3 – The Baronet’s Song

Published in 1983 as Introduction to The Baronet’s Song, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Sir Gibbie

 

In 1879 one of the best-loved of all George MacDonald’s Scottish novels was published, the captivating chronicle of the winsome little orphan, Sir Gibbie. An immediate success, the novel was serialized in several magazines, and within a year and a half was published in at least six different editions by various publishers in Great Britain and America.

 As celebrated as MacDonald’s novels were in his own time, their impact continues long after his death. In 1916 C. S. Lewis casually picked up a copy of Phantastes and found the entire course of his life altered. He said, “A few hours later I knew I had crossed a great frontier.” Thirty years later he reflected on the worlds MacDonald had opened for him and said, “… when the process was complete … I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way.”

 Many others through the years have similarly found MacDonald’s writings to have affected them. G. K. Chesterton, for instance, referred to him as “a Scot of genius who could write fairy tales that made all experience a fairy tale.”

 In the Preface to her 1962 edition of Sir Gibbie, Elizabeth Yates comments on the book: “…  from the moment it caught me up I was conscious of a breadth and depth and height of feeling such as I had not known for a long time. It moved me the way books did when as a child…. I could not put the book down until it was finished, and yet I could not bear to come to its end. Once at its last page, I felt I would have to do what I had often done as a child–turn back to the first page and begin reading all over again. I longed to tell everyone I knew to read it…. It would not do to tell them anything about it. This was not only a book, it was an experience.” She closed by saying, “Now and then a book is read as a friend … and after it life is not the same … for it has become richer, more meaningful, more challenging. Sir Gibbie did this to me. Sir Gibbie holds within its covers to do something to all who read it.”

C. S. Lewis says, “Most myths were made in prehistoric times … but every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius … who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind I know.”

He then says that MacDonald’s writing gift “produces works which give us … as much delight and as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before; … it gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions.”

Both C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden characterize MacDonald’s creative power as “mythopoeic imagination.” Yet while lauding him as a mythmaker, Lewis hails him as a poet and weaver of fantasies, saying, “It was in this mythopoeic art that MacDonald excelled; … the meaning, the suggestion, the radiance is incarnate in the whole story.” Perhaps Richard Reis captured it best when he said that MacDonald “achieves a universality … which transcends time.”

What is this peculiar quality inherent in the story of the waif with shaggy golden hair? Why has Gibbie endured in memory though the book in its original form has been out of print since early in this century? What is it that captivates readers of all ages?

Is Sir Gibbie myth? Is it poetry? Is it fantasy? Is it music? Or does Gibbie’s magic spring from MacDonald’s having simultaneously captured the essence of all four? The story tugs at us, the myth calls forth eternity in our spirits, the poetry moves us, the fantasy delights our imaginations, while all along the music makes our hearts sing.

To once again quote Lewis, “What he does best is fantasy–fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”

Several factors emerge as fundamental for an understanding of George MacDonald’s writing. First, he firmly held that the deepest insights about life were not to be found in distant obscurities but in everyday relationships and ordinary contacts with the world. Therefore, his books are filled with commonplace lives. We see an agrarian world of thatched cottages with their peat fires, porridge and milk, oats and potatoes, cattle and sheep, green meadows, desolate moors, thudding wooden machinery, and wild mountains. MacDonald never forgot his humble childhood. This was the Scotland he loved, and his truths, like his people, were simple yet subtle.

In his 1914 Introduction to a new edition of Sir Gibbie, MacDonald’s son Greville comments, “It would be hard to find any book in the English tongue that … more plainly displays the hidden grandeur … in common life than Sir Gibbie … the most direct and most beautiful of all George MacDonald’s novels.”

In thus conveying the soul of Scotland–its land and its people–with his descriptions of farming, shepherding and fishing, MacDonald pioneered an entire movement of realistic Scottish fiction. Many others followed him in what came to be known as the “kaleyard school” of writing.

Second, the image of childhood appears throughout his books. He loved to make up stories for his own children and read to them. On one occasion a close family friend, Lewis Carroll, asked George to read a story he had written to his own children. They loved it, and the author enlarged and published it as Alice in Wonderland.

MacDonald once said, “I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”

All these elements converge in the simple yet profound story of Sir Gibbie–the myth, the poetry, the fantasy, the love of Scotland, and the wonder of childhood.

Almost exactly a hundred years after Sir Gibbie‘s first publication, I “met” George MacDonald, and Sir Gibbie was one of the first of his books I read. Though he wrote more than fifty books in his career, no more than a scant handful were in print in the early 1970s. However, my wife and I found what we could and soon fell in love with his moving tales.

It gradually became one of my consuming passions to share the out-of-print fiction of George MacDonald with the reading public. Unfortunately, the bulk of his novels were unavailable, they were usually written in a Scotch dialect unintelligible to today’s reader, and they often ran well over 500 pages.

Therefore, I undertook the editing of MacDonald’s originals, reducing them to a more manageable size and substituting contemporary English for the Gaelic dialect. The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret were the first two published; this new edition of Sir Gibbie and its sequel follow them in the series from Bethany House.

I have rewritten every page, condensing, tightening, editing, and translating. The original Sir Gibbie of over 400 pages has been trimmed by about half, and I have translated into current usage such difficult-to-understand passages as:

Gien the j’ists be strang, an’ well set intil the wa’s, what for sudna ye tak the horse up the stair intil yer bedrooms? It’ll be a’ to the guid o’ the wa’s, for the weicht o’ the beasts ‘ll be upo’ them to haud them doon, an’ the haill hoose again’ the watter … I’m thinkin’ we’ll lowse them a’ else; for the byre wa’s ‘ill gang afore the hoose.

 As young Gibbie journeys from the city, up the river Daur, to his refuge of Glashgar, so we travel with him into the world of George MacDonald, back to childhood, up the mountain, and on toward the heritage that awaits us. If, as has been suggested, the term myth is to be applied to events which have meaning beyond their literal significance, then Gibbie’s pilgrimage surely qualifies. For Gibbie is symbolic of all who are engaged in life’s grand adventure onward and upward into the high realms of relationship, wisdom, and love.

Michael Phillips

Eureka, California