28 – Wisdom To Live By

Introduction and notes to the 1996 Sunrise Books publication, Wisdom to Live By, an extensive compilation of quotes, topically arranged, by George MacDonald


Scottish novelist, preacher, and poet George MacDonald (1824-1905) possessed an uncanny, indeed a divine gift for capsulizing his thought in brief expressions of truth. These are scattered throughout his writing like small shining crystals, sometimes partially obscured along one’s path in the midst of a story or other narrative.

In the more than 140 years since the publication of his first book, MacDonald’s readers the world over have found themselves stimulated, inspired, and exhilarated into fresh regions of thought and spiritual reality as they have stumbled unsuspectingly upon these “nuggets” which speak directly to their own conscience and spirit. Time and again will such a reader find himself reaching for a pencil to mark a particular passage, or else laying the book aside for a moment while his or her brain attempts to sort through the myriad levels of meaning in a statement at once so simple and yet profound as MacDonald’s God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.

They are only a handful of uncomplicated words. Yet whenever one pauses to peel off another layer of MacDonald’s intended meaning, he finds himself plunging deeper into unknown mysteries of God’s character, until at last he lands in theological complexities beyond human comprehension. Grasping the balance between “easy to please” and “hard to satisfy” involves the entire scope of God’s essential being as well as his ultimate plan for his creation. As is often the case, MacDonald’s seemingly simple phrase—which many passers-by scarcely think to stop and examine as they read along—is in reality a pearl of great price, to apprehend the truth of which requires a lifetime.

Such slices of insight, some but a half-dozen words, others lengthy progressions of analysis, provide one of the key features distinguishing the more than fifty books of George MacDonald—books of fiction, poetry, sermons, literary essays, history, fantasy, short stories, and fairy tales. A well-known and highly respected author in Victorian Britain and America in the last century,  in the middle years of the 20th century MacDonald’s books became less available as his reputation decreased. In recent years, however, a great renewal of interest in MacDonald has resulted in most of his writings again being read avidly in a wide variety of formats as well as in several languages.

This small volume provides a compilation of quotations and brief gems of wisdom, taken from every one of George MacDonald’s published works, and is drawn from many distinctive nineteenth and twentieth century editions.

The Editorial Priorities in Making This Compilation

This collection is not intended as an exhaustive grouping of MacDonald’s quotes. Such an attempt would not only be daunting, but probably impossible. MacDonald’s pen was so prolific, and his insight so prodigious, one could gather ten books such as this and but scratch the surface of the seemingly limitless supply.

The perspective in this compilation has been to present the wisdom of George MacDonald in concisely-framed statements. When necessary, minor editing has been done to structure his original words and their order to fit this grouping. Modifications have been made, especially with dialogue, to condense lengthy passages in order to adapt them to the format of this volume, and lengthy or unwieldily-constructed principles have been adjusted to turn them into simply-worded statements of truth.

For clarity, Scottish dialect is mostly rendered in English. Where selections are presented from MacDonald’s poems, only brief stanzas are reproduced. For complete poems, as well as lengthier passages, entire conversations, and full progressions of thought, we encourage readers to seek the original sources from which these quotes have been taken.

Because of the priority to present George MacDonald’s wisdom in the clearest fashion possible, selections have been reproduced from whatever edition has seemed to convey the greatest clarity and reflect MacDonald’s original intent in the most succinct manner. There will thus be quotes from both first editions and many varieties of both original and edited 19th and 20th century later editions and reprints.

Likewise, in order to give as thorough and rounded a picture of MacDonald’s thought as possible, in one form or another, quotations are here represented from every one of the more than fifty titles published by George MacDonald in his lifetime.   

Explanation of Indexing Notation

Because so many distinct editions of all MacDonald’s books appeared in the 19th century with different pagination, quotes have been noted from these original sources by chapter rather than page. This may cause difficulty to the reader desiring to locate a certain reference. However, providing precise page numbers would make inaccuracies inevitable when different editions were used.

Most of MacDonald’s novels were first serialized for magazine release, then originally published in three volume editions, and then finally released in many varieties of single volume editions. Chapters indicated below, as closely as can be determined, are taken from the first single volume edition published, and page numbers are only given for modern editions where pagination is unmistakable and no such variation exists.

Referencing ambiguities also exist for some of MacDonald’s titles for which different 19th-century editions appeared almost simultaneously (Adela Cathcart, Salted With Fire, Castle Warlock, Donal Grant, The Marquis of Lossie, Guild Court, to name a few.) Whether these were edited or modified from one edition to the next by MacDonald himself or by others, it is impossible to know. Nor is it always clear which edition was released first. Thus, in some cases, even chapter notations may not clear away every ambiguity. When aware of a potential discrepency, we have noted in parenthesis which 19th century edition has been used.

By all counts (subject to fluctuation due to the extreme variety of editions, re-groupings, re-editings, etc. of his material in his own lifetime, George MacDonald could be said to have written approximately fifty to fifty-three books (with overlap in poetry and story collections). In addition, he revised, translated, and edited works of a number of his favorite authors, and issued the resulting books for publication. He also contributed to works by other authors, as noted above. Furthermore, there have appeared two 20th-century collections of “spoken” sermons which were never published by MacDonald himself but appeared in contemporary magazines as transcriptions of messages given orally. To the best of our ability, we have here included quotations from  all these various sources.

Every effort has been made to be accurate in the indexing and reference notations in Wisdom To Live By. Yet errors are inevitable. We sincerely apologize if the one quote you want to look up happens to be one of those that slipped by and is incorrect.