How little-known writer George MacDonald transformed the fantasy genre.
Posted in , Dec 31, 2018
One nineteenth century man defined fantasy writing for a generation of writers. W.H. Auden called him “one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.” G.K. Chesterton said his writing “made a difference to my whole existence.” C.S. Lewis referred to him as his “master.” He was close friends with Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll. His name? George MacDonald.
MacDonald wrote prolifically during his life—publishing more than 50 books and numerous essays. His most well-known books Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin and Lilith, were groundbreaking works that used the medium of fantasy to explore faith and the human condition.
His books did not sell particularly well while he was alive, but later writers preserved his literary style for future generations. Here are a few authors who credited MacDonald with influencing their work:
Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland, was a close friend of the MacDonald family. In 1863, Carroll brought MacDonald a draft of a story he was working on about a girl named Alice who fell down a hole and went on an adventure. MacDonald gave the story to his wife and children to read—they loved it. MacDonald advised Carroll to lengthen the story and encouraged him to publish it. Carroll was also a photographer and took pictures of many of MacDonald’s 11 children.
MacDonald died before C.S. Lewis had heard of him, but had a direct impact on Lewis’ faith and work. Lewis referred to MacDonald as his story “master.” In particular, MacDonald’s book Phantaste, had a huge influence on Lewis’ faith. He wrote about the experience in his book, Surprised by Joy, “It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.” Lewis admired MacDonald so much he put together a spiritual collection of MacDonald’s words called George MacDonald: An Anthology. Lewis wrote, “I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” Many readers came to know of MacDonald’s work because of Lewis.
Although he would later criticize MacDonald’s work for being too moralizing (something he also criticized in his own novel The Hobbit), scholars believe MacDonald influenced Tolkien’s stories. Tolkien enjoyed some of MacDonald’s fantasy stories when he was young and read The Princess and the Goblin to his children. Tolkien said that MacDonald’s goblins and talking trees may have had a “remote” influence on the ents and orcs that inhabit his Lord of the Rings series.
Madeleine L’Engle’s seminal work A Wrinkle in Time follows in the steps of Lewis and MacDonald by using using the genre of fantasy to explore faith. She said MacDonald gave her “renewed strength during times of struggle.” L’Engle even wrote an essay about how his work influenced her view of God called “George MacDonald: Nourishment for a Private World.” She called MacDonald “the grandfather of us all–all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”
MacDonald was not well-known in his lifetime, but his faith and legacy live on in the generations of writers he inspired with his fantastical stories.