19 – George MacDonald Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller

Published in 1987 as the Introduction to Michael Phillips’ biography of George MacDonald


From beginning to end in the writing of this biography, I have been deeply challenged with the magnitude and complexity of telling this man’s life in a way that unearths its essential themes. Because of the multi-faceted depth of a man like George MacDonald and the tremendous variety of his works and literary genres – he was a theologian, a spiritual mystic, a poet, a novelist, a preacher, a scientist, an essayist, a highly successful lecturer, a teacher, an actor, an editor, and a fantasy writer – his ideas defy categorization and pigeon-hole analysis. A man such as MacDonald will always be one whose thoughts and words are subject to a wide diversity of interpretations. Every reader and critic will personally receive more from some areas than others, will emphasize certain ideas more heavily, and will interpret the events, turning points, and motivating forces of his life differently.

This is by way of making clear that this is necessarily my viewpoint of MacDonald’s life. The biographer’s role is to speak truthfully, but not necessarily to close every door to further inquiry or to definitively answer every question that arises from different points of view. Others have written about MacDonald’s life from other perspectives, and more will continue to do so in the future. Because much time has elapsed since MacDonald’s death and the records are scanty, this can hardly be helped; There are no major new details to uncover. Hence, what is left for the biographer is to draw his own conclusions from the documentation that is available. In short, then, this biography is no mere factual recounting of a life’s events – this is an “interpretation” of a life.

George MacDonald expressed his personal wish that no biography of him should be written, stating that his books contained all he had to say to the world, and the rest did not matter. Realizing MacDonald’s tendency to downplay his own importance, and sensing acutely the need for fresh literary inquiry into this man of letters of a century past, I consider this venture worth the risk – notwithstanding the above preliminary caution from MacDonald himself and despite whatever personal shortcomings I may bring to this work. In spite of my own inadequacies for the task, I have entered into it prayerfully desiring – both for MacDonald himself and for the reader – to be accurate, fair, and truthful.

As I choose not to heed MacDonald’s earthly wish that no biography be written, I do heed his comment regarding the significance of his books in revealing what he had to say to the world. I have therefore made liberal use of his novels, poetry, and sermons, as well as his letters, to elucidate George MacDonald’s life. Some critics disagree with the practice of attributing to an author opinions expressed by voices in his fiction. But it is my hope to convey George MacDonald’s thoughts and emotions as he grew and matured, and these are most strongly reflected through his literary works. MacDonald’s books and his fictional characters were a means of communicating his own ideas and view of the world. He had a message to convey, and freely admitted that what he had to “say” came out through the characters he created. As his son Greville said, “George MacDonald’s books must tell us more of his life than could any biography.”’

My priority as a biographer, therefore, is not to impart mere facts about George MacDonald’s life, but rather to get at his heart. It would be a relatively simple matter to construct a time line of the data of his earthly existence. But that would hardly reveal his person to us. The words he wrote, though not autobiographical in a pure sense, illuminate what he thought about, how he approached his mental quandaries, what kinds of questions he asked, and what answers he found. Thus, his writings are autobiographical in an emotional rather than a statistical sense, revealing his view of life. His books are the fullest means we have to get under the surface of his thought-skin to discover what really made him tick.

Because MacDonald’s writings reflect so well his priorities and approach to life, I will draw upon lengthy quotations from his work. If not always factually precise in representing some distinct and definable parallel on a given day in MacDonald’s life, they nevertheless can be viewed as “symbols” that shed light on fundamental truths inherent in his life.

In the opening lines of the personal essay on his father contained in the collection of essays, From a Northern Window, Ronald MacDonald makes clear his conviction that in his writings we come best to know the man George MacDonald. He says, “To be known by his fruits… was the way… by which any man seeking to know him must come again and again into contact with that something greater than George MacDonald which was the co-efficient of his greatness… there has probably never been a writer whose work was a better expression of his personal character.”

For all these reasons, this biography contains an extraordinary number of quotations. To those who find them extensive, I simply say, “They comprise the true biography.” Those strikingly telling passages in various books give the true flavor of the author and the mood and content of a given work, as opposed to tiny slices here and there from which it would be difficult to gather the real context and flow of the original.

In 1924 MacDonald’s eldest son Greville MacDonald, then himself 68 years of age and a successful author in his own right, produced a monumental 575 page dual biography of his parents entitled George MacDonald and His Wife. Since that time it has been the standard reference work on the life and work of his father – indeed, the only full-length biography ever produced until now, though available today only in reprint form and prohibitively expensive.

Greville has had his critics through the years, yet all who have studied his work universally proclaim it invaluable. Without it, our knowledge of MacDonald’s life would be vastly incomplete. To say that I have “made use of” Greville’s work in compiling this present biography would be a gross understatement. Greville’s painstaking research is the chief cornerstone, undergirding all other study of George MacDonald, including this one, and it would be impossible to reference every single idea that springs from the pages of his book. Foundational to everything which follows is the full credit I, and we all, owe to him.

Both Greville’s and Ronald’s inevitable filial bias colored their portrayals of their father, of course; but this does not diminish the value of their works. Surely it is a credit to MacDonald that two of his sons held their father in such high regard that they felt compelled to document his life. Therefore, we can judge their efforts to be remarkably accurate as long as we bear in mind their point of view. They were, after all, there. They knew the man with an intimacy we can scarcely fathom.

While admitting to being a sympathetic biographer, I intend to be candid and frank, to filter Greville’s interpretation through an awareness of the limitations of his position. Yet the original sources he drew from are now either lost or so old that there is little we can do to “unearth new evidence.” So we must recognize that Greville’s biography and MacDonald’s own letters and writings are more authoritative than anything else we have, and then proceed to assess the information as wisely as possible.

In addition to George MacDonald and His Wife, other books and articles have been helpful for confirmation, additional information, and slants of interpretation. The listing of these and other sources in the bibliography is an important acknowledgment of my debt to the forerunners in this research, who through the years have paved the way with articles and books on certain aspects of MacDonald’s thought. It is their work which is now able to reach a culmination in this more complete look at the broader scope of MacDonald’s life.

It is impossible to arrive at any deep sense of George MacDonald’s person apart from the land of his upbringing; Scotland’s unique and colorful history draws us into itself the more one knows of it. A study of MacDonald’s life becomes at least partially a study of Scotland’s history and lore and culture as well, for a foundation must be broadly laid if it is to support the structure that will be built upon it. The growth of the man George MacDonald emerged intrinsically out of the heritage into which he was born, and his life cannot adequately be considered without placing the backdrop of his roots in place. As he matured, the land never stopped feeding him. Therefore, in compiling this biography I have woven together necessary historical factors in order to help us gather an emotional sense of what must have been happening in MacDonald’s life at the very time.

Thus, beyond the sources and details and attempts to confirm pieces of data and ferret out new facts, the experience of feeling the country of MacDonald’s birth has been vital to an understanding of MacDonald’s life. Walking the streets and riverbanks of Huntly fostered the emotions that have gone into this work. In his own life, regular visits to the place of his birth proved a great imaginative stimulus to George MacDonald, and something of this same powerful phenomenon of the land quietly stole over me during my time in Scotland. Looking out the very window from which the boy George MacDonald daydreamed, climbing the stairway in his home which he used in his mind’s eye for that of the Princess Irene, poking through the ruins of Huntly Castle, imagining a young Scottish lad playing there with his friends, hiking along the River Deveron, climbing the great hill behind The Farm where young George MacDonald rode his horse Missy, standing overlooking the Cabrach which became Cosmo Warlock’s desolate highland home, walking along Aberdeen’s seashore, pondering the same questions that plagued the student George MacDonald during his university days, strolling along Cullen’s sandy beach where Malcolm first met Florimel and sensing the love for the sea that grew out of MacDonald’s boyhood, meandering quietly through the small English village of Arundel gathering impressions of his first pastorate, following the River Dee out of Aberdeen toward the highlands while reflecting on Gibbie’s poignant flight “up Daurside” – it has been the impressions of these places, and of Scotland as a whole, which has penetrated most deeply into my spirit in the process of writing this book.

Now while the essential facts reported in the pages that follow come largely from George MacDonald and His Wife, other written sources as mentioned, contemporary newspaper and other articles I was able to locate, and MacDonald’s own letters, the spiritual and emotional conclusions I have drawn from these facts are often my own. More than providing statistics, I have tried to investigate genuine emotional themes that were operating in MacDonald’s life on a level deeper than the factual – driving him to become the sort of man he was, and revealing much of what lies behind the characters and spiritual content of his stories.

The facts of MacDonald’s life, then, have been shaped into a picture of the growth of the man out of a very human childhood and a turbulent youth, set against the background of the land he loved. MacDonald’s uniqueness, interacting with the forces around him, made of him a man whom we can now place in his rightful literary, spiritual, and historical context.

I make no apology for the fact that I trust George MacDonald, echoing C. S. Lewis’s sentiments when he said that though MacDonald was not error-free, he knew of no writer who was so continuously close to the Spirit of Christ. Some biographers and analysts have emphasized all the inconsistencies they can find in his life, thereby attempting to undercut the validity of his message. But that can never be the most useful manner of illuminating a person’s life. MacDonald himself stressed that truth can never be grasped through a negative or critical process; truth can only be arrived at by examining what is rather than what is not. He wrote: “Nothing can be known except what is true. A negative may be a fact, but it can not be known except by the knowledge of its opposite” (Paul Faber, Surgeon, Ch. 28). My motive is to look positively and realistically at the man and his strengths, recognizing his shortcomings and doctrinal incongruities, but viewing them in the larger context of his life’s growth.

In 1906, writing in the “North American Review,” Louise Willcox said of MacDonald, “When another generation or two shall have passed… a fuller appreciation than he has yet had is awaiting him.” Perhaps the time she predicted is now at hand, a hundred years after his initial popularity, for after decades of anonymity a whole new generation of readers is now discovering in him what readers of the last century did by the millions. To that new readership I hope to fairly and truthfully represent MacDonald himself. Then the life of George MacDonald, as he points toward One higher, can exercise its impact on people of our own time.

I cannot even begin to recognize all the others in this century who have contributed to the renewal of interest in George MacDonald with their forerunning work of many diverse kinds: G. K. Chesterton, Joseph Johnson, John Malcolm Bulloch, Elizabeth Yates, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, Anne Fremantle, Muriel Hutton, Robert Lee Wolfe, Richard Reis, Glenn Edward Sadler, Clyde Kilby, Lyle Dorsett, Rolland Hein, Kathy Triggs, Mary Nance Jordan, Roy Carlisle, Dan Hamilton, Elizabeth Hamilton, William Raeper, and certainly, Ronald and Greville MacDonald.

Moreover, my heartfelt gratitude is due the entire editorial and production staff at Bethany House Publishers. Not only have they worked diligently to achieve excellence in their groundbreaking republication of MacDonald’s classic novels, they have also demonstrated intrepid resolution in their approach to this controversial biography. Knowing full well the disputable nature of many of MacDonald’s comments, they nevertheless encourage public inquiry into questions where their doctrinal position as a publishing house may differ from MacDonald. Their decision to publish this book demonstrates a deep trust in God to lead men into all truth. Their position has been a realization that all his life MacDonald was stretching, reaching, probing, and challenging the theological status quo. He was not a systematic theologian and set forth no summary of his final doctrinal conclusions. His was not a mind that could merely sit back and accept what others told him to believe. He was always probing at the outer limits, rejecting certain planks in the church’s doctrinal platform and always testing a variety of issues that put him at odds with the hyper-Calvinism of his day.

Bethany House has been able to separate this questioning and, perhaps for some, seemingly inconsistent side of MacDonald’s nature from the high-minded and purehearted aspects of his character which all his life, and for a hundred years beyond, have ministered Christlikeness and holiness to those with whom he came into contact. They understand the controversial features of his writing as historical outcomes of certain Calvinistic tenets carried to the extreme (even if MacDonald’s reactions may have represented a swing of the pendulum too far in the opposite direction), rather than as points of doctrine to be debated today when the historical environment that gave rise to his difficulties with the church of his time has largely disappeared. They view the questions he raised as important from a historical perspective, as illuminating the struggles of the 19th-century church to arrive at a deeper understanding of the atonement. They have not fallen into the trap of allowing MacDonald’s comments at contestable points to cloud the greater issue of God’s bringing His church (through the birthpangs of questions, doubt, and even occasional error) into greater realms of truth and maturity.

Their stand is a courageous one. They are, as I am, putting their reputation on the line, praying that all who read this biography will be able to display this same openness, asking God to illumine their understanding, even through specifics they may disagree with, and take them into greater truth through an awareness of past struggles of the church and its members.

So, thank you, Lance Wubbels, Dan Thornberg, Terry McDowell, Penny Stokes, and all the rest of you at Bethany for your shared commitment to George MacDonald with all his blemishes and doctrinal question marks. Thank you, Gary Johnson, for your boldness in undertaking this project, for making possible the trips to Scotland, for the high principles of integrity that undergird your publishing and missionary commitments, and for the support and friendship you have given me on a personal level. And thank you, Carol Johnson, for all of the above as well as for your patience, longsuffering, and dedication to the details of manuscript preparation as you guided me through to completion.

Many people had a part, either directly or indirectly, in making this project possible – by lending emotional support, providing factual information, or aiding in writing and production. Mrs. Morag Black showed me around the MacDonald Farm with typical Scottish hospitality. Mrs. Joss and Mrs. Rough at the Huntly Brander Library were most kind in allowing me full access to the MacDonald collection there, which includes many valuable old original manuscripts, as well as a room in which to work. Mr. G. Moore of the North East of Scotland Library Service gave permission to use several of the photographs and was very helpful in having copies of them made. Mrs. Margaret Troup, also of Huntly, was gracious in sharing many family letters and papers with me. My appreciation goes to Nick Harrison and the others who kept the various facets of our business operating smoothly during both my trips to Scotland, and to those half-dozen individuals who read and critiqued the manuscript in its early stages.

My three sons, Patrick, Robin, and Gregory, were, as always, interested and supportive and, by the project’s end, very much involved in its progress themselves. Finally, my wife Judy’s contributions should be clarified. She occupies far more than a “supportive” role in all my writing, particularly in this project, in which she has genuinely been a co-sharer of the vision to bring MacDonald to the world. She has been the inspired goad, prodding me toward the fulfillment and completion of this book. She has done vastly more than simple proofreading; she has at every stage been a thorough collaborator, deserving of my heartiest thanks.

Finally, let me close these introductory words with a quote from George MacDonald himself from the opening pages of Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood in which he uses an autobiographical format:

“My reason for wishing to tell this first portion of my history is, that when I look back upon it, it seems to me not only so pleasant, but so full of meaning, that, if I can only tell it aright, it must prove rather pleasant and not quite unmeaning to those who will read it.” (Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood, Ch. 1)

Throughout the years of this writing it has been my constant prayer that I can “tell it aright.” I hope you, too, will find it pleasant and “full of meaning.”

Michael Phillips

1707 E Street, Eureka, CA 95501