Friday, September 18, 2009

George MacDonald (1824-1905)

MacDonald was one of the most respected authors of his generation. He wrote over fifty books, nearly half of them novels for adults, The rest, theological studies, several volumes of essays & criticism, a few volumes of poetry, and three best selling Children's novels accompanied by a couple more volumes of fairy tales. He wrote in nearly every literary genre.

Today much of his poetry and adult fiction would be considered rather prosaic. C.S. Lewis observed, Macdonald really excelled in Fantasy literature. His only two fantasy novels written for adults--Phantastes and Lilith--are often considered two of the best novels ever written in the English language. His three fantasy novels for children, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and the Curdie, and At the Back of the North Wind are so strange and otherworldly that adults enjoy them as much as children. The latter is still his best-selling book. Strangely though, it was his non-fantasy adult fiction that sold best throughout his lifetime.

George MacDonald was born in the north of Scotland, where Gaelic myths and Old Testament stories sank into him and formed the mind that would later cherish imagination as the vehicle of spiritual truth.

The 1840's found him at Aberdeen University where he gained his highest marks in chemistry and physics. A severe shortage of money evaporated his plans to study medicine. He gave himself to literature, his passion for the rest of his life.
MacDonald supported himself by teaching arithmetic and tutoring privately, in Latin and Greek, children of the Victorian era's merchant class. Eventually, the decision was made to enter Highbury College where he would try his hand at theology. He would last only just bettter than two years as a full time clergymen in a country church with a congregation numbering less than sixty five. While most of the church took kindly to the young preacher, eventually opposition grew on a small number of issues he taught , namely, his anti-Calvinistic stance and his somewhat Universalistic world view.

For the next several years MacDonald and his beloved wife Louisa and there 11 children were well aquainted with poverty. His financial plight was eased through teaching Shakespeare and poetry at a new Ladies College. Then the breakthrough! Longman's, a major British publisher released Within And Without, a lengthy poem, of wich Macdonald recieved half the profits.
Convinced that the power of story and fantasy in particular was an effective vehicle of spiritual truth, he produced Phantastes, an exploration of God's Fatherhood. Reviewers promptly condemned it. One journal argued that every author is permitted one mistake, and MacDonald had just made his!

Nevertheless, an appointment to a chair of English literature recognized his talent. Soon he was compared to Sir Walter Scott, Scotland's greatest novelist. Aberdeen University awarded him an honourary doctorate. Americans insisted on a whirlwind tour of major U.S. cities (with stops, however, in Niagara Falls and Toronto). He returned home ill, only to find his daughter Mary dying of tuberculosis. His heart broken but his faith resilient, he asserted, "No one can be living a true life to whom dying is a terror."
He was great friends with Samuel Clemens (A.K.A.--Mark Twain), Charles Dodgson (A.K.A.--Lewis Carroll), John Ruskin, Lady Byron (widow of Lord Byron), and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others.

MacDonald's health was quite poor throughout much of his life. Consumption (TB) was at alarmingly high levels in those days and he struggled with it constantly, as did many of his family members. His lungs were frequently inflamed and painful during the winter months. Eventually he was able to take his family to winter in Italy over several years which invigorated him greatly for a time. He would outlive his wife, four of his eleven children, even some of his grandchildren. The deaths of his wife, and his daughter, Lily, particularly traumatized him. Yet he would always talk of how very little adversity he had faced in his life, as though he were specially blessed among men.

His final years would have a bleakness in them however. His mind became increasingly foggy, and he stopped writing altogether in 1897. About this same time, he came down with a severe skin disease that was so painful he could barely sleep for at least two full years. Still, he quietly awaited his death, seldom leaving the house for the last seven years of his natural life.

One cannot help but be reminded of the closing words of Lilith through the voice of Mr. Vane as he looks forward to his time of departure when he will see his Lona once again. "I wait; asleep or awake, I wait... Novalis says, 'Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.'" George MacDonald went to his rest at nearly eighty one years of age, September 18, 1905

MacDonald's Christian literary descendants are now household names: G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and America's Madeleine L'Engle.

compiled from several sources

for all things George Macdonald go to the the Golden Key Website

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