George MacDonald
George MacDonald; drawing by David Levine

On October 14, 1863, Charles Dodgson, soon to become Lewis Carroll, visited his friends the MacDonalds at their home, Elm Lodge, Heath Street, Hampstead. During the afternoon he took a photograph of George MacDonald and his eldest daughter, Lilia. It is a curious picture. Lilia is as sweet as any of Lewis Carroll’s heroines, even if she is a little too old to be perfect. But her father, reading to her in the garden, is caught with a haunted look, as if his text were the quintessence of dust and the garden a charnel-vault. The picture is probably misleading. There is nothing in the available record to suggest that MacDonald was much possessed by doom. Visits to Elm Lodge, according to Carroll’s diary and other sources, were always genial occasions. Often they included private theatricals, once Pilgrim’s Progress, again Polyeuctus. On formal occasions the company was always interesting and sometimes fine. Carroll noted, after a later visit: “Met Mr. Clemens (Mark Twain) with whom I was pleased and interested.”

George MacDonald was born in 1824 at Huntly, Aberdeenshire. He went to Aberdeen University and was ordained to the Trinity Congregational Church in 1850. His sermons were considered unsatisfactory because they did not contain enough doctrine, and after three years he resigned to become a lay preacher. He spent some years in Manchester before moving to London, where he made his living as a writer, with some aid from a Civil List pension in his later years. From 1855 to the end of the century he wrote poems, sermons, allegories, novels of Scotland, and fairy tales. He died in 1905. His most celebrated stories are At the back of the North Wind (1871). The Princess and the Goblin (1872). and The Princess and Curdie (1883). The Golden Key is not as widely known as these, but its particular pleasures are now, happily, available again.

Appropriately, George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll were friends, but their writings have little in common. No wonder the photograph is odd. Carroll’s art is Nonsense, MacDonald’s is fairy-tale: the difference is fundamental. In The Field of Nonsense Elizabeth Sewell gives the rules of the Carroll game. The first rule is that Nonsense is a closed system, which delights in minding its own business. Part of this business is to exclude many respectable considerations and values which, outside the system, are properly acknowledged. In Nonsense, Miss Sewell observes, “all the world is paper and all the seas are ink.” So the touch of nature which makes the whole world kith and kin destroys, in Nonsense, the whole pack of cards. True, the Mock Turtle was once a Real Turtle, but that was in another country, and besides we are playing “a game, to which emotion is alien.” The aim of Nonsense is “to make the mind create for itself a more orderly universe,” more like symbolic logic, that bachelor science, to be precise. Telegrams and anger are replaced by numbers, progressions, one and one and one and one and one. The effects are bound to be insidious, subversive, considered from any standpoint in the sensual world, and the perpetrator is bound to be manic. Perhaps George MacDonald saw these effects when he faced the camera, despite the domestic props, the book, and Lilia’s hand on his shoulder, In his own fiction there are numbers, but they are always amenable to other persuasions, love, fear, the desire and pursuit of the good. There are also dreams, but dreams are important in MacDonald’s fiction only for their influence upon the quality of the dreamer’s waking hours, his decisions and actions thereafter.

SO THE MOTIVE for fairly tale is the motive for metaphor, the exhilaration of change. You like metaphor, Wallace Stevens says in an exemplary poem, when you want things to change, when you particularly want them to change to you, as if a cripple were to sing. The particular change that MacDonald wanted was a change of character, as he wanted people to be different by being better. This is the flow of feeling between his sermons, metaphors, novels, and fairy tales. Metaphor is the shortest way of getting out of Manchester, the quickest answer to the Industrial Revolution. Some of the evidence is contained in “A Manchester Poem,” one of his most revealing compositions. “Slave engines utter again their ugly growl,” he says, but every “marvellous imperfection” points ahead to “higher perfectness than heart can think.” The strange feature of the poem is that it is so deeply committed to metaphor and change that Paradise itself, because it is the End, is deemed to be improper. To MacDonald it was far more important, because far more human, to travel hopefully than to arrive. He turns away from first and last things, preferring drama to eschatology. Value is embodied in action, striving, change; to arrive is to make metaphor redundant:


Man seeks a better home than Para- dise;
Therefore high hope is more than deepest joy,
A disappointment better than a feast,
And the first daisy on a wind-swept lea
Dearer than Eden-groves with rivers four.

The problem is to endow the Good Life with the right metaphors of action. In several stories we hear of “the place where the end of the rainbow stands,” clearly the same place as “the back of the North Wind” and “the country from which the shadows come,” but there is always a suggestion that this place is worthy because of the aspiration, the energy, it engenders; and that its finality is its defect. Heaven is inferior to Nature, MacDonald goes to the brink of implying, because Heaven is changeless and Nature is always changing. His parishioners were right, MacDonald’s sermons are short of doctrine.

Emerson is relevant. In the fourth section of the long essay on Nature he says that Nature gives us, one of many gifts, an ethical vocabulary. Every word we use to express a moral fact, “if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.” For instance, “right means straight; wrong means twisted…transgression, the crossing of a line.” Later, as if anticipating T.S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” he says:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.

This is the rationale of the fairy tale. The supernatural tinge which Emerson gives to his descriptions of Nature is more evident in him than in MacDonald, but even to MacDonald the strongest justification of a change of character is featured in the constantly changing appearances of Nature. Magic is the equivalent of all the possibilities of ethical change, brought together in a single dramatic power. The epigraph to Emerson’s essay reads:

A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form

Darwin is good medicine. In Emerson and in MacDonald Nature is also featured as discipline, because she contains and therefore presumably knows all the answers. MacDonald’s The Lost Princess is often read as a moral tract, the point being that children should never be pampered. But its power as a story depends upon MacDonald’s sense of natural forces working behind or beneath the maxim; forces far in excess of the moral occasion, but working in its behalf. North Wind has more business in hand than merely to push Diamond or Old Sal in the right direction. The point about Princess Rosamond and the shepherd-child Agnes in The Lost Princess is only incidentally that they are both spoiled brats. Rather, it is that their young lives are perverse and unnatural, because deprived of the discipline of natural power. This is what the Wise Woman knows, so she takes the children away for their own good. Nature is a foster parent, better than the original. MacDonald’s stories reach far and wide and deep because, especially in The Golden Key and the Curdie books, they imply a lively set of forces which can get out of hand, at least for a time.

Here again MacDonald differs from Lewis Carroll. William Empson, as usual, makes a good point about the Alice books. Carroll shared the Wordsworthian feeling that children are wiser than us because they are “in the right relation to Nature”; being right about life, the young girl can afford to be independent. Perhaps we might add that this independence is Carroll’s way of urging a certain disengagement from Nature’s apron-strings. If the child is right, to start with, there is no need to keep fussing. MacDonald was inclined to fuss. He believed that adults are better than children because they have been active longer. Lying in Abraham’s bosom is not enough. The narrator is a good teacher because he is gifted in reading natural signs, alive to the metaphorical possibilities and the force they contain. The only advantage children have is that the likelihood of becoming adults still stretches ahead of them. There is a right way, there is a wrong way, children must be taught the difference. So MacDonald saw his work as the collusion of an adult with Nature for the guidance of children, bringing them along. “The whole system of the universe,” he says in one of his sermons, “works upon this law—the driving of things upwards towards the centre.” Everything in his books is on the move, because to stop is to despair, Battles are great occasions, especially in The Princess and Curdie where the King’s forces include the great Uglies and the birds, all striving for the Good. The books are Sermons on the Mount. Diamond reaches for the sky. Curdie, attacked by a flock of birds, is defended by Lina, an animal on its way to become a child. The worm strives to be man. Much of MacDonald’s symbolism is based on this figure: stairs, winding paths, mountains, excelsior, excelsior. The only way to live, moment by moment, is in aspiration. With the right metaphors, conspiring with natural change, we can then enjoy what he calls in Sir Gibbie “the holy carelessness of the eternal now.” Magic is Faith. When Curdie has let himself become stupid and insensitive, killing harmless things like pigeons, Nature rebukes him:


Suddenly everything round about him seemed against him. The red sunset stung him; the rocks frowned at him….

The only safe way is humility, which reconciles high and low.

THERE IS A PASSAGE in The Princess and Curdie which seems to refute this symbolism but, in fact, confirms it. When Curdie reaches the castle he sees the great staircase and he knows that to reach the tower he must go further. The narrator takes the occasion to say that “those who work well in the depths more easily understand the heights, for indeed in their true nature they are one and the same….” The goblins are evil and their home is underground, but the miners are good because they work well in the depths, the King’s servants. If the King’s palace is at the top of the mountain it is necessary to redeem the lower places. MacDonald does this by an ethic of content, Christian humility. Curdie is a good miner, so “from knowing the ways of the king’s mines, and being able to calculate his whereabouts in them, [he] was now able to find his way about the king’s house.” The social equivalent comes later when the Lady of Light says to Peter: “I am poor as well as rich…I, too, work for my bread….”

Mostly, this pastoral consolation is given in familial images. There is an especially ingenuous poem called “The Golden Key,” in MacDonald’s Parables, about a boy, caught in a storm, trying to find the golden key. Darkness falls, he goes home, his mother kisses him, and

Soon, things that are and things that seem Did mingle merrily;
He dreamed, nor was it all a dream, His mother had the key.

The available force is called Love, a word which MacDonald pays extra because, like Humpty Dumpty, he makes it do a lot of work. North Wind is Mother. “Love makes everything lovely,” MacDonald writes in Alec Forbes; “hate concentrates itself on the one thing hated.” To Emerson the spirit of Nature is Father; to MacDonald, Mother. Either way, there can be no final evil. In MacDonald’s stories the local evils are considerable, especially when they are our own construction, like Mr. Vane’s house which falls upon him in Lilith. At the Back of the North Wind is particularly keen in its suggestion of the power of darkness. Among MacDonald’s stories it is the one which most vigorously implies the world of Industrial Revolution, crying for Love, metaphor, and the Factory Acts. Sal the gin-crone and the drunken cabman stay in the mind longer than North Wind’s ostensible cruelties, which are rationalized in the usual way. When North Wind is rebuked by Diamond for sinking the ship, she tells him that behind the cries from the drowning ship she hears the sound of a far-off song in which every cry is reconciled. Diamond does not protest. At the end of Phantastes MacDonald says that “what we call evil is the only and best shape which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.” Ideally, evil consumes itself; as the goblins, trying to flood the King’s palace, are drowned in the flood. When the people in The Princess and Curdie choose a bad King, he plunders the mountain for gold, and the mountain, caving in, destroys the palace. Then there is nothing. The country is given back to the wild deer, “and the very name of Gwyntystorm…ceased from the lips of men.” But the deer will strive upward, presumably, in their season.

It is customary to say, with Professor Tolkien, that “Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald.” But it is a hard point to establish. His work is not very Grimm. Besides, he could always treat death as he treated evil, taking the harm out of it. The Golden Key is the classic text. The action of the book is the convergence of the boy Mossy and the girl Tangle. For a long time their stories are separate. They meet, about halfway through the book, only to lose each other again. Tangle’s adventures bring her to meet an air-fish, then the Old Man of the Sea, the Old Man of the Earth, and a naked child who turns out to be the Old Man of the Fire. “Follow that serpent,” the Man of Fire says, “He will lead you the right way”…to the country from which the shadows come. Meanwhile Mossy, who has found the key. is searching for the appropriate lock. After sundry incidents he meets the same Old Man of the Sea. “You have tasted of death now,” the Old Man says, “Is it good?” “It is good,” Mossy answers, “It is better than life.” “No,” the Old Man says, “it is only more life.” Eventually Mossy finds the keyhole in a rock, and when he opens the lock he comes upon Tangle. They climb out of the earth into the rainbow, “going up to the country whence the shadows fall.” True, the story can be glossed as MacDonald’s refusal to think of his favorite metaphors languishing in the Fortunate Fields, their work done. If life loses the name of action it loses itself, and to MacDonald no prize, however Elysian, is worth the loss. So it is natural for him to think of death as merely more life, carrying the figures of action beyond the grave. The Old Man of the Sea is the guardian of this idiom.

Of the other books, The Princess and Curdie is unusual in its impression of finality, writing “Finis.” More often we are meant to hear: “To be Continued in our Next.” This is the impression of The Golden Key, as of North Wind and The Lost Princess. MacDonald is happiest, after all, in the “sensuality of the shade,” working, acting, choosing. His most characteristic work is a form of cooperation, participation in natural energies which are deemed to be already working in the field. Think of that serpent, in The Golden Key, which the Man of Fire creates to lead Tangle to the shadowy place. The dramatic invention at that point in the story, so easy and fluent, implies full confidence in the metaphorical resources of Nature and confidence, hardly less full, in the poetic imagination, Metaphor, metamorphosis, invention, Nature as the Aeolian lyre: the imaginative unity of MacDonald’s work relies upon these fictions. Thinking of these figures we think of literature according to Coleridge, who in “The Aeolian Harp” invokes “the one Life within us and abroad,/ Which meets all motion and becomes its soul.” The idiom is sufficiently active to suit MacDonald, and may be allowed to stand as another gloss.

This Issue

December 21, 1967