I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master,” wrote C.S. Lewis of George MacDonald, “indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”
Of all the masters of the written word that Lewis taught and studied at Oxford and Cambridge, why did he choose this one man to so acclaim? The scholar who gave the world Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Narnia Books, among others, was not the only literate Christian so affected. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I for one can really testify to a book that made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start.… Of all the stories I have ever read … it remains the most real … the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin and is by George MacDonald.”
The object of these kudos is an obscure Scotsman whose major portion of prolific writings from the age of Dickens and Thackeray until recently could most often be found on the dustiest shelf in the library—if at all. Happily, his works are being reprinted. William B. Eerdmans has issued The Gifts of the Child Christ, a number of his best stories, in a two-volume set. Rolland Hein has condensed a collection of his sermons, Life Essential, The Hope of the Gospel, unfailingly upholding the Christ-like gentleness of this simple Scottish visionary.
Both Lewis and Chesterton are now coming into their due honor in this generation with new books studying their work, their lives, their religious convictions. Believers in this country have given especially high esteem to Lewis’s works, and, according to Lewis himself, that’s just the rub: “It has always seemed to me that those who receive my books kindly take even now insufficient notice of my affiliation with George MacDonald.… Honesty drives me to emphasize [my obligation],” wrote Lewis and he gratefully completed his circle of godly inspiration with publication in 1946 of George MacDonald, An Anthology (reissued this year by Macmillan).
Just who is the man who called forth such effusive praise from two of this century’s most precise Christian thinkers?
A humble Victorian companion of John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll, MacDonald lived his life (1824–1905) ever reflecting the gift of an excellent childhood. “We have learned,” writes Lewis, “from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of the Father and Son is of all relations the most central.”
MacDonald preached, wrote poetry, novels, literary criticism, and children’s tales (for the childlike, whatever their age), which are still acknowledged as classics. Despite—or perhaps because—he was so prolific, he remains difficult to catalogue. Lewis and Chesterton agree that MacDonald was an uneven writer, though he is unequaled in his mythopoeic works: Phantastes, the Curdie books, The Golden Key, The Wise Woman, and Lilith.
Lewis, however, points us to his mentor’s sermons, lifting up MacDonald’s three-volume Unspoken Sermons with a debt of gratitude “almost as great as one man can owe to another: nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help—towards the very acceptance of the Christian faith.”
Not unexpectedly for MacDonald, a rebel from the grueling cultural overtones of rigid Scottish Calvinism, his life as a cleric was ill-paid and hard, made harder still when the rich deacons of his parish church censured his preaching on the mercy of God by reducing his salary. They misjudged their man, however, and MacDonald managed to limp along on the subsistence wage for another year. Thereafter, he embarked on a life of “lecturing, tutoring, occasional preaching, writing and ‘odd jobs’ which was his lot almost to the end.” Immensely popular as a speaker (he toured America soon after Dickens’s famous circuit, encountering equally enthusiastic crowds) he nevertheless remained poor. He lived an almost unbroken life of poverty, expecting the “butcher’s bills popping in through twenty different keyholes,” not to mention those of the other creditors of his large family. “His lungs were diseased,” Lewis tells us, “and his poverty was very great. Literal starvation was sometimes averted by those last moment deliverances which agnostics attribute to chance and Christians to Providence. It is against his background of reiterated failure and incessant peril that he can most profitably be read. His resolute condemnations of anxiety come from one who has a right to speak.” This sensitive poet and uncompromising Christian thinker had eleven children, four of whom preceded their father in death.
He was thus deeply in touch with the persistent tragedy and primal goodness of the human lot, psychologically on-target in his works, militantly evangelical (in the historical sense of the term), rigorously evangelistic. He preached without strident pulpit-pounding that life is an all-of-a-piece search for God made possible solely by the willful sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Obedience to God was his theme: “We are no more to think ‘What should I like to do?’ but ‘What would the Living One have me do?’ ” “He appears to have been a sunny man,” writes Lewis, “playful, deeply appreciative of all really beautiful and delicious things that money can buy, and no less deeply content to do without them.”
It can only be a great good that he is rediscovered. He has blessed generations of the faithful in the midst of personal ill-fortune; he was christened with joy in sorrow; he is a man for all seasons. He was expansive toward his many friends, hospitable to strangers, tenderly responsible in behalf of his children. And he was deeply in love with his wife; he sorrowfully awaited with peace his heavenly reunion with her when she died three years before him. MacDonald’s son commented, “They give so realistic a picture of domestic and widely shared happiness … so simple, faithful and happy were this father and mother, so full their lives of pathos and humor.”
Gary Havens is a carpenter and writer who lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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