How Did George MacDonald Change Christian Literature?

How Did George MacDonald Change Christian Literature?

Many pastors write books, but few can say they wrote as much as George MacDonald. Along with his several years of pastoring (and various unspoken sermons he published later), MacDonald also wrote fairytales, poetry, and gave lectures on literary figures like Shakespeare. His work went on to influence many writers; in fact, some have called him the father of modern Christian fantasy.

George MacDonald's Life: The Condensed Version

This profile by Dan Graves gives a short look at MacDonald's life for readers of all ages:

"There was once a little princess whose father was king over a great country full of mountains and valleys. His palace was built upon one of the mountains, and was very grand and beautiful. The princess, whose name was Irene, was born there, but she was sent soon after her birth, because her mother was not very strong, to be brought up by country people in a large house, half castle, half farmhouse, on the side of another mountain, about half-way between its base and its peak."

That is the opening of George MacDonald's most famous book, The Princess and the Goblin, a nineteenth-century fairy tale. Like each of George MacDonald's fifty books, it is full of spiritual meaning. This is not surprising, for George was a Scottish clergyman.

He was born into a farming family at Huntley, West Aberdeenshire. That he had a gifted mind was obvious when he attended Aberdeen College, where he won prizes in chemistry and science. However, it was not science he pursued with his life, but the Christian faith. He became a Congregational pastor.

But George did not do well in the ministry. He did not have the kind of mind that could be squeezed into anyone else's theological mould and he veered from accepted dogma and doctrine. This led him to soaring beauties of faith. For example, speaking of the devil tempting Christ to turn a stone to bread, he could say, "The Lord could hunger, could starve, but would not change into another thing what his father had made one thing. If we shall regard the answer he gave the devil, we shall see the root of the matter at once: 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.' Yes, even by the word which made that stone a stone."

However, George also drifted into a view that his congregation (with most Christians through the ages), believed contradicted the Bible. He taught Universalism, the view that everyone will eventually be saved. His people chafed under such teaching. After three troubled years with his congregation, he resigned.

To earn a living, he became a writer. Once his imagination was let loose, he created some of the most original works of the nineteenth-century. Two outstanding Christian apologists of the twentieth-century acknowledged their debt to him. C. S. Lewis said, "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him." G. K. Chesterton wrote, "...I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence...Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin and is by George MacDonald..."

One can almost hear one of Chesterton's famous paradoxes in MacDonald's delightful lines:

"They were all looking for a king,

to slay their foes and lift them high;

thou cam'st a little baby thing

that made a woman cry." 

In addition to fairy tales, George wrote fantasy, novels, poems, and sermons. However, he barely made enough from his books to support his family. He was often dependent on the kindness of friends. Sickly all of his life, he found he did best in warm climates and built himself a home in Italy. However, he died on this day, September 18, 1905 not in sunny Italy, but in Ashstead, England.

His novels have been modernized (the originals often use Gaelic in their dialog). One of the best, Alec Forbes of Howglen has been reprinted as The Maiden's Bequest.


  1. Essays on C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald : truth, fiction, and the power of imagination; edited by Cynthia Marshall. Lewiston, NY, USA : E. Mellen Press, 1991.
  2. George MacDonald. Christian History Magazine, #86.
  3. Hein, Rolland. The Harmony Within: the spiritual vision of George MacDonald. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982.
  4. Kunitz, Stanley L. British Authors Before 1800; a biographical dictionary. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952.
  5. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London and New York: Penguin, 1996.
  6. ____________. Unspoken Sermons. London: Alexander Strahan, 1867.
  7. "MacDonald, George." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  8. "MacDonald, George." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1996.
  9. Phillips, Michael R., editor. The Maiden's Bequest. Adapted from George MacDonald's Alec Forbes of Howglen. Bethany House. Note: Michael R. Phillips has edited many MacDonald's novels for modern readers.
  10. Various encyclopedia and internet sites such as The Victorian Web

Last updated June, 2007.

("George MacDonald, Original Author" by Dan Graves, MSL, published on on April 28, 2010)

5 Inspiring George MacDonald Quotes

1. "To understand the words of our Lord is the business of life."

2. "With all sorts of doubts I am familiar, and the result of them is, has been, and will be, a widening of my heart and soul and mind to greater glories of the truth—the truth that is in Jesus..."

3. "What is the kingdom of Christ? A rule of love, of truth—a rule of service. The king is the chief servant in it."

4. "I can hardly say I have any fear, and but very little anxiety about the future. Did not Jesus say, Consider the lilies? We have only to do our work..."

5. "To understand the words of our Lord is the business of life. For it is the main road to the understanding of The Word himself. And to receive him is to receive the Father, and so to have Life in ourselves. And Life, the higher, the deeper, the simpler, the original, is the business of life."

(Excerpted from "30 Inspiring George MacDonald Quotes" by G. Connor Salter,

What Happened to George MacDonald's Children?

Seven of MacDonald's 11 children lived to be adults. As is often true in historical records, details about what happened to the daughters are harder to find. Charles Sepur has located much of the information that is available and made it available on The George MacDonald Informational Web. It is known that his daughter Lilia Scott (1852-91) aspired to be an actress, and his daughter Mary Josephine (1853-78) was engaged to artist Ted Hughes at the time she passed away.

Two of his sons went on to be writers:

Greville MacDonald (1856-1944) had effectively three careers: scholarship, medicine, and fiction. His primary job was as a doctor who specialized in throats, writing several treatises on better medical care. His most noted scholarship work was the biography George Macdonald and His Wife, the study The Sanity of William Blake, and introductions to new editions of his father's work. His fiction included various adventures and fantasy stories, including Jack & Jill, Billy Barnicoat, and The North Door.

Ronald MacDonald (1860-1933) published the nonfiction book From a Northern Window, A Personal Reminiscence of George MacDonald. He also wrote at least three novels by himself: The Sword of the King, Camilla Faversham, and The Sea Maid, and contributed to at least two plays (The Sword of the King, The Eleventh Hour). He also co-wrote two novels (The Spandau Quid, Ambrotox and Limping Dick) with his son Philip, where they used the pen name Oliver Fleming.

Ronald's son, Philip MacDonald (1900-1980), had a long career as a novelist and screenwriter. Like his contemporary Dorothy L. Sayers, he wrote detective stories, although he also wrote darker stories like Patrol that qualify as war stories or thrillers. While he wrote standalone mystery novels like Malice Domestic, many of his detective novels followed detective Anthony Gethryn (most readers recommend the first one, The Rasp). He also wrote under at least four pen names (Oliver Fleming, W.J. Stuart, Martin Porlock, and Anthony Lawless). He was credited as a screenwriter on over 15 movies (most famously, The Body Snatcher and Love from a Stranger), but also contributed to many other scripts. For example, he co-wrote an adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel Rebecca, which later writers used as a basis to write the 1940 movie Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

What Other Writers Did George MacDonald Know or Influence?

MacDonald had several famous friendships with writers like Mark Twain, John Ruskin, and Lewis Carroll. Because he was friends with Carroll, the MacDonald children heard Alice in Wonderland in its early draft form. He also contributed prefaces and introductions to several writers' works; for example, he wrote a preface in 1884 for Letters from Hell, a fantasy novel by minister Valdemar Adolph Thisted.

However, MacDonald is probably best-known today for influencing the Inklings, a group of British Christian writers who met regularly at Oxford during the 1930s-1940s. C.S. Lewis was the group's most famous member, and cited reading MacDonald's novel Phantastes as a key moment in his spiritual journey from atheism to Christianity. Charles Williams included one of MacDonald's poems when he edited an anthology A Book of Victorian Narrative Verse; Charles Franklyn Beach and others have seen parallels between his novel Descent into Hell and MacDonald's novel Lilith.

J.R.R. Tolkien discovered MacDonald at an even earlier age than Lewis, and Jason Fisher argues his style informed Tolkien's early stories written for his children, as well as polished works like The Hobbit. Later in life Tolkien gave less praise to MacDonald's work and downplayed how much influence MacDonald had on his fiction in some interviews. Holly Ordway and others have suggested that the fact Tolkien was so careful to distance himself from MacDonald suggests that Tolkien still felt strongly about MacDonald, even though his feelings had become more negative.

10 Great George MacDonald Books

The following gives a range of MacDonald's fiction from fantasy to sermons to Shakespeare scholarship.

1. At the Back of the North Wind.

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2. Within and Without: A Dramatic Poem.

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3. Phantastes.

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4. Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II, and III.

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5. The Princess and the Goblin.

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6. Sir Gibbie.

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7. The Princess and Curdie.

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8. Diary of an Old Soul.

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9. The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke.

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10. The Light Princess.

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Diary of an Old Soul is also available in a collection by Betty K. Aberlin, Diary of an Old Soul & The White Page Poems, where she pairs his poems with responses from her own work.