Discovering George MacDonald

Happy New Year! It’s Book List Time.

This is the time of year when many an avid reader begins collecting book lists for the new year. New editions of Well Read Mom come out, we republish our little book club’s schedule and list of readings. “What I read in 2021” posts hit the blogosphere. It’s a fun time or bibliophiles.

But book lists aren’t for me.

I hold in my mind a list of books. It is labeled the classics, books that stood the test of time and people still find worth reading. Then, not just the classics, but those classics that influenced other classics. And then within those classics, I find my other preferences. I like a bit of action, a bit of sadness, lots of personality and some weighty subjects.

Last year, I discovered Cluny Media. Browsing their website I purchased How to Read a Novel by Caroline Gordon, then on Black Friday, I fell down the rabbit hole in the discovery of their selected works by George MacDonald.


Who is George MacDonald?

MacDonald, best known for his novel The Princess and the Goblin, is hailed as a great influence of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. He was a pioneer in fantasy fiction. I do not actually read fantasy fiction, but my children do, and if the man could influence the greats, then I want to read him to know what the fuss is about.

Chesterton wrote in his introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville M. MacDonald (out of print), now reprinted in In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton,

“Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald.”

But what made it so real is not the obvious realness, but its skill in “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things,” Chesterton commented.

As G.K. Chesterton said, George MacDonald have the skill of “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.”
Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote,

“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

What does this mean?

The artist, poet, writer, or musician experiences the world, not so much in a different way than the non-artist, non-poet, non-writer or non-musician, but he sees it more deeply. He sees the tree as anyone sees the trees. But he may at the same moment see fairies flitting from branch to branch, or a troll hiding in the hollow of its trunk. Or even more accurately, he sees the possibility. The artist perceives that this world is not at all there is. The true artist is the most spiritual and in his art, brings out that quality in a way that makes it tangible for those who cannot see it. Thus the visual, written, or performative arts are modes of communication of this deeper world to the shallower one.

It is this quality that Lewis and Chesterton speak of. And I love it.

I purchased the three volumes of collected tales, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Thus far, I finished two of the three volumes of Collected Tales.

An Honest Review of George MacDonald

As a caveat. I cannot yet make a sweeping recommendation of MacDonald at this time. We should know that Lewis also wrote,

“Few of his novels are good and none is very good”.

MacDonald can be uneven, he can preach a little too often. To a modern reader, these works may be predictable, but it takes a greater knowledge of literary history for me to know if these are clichés that he used or that they became clichés because he used them so well.

As a reader and not a critic, I find comfort in the structure of the story, its predictable arc, that I knew it would turn out well. I appreciate his straight gaze at grief and loss and the way that through grief we have the opportunity to find more than we lost if we are willing to open our eyes.

The fantasies are magical indeed, but for this reader, the deeper magic lies in his ability to communicate the spiritual through the physical events of our lives, the births, the deaths, the events in between and how they have the power to change us. For that, I read on.

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