I don’t remember when or where I was introduced to him, but it was love at first sight.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe in love at first sight, but when it comes to books, it’s a different matter altogether… And George MacDonald’s tales definitely caught my heart, causing me to devour each and every book of his I could possibly find.
The depth of MacDonald’s stories and the thought-provoking conversations of his characters struck a chord in me. I was captivated by how he balanced the boyish escapades of his heroes like Ranald Bannerman with their contemplation of profound wisdom.
Some popular Christian fiction I read as a teen and young adult left me with an unhealthy hunger for romance and an unrealistic view of things like “love at first sight.” But George MacDonald’s stories portray romance in a way that honors God and esteems marriage, and so I will strongly encourage my children to read his books.
MacDonald’s fiction does have its share of romance, but it isn’t the unrealistic kind where “boy meets girl and lives happily ever after.” Instead, George MacDonald crafted his characters in ways that were believable and realistic. (Although an unbiased opinion must admit that there are those moments when I’d think, “Well, that only works because it’s a book!”) The believability of MacDonald’s characters extend into whatever romance might come their way, but they always have more than “just romance” going on in their lives.
As a teen, I eagerly searched for each and every book George MacDonald had written–especially the titles edited by Michael Phillips and Dan Hamilton–scouring the library shelves as well as those of relatives and friends. I immersed myself in the Scottish brogue and wished I could visit the Highlands where so many of his adventures take place. But recently I began to wonder if I would still enjoy his books just as much. Would they appeal greatly to a wife and mother, one who has lived overseas and moved more times than she’d care to count? Or was it a passing teenage fling that would only cause me to laugh now?
I’m happy to report that diving back into George MacDonald’s stories has been a treat. My favorite characters are like old friends whom I’m enjoying becoming reacquainted with, but I appreciate their deep conversations in an entirely different way now than I did as a teenager. Characters and events stand out in ways they didn’t before. I’m re-reading some of the titles edited by Michael Phillips, as well as a few of the English novels in their original versions. And as I journey once more through the Scottish Highlands and English neighborhoods, I am quite sure I shall never get enough of George MacDonald!
Here are a few of MacDonald’s titles I’ve recently re-read and enjoyed…
Ranald Bannerman’s father is nowhere near perfect, yet his deep relationship with his sons struck me as beautiful. While he struggled with such challenges as a widowed single father would, he taught Ranald and his brothers about forgiveness, truthfulness, love, and bravery. And though Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood does not preach, the reader will also feel the need to ponder what the “right tune of a body’s life is,” how truly mighty men must draw their strength from God, and the need for confession and forgiveness. This book is also full of adventures of a young boy growing up on a farm, making it the perfect story for a young teen or tween.)
“Nobody does anything bad all at once. Wickedness needs an apprenticeship as well as more difficult trades.”
(George MacDonald in Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood)
Someday I’ll be like Kirsty–trusting, yet recognizing that not everyone is trustworthy; patient and kind, but willing to take a friend to task when he needs it; loving, to the point of fiercely fighting for the one I love; and content in life, while striving to do better and encourage those around me to do better. Heather and Snow (in the form of Michael Phillips’ The Peasant Girl’s Dream) was my favorite MacDonald book from the moment I read it as a teen, and rereading it as an adult confirmed its place in my heart. A large part of this is because of the heroine, Kirsty; there is much to be learned from watching Kirsty’s deep relationships with her brother and with Francis, the local laird. But it’s not just Kirsty that makes this book outstanding, as her brother’s struggle with reality and the wisdom of her parents in parenting them both also leave me with much to ponder.
“But in truth there was more expression in the flower than was yet in the face. The flower expressed what God was thinking of when He made it; the face, what the girl was thinking of her self. When she ceased thinking of herself, then, like the flower, she would show what God was thinking of when he made her.”
(George MacDonald in The Peasant Girl’s Dream edited by Michael Phillips)
Before he actually returns Home Again, Walter matures far beyond the heedless young man who first went to London. One of the lessons he learned stood out to me as something we all must learn. Walter had “fallen in love” with Lufa Tremaine, and upon first reading her poetry believes it is beyond heavenly. However, after writing a raving review for his newspaper column, Walter reads Lufa’s poetry book again and wonders where the good is that he originally thought he saw in her poetry. No matter, he chooses to publish the review, although it is not long before he regrets his misguided representation. This lesson of discernment when dealing with those we love (even when those we love are not as blatantly terrible as Lufa!) is one that can be hard, because it is sometimes easier to believe that a loved one is entirely good and their work is completely praiseworthy than that it is otherwise. I am thankful to MacDonald for the insight into discernment that Home Again gave me!
Alister and Ian Macruadh are not just brothers by birth, but also through a deep friendship. Their mutual love for others and joy in pondering God’s truth have drawn them together as kindred spirits. The brothers’ yearning to trust more in the Lord is in stark contrast to newcomers Christina and Mercy’s superficial lives. The sisters have been raised in a household where money and status are glorified, and where it is considered normal for men to drink to excess and women to flirt shamelessly. But the friendship that develops between the Macruadh brothers and Christina and Mercy begins to awaken the sisters from their shallow way of viewing–and living–life.Through the conversations of Alister and Ian, I, too, was encouraged to ponder life in a deeper and more meaningful way. The highlander brothers’ thirst for truth is inspiring and encouraging in a world where far too often what feels right is considered right.
“Fear is a wholesome element in the human economy; they are merely silly who would banish it from all association with religion. True, there is no religion in fear; religion is love, and love casts out fear; but until a man has love, it is well he should have fear.”
(George MacDonald in What’s Mine’s Mine)
The word “honesty” describes the theme of this book well, although multiple virtues could be used to explain Cosmo’s and his father’s battle against debt in their attempt to hold on to the family land. A godly innocence and perseverance to be above reproach are also seen through Cosmo’s interactions with the young women with whom he comes in contact. His fascination with and admiration of Lady Joan are portrayed in such a way as to make one wish that all teenage fellows would respect the young women in their lives even half as well as Cosmo did! After years apart, Lady Joan and Cosmo are once more together, and we again see this innocence in Cosmo, although this time tempered with the growing wisdom of a young man. When a fellow suitor for Lady Joan would have used Cosmo to further his own interests, Cosmo shrinks from encouraging something that he honestly doesn’t wish to happen. But instead of approaching Lady Joan with his own declaration of love, Cosmo sees that it may be for the best that Lady Joan marry someone else, and so he hastens to depart from that town. This self-sacrificing move, even as it was torturous, was also something that Cosmo knew was right and thus he did.
“Let death do what it can, there is just one thing it cannot destroy, and that is life. Never in itself, only in the unfaith of man, does life recognize any sway of death.”
(George MacDonald in Castle Warlock)
It is hard to put my finger on exactly how George MacDonald’s portrayal of romance is different than other Christian fiction I’ve read, but Castle Warlock is a prime example of that difference.
MacDonald’s descriptions of Cosmo’s admiration developing into love for Lady Joan flow deeper than mere “feelings.” Cosmo’s love for others (not only his love for Lady Joan but his love for his father, his tutor, and others) is shown throughout the book by his actions, but not meaningless, emotional actions such as tossing and turning all night long in agony of unrequited love. Cosmo’s selfless love is demonstrated through hard choices he must make, some of those which cause others to believe the worst of him, but which he knows are what God would have him to do.
This is not fiction that will cause a young person to pine after today’s definition of romantic love, awaiting the day when love at first sight will brighten their hearts. George MacDonald’s fiction is the kind of fiction that will encourage young men and women to walk in a manner worthy of their God, including seeking a mate who would honor God above all else.
Is there a fiction author who has had a profound influence on your life? What is a novel you would like your children to read? Is there a George MacDonald book you’ve enjoyed?
Photography: JenniMarie Photography