“[Sir Gibbie] 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.”
-Elizabeth Yates, in the introduction to her edited version of Sir Gibbie, 1963
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with George MacDonald’s unforgettable characters. The Princess and Curdie, Ranald Bannerman, and Sir Gibbie were just as much a part of my world as Lucy Pevensie, Anne Shirley, and Jo March.
I remember losing myself in the thrilling fantasy tale of The Princess and the Goblin from the time I could pull books off the shelf at my grandmother’s. And Linda Hill Griffith’s rich illustrations of The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald were the backdrop that accompanied my perusal of his tales each and every December.
But according to entry number five scrawled in my faithful book log, The Boyhood of Ranald Bannerman was the first full-length George MacDonald book I got my hands on. I read Ranald’s tale (largely reminiscent of MacDonald’s own) the month before I turned seven years old. It was his world of the Scottish highlands I encountered even before I visited Little House in the Big Woods on my own, entered Narnia for myself, or came to know my beloved heroines Anne Shirley and Jo March. And after a fantasy trip At the Back of the North Wind, I returned to that land of heather moors and peat fires with a children’s edition of Sir Gibbie.
The Editors and Translators of George MacDonald
I grew up watching my mother read every single one of Michael Phillip’s edited versions of George MacDonald’s novels. And as I reached my teens, I, too, began to delve into the depths of the longer tales MacDonald wove, assisted like my mother by the easier to read versions courtesy of Michael Phillips. I began with The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret and couldn’t stop until I’d devoured every one of the MacDonald titles on our shelves.
While I’m rarely one for reading a book condensed from the original (it usually feels a bit too much like watching the movie before reading the book!), some of MacDonald’s works are a special case. In eleven of his Scottish novels, MacDonald used a Scots dialect (called “Doric”) for the dialogue between characters. Without some translation, these passages would leave many English readers wondering what was said. Michael Phillips did a masterful job of preserving bits of the Scots dialect (especially for certain characters) while making the conversations on the whole much more understandable. In his edits of MacDonald’s English novels, Phillips artfully rearranges the wandering descriptions and sermons of the originals into condensed versions that are readable and yet still deep.
While Michael Phillips was by far the most extensive editor and purveyor of MacDonald’s English and Scottish novels, he was not the only one who took a turn at editing the master. Elizabeth Yates presented the world with an edited version of Sir Gibbie in 1963, as well as Gathered Grace, a compilation of George MacDonald’s poems. Kathryn Lindskoog, a C.S. Lewis scholar, offered another children’s edition of of Sir Gibbie in 1992, aiming to return it to its original, Christ-centered plot. Dan Hamilton edited 11 of MacDonald’s titles which were published in the 1980s by Victor Books. (While many of Hamilton’s renditions lacked the richness I’d come to expect from MacDonald, I enjoyed the titles he edited for young readers, including his version of The Boyhood of Ranald Bannerman.)
Best-selling novelist Michael Phillips was responsible for reviving interest in the works of George MacDonald in the late twentieth century. He originally edited 18 of George MacDonald’s novels, which were published by Bethany House from 1982 through 1991 (along with 4 of the same titles, created especially as “George MacDonald Classics for Young Readers”). Now, more than three decades after his first edited editions of George MacDonald’s novels were published by Bethany House, Michael Phillips is releasing new editions of every one of MacDonald’s full-length novels throughout 2018 and 2019. It is called “The Cullen Collection”, in honor of the village in Scotland where MacDonald wrote and set his novel Malcolm. The 48-volume collection (which will eventually be available on Kindle as well as in paperback) includes an extensive biography of George MacDonald written by Michael Phillips, as well as MacDonald’s six fantasy books (published in their original form), and newly revised and expanded editions of all MacDonald’s full-length novels.
Meanwhile, modern-day Scotsman David Jack is creating unabridged side-by-side translations of MacDonald’s Scottish novels. The text is entirely original except for where there is dialogue; then, two columns of text are used, with both the original Scots and the English translation side by side for readers to peruse. So far, Robert Falconer and Castle Warlock have been released, with Sir Gibbie coming soon. These Scots-English side-by-side translations by David Jack each include an introduction written by Michael Phillips.
MacDonald the Husband, Father, Teacher, and Preacher
But what of the man behind these memorable and oft edited works? George MacDonald was born the son of a Scottish farmer in 1824. Apparently a voracious reader even in his teens, he excelled at King’s College in Aberdeen, and then attended Highsbury College to study theology. He began his career as a minister in his mid-twenties, but his unorthodox views kept him from remaining in the pulpit long. He spent some time teaching at the University of London, but finally settled down to writing, publishing his first books and poetry in his early thirties. He would go on to publish more than 50 books throughout his lifetime. Though his work never earned him much money, his writing did bring him many honored friends, and would later prompt an invitation to lecture in the United States for a year.
George and his wife Louisa had eleven children, causing him to joke that they were on “the wrong side of a dozen”. Though no strangers to poverty and sickness, George often spoke of how blessed they were and how little adversity they’d faced in life. Louisa was well known for the plays she put on together with her children, particularly The Pilgrim’s Progress. The income from these productions often helped allow the family to spend the winters in France, to aid their health. George was plagued with consumption and poor health throughout the majority of his life. And in fact, tuberculosis would claim the lives of four of his children, as well as several grandchildren.
George MacDonald died in 1805 at nearly 81 years of age, just three years after the death of his wife Louisa. They had celebrated more than 50 years of marriage together.
His life and letters have been documented in many volumes, most notably the biographies George MacDonald and His Wife (written by their son, Dr. Greville M. MacDonald), George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller and George MacDonald: A Writer’s Life (both by Michael Phillips, editor of MacDonald’s works). C.S. Lewis’ preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology is often referenced as a good introduction to MacDonald, as is G.K. Chesterton’s introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife.
George MacDonald’s Theology and Influence
“George MacDonald writes of homely things and simple people who saw, in the stuff of a shepherd’s cottage or a fisherman’s arduous work on the cold sea, the love of God.”
George MacDonald was oft quoted by Elisabeth Elliot, well loved by Oswald Chambers, and regarded as master by C.S. Lewis. The influence of this simple Scottish preacher was as powerful as it was far-reaching. Authors like Madeline L’Engle and G.K. Chesterton number themselves among his fans, while Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien credit him with much impact on their own work. Tolkien even went so far as to say that he used MacDonald’s work for a measuring stick in his own writing of Lord of the Rings.
Yet despite such a vast array of followers, MacDonald was not without dissenters, especially when it came to his theology. Author and song-writer Andrew Peterson has provided the most simple and succinct explanation I’ve read of the troubling aspects of MacDonald’s theology in a three-part series over at The Rabbit Room. In short, Peterson explains, MacDonald believed that “God wasn’t content to allow any of his children to remain as they were and that even after death God’s love would burn and purify until the wayward soul was overcome by his love.”
Notwithstanding the fact that I disagree with some of MacDonald’s beliefs (I’ve yet to find an infallible human author!), I have to conclude, as did Andrew Peterson, that MacDonald’s views on God’s love are no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In the words of MacDonald himself:
“The farmer believed in God—that is, he tried to do what God required of him, and thus was on the straight road to know him. He talked little about religion, and was not one to take sides on doctrinal issues. When he heard people advocating or opposing the claims of this or that party in the church, he would turn away with a smile such as men yield to the talk of children. He had no time, he would say, for that kind of thing. He had enough to do in trying to faithfully practice what was beyond dispute.”
-George MacDonald in The Minister’s Restoration (edited by Michael Phillips)
If we can read his work for that which is good and true and beyond dispute, we can choose to ignore or debate the theological differences as we like. But each time I open the pages of a book penned by MacDonald, I am reminded how much there is of that which is absolutely beyond dispute. All that is good and true of MacDonald’s characters is an embodiment of Micah 6:8: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. And I couldn’t ask more of a hero or heroine.
“I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly 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.”
-C.S. Lewis, in his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology
MacDonald’s Timeless Characters
Growing up as I did, intimately acquainted with the vivid characters painted by George MacDonald, it was with great surprise that I discovered through the years how few of my friends were familiar with this beloved author. Perhaps the fault lies with the readability of some of the Scots dialect in the original versions. Perhaps it is due to the overwhelming message of faith and obedience in his books. Perhaps it is simply an indication of modern reading trends:
“It is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected.”
-Oswald Chambers in Christian Disciplines, vol. 1 (1934)
But the words of MacDonald’s son Greville in 1924 have turned prophetic with a growing resurgence of interest in MacDonald’s books here in the 21st century:
“These books will assuredly be read yet again when the world has grown wise enough to appreciate their writer’s singleness of vision and the open road between him and God.”
-Greville MacDonald, 1924
The majority of George MacDonald’s original works are available for free in ebook and audiobook versions via Amazon Kindle, Project Gutenberg and LibriVox. The titles edited by Michael Phillips and published by Bethany House are widely available at reasonable used prices. And now, between The Cullen Collection edited by Michael Phillips and the side-by-side translations by David Jack, readable versions of all of MacDonald’s Scottish novels–as well as his original fantasy books–are available in print and on Kindle for a whole new generation of readers. The real treasure hunter may even find an original hardback edition hidden in the recesses of the shelves of a used bookstore.
Just like the truths that fill his stories, MacDonald’s books are often hidden gems just waiting to be found. And they must be found. For, written as they were out of a single vision and a close personal relationship with Christ, the life-changing lessons and life-like characters of MacDonald’s stories are as timeless as they are vital.
“Great writers have the gift of creating a world in the imagination of their readers. Tolkien has given us middle earth; for his readers Lewis brought Narnia, Malacandra and Perelandra to life. MacDonald’s contribution is a Scotland where the heroes are as real and captivating as Sam, Frodo, Caspian or Lucy. Who could meet David Elginbrod, wee Sir Gibbie, Donal Grant’s mentor–old Andrew, or the piper Duncan and be the same afterward? Because the fairy-tale allegory is in such high vogue today is no reason to overlook the traditional novel as being able to yield equal fruit in the imagination. For though MacDonald’s created world is solid and real–an actual place–it is nonetheless vivid and enchanting, and his characters nonetheless powerful to move our hearts and change our lives.”
-Michael Phillips, in his introduction to The Fisherman’s Lady
The Best of George MacDonald’s Books:
Faith-Filled Fantasy, Fiction, and Fairy Tales
Fantasy & Fairy Tales
George MacDonald authored prose fantasies, as well as children’s fairy tales and allegories. You’ll find our favorites reviewed here…
“The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live.”
-C.S. Lewis, in his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology
I don’t think I understood, reading At the Back of the North Wind as a child, how sad a tale it was. I remember smiling at the antics of “big” Diamond and “little” Diamond. I remember the wise and beautiful North Wind. But I suppose then the hints of what was at the back of North Wind were only shadows, like glimpses of Aslan’s country from afar. Listening to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre version of At the Back of the North Wind as a parent, I ached with Diamond’s parents as they watched him fade. And knowing MacDonald’s story as I do now, I realized how much of the pain of losing his own children he must have written into this book. But he wrote, too, of the beauty and hope of that land where there is no more sickness and no more pain: At the Back of the North Wind.
(reviewed by Lanier Ivester)
If Lilith is about anything, it’s about losing one’s life to find it indeed. There’s a hazy distinction that materializes slowly between the characters that are actually dead and the ones that have merely ceased to live… Weaving the Talmudic myth of Adam’s “first wife” Lilith into a story about an ordinary person encountering the love of God is frankly something that only MacDonald would take on… With his untrammeled imagination and wild faith in the goodness of the Giver of Life, he whisks us from the library of an ancient country house to the very feet of the Ancient of Days. And all with that impetuous joy that seems to wave back and hasten us along from the next hilltop he’s mounted, as much as to say, “Never mind all those loose ends and questions of yours—just wait till you see what’s ahead!” (Click here to read Lanier’s complete review of Lilith.)
(reviewed by Caroline Kraft)
Have you ever wondered where your favorite fantasy writers of the 19th century got their inspiration? Look no further than the fantastic works of George MacDonald. The Princess and the Goblin begins with the words, “There once was a princess whose father was king over a great country full of mountains and valleys. Her palace was built upon one of the mountains, and was very grand and beautiful.” If that sounds like the beginnings of a fine fairytale, you are correct. Beginning with an eight-year-old princess in a fine palace, diving into the underground world of nasty goblins, the other-worldly presence of a certain great-great-grandmother and the adventure that comes along with Curdie, the brave miner’s son, this story does not disappoint. Add a few magic rings, an invisible thread and a final, glorious battle and you’ve got a taste of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald!
(reviewed by Vicki V. Lucas)
George MacDonald fooled me. I read both The Princess and the Goblin and the sequel The Princess and Curdie, thinking that they were just stories. It wasn’t until I re-read them as an adult that I realized that these books aren’t just tales; they’re devotionals. The gems that George MacDonald scatters throughout The Princess and Curdie leave me breathless with its simplicity and depth. He weaves a tale you will never forget while dropping wisdom in for us in a gentle and treasured manner. (Click here to read Vicki’s complete review of The Princess and Curdie.)
“Of all the stories I have read…[The Princess and the Goblin] remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.”
–G.K. Chesterton, in his introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife
George MacDonald authored over thirty English and Scottish novels, many of which were edited and condensed by Michael Phillips and republished in the 1980s under new names by Bethany House. The reviews below refer to the versions edited by Michael Phillips, thus his 1980s titles are noted as well. Newly edited and expanded editions are now available from Michael Phillips in The Cullen Collection, which has been published using MacDonald’s original titles. (Click here for a table of title comparisons.)
“Wee Sir Gibbie” has to be one of the most well-known and best-loved of MacDonald’s characters. The perfect starting point for anyone wanting to acquaint themselves with MacDonald’s fiction, Sir Gibbie tells the tale of a mute urchin. Follow the street-wise orphan “up Daurside” as in the wake of losing his drunken father he seeks the comfort of the Scottish Highlands. The friends he meets there find in him the utmost purity, simplicity, and self-sacrificial service, making him beloved by all as he comes to live up to his nickname in more ways than one.
My very favorite George MacDonald story–the one I read over and again–is that of Malcolm, as retold by Michael Phillips. MacDonald’s characters come alive to me in a way that few other author’s do, and Malcolm is one whom I feel I know as well as my own brothers. In his story you’ll find unparalleled romance, mystery, and intrigue, combined with such love, sacrifice, and depth of character that you’ll find he’s hard to forget.
(reviewed by Sara Louise)
“Tell me honestly, do you really believe one word of all that?” The skeptic’s question to the curate Thomas Wingfold was a staggering blow to someone whose occupation presupposes faith in God—rather like assuming a child brought up in a Christian home will automatically become a child of God. The ability to challenge his readers to the very core of their belief system is what sets MacDonald apart from other writers of fiction. Far from “fluff,” his stories are deep and thought-provoking, begging for a response. You will be inexplicably drawn toward the Heavenly Father, desiring to know Him more fully, which was the author’s intent all along. (Click here to read Sara’s entire review of the story of Thomas Wingfold.)
(The companion stories of Thomas Wingfold were edited and republished as The Curate’s Awakening, The Lady’s Confession, and The Baron’s Apprenticeship, then compiled into one volume, The Curate of Glaston.)
“I have never concealed the fact that I regarded [George MacDonald] 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.”
-C.S. Lewis, in his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology
Out of George MacDonald’s five collections of sermons and additional essays have come much literary and theological richness. Here is one anthology of his non-fiction…
For an easy to assimilate glimpse into the depths of MacDonald’s theology, look no further than this anthology compiled by C.S. Lewis. The preface itself is a unique, thought-provoking glimpse into Lewis’ interpretation of MacDonald’s work. And with 365 brief readings–mostly from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons–you’ll find some real meat to chew on for every day of the year. The best of the best of MacDonald’s rich gems, it serves as an introduction that will make you want to plumb the depths of his works, or a reference for your favorite quotations. (For a similar sampling of MacDonald’s fiction, try 365 Meditations from George MacDonald’s Fiction.)
“MacDonald is helping us to see greater truths about hope, and sorrow, and our false selves, and about sacrificial love. But he’s doing it in a way that just might set your imagination crackling. He might wake up your sleeping inner child. He might even disarm you enough to admit that maybe there’s more to the world than you thought… Life, it turns out, isn’t all that much different from one of MacDonald’s meandering, surprising, frightening, and luminous stories, where at any moment you may find yourself walking through a portal into another world.”
-Andrew Peterson, in “The Immersed Imagination, Part 3: The Inner Spirit” at The Rabbit Room
Learn More About George MacDonald
- George MacDonald’s Fantasy, Scottish Fiction, and English Fiction: a table of comparison matching the titles of the original works with the republished editions
- The Works of George MacDonald: comprehensive source of organization information about MacDonald’s life and works
- The Golden Key: an online resource for all things related to the Victorian Novelist, Poet and Christian Fantasy writer George MacDonald
- George MacDonald Quotes: a database of shareable quotes from George MacDonald
- Father of the Inklings: preserving the legacy and spiritual vision of George MacDonald for future generations
- George MacDonald and Michael Phillips: the site of MacDonald editor and biographer Michael Phillips
- The Cullen Collection: the site dedicated to the 48-volume MacDonald publishing project
(originally published in 2015; edited from the archives)
Photography: JenniMarie Photography