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GMD - 1862, Click To Enlarge

Short Bio
(My complete GMD bio/commentary is here).
Bibliography

 

 

George MacDonald was one of the most respected authors of his generation in 19th century Scotland. He wrote over fifty books, nearly half of them novels for adults, along with some theological studies, several volumes of essays & criticism, a few volumes of poetry, and three best selling children's novels accompanied by a couple more volumes of fairytales. He wrote in nearly every literary genre. Although today much of his poetry and adult fiction would be considered rather prosaic, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, it was fantasy that he really excelled in. His only two fantasy novels written for adults--Phantastes and Lilith--are often spoken of as two of the best novels ever written in the English language. His three fantasy novels for children, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and the Curdie, and At the Back of the North Wind are so strange and otherworldly that adults often enjoy them as much, or more, than children. The latter tale is still his best-selling book ever. Strangely though, it was his non-fantasy adult fiction that sold best throughout his lifetime.

MacDonald, born December 10, 1824, drew an enjoyment from reading books even as a young boy that encompassed all the typical poetic elements of elusiveness that so engage the mystical minded. By his late teens, as a student at King's College in Aberdeen, young George was already reading Shelley, Coleridge, James Hogg, and Tom Moore while also finding time to write poetry of his own. He had a powerful intellect, winning 3rd prize in Chemistry and 4th in Natural Philosophy, subjects he would lecture on years later at a Ladies' College to earn some much needed money. Soon after, the decision was made to enter Highbury College where he would try his hand at theology. He would last only two years or so as a fulltime clergymen however, in a country church with a congregation numbering less than sixty five. While most of the church took kindly to the young preacher, there eventually came some opposition by about twenty members to his preaching on a small number of issues, namely, his anti-Calvinistic stance (or rather, anti-predestination), along with what some viewed as a somewhat Universalistic outlook. He had no belief in eternal punishment and torments from a loving father and thought that, if there was indeed a place such as hell, either no one would go there in the end, they wouldn't stay there long if they did, or that hell might be more of a metaphor symbolizing hardships in this life, a "refining fire", that was only meant to last as long as was needed to bring about repentance in the sufferer. During this time however, he had his first book published. Within and Without, a book length poem, appeared in 1855. George MacDonald was thirty one. And while it may seem that all his years of schooling had failed to bring him a substantial income, it was at least becoming clear what the future had in mind for him. In 1857 he had a second book of poetry published, but in 1858 his groundbreaking fairytale for adults--Phantastes--met with great success and finally put him on the map as a fiction writer. The map would have to adjust.

Phantastes was a tale of a young man, Anodos, who awoke to find himself in the land of Faerie on his twenty first birthday. He would spendLewis Carroll's Personal Copy of Phantastes twenty one days in this strange world which he later said felt like twenty one years. Anodos has a couple of different meanings in Greek, but in this story it clearly seems to mean "without a path". Right away at the beginning of the story we find the young man wandering off the path. He would continue to wander off the path now and again, but always some good soul would help him get back to his proper place. Learning to stay the path and listen to the intuitive voice of God was often a matter of losing his pride which generally took on the form of a relentless shadow following him night and day, sun or no sun. It was a multifaceted story that played out the road to redemption not so very different from Pilgrim's Progress, The Divine Comedy, or many other stories like it but few told with such Godlike mystical imagination and grace. As of this writing, Lewis Carroll's personal copy of Phantastes (which is signed CL Dodgson on the title page) is for sale by a book collector in the UK with an estimated value of nearly $13,000-dollars.

It would be almost forty years later before MacDonald would write his other fantasy for adults--Lilith, a book his family jokingly referred to as The Revelation of St. George. Materialism had a powerful grasp on the inhabitants of the 19th century, and as such, fantasy books sold very poorly in those days. Phantastes did fairly well, but his publishers knew it was a lark. Indeed, when Lilith was finally released to the public in 1895 its sales were weak. In the meantime, MacDonald would write the kinds of books that appealed to the denizens of his era. These consisted mostly of rather plain morality tales that had a strong dose of preaching in them. While most of these stories may seem somewhat contrived today, he actually made some of his most profound utterances amidst the preaching found in these books, and many of the quotations C.S. Lewis used in his, George MacDonald: An Anthology, comes from them. It wouldn't be until well after the turn of the century that the book-buying public would take a healthy interest in MacDonald's fantasies and fairytales, largely thanks to the efforts of C.S. Lewis along with G.K. Chesterton before him. Not only did Lewis write his anthology and introductions to some of MacDonald's reprints, but Chesterton wrote a stellar introduction to the George MacDonald biography written by George's son Greville MacDonald. Also, at the centenary celebration held in 1924 in honor of what would have been George MacDonald's one hundredth birthday, G.K. Chesterton was chairman of the event. He once cited MacDonald as one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century. Lewis referred to him as, "my master". High praise indeed.

The MacDonald family was quite poor early on, barely staying away starvation at times, often happily accepting the charity of friends and family. Eventually, however, George MacDonald would run in some very high literary circles. During the winter of 1872-73 he would address George MacDonald and Contemporaries - Date Unknown several thousands at a time during his lecture tour of the USA. He was great friends with Samuel Clemens (A.K.A.--Mark Twain), Charles Dodgson (A.K.A.--Lewis Carroll), John Ruskin, Lady Byron (widow of Lord Byron), and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others. Several of his closest friends sat in high positions of government such as William Cowper-Temple. Others were well known clergymen like F.D. Maurice or college professors such as Dean Stanley. By the late 1860's he had already become a very celebrated author. Children would walk back and forth in front of his home hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who was so much loved.

MacDonald's health was quite poor throughout much of his life. Consumption (TB) was at alarmingly high levels in those days and he struggled with it constantly, as did many of his family members. His lungs were frequently inflamed and painful during the winter months. Eventually he was able to take his family to winter in Italy over several years which invigorated him greatly for a time. But his good fortune would not last as tuberculoses increasingly became what he would later refer to as "the family attendant". He would outlive his wife, four of his eleven children, even some of his grandchildren. The deaths of his wife, and his daughter, Lily, particularly traumatized him. Yet he would always talk of how very little adversity he had faced in his life, as though he were specially blessed among men. His final years would have a bleakness in them however. His mind became increasingly foggy, and he stopped writing altogether in 1897. About this same time, he came down with a severe skin disease that was so painful he could barely sleep for at least two full years. It's not known exactly what occurred--some think it was a stroke--,but around 1900 he lost his ability to talk and never regained it. The only blessing it seemed was that, with the loss of his voice, for some unknown reason his skin conditioned cleared up, he was able to sleep again, and his mind became brighter. Still, he quietly awaited his death, seldom leaving the house for the last seven years of his natural life. But, though full of sadness, he never lost his faith that there was a greater good coming to him--something too good for him to know. Greville tells us that he appeared to be waiting for his wife to come through the door one final time to take him to his true home, and that whenever anyone came to the house he would look up with anxious eyes to see who it was, and once having seen that it was not his beloved Louisa, would let out a sigh and go back to his vigil. One cannot help but be reminded of the closing words of Lilith through the voice of Mr. Vane as he looks forward to his time of departure when he will see his Lona once again. "I wait; asleep or awake, I wait... Novalis says, 'Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.'" George MacDonald went to his rest at nearly eighty one years of age, September 18, 1905.

 

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