4 – The Shepherd’s Castle

Published in 1983 as Introduction to The Shepherd’s Castle, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Donal Grant

 

There have been critics through the years who have made the claim that George MacDonald was not a novelist of the highest merit. Being no literary expert, I can’t say; they may be right. Certainly much in his writing defies hasty reading and therefore inhibits public response. His novels are long; decoding the frequently used dialect can be troublesome; and sentences of 100 and 150 words are common, sometimes running in excess of 200.

I am undaunted by these objections in my enthusiasm for MacDonald’s work because I cannot segregate my understanding of the novelist from the man. I am not so much concerned with stylistic difficulties or theological intricacies as I am with the far more significant issues: What does this man, the sum total of everything he was, have to offer me as a person? How can he cause me not only to enjoy life through his books, but how can he widen my horizons, broaden my perspective? How can he help me grow?

At this point George MacDonald becomes a writer of the highest caliber. Because he was a man of the highest caliber–a man whose marriage and family was solid (he and his wife Louisa had eleven children); whose personal and private virtues were impeccable; whose integrity was unquestioned; and who was loved, admired, and even revered by all who knew him. So much was his loss felt upon his death that articles and even books were written with the sole purpose of extolling his life and character.

What made the man so unusual, so respected, and his books so loved–both in his lifetime and more than a hundred years after their publication?

It can be reduced, I think, to the simple prescription which guided the course of MacDonald’s entire life: the love of truth. It was the search for wisdom–clear-headed, compassionate, biblically based, and intellectually sound–which inspired and unified every word MacDonald wrote. His books thus contain power on a more profound level than can be appreciated from mere words, and those who compare and critique and seek to understand them on the surface level alone will always be left dissatisfied.

It is against the backdrop of MacDonald’s life (1824-1905) that we find most clearly illuminated his relentless pursuit of reality and his compulsion to share his findings. It was not an easy life but one marked with poverty, diseased lungs, and other forms of poor health, hardship, and ceaseless labor to support his family. But perhaps most noteworthy in his biography was an event which occurred in 1853 when he was 29, newly married, and still full of youthful vision and idealism.

He had felt God’s call to a vocation in the ministry, had studied successfully toward that end, and in 1850 had become the pastor of a chapel in Arundel, Scotland. His warm, imaginative, human, and progressive ideas, however, were found to be unorthodox, according to the rigid standards of the religious establishment of the day; and by 1852 he was in trouble with the deacons of the church and they charged him with heresy. They tried various subtle means to get rid of him and his family, most painful of which was the lowering of his salary to a mere $250-$400 annually. But they had misjudged him; he simply responded that the family must try to live on less. And try they did, with the help of a few sympathetic parishioners. But by 1853 the situation had become intolerable, both financially and in the open knowledge that his preaching was unacceptable to the deacons. He was forced to resign.

For a time MacDonald held to his dream of preaching. But he was completely unwilling to compromise either his views or his ministry to accommodate church leaders. Branded as “questionable” from his experience at Arundel, no opportunities presented themselves.

Being denied a pulpit after hearing God’s call on him forced George MacDonald to look for another medium through which to circulate his essentially spiritual message. He turned to lecturing, tutoring, fill-in preaching, and writing as a matter of necessity–to put bread on his family’s table. But he never forgot his brief stay in Arundel and the narrow-mindedness which had so rigidly rejected him. The severity of that memory drove him all his life long both to present an alternative view of God’s character from what he perceived existed in the minds of most church leaders and to live a life consistent with his beliefs.

Therefore, though he embarked on a career as a novelist, the spiritual truths he longed to convey remained his ultimate priority. Commercially successful as many were, his stories offered a forum to declare his image of God; artistic craftsmanship remained a secondary concern. Something greater than wealth or public acclaim drove him into print. If the organized Church would not have him, the truth, notwithstanding, had to be told. By the time–some ten years later–that MacDonald’s reputation and fame as a writer and spiritual sage had asserted themselves, he could again have hoped for a pulpit, even a fashionable one. But he was so against compromise in any form and was at the same time all but certain that accepting a ministerial post would inevitably lead exactly to that point, that he stopped considering the possibility. By then his writing was earning a steady yet meager living, and he stuck with it.

MacDonald’s clash with the deacons had not been his first encounter with intolerant religiosity. His grandmother had been a ruthlessly strict Calvinist, and throughout his life he continued to bump headlong into the shortsightedness which in large measure characterized the theology of the nineteenth-century Church. The circumstances of his life, therefore, were among the most important factors which shaped his thought and work. Had he not recoiled from the stringent Calvinism of his upbringing and been removed from a position of ministry, he might never have been forced to pose questions others were afraid to consider–might never have been moved to present his less-harsh view of God’s mercy, justice, and love.

His stories are compelling in themselves. But, clearly, much more than plot is contained within their pages. This is not to say he wrote with specific symbolism or allegory always in mind. More than once he commented that such was not the case. He loved creating enjoyable stories to delight his readers. Yet his attitude toward truth and the resultant wisdom were so deeply ingrained in the depths of his being that his spiritual perspectives could not help but overflow onto the printed page.

Donal Grant was first published in 1883 as a sequel to his extremely popular Sir Gibbie (the modern version of which–entitled The Baronet’s Song–is published in the Bethany House Publishers series). In less than two years Donal Grant had been released in six different editions. It was MacDonald’s longest novel, just a few short of 800 pages. And in many ways it could be said to be his most pastoral in the sense that he used it to reflect a great deal on spiritual matters not necessarily germaine to the story line itself. It is my sincere hope that with some of the verbosity pruned away in this edited edition, The Shepherd’s Castle, MacDonald’s truth-loving heart will shine through.

 

Michael Phillips

Eureka, California