetti, Hughes, Burns-Jones, and Oliphant were among the many who came to gatherings at their home – festivities that intentionally brought together poets and priests, artists and activists, princesses and paupers. Often these gatherings included theatricals performed by the MacDonald family (mostly written by Louisa), which raised money for orphans and homeless in their vicinity. Those plays – most famously Pilgrim’s Progress, but including Shakespeare, Greek plays, fairy tales, versions of Dickens and Zola, and original work – had a role in redeeming theatre for ‘polite society’ of the age.  Nonetheless the MacDonalds were ostracised by some for involving their family with the stage.

One of MacDonald’s many social justice passions was that higher education become available to all, regardless of gender, class, or religion. He taught English Literature at Bedford College for Women – the first institute where women could study at a university level, for purposes other than becoming governesses and teachers – and then at King’s College London – the first university in England to have such a degree. Over four decades he delivered innumerable lectures on English Literature and on Dante, in England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, France, USA, and Canada. These (like his sermons) were always delivered extempore, with one (oft repeated) exception – a lecture on the Imagination, which eventually became the seminal essay The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture. MacDonald’s North American lecture tour in 1872 – during which he lectured chiefly on Burns and Shakespeare – filled halls with literally thousands, and garnered many friends, including Emerson and Mark Twain. Whilst there, a collection was taken to reimburse him for losses through the pirating of his works in the U.S.  He also turned down an astonishingly lucrative offer to pastor a large church in New York. (MacDonald continued to preach frequently, always gratis; he joined the Church of England [Anglican] in 1866.)

MacDonald struggled with life-threatening lung disease throughout his long life, as did several of his children. This precipitated a move with hopes that a climate change would help, first to Boscombe near Bournemouth in a house built with the aid of friends, and from thence a shift to the Italian Riviera (late 1870’s) for much of each year. From 1881 to 1902 they lived in Bordighera, Italy. Louisa became organist for the Catholic and Anglican churches in the community, and organ concerts and theatre plays were often held for the benefit of the parish. Readings, community charades, lectures, and amateur theatricals were frequent at the MacDonald home, for both the expat community as well as (atypically) locals. After a long illness, Macdonald died in England in 1905. His grave is in Bordighera, where his wife had been buried in 1902. Three siblings, four children, and a granddaughter all died of tubercular illnesses before him.

MacDonald published over fifty volumes of fiction, verse, children’s stories, essays, and sermons, as well as anthologies and a folio-based edition of Hamlet. His stories for children are ranked classics, and are often studied in Children’s Literature classes.

C.S. Lewis identified MacDonald’s work as “mythopoeic,” describing it as giving “as much delight and…as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest of poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry…It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth’.” Lewis claims he never wrote a work without quoting or borrowing heavily from MacDonald, and he is not alone in naming him a mentor: Frances Hodgson Burnett, G.K. Chesterton, David Lindsey, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Frederick Beuchner, Maurice Sendak (Sendak illustrated a number of GMD works – as did E.H. Shepherd of Winnie the Pooh fame), Neil Gaiman, Oswald Chambers, Philip Yancey, Jeffrey Overstreet, Jennifer Trafton, William Alexander, A.S. Peterson, and Andrew Peterson are among the many who acknowledge indebtedness.

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Many MacDonald-initiates start with Phantastes, as it is the book Lewis claims “baptized his imagination.”  However, whilst brilliant and deserving of many rereads, it can be a challenging first-read for many modern readers. Perhaps begin with the children’s fantasies, such as the ‘Curdie Books,’ and short stories such as “The Golden Key”… and/or novels such as Sir Gibbie, Robert Falconer, Back of the North Wind – and essays such as “The Imagination.” Then, Phantastes. (Here is an introductory video that may help.) And then … a few others (perhaps also a foray into Dante’s Commedia) … and you may be ready for the profound adventure of Lilith