George MacDonald

‘A “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy.’ (J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’)

Tolkien here takes what we might think of as genre classifications and turns them into modes of intention, whose significance is aligned with but subordinated to the location of the story: in ‘Faerie, the Perilous Realm itself’. The boundaries between so-called ‘fairy stories’ and ‘fantasy’ are in any case permeable and shifting; Tolkien’s identification of fairies as elves and his emphasis on the setting rather than the content blur these boundaries further. Yet they were arguably already thoroughly blurred in the works of George MacDonald, who wrote both fairy stories for children (or rather, he claimed, for the ‘childlike’ of any age) and his famous novel Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Phantastes mixes up ideas of quest and love story with notions of growth, discovery and philosophy; it also contains trees with spirits which can move about, which many critics have connected to the Ents (Tolkien himself seemed changeable in his attitude and acknowledged debts to MacDonald). The protagonist of Phantastes, Anodos, dies in Fairy Land, only to wake up anew in the world of men. His concluding thought is the result of what he has learnt: ‘Yet I know that good is coming to me — that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. 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’ (chapter xxv, p. 320).

In MacDonald the meeting of two streams of influence is evident in relation to fantasy. His knowledge of medieval texts is clear; alongside faries his tales also contain knights and ladies, princesses and magic, and many of the motifs of medieval romance. He was connected to the Pre-Raphaelites both through Ruskin and on his own terms, and some of his books were illustrated by one of their number (Arthur Hughes). He was aware of the medievalism that developed throughout the Victorian period and the Pre-Raphaelites’ version of it in particular. However, he was also profoundly influenced by the German Romantics, Novalis in particular. Recent criticism has drawn out and developed this side of the story, most notably in William Gray’s Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth: Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and Hoffman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). MacDonald’s work is a timely reminder that literary texts rarely have simple lines of ancestry or discrete spheres of influence. The complexity of a work’s interaction with its various textual milieux can be picked apart until every thread is exposed. For our purposes, however, it is interesting to note that C. S. Lewis was a lifelong fan of George MacDonald (‘what he does best is fantasy…And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man,’ Lewis declared) and Tolkien was at first a fan and later rather more dubious, possibly as a result of associating MacDonald with both the moralising and the allegorical bent which he wished to avoid in his own writing. I hope that reading MacDonald this week will have helped you to see some of those influences and differences for yourself. Copies are still available, for those of you who have not yet picked one up.

For more on MacDonald, see the Victorian Web resources here.
You can read Phantastes online here or download it as an ebook in various formats from Project Gutenberg here.

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One Response to George MacDonald

  1. Tintagel says:

    I’ve been thinking about the way MacDonald defended his writing ‘fairy stories’–“or rather, he claimed, for the ‘childlike’ of any age.” Lewis did something similar, defending his writing of Narnia–“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” (1952, in Three Ways of Writing for Childen.’)

    MacDonald’s defence indicates that to be ‘childlike’ is a good thing. (In the seminar, reference was made to the Victorian ‘cult of childhood’) Lewis derides ‘childishness’ but not the objects of childhood, such as fairytales. Has this connection between fantasy/fairytales and children grown over the decades? Fantasy fiction is still ‘cult’ fiction, and a few times during my Creative Writing course I have been warned off writing ‘genre’ fiction–esteemed as LoTR is, as money-making as Harry Potter is, as frequently-shoplifted as Discworld is, fantasy fiction is not seen as a ‘literary’ thing to write, and there is much more of it about in the teen market than the adult.

    And if the connection with fantasy fiction and children has grown stronger, is this a good thing?

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