Reprinted from Michael Phillips’ Preface to the 1982 edition of The Fisherman’s Lady
I first heard of George MacDonald ten or twelve years ago when a friend read me the following quote from an old out-of-print book he was reading: “Anyone who has enjoyed the writings of C.S. Lewis will quite naturally want to move on eventually to George MacDonald.”
My first reaction was very near shock.
“How dare she say – even hint! – that anyone can compare with C.S. Lewis?” I said to myself. “Not to mention the implication that this MacDonald, whoever he is, could have produced writings beyond his; why, the thing’s preposterous!”
I was a totally committed C.S. Lewis devotee – still am! I was jealous of any insinuation threatening Lewis’s position in my mind as the greatest writer of all time. And to say you could “move on” from Lewis to someone else – implying Lewis to be the lightweight, MacDonald the heavyweight – that was a premise I could never allow, no matter who MacDonald was!
Yet somehow I couldn’t get that quote out of my head. And eventually I had to find out who George MacDonald was and what he had written.
When I found MacDonald’s two Princess and Curdie fairy tales in our local library, my Narnian appetite for top-notch fairy stories coupled with Christian allegory was quite naturally aroused. And upon completion I did have to admit, “Hmm, these are pretty good – a definite addition to the Narnian tradition.”
I continued to seek out other MacDonald works, for by now I could see that he held definite promise. I found Gibbie and North Wind and enjoyed them as well. I was discovering in MacDonald the very thing that had always made Lewis so special – the ability to include insightful principles and profound wisdom in a top-flight, well-written, compelling story. And MacDonald seemed to share Lewis’s wide-ranging gifts and abilities as a writer. He was not limited to one or two particular styles or genres. I found adult fantasies, children’s fantasies, adult novels, children’s novels, realism, allegory, short stories, daily devotions, poetry, sermons, essays, translations and history. And in whatever he did I sensed the same wisdom coming forth, the same penetrating spiritual perception concerning intensely practical concerns.
After reading the few MacDonald’s I could find, my curiosity was kindled to learn what I could about the man. And what should I discover first but that he had been Lewis’s favorite author! He was to C.S. Lewis what Lewis had always been to me. So highly did Lewis feel indebted to him, in fact, that he compiled an anthology of selections from MacDonald’s works, in the forward of which he made the statement: “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master.” And, indeed, wherever I went in the writings of Lewis from that time on, I began to find hints of this very thing: His letters often mention various MacDonald books he was reading at the time. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis credits MacDonald’s Phantastes with starting him on the road toward conversion to Christianity, and in The Great Divorce Lewis has MacDonald act as his guide through heaven. I wondered how I could have missed all this before!
Clearly, though MacDonald had been dead for three quarters of a century, he was nevertheless a literary force to be reckoned with; his books seemed to have a profound influence wherever they were read. Yet as I began to delve more deeply into the life of this nineteenth-century Scotsman, I quickly discovered that though he had written over fifty volumes, less than ten were currently in print or available.
So I began a long search – through old bookstores dealing in used books, out-of-print search services, obtaining copies from other loyal fans – and gradually unearthed many more of MacDonald’s books which I had not read. What I discovered was that his most common form of writing was the lengthy Victorian novel, much like those of his friend and contemporary Charles Dickens. Though none of his full-length adult fiction was then in print, it had been by far MacDonald’s most frequently used format.
And as I began to read these novels, something very similar to the aura surrounding the Narnian tales settled upon me. But it was different. I was transported, not to a make-believe fairy world, but to the solid reality of Scotland, where the raw force and beauty of nature – the peat moors, the rugged seascape, the high mountains, the icy streams – and the simple, strong and passionate natures of the Scottish people of MacDonald’s creation captured my heart and fancy just as thoroughly as had the talking beasts, the green meadows and the ocean’s warm salt spray of Aslan’s Narnia.
Great writers have the gift of creating a world in the imagination of their readers. Tolkien has given us middle earth; for his readers Lewis brought Narnia, Malacandra and Perelandra to life. MacDonald’s contribution is a Scotland where the heroes are as real and captivating as Sam, Frodo, Caspian or Lucy. Who could meet David Elginbrod, wee Sir Gibbie, Donal Grant’s mentor – old Andrew, or the piper Duncan and be the same afterward? Because the fairy-tale allegory is in such high vogue today is no reason to overlook the traditional novel as being able to yield equal fruit in the imagination. For though MacDonald’s created world is solid and real – and actual place – it is nonetheless powerful to move our hearts and change our lives. Surely his heavy impact on the writing and ideas and created worlds of Tolkien and Lewis and others speaks for itself.
It is my hope to introduce you to the world of George MacDonald’s fiction. This is, in my opinion, one of MacDonald’s most pleasurable novels. It is a thriller in every sense of the word. Yet, as you will see, it contains far more than mere plot.
I can truthfully say that if you enjoy fiction, and especially if you enjoy the writings of C.S. Lewis, you will want to move on to George MacDonald – not because MacDonald is necessarily better than Lewis, but because he offers more of the same. What is great in Lewis is also great in MacDonald.
“Dear Mr. Phillips,
“My good friend DP has forwarded your letter to me and requested that I send it along to Dr. Lyle Dorsett, Curator of the Marion E. Wade Collection, Wheaton College, my successor in that position. I am pleased to do so.
As for myself, I continue to have a real interest in your work and should be glad to go on your mailing list…I do believe that MacDonald is undergoing a ‘revival’ just now and am glad for it.”
—Clyde S. Kilby, 1984