5 – The Musician’s Quest

Published in 1984 as Introduction to The Musician’s Quest, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Robert Falconer


When more than a dozen years ago, I began my own search to unearth George MacDonald’s ancient, out-of-print novels, I had scarcely an inkling where that investigation would lead. Rummaging through a huge bookstore of used books in Seattle, I uncovered on a dusty bottom shelf, obscured by other volumes stacked in front of it, the first original MacDonald I had ever seen. It carried the inauspicious title Robert Falconer. I bought it for a couple of dollars–knowing absolutely nothing about the contents.

Several days later an adventure had begun. What I had discovered was not simply the tale of some fictional hero; this was the portrayal of MacDonald’s personal search for a faith of his own. Through MacDonald’s title character, I discovered the essence of what the author considered that faith to be.

In the Introduction to The Shepherd’s Castle, a previous book in this series, I briefly outlined the circumstances which led George  MacDonald to become a novelist after feeling called to the ministry. Throughout his entire life, MacDonald found himself at odds with the strict Calvinism of the nineteenth century. It had begun in his boyhood relationship with his rigid, orthodox grandmother and continued through his dispute with the deacons of his church, who eventually removed him from the pastorate. His internal battle against the narrow viewpoints they represented invigorated the fertile soil of his creative mind. He could never satisfy himself with stale precepts and prejudicial outlooks; they were no substitute for the human warmth of the gospel. He was driven instead toward the original, unbiased truth and the God who established it.

Therefore, the characters in MacDonald’s books often pose questions which typified his own growth. He found himself reasoning out the Christian faith afresh each time he set pen to paper. Creed-bound minds are afraid of large questions. MacDonald wasn’t. In this story, the young boy Robert Falconer frames the question: “If the devil was to repent, would God forgive him?”

It’s a staggering notion … one for which we have no answer. MacDonald never postulated a firm answer either; we do not know whether he even reached the point of attempting one. But the guardians of the ecclesiastical gates of his day were aghast at his audacity even to inquire in that direction.

George  MacDonald feared no query, even of such weighty theological magnitude. He was so confident of a great-hearted, loving, tenderly compassionate God that to him nothing was too large or too small to bring before him. MacDonald’s straight-hewn mind remained always focused on the core of God’s loving, just character.

In 1868 one of MacDonald’s most oft-quoted and memorable novels was published–Robert Falconer, the story of a boy’s growth into manhood, and one which poignantly portrays the solitary melancholy of childhood. Though not strictly autobiographical, one is immediately struck with many parallels between young Robert and MacDonald’s memory of his own boyhood. The locale and scenery is similar. “Bleaching” had been a MacDonald family business. Robert’s grandmother is a precise characterization of George’s own; her views on music as well as her subversive relationship to Robert’s violin are based entirely on fact, with the same end result. And from the opening pages we sense about Robert what MacDonald wrote of himself: “From my very childhood I rejoiced in being alone. The sense of room about me was one of my greatest delights … that desolate hill, the top of which was only a wide expanse of moorland, rugged with height and hollow … my refuge, my home within a home, my study … and my house of dreams.”

And yet beyond such comparisons, in young Robert Falconer we see a very intimate search to come to terms with the truths of life. And in that struggle, recalling the spiritual trials of his own life, are we not looking through a window into the very soul of MacDonald himself?

Undoubtedly this is one of the reasons this novel seems to have been among the author’s favorites–he named one of his sons Robert Falconer MacDonald and brought the fictional Falconer into other books as well. Robert Falconer represented both the young man MacDonald had been and, at the same time, the mature man he aspired to be. Robert Falconer seems to have become a role model to MacDonald himself, exemplifying the search for truth and, once found, the living of that truth. The book’s narrator adds to the realism of Falconer in MacDonald’s eyes, intruding himself into the story as one who had been profoundly affected by him. The narrator is clearly a fictional sketch of the author himself.

The story line of the novel merely recounts Robert’s life. There is no electrifying “plot.” There are no castles, no dungeons, no heroines in danger, no villains, no surprise twists.

Yet the sheer weight of Falconer’s person sneaks up on you. He has forceful impact on those around him simply by virtue of the man he has become. You find yourself looking at people and situations differently, wondering what Falconer might do. When I finished my most recent reading of the book, quite unexpectedly I was overwhelmed and nearly burst into tears. MacDonald fashioned a character of strength and integrity which stood above and outlasted many others he would later write about–a man fortified through questioning, energized by sparring with the issues of life, and perfected through service to others and devotion to God.

The original Robert Falconer ran well over 500 pages long, and large portions were written in difficult-to-understand Scottish brogue. Though it was enormously popular between 1870 and 1890, serialized in magazines and published in many editions, it has now been out-of-print and unavailable for more than 60 years. This new edition, The Musician’s Quest, published as the sixth book in the Bethany House series, has been shortened and edited so that MacDonald’s Robert Falconer can make acquaintance with modern-day readers.

As the editor of George MacDonald’s books, it is always my desire to give you, the reader, pleasure and satisfaction. I hope you enjoy this book as much as the others you have read. But something more is here, and I pray you’ll discover that as well.

 Michael R. Phillips

Eureka, California