6 – The Tutor’s First Love

Published in 1984 as Introduction to The Tutor’s First Love, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s David Elginbrod


What do you want in a hero?

We all have different men and women we admire, respect, and want to model our lives after. Today’s society tends to choose its heroes from Hollywood and the television screen, disdaining the values of the past and looking down on biblical standards of goodness and moral decency.

George MacDonald, however, was a champion of such values, and the personalities in his novels upheld right, justice, and honesty, laying down their lives if necessary in their dauntless fight to maintain virtue and integrity.

Thus when I make acquaintance in one of MacDonald’s books with a man or woman who stands for truth and goodness in everything he or she does, I am drawn to the ultimate role model in my life–Jesus. And I cannot but look up to such characters, fictional though they may be. They provide a solid image of how we were meant to live.

As a result, men like Malcolm (in The Fisherman’s Lady) and Donal (from The Baronet’s Song and The Shepherd’s Castle) have become friends who are influential in my life. They continue to affect me, long after the actual reading of a particular book is over. I find myself wondering, “If Malcolm were facing this dilemma, what would he do … what would Donal say to this person?”

I consider this an evidence of the gift George MacDonald’s writing has given me. I am a wiser man, a more confident person, a stronger Christian because of my association with the men and women he has brought to life. They raise a pure and uncompromising standard that I can look toward and aspire to. They accompany me through life in much the same way real flesh-and-blood friendships do, if only in my mind and heart–they teach me, encourage me, they make me laugh, they make me cry, and they support me when I am in need.

One of the striking aspects of this is the diversity of personalities one encounters. Not only do we meet strong, masculine knights of justice like Donal, Robert Falconer and Malcolm, we also find ourselves enriched by the quiet lives of MacDonald’s elderly saints–Graham the schoolmaster, Janet Grant, and old Andrew the cobbler.

A contemporary magazine in MacDonald’s time, reviewing his writing in general, made these comments: “The books are of their own kind. One cannot read them without being stimulated to something nobler and purer, for they may honestly be called both…. Their deep perceptions of human nature are certainly remarkable…. Let it stand to Mr. MacDonald’s credit that, in an age of loose literature, he is, like Scott, Dickens, and Thackery, pure-minded and … he will merit and receive distinguished praise.”

Another reviewer wrote, “In George MacDonald’s company the very air seems impregnated with love, purity, and tenderness.”

In 1863, George MacDonald’s first conventional novel, David Elginbrod (from which The Tutor’s First Love has been taken), was published. It was an immediate success and established MacDonald thereafter as a skilled novelist, popular both in Great Britain and the United States. Undoubtedly one of the features which made David Elginbrod such a popular book (prompting the London Times to call it “the work of a man of genius”) was that its author brought such a wealth of personalities into the tale. The title character, David himself, provides the classic example of a wise, stalwart, virtuous, spiritual man. And we also come to love his wife in her own unique way, while his daughter Margaret grows to occupy a prominent role in the narrative.

However, it is Hugh Sutherland who attracts the main focus of our attention, but for reasons different than one might at first think. Hugh is not MacDonald’s typical hero. He is genuine and down-to-earth; he struggles throughout the entire book–unsure about many things, falling frequently, hounded by immature judgments and poor decisions.  Often he must repent, learn, and grow–helped by saintly David and his family–before he gains a solid footing of his own.

Hugh is, therefore, typical of us all. While Falconer or Gibbie may present “role models” to me, Hugh is the person I am–groping, questioning … yet persevering. He too is looking for that standard and finds it–not in perfect heroes but in the simple lives of a man and a woman whose love for the Lord is uncompromising.

Along the way, however, Hugh becomes involved in some rather questionable proceedings. As a writer, George MacDonald did not fear letting his author’s pen probe into some of life’s dark corners. Not because he in any way condoned occult activity nor would want any of his readers to dabble in it, but because his faith was so confidently founded in the light of God’s truth that he wanted to expose Satan’s deceit.

The sense of oppression surrounding the middle portion of this narrative is MacDonald’s method of exposing the conflict between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, exemplified by Fenkelstein and Margaret. It is critical to remember that his use of séance, hypnotism, and even a crude Ouija board is intended to bring to light the evil source from which such things come.

Standing in the middle of the spiritual warfare being waged, Hugh senses the dark and evil oppression coming from one side and feels the warmth of light and goodness emanating from the other. In the end, his growth and persistence and desire for right is rewarded–not with a fairy tale ending, but with the dignity that comes from having endured his quest to discover life’s truths, and finding himself and his true love in the process.

Michael Phillips

Eureka, California