Reprinted from the Introduction to the 1982 edition of The Fisherman’s Lady, by Michael Phillips
An interesting frontspiece appears in a 1935 edition of the book The Victorians and Their Reading by Amy Cruse dealing with nineteenth-century authors: a composite photograph of a group of eminent Victorian writers – J.A. Froude, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and George MacDonald. The modern student of the period might easily do a doubletake at first glance, asking, “Who is George MacDonald, and what is he doing there?”
But as MacDonald’s biographer Richard Reis has pointed out, “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 a [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.” [George MacDonald’s Fiction by Richard Reis]
And though in certain ways he had to cater to the public, MacDonald was not the ordinary “popular” writer who is successful in the marketplace but is not taken seriously by qualified critics. “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 [Lewis, Lady Byron] and Charles Dodgson; 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, Mark Twain, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. All of them respected, praised, and encouraged him, yet his reputation has nearly vanished while theirs survive…
“[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 during the past twenty years. G.K. Chesterton was among the earliest twentieth-century critics who found MacDonald’s ‘message’ of importance in a post-Victorian [world]. Chesterton once referred to MacDonald as ‘one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century.’”
Perhaps the most important of MacDonald’s modern admirers was C.S. Lewis, who repeatedly acknowledged MacDonald as one of the most important inspirers of his own fantasies and Christian theological writings. In his own autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how reading MacDonald’s Phantastes began a process of conversion from skepticism to Christianity. In The Great Divorce, Lewis makes MacDonald his guide and mentor. Another Lewis volume, George MacDonald: An Anthology, is a formal acknowledgment of the debt Lewis felt toward MacDonald and consists of selections from his works. In its preface Lewis says of MacDonald, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; 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.” And throughout Lewis’s various published letters are sprinkled brief informal glimpses of the importance MacDonald’s writings played in Lewis’s personal reading program and spiritual growth. “I have read a new MacDonald since I last wrote, which I think the very best of the novels…,” he wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1931. In response to a letter in 1939, he asked, “Do you know George MacDonald’s fantasies for grown-ups…?” In 1951, in reply to a question posed him, he began by saying, “As MacDonald says….” And to his friend Sister Penelope in that same year he spoke of “My love for G. MacDonald….” Indeed, though it was in 1915 when he first discovered MacDonald (“I have had a great literary experience this week … the book is Geo. MacDonald’s Phantastes….” he wrote excitedly to Arthur Greeves in October of that year), he was still reading him with relish and enthusiasm more than forty-five years later.
“Though it has now been nearly twenty years since his death, the writings of C.S. Lewis are presently more widely read than ever. Indeed, Lewis is without a doubt the most diversified, widely read Christian writer of this century, perhaps of all time, with the exception of the New Testament authors. Yet though MacDonald’s deep influence in the roots, literary tradition and spiritual background of C.S. Lewis is primary and unquestionable, were he alive today Lewis might well remark, as he did in 1946, that those who have received his books do not take sufficient notice of the MacDonald affiliation. It is therefore impossible for the modern follower of the writings and ideas of C.S. Lewis to obtain anything but a fragmentary picture of his thought without at the same time delving into the works of George MacDonald.
It is not only with Lewis that he is associated. MacDonald’s name appears with uncanny frequency in published discussions from the writings of the various other “Oxford Mythmakers” such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Own Barfield, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and others. There is evidence, for instance, that he was a favorite also with Tolkien and also was influential in his writing. He is increasingly coming to occupy a key position in the growing body of literature surrounding these and other imaginative Christian writers. His works, in all their editions, are included in the Marion E. Wade collection at the Wheaton College Library which is dedicated to the interest and preservation of such writings.
George MacDonald’s life (1824-1905) spanned the greater part of the nineteenth century. He was a devout Scotsman from a race of bards, pipers, intense loyalties, clan feuds, and steeped in history. His Celtic roots yielded writings full of romance, vision, nature, heather moors, peat fires, high mountains, storm-tossed seas and rugged coastlines. He was drawn to the ministry and studied toward that end. But after a brief stay in the pulpit, his warm, human, imaginative and progressive ideas were increasingly found to be unorthodox according to the rigid and backward standards of the religious establishment of his day, and he was forced to leave it. He thus turned to writing; and in the following forty-two years of his active writing career, the enormity of his output was staggering. He produced some fifty-two separate volumes of immense variety which may be roughly categorized as: three prose fantasies, eight fairy tales and allegories for children, five collections of sermons, three books of literary and critical essays, three collections of short stories, several collections of poetry (which, along with the short stories, in succeeding years came out in many different editions by scores of publishers), and some twenty-five to thirty novels (depending on the definition and method of classification). And among the most amazing aspects of his prodigious career is the fact that many of these (indeed, most of the novels) were over 400 pages in length and some ranged over 700. In addition to writing, MacDonald also lectured widely. He made a tour of the United States in 1873 during which his lectures were highly acclaimed and eagerly attended.
Though MacDonald may be judged a “success” as a writer and public figure by just about any standards, poverty was nevertheless never far from him. And he suffered as well from poor health, first with tuberculosis, then asthma and eczema. Unlike best-selling authors today who receive large royalties for their work, such was not true for George MacDonald. Though his works were serialized in scores of magazines and though his books were sold in Britain and the United States in phenomenal quantities, he received very little for his efforts. Royalties were small and many of his works were illegally pirated and sold without his ever receiving a cent from the proceeds.
Because his life was one of constant financial peril and physical adversity, MacDonald’s writing was for him a practical way to earn a living. He had a large family to care for and had to provide for them however he could – by writing, lecturing, tutoring, occasional preaching, and odd jobs that presented themselves. Though it can no doubt truthfully be said that MacDonald’s first loves lay in the areas of preaching, poetry, and fantasy, he recognized that on the whole the audience representing the potential “market” was made up mainly of middle-class Victorian men and women who fed on dramatic fiction. Out of necessity, therefore, he became a novelist, convinced that he could convey his deep spiritual convictions to a larger audience of readers through fiction. He turned to the novel in the early 1860s, and it became his primary form of published work. And because of the immense popularity of his novels, it was for them he was primarily known.
There is a peculiar quality in a MacDonald novel that has great power to move its reader. For MacDonald was no ordinary man. He had a powerful vision of the meaning of life; his spirit was in close union with the Spirit of God; and he had unusual insight into the application of spiritual principles in daily life situations. And it is this wisdom and spiritual perspective which set his stories apart from those of his contemporaries, most of whom wrote simply for the market. For though MacDonald had to sell books to an audience desiring action, plot, suspense, intrigue, drama and romance, he nevertheless was even more concerned with the novel as a means to an end. There was a message of God’s love burning inside him which he had to express.
It is this very desire to spread the reality of God at work in men’s lives which undoubtedly contributes to the fact that MacDonald is not known today as is his contemporary Dickens, though during their lifetime such would not have been the case. Today’s “average” reader is vastly different in world outlook than his or her counterpart a century ago and is not nearly so concerned with spiritual matters. This is a new era of literary taste; happy endings are no longer in vogue as they were then. Yet these shifts in the public appetite must not keep us from George MacDonald’s work. His writings deserve careful consideration in our own day as well. For not only is his influence on his own contemporaries unquestioned, so is his impact on many well-known authors of recent times.
It is interesting to note, however, that until very recently there has not been a single one of MacDonald’s conventional novels in print. And even with today’s renewed interest in his works, only a few are now available in expensive limited edition reprints ranging from $50 and up. Yet the novel was his primary form of written expression. To understand MacDonald at all, one needs to experience his novels.
When the reader does, however, two problems are immediately encountered in MacDonald’s writing style. First of all, MacDonald frequently used lowland Scots dialect for the dialogue between his characters, which few now understand at a glance. And, secondly, MacDonald’s tendency toward preaching and rambling often erupts without warning, and he lapses into off-the-subject discourses which slow up the story line considerably.
For the loyal MacDonald follower, such idiosyncrasies lend a certain charm and flavor. But when the average person is reading a novel, he wants to move through the drama without having to stop and wade through a sermonette or to unravel and decode a passage in Scotch dialect. When these difficulties are overcome, a MacDonald novel is truly elevated to the first rank. For there is much excellence in his stories – shrewd characterization, lively drama, suspense, authentic dialogue, intricate plots, captivating realism.
Besides the stories themselves, MacDonald’s novels are enhanced by spiritual truths woven in and throughout the characters whose lives open before us. MacDonald was so thoroughly a Christian that God’s wisdom simply came forth from his pen almost in spite of the story line. It is as though he were continually weaving two parallel stories – that of a “plot,” and that of the partially submerged spiritual journeys being traveled in a parallel plane by those characters involved in the story. And MacDonald moved freely from one level to another. To the knowledgeable reader who recognizes the dual purpose of his writing and who is aware of MacDonald’s spiritual vantage point, the travels back and forth from level to level make the plot all the more meaningful and the spiritual truths that much more alive. C.S. Lewis commented on the principles one can uncover in a MacDonald novel by saying they “would be intolerable if a man were reading for the story [alone] but … are in fact welcome because the author … is a supreme preacher. Some of his best things are hidden in his dullest books.”
The novels of George MacDonald are therefore intriguing to the modern Christian reader. Nearly every one contains in the narrative a strong vision of a loving God gradually revealing himself in the lives of men and women through nature and daily circumstances. As the various facets of the plot unfold, MacDonald carries on a commentary of spiritual observation (level two) through the characters, their growth and interaction, and the action of the drama itself (level one). The characters responding to their circumstances provide a rich source of insight into why people think and behave as they do. The plot is the skeleton around which the characters and truths come to life.
Rolland Hein writes: “In developing his vision of life creatively through the imagined real worlds of the various novels, MacDonald moves to authenticate his theological convictions, thereby avoiding a danger confronting the pure theologian. It is easy for students of theology to become people given too much to abstractions, content to handle life at a comfortable distance and to minimize the concrete quality of human experience. But in the novel, broad pronouncements concerning the human situation and human conduct will not suffice. MacDonald, not unlike his great contemporary Dostoevsky, knew that the novel provides a means of testing the validity of theological principles, a means the like of which the seeker after Truth can hardly afford to ignore. For a serious novel presents life as it is lived by men in their daily courses.”
And it is just at this point that MacDonald’s novels excel. His characters are alive; you feel with them; you accompany them as they are opened to the principles of God and His love. Before long you are one of the characters yourself on Level Two as you sit back to reflect on some nugget of wisdom you have just unearthed from a conversation between two characters. But then suddenly you will find yourself jolted back to Level One, roused in anger at the villain, breathing with heart-pounding gasps as the heroine rushes to escape through the newly discovered secret passageway of the old castle!
To get at the true George MacDonald, you must get into his world. And his world is revealed through his fiction. Nearly every novel contains much autobiography sprinkled through it. Not only is he a superb storyteller and weaver of fantasies, but at the same time he is the central character – and if not himself surely someone he has known.
Throughout all his stories, one can see that he ever loved the Scotland from which he had come. As Lewis said, “All that is best in his novels carries us back to that ‘kaleyard’ world of granite and heather, of bleaching greens beside burns that look as if they flowed not with water but with stout, to the thudding of wooden machinery, the oatcakes, the fresh milk, the pride, the poverty, and the passionate love of hard-won learning.” When feeling with MacDonald the wind blowing from a high northern mountain or from a storm-tossed northern sea, you are sometimes overcome with the sense that the wind is from someplace higher still. There is a special world captured by MacDonald in his novels, a world perhaps not fully present in any particular one but toward which each makes its own contribution. And it is a world worth seeking out.
The difficulty, however, as mentioned before, is that MacDonald’s novels are often out-of-print and, when available, are long and many times unintelligible to the fast-paced reader. My proposal with this reprinted edition of one of my favorites is to once again open this world of George MacDonald to modern-day readers. What I have done is to cut the original by about half by removing digressions from the story and by condensing some of the “wordy” portions. In addition I have “translated” the Scots’ dialect, an example of which follows, into English:
“Ye hae had mair to du wi’ me nor ye ken, an’ aiblins ye’ll hae mair nor yet ye can weel help. Sae caw canny, my man.”
“Ye may hae the layin’ o’ me oot,” said Malcolm, “but it sanna be wi my wull; an gien I hae ony life left I’ me, Is’ gie ye a fleg.”
“Ye may get a war yersel’: I hae frichtit the deid afore noo. Sae gang yer wa’s to Mistress Coorthoup, wi’ a flech i’ yer lug.”
(Some dialect of certain characters has been retained for authentic “flavor.”)
The original was published as Malcolm in 1875. Something of the immense popularity of the book can be appreciated from the fact that after its serialization in magazines, it was published in more than a dozen different editions in the few years following its release.
The story is set in [the village of Cullen in] northern Scotland on the coast of the shire of Banff, an area with which George MacDonald’s ancestors had long been associated and of which MacDonald was very familiar; he was raised in Huntly, some twenty miles to the south of this particular stretch of coastline. For this and other reasons (which will become clear as the story progresses), the story can be seen as a window into the background, heritage and character of George MacDonald’s Scottish past. But whatever autobiography, allegory or symbolism we discover in the reading, we do well at the same time to read for pure enjoyment’s sake. After reading one of MacDonald’s stories, his wife once asked him for “the story’s meaning.” He replied, possibly to us as well as to her, “You may make of it what you like. If you see anything in it, take it and I am glad you have it; but I wrote it for the tale.”