23 – Alec Forbes and His Friend Annie

Published in 1990 as Introduction to  Alec Forbes and His Friend Annie, the Bethany House young reader’s edition of George MacDonald’s Alec Forbes of Howglen


            One of the favorites of all George MacDonald’s novels was originally called Alec Forbes of Howglen and was first published in 1865. It is a wonderful story of childhood, of growing up, of the seasons, of friendship, of fear and faith and loyalty, and of love. It has always been one of MacDonald’s stories I most enjoy. I have read it three or four times, and I always discover new things in it.

            So much of this book has become part of my life that I often find myself thinking about it unconsciously. Whenever I see snow, I immediately picture Alec in my mind standing beside his pile of snowballs. When I see a small boat, I think of Annie and Alec and Curly floating down the Glamour. When I think of rats, I am instantly in Annie’s garret. And so many other images crowd into my brain–the schoolmaster’s whip, harvest time in the fields, the flood, Juno, and, of course, the faces of Annie and Alec as I picture them in my imagination.

            For most of the twentieth century, George MacDonald’s books have been nearly lost, for MacDonald died in 1905 at the age of eighty. Though he had written over fifty books, most of them have been unavailable for years and years, not even to be found in libraries. One of the reasons for this is that most of them were very, very long (four hundred, five hundred, and some even six hundred pages!) A good many were also written with frequent passages in a heavy Scottish dialect, which to Americans today looks like a foreign language. Alec Forbes of Howglen is just such a book. When George MacDonald first wrote about Annie and Alec, the book was 450 pages long (with tiny print!) Try reading this passage from the original:

          “Robert was servin’ a bit bairnie ower the coonter wi’ a pennyworth o’ triacle, when, in a jiffy, there cam’ sic a blast, an’ a reek fit to smore ye, oot o’ the bit fire, an’ the shop was fu’ o’ reek afore ye could hae pitten the pint o’ ae throom upo’ the pint o’ the ither. `Preserve’s a’!’ cried Rob; but or he could say anither word, butt the house, scushlin in her bauchles, comes Nancy, rinnin’, an’ opens the door wi’ a scraich: `Preserve’s a’! quo’ she, `Robert, the lum’s in a low!’ An’ fegs! atween the twa reeks, to sunder them, there was nothing but Nancy hersel’. The hoose was as fu’ as it cud haud, frae cellar to garret, o’ the blackest reek ‘at ever crap oot’ o’ coal.”

            Perhaps some of you will be able to figure out what all that says. But many will be happy to be able to read about Alec Forbes in plain English. In this new edition of George MacDonald’s classic, titled Alec Forbes and His Friend Annie, the Scottish has been “translated” and the original book edited and shortened. Hopefully, as a result, you will thus be able to enjoy MacDonald’s gift for storytelling even more.

            Some of you who read this might never have heard of George MacDonald before now. But if you enjoy this story as I think is likely, you will probably make a dear friend of this old Scottish author. If that happens, as it did to me, I hope you will discover and read many more of his books. There are so many to choose from! MacDonald wrote stories for children, stories for grown-ups, poetry, fairy tales, and collections of short stories. And they are all out there waiting for you to discover. I first discovered George MacDonald twenty years ago. I have been searching for his books ever since. And there are still some I haven’t yet read.

            Most of all, George MacDonald wrote about people. The characters in his books, like Alec and Annie and Curly, wee Sir Gibbie, and Robert Falconer and Shargar and Diamond and so many others–they all have a way of becoming your friends. I don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t made so many lifelong friends of the characters in MacDonald’s books during these last twenty years.

            I hope the characters in this book become your friends too, and that you will make many more such friends in the other MacDonald books you read.

Michael Phillips