Introduction to the 2005 Bethany House publication, Your Life in Christ, a compilation of edited George MacDonald sermons with commentary by Michael Phillips
In England during the latter half of the 19th century, men of letters—novelists, poets, essayists, historians, journalists—occupied a prestigious rank near the top of society. It was the authors of the Victorian era who provided entertainment for the masses, whom they would flock to see, and who went “on tour” and lectured to packed auditoriums, much as musicians and other celebrities do today.
One of the most eminent of these Victorians was a Scotsman by the name of George MacDonald (1824-1905)—novelist, poet, author of fantasy and children’s stories, and preacher—whose following was so widespread on both sides of the Atlantic that when he toured the eastern and midwestern United States in 1872-73, full halls greeted him wherever he went, from Boston and New York to Chicago and St. Louis.
In the 1935 book, The Victorians and Their Reading by Amy Cruse, an intriguing frontispiece appears which includes MacDonald in a composite photograph along with eight other noted authors, among them Dickens, Thackeray, and Carlyle. The eight would all be known to any modern student of the period and their works familiar reading in undergraduate English Lit. classes. Most students and professors in today’s colleges and universities, however, have never heard of the ninth bearded member of the group. Upon seeing the photo, their response might well be, “Who is George MacDonald?”
Richard Reis amplifies on this curious dichotomy: “Such a question would not have occurred to most of MacDonald’s contemporaries. Instead they might have expressed surprise to learn that he would be largely forgotten by the middle of the twentieth century. For throughout the final third of the nineteenth century, George MacDonald’s works were bestsellers and his status as [writer and Christian] sage was secure. His novels sold, both in Great Britain and in the United States, by the hundreds of thousands of copies; his lectures were popular and widely attended; his poetry earned him at least passing consideration for the laureateship; and his reputation as a Christian teacher was vast. This…popularity alone makes MacDonald a figure of some significance in literary history…In his own time MacDonald was esteemed by an impressive roster of English and American literary and religious leaders. He was among the closest friends of John Ruskin [, Lady Byron] and Charles Dodgson [Lewis Carroll]; and he moved as a peer in the company of Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, F.D. Maurice, R.W. Gilder, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Samuel Clemens, and H.W. Longfellow. All of them respected, praised, and encouraged him, yet his reputation has nearly vanished while theirs survives…
“[It is not] that MacDonald has been entirely ignored in the twentieth century. Indeed, although he is little known among the general reading public, MacDonald has received considerable scholarly and critical attention… C.K. Chesterton was among the earliest twentieth-century critics who found MacDonald’s ‘message’ of importance to the post-Victorian sensibility… [and] referred to MacDonald as ‘one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century.’” [Richard Reis, George MacDonald, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1972, pp. 17-18.]
Despite this acclaim, however, through the years of the twentieth century, MacDonald’s reputation slowly dwindled. Though less pronounced, the same fate fell to many of his colleagues. Though their names may still be known in university English departments, their books do not fly off the shelves at Borders or Barnes and Noble. Not many were as fortunate as Dickens to remain household names.
MacDonald had two strikes against him that caused him to drift into anonymity in the twentieth century to a greater extent than his Victorian colleagues. The first he shared with most of them. It was simply a product of the times—verbosity and wordiness.
It was a different era, with both different literary tastes on the part of the public, and different literary styles on the part of writers. 500, even 700 page books, containing 100 and 150 word complex and circuitous sentences, were commonplace. The pace of life moved more slowly. Readers, on the whole more literate in a classical sense at the upper levels of society than today, were not only accustomed to it, they had the time and inclination to enjoy such writing. Another very practical consideration did not reward brevity—many novels were originally published in serialized form, for which authors were paid by the word.
MacDonald’s writing possessed yet another quality, however, which distinguished it from that of his peers. This factor undoubtedly caused him to be forgotten long before them, and will also cause him to be remembered long after their names have vanished from the literary landscape. It concerns MacDonald not as a novelist or writer at all, but as a theologian and teacher of spiritual truth.
MacDonald was a man on a mission, not merely to tell stories but to communicate truth about God and his relations with man. Trained for the ministry, MacDonald’s first loves lay in the areas of preaching, poetry, and fantasy. After a brief attempted career in the pulpit, however—cut short when he was essentially ousted for his views—he turned to writing. Following two or three fantasy and poetical works, which were well received but by a very limited audience, in the early 1860s MacDonald began to focus more attention on the novel. The immense popularity of his early attempts soon convinced him that he could convey his deep convictions to a larger audience through the genre of fiction than what he had tried before. With but a handful of exceptions, his subsequent stories concern themselves with spiritual themes woven in and through the development of his characters and plots. Thereafter, the novel became his chief form of published work.
Spiritual themes, of course, were well known in the Victorian era. But no other writer of MacDonald’s stature went so far with them, nor presented life’s spiritual side, along with the image of an all loving Father-God, with the force and clarity of his wisdom and insight. His influence in his day, therefore, was not as a mere novelist but also as a spiritual seer. Queen Victoria presented his Robert Falconer to each of her grandchildren, and numerous notables of the day (John Ruskin and Lady Byron as prominent examples) considered him a spiritual mentor and friend.
MacDonald’s active writing career spanned the greater part of the last half of the nineteenth century, reaching its height between 1860 and 1890. He eventually wrote over fifty books, including over thirty realistic novels, numerous short stories, poems, fantasies, and fairy tales, as well as eight volumes of sermons and literary essays. If the reports are accurate that survive from family members and friends, he was greatly loved by all who knew him. Some ventured to call him a prophet. That he founded no organization, wrote no autobiography, gathered about him no disciples, did not promote himself, pointed to obedience to God as the only and essential meaning in life, and died neither wealthy nor acclaimed by the new century, may go far to validate such appellation.
As time passed after George MacDonald’s death in 1905 not only did literary tastes change, so did spiritual inclinations. The twentieth century was kind neither to bulky sentences nor to the Christian faith in the general culture. Men like MacDonald faded from public view. The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that MacDonald’s profound (and perhaps prophetic) spiritual perspectives were embedded in books and presented in a wordy and complex Victorian writing style that gradually became very difficult for the average reader to understand.
MacDonald’s reputation was kept from vanishing altogether by the efforts of a few men and women through the years. Not that it probably could have vanished entirely. There were sufficient copies of his books in circulation in both Great Britain and the U.S. (figures are unknown, but they almost surely numbered in the multiple millions) that many continued to discover MacDonald’s works on dusty bookshelves, in attics, in old bookstores—often not realizing what they were in for until unexpectedly moved by the author’s powerful insights. In addition, a few important public efforts kept MacDonald’s work in view.
The first and probably most significant of these efforts came from two of MacDonald’s sons. Both were devoted not only to the memory of their father but also to keeping his work, reputation, and spiritual vision alive so that it could influence future generations. These two sons, both of whom became successful authors in their own right, each wrote biographies that placed MacDonald’s life and work in historical perspective and assured that its impact would not be forgotten. Without their efforts, much about their father’s life would surely by now have been lost.
One of the most notable features of Greville MacDonald’s biography in particular is its Introduction by G.K. Chesterton, critic, essayist, humorist, artist, novelist, Christian apologist, and journalist whose reputation then in England had risen to its height. Chesterton’s praise for MacDonald’s work, as well as his appreciation for its impact upon him personally, could not be ignored. It insured that a whole new generation—especially in London’s literary circles where Chesterton was a huge figure—heard about the man who had been born a hundred years before in northern Scotland. Chesterton had written MacDonald’s obituary article in the London Daily News in 1905, calling him, “one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century.” Now nineteen years later MacDonald’s son called upon him to introduce his biography.
In that introduction, Chesterton spoke of his delight upon first discovering MacDonald’s fairy tales and the new world it opened to him. His experience seems to be universal. As all MacDonald readers find, each discovers his or her own magical entrance into George MacDonald’s world in a uniquely personal way. For Chesterton the door happened to be The Princess and the Goblin. For many At the Back of the North Wind causes a similar birth of wonder to awaken in the soul. For me the doorway opened through the realistic novels Sir Gibbie and Malcolm, which produced an explosion of light in my heart and brain. It is surely testimony to MacDonald’s versatility that multiple genres are able to beget similar effects on the spiritual imagination of his readers.
MacDonald himself writes about this process of slipping into magical literary worlds, little realizing to what an extent his own writing would produce just that effect in the hearts and brains of thousands of readers in the decades, even the centuries to come. Indeed, seven magical doors into a world of talking beasts would become notable literary moments of magic for millions a century later, not through MacDonald’s own pen but from that of his most famous literary protégé.
In his very first full-length book, Phantastes, which he called “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women,” published in 1858, MacDonald leads his reader through the first of many such moments of transitional magic that he would create, in this case into the land of faerie.
“I awoke one morning,” the book’s narrator begins, “with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness. As I lay and looked through the eastern window of my room, a faint streak of peach-colour, dividing a cloud that just rose above the low swell of the horizon, announced the approach of the sun. As my thoughts, which a deep and apparently dreamless sleep had dissolved, began again to assume crystalline forms, the strange events of the foregoing night presented themselves anew to my wondering consciousness…
“While these strange events were passing through my mind, I suddenly, as one awakes to the consciousness that the sea has been moaning by him for hours, or that the storm has been howling about his window all night, became aware of the sound of running water near me; and looking out of bed, I saw that a large green marble basin, in which I was wont to wash, and which stood on a low pedestal of the same material in a corner of my room, was overflowing like a spring; and that a stream of clear water was running over the carpet, all the length of the room, finding its outlet I knew not where. And, stranger still, where this carpet, which I had myself designed to imitate a field of grass and daisies, bordered the course of the little stream, the grass-blades and daises seemed to wave in a tiny breeze that followed the water’s flow; while under the rivulet they bent and swayed with every motion of the changeful current, as if they were about to dissolve with it, and, forsaking their fixed form, become fluent as the waters.
“My dressing-table was an old-fashioned piece of furniture of black oak, with drawers all down the front. These were elaborately carved in foliage, of which ivy formed the chief part. The nearer end of this table remained just as it had been, but on the further end a singular change had commenced. I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakably ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers. Hearing next a slight motion above me, I looked up, and saw that the branches and leaves designed upon the curtains of my bed were slightly in motion. Not knowing what change might follow next, I thought it high time to get up; and, springing from the bed, my bare feet alighted upon a cool green sward; and although I dressed in all haste, I found myself completing my toilet under the boughs of a great tree, whose top waved in the golden stream of the sunrise with many interchanging lights, and with shadows of leaf and branch gliding over leaf and branch, as the cool morning wind swung it to and fro, like a sinking sea-wave.”
When the second chapter of Lilith is placed alongside the above passage from Phantastes, (“I had been looking at rather than into the mirror, when suddenly I became aware that it reflected neither the chamber nor my own person. I have an impression of having seen the wall melt away…I saw before me a wild country, broken and heathy. Desolate hills of no great height…occupied the middle distance…nearest me lay a tract of moorland, flat and melancholy…”) can any insightful reader doubt that when MacDonald penned the opening scenes of these two books, Narnia was born.
Indeed, it was Phantastes, by producing such magical entry into George MacDonald’s world through fairyland, that would lead to the most significant elevation of its author’s reputation in the twentieth century. The curious title caught the eye in 1916 of a seventeen year old atheist where it sat at the bookstall of a train station outside London. The impact was immediate, though the result took years to reach fruition. The young man’s name was Clive Staples Lewis. Thirteen years later, when he, as he says, reluctantly accepted the Christian faith, it was to MacDonald he pointed as the man who had set his feet in that direction.
Years later Lewis wrote: “It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier….What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise…my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean ‘when it had really begun’—I found that I was still with Macdonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting. But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning.” [George MacDonald, An Anthology, by C.S. Lewis, 1946, from the “Introduction.”]
As Lewis went on to worldwide fame as a Christian spokesman and apologist, MacDonald always remained a favorite. More than a mere “favorite,” Lewis considered MacDonald his literary spiritual mentor, a completely unique figure in his life.
Throughout a lifetime of correspondence, mention of MacDonald frequently pops up in Lewis’s letters. MacDonald appears as a central character in Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Lewis quotes MacDonald several times in Mere Christianity. And MacDonald, of course, occupies a central role in Lewis’s conversion as recounted in Surprised By Joy.
Yet all his life Lewis remained frustrated that the notoriety of his own books continued to grow, while his readership seemed to take little notice of MacDonald, not only as the foundationstone of his faith itself, but also of his theological perspective and spiritual outlook. “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master,” Lewis wrote in 1946; “indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.” [George MacDonald, An Anthology, p. 20]
This frustration, and the “honesty” which he said compelled him to do so, led Lewis in 1946 to release a short volume of collected quotations from George MacDonald, George MacDonald, An Anthology, taken mostly from the three volumes of sermons entitled Unspoken Sermons. In his lengthy Introduction to his anthology, Lewis presented a biographical sketch of MacDonald’s life, emphasizing—as every biographer of necessity must—those aspects of MacDonald’s life, work, and thought that were most meaningful to him and that had contributed to his own pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity.
Though his anthology introduced a few individuals to MacDonald’s ideas in the years that followed, the impact remained modest. By the late 1960s, not a single of MacDonald’s novels, not a single of his sermons or poems or literary essays were in print. Of his more than fifty books, only two fairy tales, the two adult fantasies Phantastes and Lilith, and a handful of short stories remained available.
It is not that MacDonald was in danger of being lost sight of. Lewis’s increasing popularity insured that an expanding nucleus of his readership was slowly drawn into an appreciation for MacDonald on the basis of the association between the two men. But the availability of his work was disappearing. The two most important genres of his lifetime corpus—his novels and spiritual writings—were simply unavailable. Though his name circulated in select literary circles (W. H. Auden wrote the Introduction to a new edition of Phantastes and Lilith in 1954, in which he called MacDonald, “one of the most remarkable writers of the 19th century,”) for most people his books were not to be had.
In 1965, two years after Lewis’s death, English professor at Wheaton College outside Chicago, Dr. Clyde Kilby—himself a devoted Lewis admirer who had done his best through the years to inform his students and others of the Lewis-MacDonald connection, and who had just completed one of the first full length studies of Lewis, The Christian World of C.S. Lewis—conceived the idea of establishing a memorial collection of books, manuscripts, and other materials associated with Lewis. Along with his favorite author, Kilby decided to include the works of six other writers in his collection, each of whom either knew Lewis or was in some way associated with his legacy. No doubt recognizing the need to preserve the dwindling availability of MacDonald volumes, MacDonald headed this list, along with G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and Lewis’s three fellow Oxford “Inklings”—J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Kilby named the collection after its benefactor Marion E. Wade, and the Wade Center at Wheaton College grew to become the primary library and research center for the study of and preservation of the works of its seven authors.
Recognition of MacDonald’s importance continued slowly and almost invisibly to spread in small academic and literary circles. An increasing number of graduate studies and critical works began to appear during the 1970s. A major volume of essays dedicated and presented to Clyde Kilby (Imagination and the Spirit, Charles Huttar, ed.) was published in 1971 which included an essay on MacDonald by Wheaton graduate Dr. Glenn Sadler. Richard Reis’s excellent book George MacDonald appeared in 1972. A significant two-volume edition of MacDonald’s stories was published by Eerdmans in 1973 with an informative introduction by Dr. Sadler. Yet though MacDonald’s name was slowly coming to be recognized in the scholarly circles associated with Wheaton College, these efforts accomplished little to make MacDonald’s full corpus available in a widespread way.
As I look back myself from the present to those years, I find myself echoing Lewis’s words. “It must be more than thirty years ago” when I first discovered George MacDonald in 1971. Like many, the name “MacDonald” came to my own attention first through Lewis, whose Mere Christianity, The
Great Divorce, and The Chronicles of Narnia I had recently discovered. As yet I had no idea to what an extent Lewis’s ideas had their roots in MacDonald’s volume of work, nor to what an extent the foundations for Narnia could be observed in Phantastes, Lilith, and MacDonald’s two Curdie books. All I knew was that if MacDonald represented more of what I had found so delightful in Lewis, then I wanted to know of it. I was not in search of spiritual foundations yet, only good reading. Fortunately, as I would discover soon enough, the two were one in the same.
At about the same time, a copy of the 1963 edition of Sir Gibbie, wonderfully edited by authoress Elizabeth Yates, whetted my appetite still more. It was not her first publication of MacDonald’s work. Yates, a close personal friend of MacDonald’s daughter Winifred Louisa Troup, had compiled a volume of his poetry, Gathered Grace, which appeared in 1936. Twenty-five years later, dismayed at the growing scarcity of MacDonald’s books and the fading of his reputation, she decided to present a newly formated novel of her friend’s father to one of her publishers.
Wee Gibbie’s story captivated me—as it had Yates—in a way that surpassed even what I had read in Lewis. Yates’s skillfully edited Sir Gibbie drew me into a magical world as surely as had my passage through the wardrobe into Narnia a year earlier. Thus began a quest to locate more of the nearly inaccessible works of this nearly forgotten Victorian beyond the few fantasy and fairy tale offerings then being published.
Within two or three years, my wife and I managed to obtain most of MacDonald’s novels in hundred year old editions through antiquarian bookshops. But it wasn’t enough merely to have them for ourselves. I did not find the idea satisfying merely to “collect and preserve” his books as the Wade Center was doing—as important and necessary as that was. I wanted to share them. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to know in MacDonald the wonders that many before us, and now we ourselves, had been fortunate enough to discover. It therefore became my personal passion to find some means to reinvigorate public interest in MacDonald in a yet more widespread way.
Sharing the belief of many in MacDonald’s singular stature as a Christian thinker, I was convinced that in the right format, and finding a new publication forum, MacDonald’s writings could speak again to new generations as they had in his own time. It was not enough for him to be known merely to scattered dozens or hundreds who might chance to hear of him or who had access to rare editions of his books which were growing more scarce every year. It wasn’t enough for MacDonald to be studied in graduate classes and discussed in symposiums and quoted in books, if the people reading those books and listening to those discussions had no access to those works. My vision was for an availability that would allow anyone to obtain copies of MacDonald’s writings, so that they could underline them and re-read them and loan them to friends and give away as many copies as they wanted. My vision was for MacDonald’s books to be circulated rather than hoarded, read rather than merely quoted. And Elizabeth Yates’ edition of Sir Gibbie, gave me a germinal idea of how such a thing might be possible, along with what I hoped would be a new line of MacDonald originals.
Thus began my own work of editing and redacting MacDonald’s novels in the Yates tradition—in conjunction with the publication of new editions of the same titles in their full-length formats—hopeful that both efforts might exercise a broad and life-changing influence in many lives, and again elevate MacDonald to his rightful place of stature as a Christian thinker.
About the same time, in the mid to late 1970s, Kilby’s colleague at Wheaton, Dr. Rolland Hein, began publishing a small collection of excerpts from MacDonald’s work—one from the novels, three books of extracts from his sermons. My own editions—both edited and originals—began to appear soon after, in the early 1980’s, which led in turn in 1987 to my biography of MacDonald, George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller. Many other editions of MacDonald’s books—both edited and originals—followed in the next decade from a variety of publishers. Several additional biographies appeared, as well as a number of anthologies and collections. Hein and Sadler added several more important contributions to the expanding list of excellent titles about MacDonald. The individuals and publishers involved in this explosion of availability of MacDonald’s corpus are too numerous to mention, but surely all who love MacDonald owe them a debt of gratitude.
And now in the early years of the 21st century, MacDonald’s novels, fairy tales, and stories are thankfully once again available in a widespread way in a great variety of editions and are indeed, as I had foreseen, accessible to all.
Yet that for which MacDonald’s significance is perhaps greatest, considering their impact in the life of C.S. Lewis, his theological non-fiction writings, remains even now, in relative obscurity. Considered by many the most influential Christian writer of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis’s books now sell the world over in the millions. Yet the spiritual and imaginative foundation of those writings remain largely unknown to the vast majority of devoted Lewis readers. Despite Lewis’s laudatory words about MacDonald, the wider public has not yet recognized the roots of Lewis’s beliefs, nor to what an extent much in his books comes straight from his mentor. MacDonald’s non-fiction writings are still not widely available. Lewis’s words, more than a half century later, might well have been written today, “It has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.”
Hoping at last to address this need, and as part of a centenary celebration of George MacDonald’s death in 1905, I am now pleased to inaugurate this new series of non-fiction writings from the pen of George MacDonald. The books in this series are taken from MacDonald’s spoken and written sermons, and from selected published essays.
The editing of these selections is as minimal as I have been able to make it. However, to extract the ore from MacDonald’s writings does require some effort. I recognize that there will always be those who take exception to the idea of “editing” another’s work at all, preferring, one must suppose—so long as such critics have their own prized copies to enjoy—that it remain untampered with in the vaults of obscurity rather than be made more generally accessible to the public in a more readable format.
Against such a potential critique I will not reply. Because the fact is, MacDonald’s originals are cumbersome to wade through, and that seems to me justification enough. There may be some who do not find them so, but I am not one of them. I find them difficult. Thus my goal is to make MacDonald’s wisdom and prophetic insight about God readable and grasp-able to anyone willing to put in the effort to understand his ground-breaking, unorthodox, and sometimes revolutionary ideas. It is my hope that the minimal editing I have employed with these writings will help you discover these rich veins within MacDonald’s thought.
This is not to say, even now, that this will be a light read. MacDonald’s ideas and processes of thought are occasionally so profound that nothing makes them easy. We are not used to having to think quite so hard for our spiritual food. We live in a superficial age where doctrinal formula provides the parameters by which spirituality is judged. MacDonald saw things differently. Doctrinal formula was nothing to him. His unique perspective takes some getting used to. I find that many passages require two or three readings. But I also find spiritual gold awaiting me, sometimes buried deep but always ready to shine out brilliantly from the page when suddenly I see it. Theologically, too, as imaginatively, I have discovered many doors of delight opening before me into new worlds of wonder about God and his work. In my life at least, I have found these non-fiction writings just as “magical” and full of wonder as Malcolm and Narnia.
I am aware that it is a high and holy calling to try to recast the words of another into a form that truly represents his intent. It is with prayerful trepidation that I undertake such a task with MacDonald’s spiritual writings. When editing MacDonald’s novels twenty years ago, my task was distinct from this. I was forced by the constraints of publication to shorten the originals. In many cases, because of the language employed, it was also necessary to “translate” portions from the Scot’s dialect of MacDonald’s originals.
With MacDonald’s non-fiction writings, the case is different. There is no dialect. No need exists to shorten. Therefore, except for a few rare words and perhaps a very occasional phrase, I have removed little. What I have done, rather, is simply to shorten sentences and paragraphs, that I might order MacDonald’s progression of thought in a more linear and straightforward fashion than is sometimes presented in the originals.
Some will wonder why such editing is necessary. For two reasons: Because of the complex progression of MacDonald’s ideas, and because of the elaborately entangled grammatical constructions in which he expressed these ideas.
I would not presume to call MacDonald’s logic other than straightforward. The operation of his mind is so far above mine that I would dare no such presumption. I think I am on safe ground to say, however, that as his logic progresses it brings in its train multitudinous tangential modifiers and explanations and offshoot points that it often becomes very difficult to follow the primary sequence of ideas. Once or twice a page, it seems, I have to stop to read a lengthy section four or five times simply to “get it.”
Additionally, MacDonald’s grammar and syntax can become extremely involved and can itself impede understanding. Sentences of 100-120 words are common, and occasionally reach 160 or 180. These often contain a half dozen semi-colons, several dashes, numerous commas, and a colon or two. MacDonald can use every punctuation mark in a single sentence! Likewise, his paragraphs are extremely long and can run to five or six pages.
MacDonald’s ideas are here expressed, for the most part in the words in which he wrote them, or, if some change has been necessary, in something very close to them. Where MacDonald’s originals are straightforward and clear, they are reproduced without change. Where the word-thickets are complicated and the sentences long, then structural editing has been done but most of his actual words kept intact.
Clarity sometimes requires brevity. We live in a time when we are not adept at working our way through theologically dense sentences. Simplifying the complexity of the originals in these two areas—thought progressions and grammatical constructions—enables MacDonald’s meaning and his wonderful expressiveness to rise to the surface with more radiance. Breaking up the progressions of thought into smaller chunks is an enormous aid to understanding. One of the chapters which follows contained a mere eighteen paragraphs. As I have rendered it, it now contains approximately seventy. I am confident that you will find, as I do, that the ideas are much easier to grasp with a little more white space on the page.
Most of what I have done, therefore, is more “structural” than editorial, though I have edited where I felt it necessary and felt clarity would be aided by doing so. I have not shortened for shortening’s sake. Clarity, not brevity, has been the goal.
Finally, the sub-headings within the text are my own additions, again, provided as an aid to understanding without materially altering the text.
An example or two may help illustrate this structural complexity I have tried to address.
The following 140 word sentence appears in the original of “The Creation in Christ”:
I worship the Son as the human God the divine, the only Man, deriving his being and power from the Father, equal with him as a son is the equal at once and the subject of his father—but making himself the equal of his father in what is most precious in Godhead, namely Love—which is indeed, the essence of that statement of the evangelist with which I have now to do—a higher thing than the making of the worlds and the things in them, which he did by the power of the Father, not by a self-existent power in himself, whence the apostle, to whom the Lord must have said things he did not say to the rest, or who was better able to receive what he said to all, says, “All things were made” not by, but “through him.”
Obviously we can “understand” what MacDonald is saying. It is nothing like the Scottish dialect of his novels. Yet it takes a little mental work to unsnarl the complexity of the construction.
Another sentence of 218 words comes to us with three semi-colons, five dashes, and twenty-four commas:
But I will ask whether to know better and do not so well, is not a serving of Satan;—whether to lead men on in the name of God as towards the best when the end is not the best, is not a serving of Satan;—whether to flatter their pride by making them conquerors of the enemies of their nation instead of their own evils, is not a serving of Satan;—in a word, whether, to desert the mission of God, who knew that men could not be set free in that way, and sent him to be a man, a true man, the one man, among them, that his life might become their life, and that so they might be as free in prison or on the cross, as upon a hill-side or on a throne,—whether, so deserting the truth, to give men over to the lie of believing other than spirit and truth to be the worship of the Father, other than love the fulfilling of the law, other than the offering of their best selves the service of God, other than obedient harmony with the primal love and truth and law, freedom,—whether, to desert God thus, and give men over thus, would not have been to fall down and worship the devil.
Both these examples, it should be pointed out, are embedded in the midst of paragraphs of greater length yet. Therefore, if MacDonald’s meaning can be preserved, even enhanced, by reducing the sentence length and presenting his ideas in more a “straight line,” it only makes sense to do so.
Along with this, we must remember that these selections were all written over one hundred years ago. Methods of communication have changed. Words themselves have changed. For the sake of clarity, where meanings and connotations have shifted, some of these issues have also been addressed. In a certain of these selections I encountered the word car, though MacDonald’s writing preceded the invention of the “automobile” by a decade or two. I felt that this particular word’s use in the text, now in 2005, obscured the meaning. After a brief sojourn through a 19th century dictionary, therefore, and ten minutes of reflection and various attempts to render the passage slightly differently, I arrived at what I felt satisfied MacDonald actually meant. Likewise, I have replaced simulacrum, penetralia, Hyperion, palimpsest, adytum, simper, and the like. Of course such words may be looked up in a dictionary, but how many would stop to do so?
After all this, MacDonald’s language may still sound somewhat laborous to some. While untangling lengthy sentences and paragraphs into more straightforward progressions, I have yet tried to retain the essential character and flavor of MacDonald’s modes of expression. Some of what follows, therefore, may still be hard going. In “The Creation in Christ” MacDonald probes the depths of the very Godhead itself. This is no self-help, experiential treatise in “Christianity Lite.” This is theology at its most profound.
Yet here we discover the spiritual foundation of C.S. Lewis’s faith. Should we therefore expect anything less than a theology worthy of his great mind? I invite you to discover why Lewis wrote, “My own debt to this book [the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons] is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help towards the very acceptance of the Christian faith.”
It seems only fitting, in preparing us at last to move on to MacDonald himself, that we listen again to Lewis as he describes what made these writings so unique and powerful in his own spiritual development:
“In Macdonald it is always the voice of conscience that speaks. He addresses the will: the demand for obedience, for ‘something to be neither more nor less nor other than done,’ is incessant…The Divine Sonship is the key-conception which unites all the different elements of his thought. I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined…All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder.” [C. S. Lewis, Introduction to George MacDonald, An Anthology, pp. 18-20]