Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
MacDonald, George

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(1824-1905) Scots author, poet, minister (briefly), lecturer and Christian apologist whose nonfantasy – including several novels – has generally not survived. In fantasy, though, GM was a remarkable innovator, adept in reproducing the strange logic of Dreams and in creating early versions of Secondary Worlds whose quality (in his admirer C S Lewis's phrase) "hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic". His literary influences included John Bunyan, E T A Hoffmann and the German romantic/mystic poet and novelist "Novalis" (Friedrich Leopold Hardenberg; 1772-1801).

GM's first prose work was Phantastes, A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858), whose uneven exuberance suggests an author revelling in the literary freedom of fantasy as he moved away from a strict Calvinist upbringing. The episodic story begins with a memorable dream-transition: the protagonist Anodos (Greek, "upward path") finds his mundane bedroom transforming to the outdoor woods of Faerie, inhabited by Dryads. After some twee observations of flower-Fairies, Anodos walks Into the Woods by moonlight and sees the shadow of the malign, invisible Ash-spirit's hand. He reasons that he can observe the spirit by lying in this shadow and looking towards the Moon: the resulting vision is horrid, but the episode reflects the sense that Faerie has self-consistent rules which may be explored and analysed. Thus, detecting a woman's shape trapped in a marble block (see Bondage) but unable to kiss her awake owing to intervening stone, Anodos sings her free (see Song). Later, wishing to join a magical dance whose dancers freeze into statuary at his mere thought of entering their room, he must discipline himself to act on random impulse.

Breaking another rule – that warnings and Prohibitions must be heeded – Anodos meets difficulties with Alder and Ash, and acquires an unwanted Shadow of his own which dulls the sense of wonder and may be responsible for his optically distorted Perception of a village's inhabitants. In a strange Library whose Books allow readers to experience the authors' or characters' feelings at first hand, he visits a tertiary world where women are armless but winged, and lives through an inset supernatural story revolving around the image of a woman inhabiting the reflected room behind a Mirror. Magic doorways open onto Anodos's revisited childhood and other sad times. He helps fight Giants and briefly rides out as a Knight in the classic mould, before his unworthiness is exposed by confrontation with the Doppelgänger who is his Shadow. Rescued by a woman whom he wronged under the Shadow's influence, he serves briefly as esquire to a better knight, and dies heroically exposing a religious Ritual that conceals the feeding of innocents to a wolf-like Monster. Though dead, Anodos relates his own burial and glimpse of Afterlife bliss before awakening on Earth ... where the easy "it was all a dream" is undermined when he learns he has been missing for weeks.

The rich variety of sometimes confused symbolism in Phantastes cannot and should not be tied down to any particular Allegory, though the Shadow is hardly enigmatic. GM concludes with the thoroughly Christian sentiment (see Christian Fantasy) that apparent Evil is merely a disguise for the best possible good (see Parody). Without the Shadow, there can be no getting free of the Shadow.

Several of GM's short fantasies appear in Adela Cathcart (coll with novel frame 1864; without inset stories 1882 USA), whose stories were collected with additions (including "The Golden Key") as Dealings with the Fairies (coll 1867; cut as The Light Princess, and Other Fairy Stories, 1890). Particularly striking is "The Golden Key", a deceptively lucid Allegory of travel from childhood dreams of the rainbow's end to, eventually, the high "country whence the shadows fall" (or of which things below are but shadows) – with haunting imagery and incidental inventions like rainbow-feathered "air-fish" eager to enter the cooking-pot and be transfigured. This is permeated with the sense of life as a Night Journey full of irrevocable choices: "You must throw yourself in. There is no other way."

Further stories of note include: "Tell Us a Story" (1863 Illustrated London News; vt "The Giant's Heart" in Dealing with the Fairies, coll 1867), his first story of genre interest – an enjoyably bloodthirsty romp whose giant-villain likes children ("forked radishes") raw, and believes he has hidden his heart in a safe place (see Koshchei); "The Shadows", depicting the Wainscot realm of living shadows acting as guardian angels; and "The Light Princess", which, though amusingly parodic of Fairytale conventions, indicates that the princess hilariously cursed at her christening with complete loss of gravity – both physical and emotional – is a hollow person until finally enabled to cry a little. This was adapted as The Light Princess (1985 tvm), a 56min live-action/animated movie.

At the Back of the North Wind (1871) was the first of GM's three popular Children's Fantasies. The boy Diamond is befriended by the North Wind – manifesting as a beautiful woman of widely variable stature (see Great and Small), compassionate yet implacable and duty-bound to sink ships, etc. Being alive only when blowing south, she cannot enter the magic country at her back but sits frozen on its North Pole doorstep – a Liminal Being through whom Diamond may pass. GM explains that this country is not the Hyperborea of Herodotus, but allusively identifies it with the "land of love" glimpsed in James Hogg's poem "Kilmeny" and with the Earthly Paradise of Dante's Purgatorio. (These references presumably escaped child readers of Good Words for the Young, the magazine – edited for a time by GM himself – which serialized this and The Princess and the Goblin.) Diamond's visit to this country lasts seven days, which for him seem many years (see Time in Faerie), while to his family he lies dangerously ill at home ... indicating the nature of the Threshold he did not fully cross. He emerges as a kind of holy Fool, sententiously doing good works amid Victorian London's underclasses. Perhaps sensing that the fantasy interest had here begun to flag, GM interposed Dream sequences (one with an interestingly Topsy-Turvy journey down an Underground staircase whose lower end emerges above the sky, where one can dig for stars) and a fairytale slightly resembling Sleeping Beauty. The book ends edifyingly with the still-young Diamond's unfearing death.

The Princess and the Goblin (1870-1871 Good Words for the Young; 1872) is set in a fairytale Otherworld with a generally medieval flavour. The Goblins are once-humans whose generations underground have caused ugly Debasement. Comically malicious rather than evil, they plan to kidnap the surface people's young Princess Irene as a spouse for their rebarbative prince. Curdie, a boy worker in the Mines, discovers the goblins' plans and their Achilles' Heel: despite invulnerable skulls they have tender feet, susceptible to being stamped on. Overseeing Irene's welfare is her claimed great-great-grandmother, one of the many ageless wise women in GM's fantasies. She provides a spider-silk thread which improves on Ariadne's by always leading Irene by the best route to the right place – including the heart of the goblin caves in order to rescue the captured Curdie, and then out again. When the goblin attack comes, Curdie's warnings go unheeded by the royal guards (his measured punishment for scepticism about the wise woman and the thread, neither of which he can perceive; see Perception). But the kidnap plan is frustrated in a welter of stamping on feet. The goblins' fall-back strategy is to destroy the human palace and mines by flood: thanks to Curdie's warning the waters are turned back by a buttress of masonry and it is the goblins who drown en masse. This novel was the basis of the Animated Movie The Princess and the Goblin (1992).

Years later, in The Princess and Curdie (1877 Good Things; dated 1883 but 1882), matters have gone somewhat to the bad. Curdie has grown morally slack and uses his bow to shoot a pigeon, an event momentarily as doom-laden as the Ancient Mariner's crime: the bird belongs to the wise woman, who, after trials of recognition, obedience and pain, forgives Curdie and sends him out as her agent; the last trial requires him to place his hands in a fire which is also roses, burning them clean (even of callouses) and granting the ability to sense others' dangerous spiritual Metamorphoses. Accompanied by a doglike Monster (which may be a debased human), Curdie travels as instructed to the capital city Gwyntystorm, which (with the decay of the good king's rule) is inhospitable and intolerant. Evil courtiers are weakening the king with poison disguised as medicine: Curdie and Irene soon end this, and clear out the palace with the gleefully described aid of 49 comic-grotesque monsters befriended by the "dog" en route. Invaders from an adjacent kingdom join the unpleasant townsfolk in a battle where Curdie's creatures and handful of human supporters are hopelessly outnumbered: the wise woman intervenes with flocks of pigeons which peck at, blind and eventually panic the opposition.

In The Princess and the Goblin, malevolent beings were all conveniently identifiable by ugliness. Contrariwise, it is a continuing theme of the sequel that appearances deceive, though not forever: "Fairest things turn foulest by their deeds." For its intended child audience the book is soured by misanthropy: decent human beings are rare, and the whole kingdom goes rotten again after Irene's and Curdie's brief Golden Age.

Lilith (1895; rev by excision of incidental verse 1924) is GM's second and last adult fantasy novel; more unified than Phantastes, it has a curious dreamlike intensity. Many pet tropes are revisited. Led by a raven, the narrator, Mr Vane, passes through a mirror Portal into a highly symbolic Otherworld where Adam and Eve (the former also being the raven, the latter yet another ageless woman) watch over the sleeping dead. Vane declines their hospitable offer of death and explores the dreamland: the Bad Burrow where grotesque monsters emerge from the soil but are impotent in moonlight, the Evil Wood, and a region beyond inhabited by "Little Ones" – eternal children with a distressing line in baby-talk – and "Bags", the dull adults which Little Ones may become through moral laziness. Lilith herself is glimpsed at intervals, appearing for example at a hallucinatory Dance of Death. A beautiful woman with a dark rot-spot on her side, whose drought has made this place a partial Waste Land, she is a Shapeshifter often seen as a spotted leopardess – preying on children in response to the Prophecy that a child will be her downfall (her own daughter Lona leads the Little Ones). Finding her temporarily stricken and withered by opposing magic, Vane incautiously nurses her to health and becomes unwitting prey to her Vampire traits. She rejects his advances; he follows her to the cruel, greedy City Bulika where she is princess. (Further complications are a white leopardess opposing the spotted one, and the Shadow which is Lilith's original corrupter, Satan.)

Though Vane learns to distrust Lilith, he forgets Adam's warning about obeying anyone not trusted, and is induced to climb a tree which abruptly becomes the high fountain-jet outside his own house (see Recognition): the whole journey must be done again. This time, actively rejecting Adam's advice, he leads the armed Little Ones against Bulika; the princess is captured but first kills Lona. Back at Adam's House of Death, Lilith is painfully redeemed and passes with Lona and the other children into the sleep of death, from which one awakens to eternity. After a ritual task which restores water to the dry land, Vane follows them; but his glimpse of Heaven gives way to an awakening in his own library.

Lilith is a powerfully mysterious book. However, its underlying cross-currents of sexual symbolism suggest that GM may not have been wholly in control of his material.

The author's influence has been acknowledged by J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, whose allegory The Great Divorce (1945 chap) features GM as Lewis's crusty spiritual mentor. GM was also highly regarded by Lewis Carroll, who lent him the original MS of Alice in Wonderland and asked his opinion on publication; GM duly read it to his children, who were rapturous.

Even in his best work GM was prone to routine Victorian sentimentality, but his potent gift of "dream realism", and his ability to elaborate moral or religious Allegory into a larger subcreation which resists simple allegorical decoding, make him a landmark figure of pre-Genre Fantasy and especially of Christian Fantasy. [DRL]

other works: The Portent: A Story of the Inner Vision of the Highlanders, Commonly Called the Second Sight (1864; vt Lady of the Mansion 1983 US); Cross Purposes, and The Shadows: Two Fairy Stories (coll 1890); The Wise Woman: A Parable (1875; vt A Double Story 1876 US; vt Princess Rosamund US; vt The Lost Princess, or The Wise Woman 1895 UK); The Gifts of the Child Christ (coll 1882 2 vols; 1 vol vt Stephen Archer and Other Tales 1882/3); The Flight of the Shadow (1891); The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald (coll 1904 5 vols) ed Greville Macdonald; The Portent and Other Stories (coll 1924); The Visionary Novels of George MacDonald: Lilith; Phantastes (omni 1954 US; vt Phantastes; and Lilith 1962 UK); The Complete Fairy Stories of GM (coll 1962 US); The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for the Childlike (coll 1973 2 vols US) ed Glenn Edward Sadler; At the Back of the North Wind; The Princess and the Goblin; The Princess and Curdie (omni 1979); a 4-vol set of the short fantasy as The Golden Key and Other Fantasy Stories (coll 1980), The Gray Wolf and Other Fantasy Stories (1980), The Light Princess and Other Fantasy Stories (coll 1980), The Wise Woman and Other Fantasy Stories (coll 1980); The Gold Key and the Green Life (anth 1986), mixing stories by GM and Fiona MacLeod; The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1988 chap); The Light Princess * (1988 chap), "adapted" by Robin McKinley; Little Daylight (1988 chap), inset fairytale from At the Back of the North Wind.

further reading: George MacDonald and His Wife (coll 1924) by Greville Macdonald (GM's son).

George MacDonald


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.