George MacDonald Biographical Introduction
George Macdonald was named by C.S. Lewis as the most significant author in his life of reading. His influence generally upon the Inklings and ‘kindreds’ is hard to over-estimate, and he is often considered the ‘grandfather’ of Modern Fantasy in English. A professor and lecturer in the discipline of English Literature for more than 40 years, MacDonald was also a novelist, fantasist, poet, essayist, 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 Calvinism and Celtic Christianity, as represented in his extended family), he attended 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. His less dogmatic views displeased some congregants, resulting in a lowered salary, and after 28 months he resigned (having fared better than the two clergy before, who had both been fired). 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. Tuburcular 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 committted 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), 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 close friends and confidents, such as John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll, were close to the whole family. Tennyson, Carlyle, Arnold, Rossetti, Hughes, Burns-Jones, Oliphant were among the many who came to plays performed by the MacDonald family (mostly written by Louisa), which raised money for orphans and homeless in their vicinity – often festivities that intentionally brought together poets and priests, pricesses and paupers. The plays – most famously Pilgrim’s Progress, but including Shakespeare, Greek plays, fairy tales, versions of Dickens and Zola, and orginal work – played a role in redeeming theatre for ‘polite society’ of the age. Nonetheless the MacDonalds were ostracized 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 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 turburcular illnesses throughout his long life, as did several of his children. This precipitated their move to Italy, for the greater part of each year, in the late 1870’s – with hopes that the climate change would help them. From 1881 to 1902 they lived in Bordighera, in a house built with the aid of friends. 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 tuburcular 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.
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, 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, Jeffrey Overstreet, Jennifer Trafton, A.S. Peterson, and Andrew Peterson are among the many who acknowledge indebtedness.
* * *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 is a very 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. Then … a few others perhaps (a foray into Dante’s Commedia will help too) … and you may be ready for the profound adventure of Lilith…..