George MacDonald (1824-1905), from A Dish of Orts, 1895. Photo by Elliott & Fry. Courtesy Internet Archive.

George Macdonald
Occupation Minister, poet, novelist
Nationality Scottish
Writing period 19th century
Genres Children's Literature

Rev. George MacDonald (10 December 1824 - 18 September 1905) was a Scottish poet, novelist, and writer of fantasy, and Congregationalist minister.[1]

Life[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Macdonald, son of a farmer, was born at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, and educated at the University of Aberdeen, and at the Independent College, Highbury. He became minister of a congregation at Arundel, but after a few years retired, on account partly of theological considerations, partly of a threatened, breakdown of health. He then took to literature, and published Within and Without (1856), a dramatic poem. Poems followed in 1857, and Phantasies: A faerie romance, in 1858. He then turned to fiction, and produced numerous novels, of which David Elginbrod (1862), Alec Forbes (1865), Robert Falconer (1868), The Marquis of Lossie (1877), and Sir Gibbie (1879), are perhaps the best. He also wrote stories for children of great charm and originality, including The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood. As a novelist he had considerable narrative and dramatic power, humor, tenderness, a genial view of life and character, tinged with mysticism, and within his limits was a true poet. On retiring from the ministry he attached himself to the Church of England, but frequently preached as a layman, never accepting any remuneration for his sermons.[2]

Known particularly for his poignant fairy tales and fantasy novels, MacDonald inspired many authors, including W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.[3]

Youth and education[edit | edit source]

MacDonald was born at Huntly, West Aberdeenshire, the youngest of 5 sons of George MacDonald and his 1st wife Helen, daughter of Captain MacKay, R.N., and sister of the Gaelic scholar, Mackintosh MacKay. He was descended from one of the 120 MacDonalds who made good their escape from the massacre of Glencoe in Feb. 1692. His parents were congregationalists. His mother dying soon after his birth, his father married as his second wife, in 1839 Margaret MacColl, who proved a kind stepmother to George and his brothers.[4]

George began his education on his father's farm and then at a small school at Huntly. In the autumn of 1840 he won at King's College, Aberdeen, a Fullerton bursary of £14 as 12th bursar, and he attended college for 4 years from 1840-1841 to 1844-1845 (omitting 1842-1843). He studied hard to the injury of his health, eking out his narrow means by teaching. Sir William Duguid Geddes was among his contemporaries. MacDonld took the third prize in chemistry and was fourth prizeman in natural philosophy.[4]

Already a poet, who saw symbolic meanings in what others found commonplace, he was regarded by the students as something of a visionary. Of his university life he gave a graphic picture in his poem "Hidden Life" (in Poems, 1857). He graduated with an Master of Arts (Scotland)|M.A.]] in March 1845.[4]

Early career[edit | edit source]

Seeking a livelihood in tutorial work, MacDonald moved to London soon after graduating, and in Sept. 1848 he entered the theological college at Highbury to prepare for the congregational ministry. Finding the ways of Highbury College uncongenial, he did not finish his course there, but he was duly ordained to his 1st and only charge, the Trinity congregational chapel at Arundel, in 1850. His spiritual and intellectual independence dissatisfied his congregation. Proposals to reduce his small stipend on the ground of lack of doctrine in his sermons led to his resignation at the close of 1853.[4]

Resolving to devote himself to literature, he moved to Manchester. There he became friends with Alexander John Scott, principal of Owens College, and with Henry Septimus Sutton, a religious poet who was a friend of Coventry Patmore. Both men deeply influenced MacDonald.[5]

Although ill-health and poverty made his position difficult, his work at Manchester brought him his earliest recognition. In 1855 he published his 1st book, a poem, Within and Without, of which the earliest draft had been written at Arundel in the winter of 1850. The book won the appreciation of Tennyson and the intense admiration of Lady Byron, who became at once a close friend.[5]

A volume of poems published in 1857 strengthened MacDonald's reputation, and in 1858 there appeared in prose Phantastes, a faerie allegorical romance equally attractive as allegory and fairy-tale. It quickly took rank with Undine and other classics of the kind.[5] Its lyrics are among MacDonald's most fascinating and impressive verse.[5]

MacDonald's energy was thenceforth largely absorbed by prose fiction of two kinds, one of which dealt with the mystical and psychic and the other which described humble life in Scotland.[5]

After he gave up his formal ministry at Arundel, MacDonald long continued to preach as a layman. From his 1st settling in Manchester he delivered sermons to a company of working men who rented a room for the purpose, and when a serious illness compelled him in 1856 to winter in Algiers, his hearers subscribed the cost of the expedition. From Algiers he returned to Hastings, and spent three years there (1857–1860) before he finally settling in London.[5]

His 1st house was in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, and thence he moved to Tudor Lodge in Albert Street, Regent's Park. In London his social circle quickly extended. His friendship with Frederick Denison Maurice led him to become a lay member of the Church of England. Maurice was godfather to his fourth son. But his relations with nonconformists remained close, and he continued to accept invitations to preach in their pulpits as a layman.[5]

Friendships[edit | edit source]

Like Robert Browning, who became a friend, he often heard the Welsh poet preacher, Thomas Jones. John Ruskin was another admiring associate and visitor at MacDonald's London house, who in Pleasures of England cited MacDonald's poem, 'Diary of an Old Soul' (1880), with Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' and Keble's hymns as evidence "that the generation . . . might fairly claim to be an age not destitute of religious poetry."[5] MacDonald also served as a go-between in Ruskin's long courtship with Rose La Touche.

MacDonald formed intimate friendships with such widely differing people as the Carlyles, William Morris, Burne Jones, Tennyson, Octavia Hill, Dean Stanley, Matthew Arnold, the eighth duke of Argyll, John Stuart Blackie, Lord Houghton, Lord and Lady Mount-Temple, Arthur Hughes, and his publisher, Alexander Strahan, to whose generosity he owed much.[5] A surviving group photograph shows him with Tennyson, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Ruskin, Lewes, and Thackeray.

George and Lilia MacDonald, 1860. Photo by Lewis Carroll. Courtesy George MacDonald Society.

MacDonald also served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson); it was MacDonald's advice, and the enthusiastic reception of Alice by MacDonald's many sons and daughters, that convinced Carroll to submit Alice for publication. Carroll, one of the finest Victorian photographers, also created photographic portraits of several of the MacDonald children.

Later career[edit | edit source]

Besides writing and preaching without intermission, MacDonald was sole editor of Good Words for the Young (1872–3), and he also lectured on Shakespeare and other literary themes in London with great success. His lectures were at once scholarly and imaginative; they were delivered ex-tempore. For a short time he held an evening lectureship in literature at King's College, London, and in 1872 he went on a lecturing tour in America, where he found enthusiastic audiences. There he met Whittier, Longfellow,Oliver Wendell Holmes, C.D. Warner, R.W. Gilder, and Emerson.[5]

In the interests of health, from 1881 to 1902 he spent the greater part of each year at Casa Coraggio at Bordigheni. The house was built by himself largely out of contributions by friends. At Bordighera as in London, where his charities were unceasing, he proved a friend to all the neighbouring poor.[6]

In 1902 he returned to England to a house built for him at Haslemere by his eldest son. He died after a long illness at Ashtead, the home of his youngest daughter, now Lady Troup. His ashes after cremation at Woking were buried in the English cemetery at Bordighera.[6]

Family[edit | edit source]

MacDonald married in 1851 Louisa, daughter of James Powell, who was in complete sympathy with his ideals. She adapted for stage representation a series of scenes from the Pilgrim's Progress, in which her husband and her children took part, and the experiment led the way for later revival by others of old miracle plays. She died and was buried at Bordighera in 1902 soon after the celebration of her golden wedding. Of a family of 6 sons and 5 daughters, 5 sons and 2 daughters survived their father.[6]

Their son Greville MacDonald became a noted medical specialist and a pioneer of the Peasant Arts movement and also wrote numerous fairy tales for children. Greville ensured that new editions of his father's works were published. Another son, Ronald MacDonald, was also a novelist. Ronald's son, Philip MacDonald, (George MacDonald's grandson) became a very well known Hollywood screenwriter.[7]

Writing[edit | edit source]

Fiction[edit | edit source]

MacDonald is remembered chiefly for his allegorical fairy stories, which have continued to delight children and their elders.[1] His use of fantasy fiction as a literary medium for exploring the human condition greatly influenced a generation of such notable authors as C.S. Lewis (who featured him as a character in The Great Divorce), J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle.

MacDonald's non-fantasy novels, such as Alec Forbes, had their influence as well; they were among the 1st realistic Scottish novels, and as such MacDonald has been credited with founding the "kailyard school" of Scottish writing.

David Elginbrod (1863; new edition, 1871), dedicated to Lady Byron's memory, Adela Cathcart (1864), and The Portent, a story of second sight (1864), were early studies in the mystical and psychical, and effectively challenged the materialism of the day. Alec Forbes (1865) and Robert Falconer (1868) will rank among the classics of Scottish literature in their powerful delineation of Scottish character, their sense of the nobility of country work, and their appreciation of ideal beauty. A quaint humour tinged MacDonald's stern opposition to the rigid theology of Scottish orthodoxy, and these books did much to weaken the force of Calvinism and to broaden spiritual ideals. The same aim was pursued with growing effect in the succeeding novels, chiefly in Scottish settings, Malcolm (1875), St. George and St. Michael (1876), The Marquis of Lossie (1877, a sequel to Malcolm),' Paul Faber, Surgeon (1879) (in which philosophic reflection both in prose and verse predominates), Sir Gibbie (1879), and Castle Warlock: A homely romance (1882).[5]

Poetry[edit | edit source]

MacDonald was above all else a poet. The Diary of an Old Soul must rank with the best work of Crashaw and Vaughan.[6]

Within and Without (1855) is a poetic tragedy of married love and misunderstanding. In the ardour of their religious aspiration, many lines recall Browning's earlier poems, especially Pauline, though without Browning's obscurity.[5]

Both his verse and his stories for children have a dainty humour and an unobtrusive symbolism which place them in much the same category as Hans Andersen's tales. In the beautiful simplicity of his character and in his courtly charm of manner MacDonald has been likened to Count Tolstoy, but to an extent unknown to Tolstoy's later life he mingled with the world.[6]

Besides the books already named, MacDonald's works include : 1. 'Unspoken Sermons' (3 vols. 1867, 1885, and 1889). 2. 'The Disciple, and other poems,' 1868. 3. 'England's Antiphon,' 1868; new edit. 1874. 4. 'At the Back of the North Wind,' 1871. 5. 'The Princess and the Goblin,' 1872. 6. 'Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood,' 1871. 7. 'Gutta Percha Willie,' 1873. 8. 'Thomas Wingfold, Curate' (in 'The Day of Rest'), 1876, new edit. 1880. 9. 'Letters from Hell,' with preface by George MacDonald, 1884. 10. Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' study with the text of the folio of 1623 (1885). 11. 'Miracles of our Lord,' 1886. 12. 'Home Again,' 1887. 13. 'There and Back,' 1891. 14. 'The Hope of the Gospel,' 1892. 16. 'Heather and Snow,' 1893. 16. 'A Dish of Orts,' a volume of essays, 1893. [6]

Works of Fancy and Imagination, a collective edition (excluding the novels), appeared in 1886 (10 vols.). MacDonald's Poetical Works (2 vols.) appeared in 1893 (new edition, 1911). In 1904 a new collected edition of The Fairy Tales followed, and in 1905 a new edition of Phantastes illustrated by Arthur Hughes.[6]

Theology[edit | edit source]

George MacDonald, from The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, 1863. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

MacDonald rejected the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as developed by St. Anselm (1033–1109), which argues that Christ has taken the place of sinners and is punished by the wrath of God in their place, believing that in turn it raised serious questions about the character and nature of God. Instead, he taught that Christ had come to save people from their sins, and not from a Divine penalty for their sins. The problem was not the need to appease a wrathful God but the disease of cosmic evil itself. George MacDonald frequently described the Atonement in terms similar to the Christus Victor theory. MacDonald posed the rhetorical question, "Did he not foil and slay evil by letting all the waves and billows of its horrid sea break upon him, go over him, and die without rebound—spend their rage, fall defeated, and cease? Verily, he made atonement!"


George MacDonald in 1901

MacDonald was convinced that God does not punish except to amend, and that the sole end of His greatest anger is the amelioration of the guilty. As the doctor uses fire and steel in certain deep-seated diseases, so God may use hell-fire if necessary to heal the hardened sinner. MacDonald declared, "I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children." MacDonald posed the rhetorical question, "When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless?" He replied, "No. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more. … The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear."

However, true repentance, in the sense of freely chosen moral growth, is essential to this process, and, in MacDonald's optimistic view, inevitable for all beings (see universal reconciliation). He recognised the theoretical possibility that, bathed in the eschatological divine light, some might perceive right and wrong for what they are but still refuse to be transfigured by operation of God's fires of love, but he did not think this likely.

In this theology of divine punishment, MacDonald stands in agreement with the Greek Church Fathers St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, although it is unknown whether MacDonald had a working familiarity with Patristics or Eastern Orthodox Christianity. At least an indirect influence is likely, because F. D. Maurice who influenced MacDonald knew the Greek Fathers, especially Clement, very well. MacDonald states his theological views most distinctly in the sermon Justice found in the third volume of Unspoken Sermons.

In his introduction to George MacDonald: An anthology, C.S. Lewis speaks highly of MacDonald's theology:

This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald's literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.
I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.
In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. 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.

Recognition[edit | edit source]

On 28 February 1868 the Univerity of Aberdeen made him hon. LL.D.[4]

In 1877 he was granted by the special desire of Queen Victoria a Civil List pension of £100.[5]

MacDonald's poem "That Holy Thing" was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[8]

Of 2 portraits in oil by Sir George Reid, one is in the library of King's College, Aberdeen, and the other belonged to Dr. Greville MacDonald, of 85 Harley Street, who also owned a portrait in red chalk by E.R. Hughes, dating about 1880. A bust by George Anderson Lawson was shown at the Royal Academy in 1871.[6]

Influence[edit | edit source]

C.S. Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master": "Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later," said Lewis, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."

G.K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had "made a difference to my whole existence."

Elizabeth Yates wrote of Sir Gibbie: "It moved me the way books did when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open and first encounters with noble thoughts and utterances were unspeakably thrilling."[9]

Even Mark Twain, who initially disliked MacDonald, became friends with him, and there is some evidence that Twain was influenced by MacDonald.[10]

In popular culture[edit | edit source]

The Waterboys, 2003. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The Waterboys Room To Roam

  • Rock group The Waterboys titled their album Room to Roam after a passage in MacDonald's Phantastes, also found in Lilith. The title track of the album comprises a MacDonald poem from the text of Phantastes set to music by the band. Lilith]] and Phantastes are both named as books in a library, in the title track of another Waterboys album, Universal Hall. The Waterboys have also quoted from C.S. Lewis in several songs including Church Not Made With Hands and Further Up, Further In, confirming the enduring link in modern pop culture between Macdonald and Lewis.
  • A verse from The Light Princess is cited in the Beauty and the Beast song by Nightwish.
  • Contemporary new-age musician Jeff Johnson wrote a song titled The Golden Key based on George MacDonald's story of the same name. He has also written several other songs inspired by MacDonald and the Inklings.
  • Christian celtic punk band Ballydowse have a song called "George MacDonald" on their album Out of the Fertile Crescent. The song is both taken from MacDonald's poem "My Two Geniuses" and liberally quoted from "Phantastes."
  • Jazz pianist and recording artist Ray Lyon has a song called "Up The Spiral Stairs" on his CD "Beginning To See" which was released in 2007. The song features lyrics from MacDonald's 26 and 27 September devotional readings from the book "Diary of An Old Soul".
  • Novelist Patricia Kennealy Morrison has a fictional rock band of the Sixties named "Evenor" in her Rock & Roll Murders: The Rennie Stride Mysteries series.
  • On their 2008 release A Thousand Shark's Teeth the band My Brightest Diamond included a track titled "From the Top of the World" that was inspired by "At the Back of the North Wind."
  • Christian ambient rock band The Sleep Design released their 1st full-length album titled All That Is Not Music is Silence, taken directly from a quote from MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons (1st series).
  • Popular Christian author Oswald Chambers (1874–1917) wrote in Christian Discipline, vol. 1, (published 1934) "it is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald's books have been so neglected."

Publications[edit | edit source]


Poetry[edit | edit source]

Novels[edit | edit source]

Short fiction[edit | edit source]


Non-fiction[edit | edit source]

Juvenile[edit | edit source]

Translated[edit | edit source]

  • Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis. privately printed, 1851.
  • Exotics (translated and some original poetry). London: Strahan, 1876.
  • revised and expanded as Rampolli: Growths from a long-planted root''. London: Longmans, Green, 1897.

Edited[edit | edit source]

  • A Cabinet of Gems. London: Elliot Stock, 1891.

Collected editions[edit | edit source]

  • [Works of Fancy and Imagination] (10 volumes), London: Chatto & Windus, 1871. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, Volume VI, Volume VII, Volume VIII, Volume IX, Volume X.
  • Cheerful Words from the Writings of George MacDonald. Boston: D. Lothrop, 1880.
  • Selections from the Writings; or, Helps for weary souls. New York: Thomas B. Knox, 1885.[11]
  • A George MacDonald Anthology (edited by C.S. Lewis). London: Centenary Press, 1946; New York: Macmillan, 1947.[11].
    • published in U.S. as George MacDonald: An anthology: 365 readings. New York: Macmillan, 1947; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996; San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2001.[11]
  • The World of George MacDonald: Selections from his works of fiction (edited by Rolland Hein). Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1978.[11]
  • Selections From His Greatest Works (compiled by David L. Neuhouser). Victor Press, 1990. ISBN 0-89693-788-7
  • The Heart of George MacDonald: A one-volume collection of his most important fiction, essays, sermons, drama, poetry, letters. Wheaton, IL: H. Shaw, 1994; Vancouver, BC: Regent College, 2004.[11]

Letters[edit | edit source]

  • An Expression of Character: The letters of George MacDonald (edited by Glenn Edward Sadler). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994.[11]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy[18]

See also[edit | edit source]


The Wind and the Moon, by George MacDonald


The Baby by George Macdonald


A Book Of Dreams Part I (George MacDonald Poem)

References[edit | edit source]

  • Ankeny, Rebecca Thomas. The Story, the Teller and the Audience in George MacDonald's Fiction. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
  • Gray, William N. "George MacDonald, Julia Kristeva, and the Black Sun." Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 36.4 (Autumn 1996): 877–593. Accessed 19 May 2009.
  • Hein, Rolland. George MacDonald: Victorian mythmaker. Nashville: Star Song, 1993. ISBN 1-56233-046-2
  • Johnson, Joseph. George MacDonald: A biographical and critical ppreciation. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, Ltd., 1906.
  • Lewis, C.S. George MacDonald: An anthology. 1947.
  • Greville MacDonald, George MacDonald and His Wife, London: *George Allen & Unwin, 1924 (republished 1998 by Johannesen ISBN 1-881084-63-9
  •  Matheson, Annie (1912). "MacDonald, George". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement​. 2. London: Smith, Elder. pp. 513-515. 
  • McGillis, Roderick, ed. For the Childlike: George MacDonald's fantasies for children. Metuchen, NJ, and London: The Children's Literature Association and the Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992.
  • Raeper, William. George MacDonald: Novelist and Victorian visionary.. Tring,UK, & Batavia, IL: Lion Publishing, 1987.
  • Reis, Richard R. George MacDonald. Twayne, 1972.
  • Robb, David S. George MacDonald. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987.
  • Wolff, Robert Lee. The Golden Key: A study of the fiction of George Macdonald. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961.
  • North Wind: A journal of George MacDonald studies. The Journals of the George MacDonald Society
  • Wingfold. A journal "Celebrating the works of George MacDonald". Published by Barbara Amell

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 George Macdonald, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Oct. 15, 2016.
  2. John William Cousin, "Macdonald, George," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 251. Wikisource, Web, Feb. 8, 2018.
  3. Gary K. Wolfe, "George MacDonald," Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and horror (edited by E.. Bleiler). New York: Scribner's, 1985. pp.239–246. Print.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Matheson, 513.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 Matheson, 514.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Matheson, 515.
  7. Internet Archive: Details: The Sword of the King
  8. "That Holy Thing," Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 6, 2012.
  9. George MacDonald,
  10. Mark Twain, George MacDonald's Friend Abroad
  11. 11.00 11.01 11.02 11.03 11.04 11.05 11.06 11.07 11.08 11.09 11.10 11.11 11.12 11.13 11.14 11.15 11.16 Search results = au:George MacDonald, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 27, 2013.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4
  13. 13.0 13.1
  14. Series, Sequels, Sequences and Associations (Not in to be continued [1995 ed.]). Retrieved on 10 August 2011.
  15. History – Springs Mennonite Church. (12 September 1954). Retrieved on 10 August 2011.
  16. 1556610238 AbeBooks. Retrieved on 10 August 2011.
  17. The Minister's Restoration by George MacDonald. Retrieved on 10 August 2011.
  18. The Original Writings of George MacDonald: A Historical 19th Century Bibliography of His Published Works, The Writings, Spiritual Vision, and Legacy of George MacDonald and Michael Phillips, Web, Sep. 27, 2013.

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