Many Christians highly esteem the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
But did you know one of the great influences on both Lewis and Tolkien was an author named George MacDonald?
MacDonald in many ways founded the modern tradition of well-developed Christian fiction.
And his works influenced many in his day and for centuries thereafter – and even today.
MacDonald was called the “Master” of Christian fiction by C.S. Lewis, particularly for his fantasy novels.
This is no surprise since George MacDonald devoted many decades to honing his craft, writing over 50 Victorian-like novels, as well as many fantasy works, sermons, and other writings.
MacDonald’s mastery over syntax, ability to create complex characters, and overall attitude of grace towards each element of fiction in his books made for compelling, if not at times ambiguous, tales.
In his collection of essays, A Dish of Orts, MacDonald writes on “The Fantastic Imagination,” positing that there is not only one set message to be communicated through a work of fiction.
Words, to MacDonald, were not merely meant to convey pure fact, but rather, “Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends.”
To MacDonald, to write a book was to birth something creative and mysterious. Each word chosen was as one of many “things to put together like the pieces of a dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave.”
MacDonald’s high regard for the art form of creative writing shone through in each of his works and was exemplified in his detailed descriptions in Phantastes:
“The trees, which were far apart where I entered, giving free passage to the level rays of the sun, closed rapidly as I advanced, so that ere long their crowded stems barred the sunlight out, forming as it were a thick grating between me and the East. I seemed to be advancing towards a second midnight. In the midst of the intervening twilight, however, before I entered what appeared to be the darkest portion of the forest, I saw a country maiden coming towards me from its very depths.”
Throughout Phantastes, along with his other fantastical works, MacDonald waxes eloquently on his description both of the external world which his characters are experiencing, as well as their internal worlds.
It is no different in his Victorian novels, which are more straightforward in terms of their style, but equally as enchanting in their prose.
The reader is offered insights into the internal world of a preacher for a parish in a small village in MacDonald’s A Quiet Neighborhood:
“I had stood with as much self-possession as I could muster, and I believe I should have borne it all quietly but for the last word. If there is one epithet I hate more than another, it is that execrable word cloth used for the office of a clergyman.”
Overall, MacDonald sought to create a world wherein his reader would be enticed by the impressions made through the language and beauty of the story he was telling. He found the impression to be what was most important and not an Aesop’s fable-type of moral.
It is through such impressions that the reader stumbles upon truth in a natural sense. MacDonald brings this point to light in his unspoken sermon on The Truth:
“Ask a man of mere science, what is the truth of a flower: he will pull it to pieces, show you its parts, explain how they operate, how they minister each to the life of the flower; he will tell you what changes are wrought in it by scientific cultivation; where it lives originally, where it can live; the effects upon it of another climate; what part the insects bear in its varieties — and doubtless many more facts about it. Ask the poet what is the truth of the flower, and he will answer: ‘Why, the flower itself, the perfect flower, and what it cannot help saying to him who has ears to hear it.’ The truth of the flower is, not the facts about it, be they correct as ideal science itself, but the shining, glowing, gladdening, patient thing throned on its stalk — the compeller of smile and tear from child and prophet.”
MacDonald was the master, then, because he was able to create beautiful written works of art, such as Da Vinci or Michelangelo created masterpieces of visual art. He was also a master because he could convey God’s truth indirectly, ministering to the soul of his reader.
Though many of MacDonald’s works are out of print, they are available online. His works, along with many other Christian authors, deserve to be read, enjoyed, and shared.
Furthermore, the world could use some brave new pioneers in the realm of Christian fiction. We need modern George MacDonalds who are willing to study the craft of writing great books and telling stories artfully, where truth is interwoven and awakens something within the reader.
Literature remains a force to reach the world with truth.
The door is open for those who would walk through it.