A most fascinating question. It is a query to which I have given much thought over the years. I am interested both as a writer and a Christian in precisely the two elements you highlight—MacDonald’s style and his theology.
In brief, I don’t see much evolution or development in either. As thoroughly as I have researched his life and writings and tried to analyze the ideas and writing technique reflected, say, in Unspoken Sermons, First Series (1867) and The Hope of the Gospel (1892)—separated by twenty-five years—or David Elginbrod (1863) and There and Back (1890)—twenty-seven years—I simply don’t find much to reveal a change of style or outlook. Remarkable as it seems, it appears to me that George MacDonald stepped onto the world stage as a spiritual and literary figure in the 1860s, still a relatively young man in his late 30s, as a mature and gifted writer and crafter of fiction, and as a thinker and theologian of profound wisdom, insight, and communication gifts. It seemed to be there, fully-formed, from the beginning.
In one sense, I’m sure this cannot be true. Everyone grows, changes, develops, and matures. MacDonald writes of human growth with the precision and insight that can only come from personal experience. The depth of his insight into human nature cannot have been formed in a vacuum. It must have grown as fruit from his own life’s tree. Doubtless those with greater expertise than mine in dissecting the details of MacDonald’s life, will be able to shed additional light on this. I would welcome such insight because, as I say, I have studied and been fascinated with MacDonald’s personal development as a man, as a Christian, and as a writer for years. I only offer the above observation as how the thing looks to me.
Perhaps my phrase “in the beginning” reveals the flaw in my analysis. By his late thirties, MacDonald wasn’t at the beginning of his life of growth at all. His growth into manhood had been in progress for thirty years by then. His struggles to make sense of life, doubtless precipitated at an earlier age than for many by the death of his mother, began early. In another sense, therefore, to speak of his “stature of manhood” being fully formed in his late thirties is perhaps not so remarkable. I only speak from my own experience. I recognize how many aspects of my own maturity were still in their infancy in my thirties, how much I still had to learn, how ill-formed and nebulous was much of my spiritual outlook, how many skills as a writer I still had to develop.
As you mention it in connection with yourself, what are your thoughts about MacDonald’s writing style itself?
As a writer speaking about another writer, I can make a few observations. There are few more intimate literary experiences (or challenges!) than trying to edit the words of another (words you hold in the highest honor) in such a way that, though changed, they still sound like their author, retaining his style, and conveying his intent, if anything, more succinctly and clearly than in the original. To edit while preserving an author’s feel, meaning, technique, and flavor is not as easy as it looks.
In carrying out this high calling with the works of MacDonald, I have been privileged to interact with wonderful intimacy, as I say, with MacDonald’s ideas and modes of expression, literally word by word, phrase by phrase. There are times that this connection, this intimacy, with his words and ideas becomes so close, so intense, that I almost feel him beside me speaking the words I see on the page.
Such an experience with another man’s heart and mind changes you. You cannot help getting inside him. The result over the years is that I have come to know MacDonald’s writing technique inside out. In no other way could I edit in such a way as to produce a result that still sounds like him—which is obviously my goal. Editing is clearly an inexact science, and I have not always done my job as perfectly as I might have hoped. Yet the experience has developed and matured my own writer’s craft more than anything else possibly could have.
After working with and studying and editing the writings of MacDonald now for over forty years, and as I say, knowing his style and modes of expression as well as I know my own, I simply find no variation in that style and writing craft throughout the three decades of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1890s. It is seamless. That is a remarkable fact to me because, as I mentioned before, when I look back over my own lifetime of work, I see dramatic differences, not only in what I wrote thirty years ago, also in how I wrote it. I suppose it’s a case of it takes one to know one—a writer will naturally analyze George MacDonald’s corpus differently than a non-writer, from the “inside,” as it were. When reading MacDonald’s ideas and stories on one level, on another deeper level I am also “reading” his style and technique and craft. I never read MacDonald as a literary critic. I read to discover his heart.
Of course one can see ebbs and flows in MacDonald’s career. The seven years between 1875 and 1882 (probably written between 1873 and 1880) are positively astonishing, the clear mountaintop (in my personal view) of his fictional output—producing the prodigious progression of titles: Malcolm, St. George and St. Michael, Thomas Wingfold Curate, The Marquis of Lossie, Castle Warlock, Donal Grant (his two longest novels back to back), and Weighed and Wanting. Who can write with such power, book after book, in a mere seven years…and longhand!
Of course every lover of MacDonald will have his or her favorite titles. Others may therefore point to other “high points” in MacDonald’s life which yielded their own particular most beloved books. But all in all, I think it is fair to say that MacDonald had developed his mature ideas, as well as his style, by his mid to late thirties and held them almost until the end of his life.
Inevitably, it is not difficult to see a decline at the end. Some of the later books are less complex and this could certainly be age related. But the most notable decline does not come until the very end, with MacDonald’s final book. My wife Judy’s favorite MacDonald novel, Salted With Fire, was published in 1897, featuring one of MacDonald’s most memorable characters, cobbler John MacLear. However, MacDonald’s final published work of the following year, Far Above Rubies (1898) is what someone adroitly called “a slender tale” (though I cannot now find the reference.) It clearly lacks the profundity and craft of his earlier writings. Even this, however, contains a few gems and I find it enormously interesting simply because it is the last work to flow from George MacDonald’s pen. Not only that, Far Above Rubies contains perhaps more autobiographical glimpses of MacDonald himself than most of his other books. In that sense, too, though a short and uncomplex book, it holds enormous interest. That is one of the reasons that we reprinted it in Leben, because it is so difficult to find. Curiously, MacDonald’s son Greville chooses to ignore this final book in his biography (George MacDonald and His Wife, 1924), and even omits it from the bibliographical listing of his father’s works. I assume that he must have been embarrassed by this final title, and pretended that his father’s career ended with the publication of Salted With Fire.
What about MacDonald’s theological ideas? Do you see the same thing there?
Leaving the craft and style of writing, yes, I do find a similar uniformity in MacDonald spiritual, or “theological” outlook spanning the decades of his adult life. We know that he grew out of the Calvinism of his boyhood and into the more expansive perspectives of his adulthood. Yet he gives us few glimpses of the actual process. They are at best hinted at in his writings and in the details of his biography. Most of these highlight turning points early in his life, such that, as I alluded to before, perhaps it is to be expected that he would have most of his life “issues” resolved by the years when his active writing began.
In the sermon Abba, Father! MacDonald writes: “When a heart hears…that it is not the child of God by origin, from the first of its being, but may possibly be adopted into his family, its love sinks at once in a cold faint: where is its own father?...To myself, in the morning of childhood, the evil doctrine was a mist through which the light came struggling, a cloud-phantom of repellent mien—requiring maturer thought and truer knowledge to dissipate it. But it requires neither much knowledge nor much insight to stand up against its hideousness; it needs but love that will not be denied, and courage to question the phantom.”
And from Weighed in Wanting: “I well remember feeling as a child that I did not care for God to love me if he did not love everybody: the kind of love I needed was love essential to my nature…the love therefore that all men needed, the love that belonged to their nature as the children of the Father, a love he could not give me except he gave it to all men.”
These are clear windows, however, briefly MacDonald opens them, into some of the regions where he grew and matured into the manhood of his wider and more expansive belief system.
And certainly in Robert Falconer we gain the most poignant image of his own boyhood, fictionally framed in the context of young Falconer’s strugglewith the stern Calvinism of his grandmother—precisely mirroring, we have only to imagine, George MacDonald’s formative years under his own grandmother’s wing after the death of his mother at eight.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from MacDonald as a writer is the emphasis he continually places on the inner personal development of his characters. It is one of the things MacDonald does best, and an example I have tried to emulate in my own writing. Obviously this emphasis stems from just such growth and development in MacDonald’s own life—growth which I must believe, though we see more evidence of it in his early years than later, must have continued all his life.
For that reason, when I embarked on my biography of MacDonald (George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller) my overarching motive was to unearth the man MacDonald as he struggled with issues, as he grew, learned, and changed. What were the forces that molded him, how did he respond to them, and then how did his expanding worldview and belief system emerge in later years in the wonderful corpus of his writings. Mere facts were not enough. What was the “inner story?” I hoped to reveal the man I felt I had come to know intimately through the years of studying and editing of his books. I called it an “interpretive” biography. MacDonald himself said no biography of him needed be written because what his life had to say was said in his books. I attempted to use the hidden autobiographical glimpses afforded in his books to paint a portrait of the inner man who had written them—George MacDonald himself.
Yet for the most part the world finds it more comfortable to dwell on externals—as we all of course do in assessing our own characters. It is infinitely easier to analyze the makeup and design and construction of a mirror than to heed what the mirror reveals about our deepest selves. Life’s inner stories will usually take a back seat in the world’s eyes to more easily-assimilated stories of external events. A friend of ours and a tireless MacDonald researcher whose work I admire has said that my book on MacDonald is not a “true biography.” My attempt to interpret and discover the hidden stories of growth and character and theological development in MacDonald’s life, in this individual’s opinion, disqualifies the scholarly credentials of my book. True biographies, in her view, deal in facts and leave it at that.
This is how many people look at things. We live in an era of appearances and external obsessions. The older I get, however, the less appearances interest me, and the more inward my focus becomes. I want to know what makes people tick. Therefore, for forty-five years I have been attempting to discover ever-increasing insight into the question, “What makes George MacDonald tick?”
And thus in my biography, if it is indeed a true “biography,” I devoted considerable space (chapters 4-9) to the theological component of the very question you posed, MacDonald’s “growth” into his belief system.
I highlighted MacDonald’s lengthy poem The Disciple as perhaps the most thoroughly autobiographical glimpse he gives us of his personal journey out of the religious tradition of his past. Having ridden the swinging pendulum from the rigid confines of Calvinism in his youth all the way in the opposite direction toward the liberal German theology which took hold of him during his university years, he was ready for that pendulum of belief to swing back to the center (approximately during the ages 18-20) and come to rest in the solid biblical middle ground where he could take his stand. The earlier doubts and explorations of his seeking heart had strengthened him. Having been tested to the depths, his faith was at last ready to send its roots down toward the bedrock from whence it could never again be shaken. The dedication to The Disciple speaks of the search to find the truth amidst the traditions that surround it: “To all who…would keep the grain, and cast the husk away--that it may feed the living seed...”
What follows, if we read between the lines, is powerfully illuminating of its author’s struggle to come to terms with the faith of his childhood. I wish I could quote the whole thing!
Please do! Any insight into what makes MacDonald tick, as you say, would be welcome.
All right…but without reproducing the entire poem!
Innocently MacDonald opens The Disciple with regret, almost shame, that he can no longer love the spiritual words proclaimed in pulpit, hymns, and solemn tradition. Though nature speaks to him, the church does not.
I do not care for singing psalms;
I tire of good men's talk;
To me there is no joy in palms,
Or white-robed, solemn walk.
I love to hear the wild winds meet,
The wild old winds at night;
To watch the cold stars flash and beat,
The feathery snow alight.
But for thy temple in the sky,
Its pillars strong and white--
I cannot love it, though I try,
And long with all my might.
He goes on to reveal his doubts, the lowness of his spirits, and the cry of his heart after God.
I read good books. My heart despairs.
In vain I try to dress
My soul in feelings like to theirs--
These men of holiness.
* * * * *
O hear me, God! O give me joy
Such as thy chosen feel;
Have pity on a wretched boy;
My heart is hard as steel.
* * * * *
One hopeless hope there yet may be
A God somewhere to hear;
The God to whom I bend my knee--
A God with open ear.
* * * * *
My books unopened long have lain;
In class I am all astray:
The questions growing in my brain,
Demand and have their way.
Recalling the faith of his own father, he vows to continue his quest in hopes of finding God at last.
Yet every night my father prayed,
Withdrawing from the throng!
Some answer must have come that made
His heart so high and strong!
Once more I'll seek the God of men,
Redeeming childhood's vow.--
--I failed with bitter weeping then,
And fail cold-hearted now!
The preacher says a Christian must
Do all the good he can:--
I must be noble, true, and just,
Because I am a man!
* * * * *
'Twere well my soul should cease to roam,
Should seek and have and hold!
It may be there is yet a home
In that religion old.
Again I kneel, again I pray:
Wilt though be God to me?
Wilt thou give ear to what I say,
And lift me up to thee?
He turns to the story of Jesus, feels His love, and at last recognizes his own sin that he must confess.
To Christ I needs must come, they say,
Who went to death for me:
I turn aside; I come, I pray,
My unknown God, to thee.
And as he bows before God, still not even knowing whether his prayer is heard, a silent peace creeps over him, and hope begins to dawn.
I kneel. But all my soul is dumb
With hopeless misery:
Is he a friend who will not come,
Whose face I must not see?
I do not think of broken laws,
Of judge's damning word;
My heart is all one ache, because
I call and am not heard.
Yet sometimes when the agony
Dies of its own excess,
A dew-like calm descends on me,
A shadow of tenderness;
A sense of bounty and of grace,
A cool air in my breast,
As if my soul were yet a place
Where peace might one day rest.
And when my heart with soft release
Grows calm as summer-sea,
Shall I not hope the God of peace
Hath laid his hand on me?
Then at last, when the longing of his heart after God has begun to be answered, he rises again in protest, as in Robert Falconer's memorable speech to his horrified grandmother, and refuses God's love if he is singled out from the many who are not chosen.
My heart would cry: But shares my race
In this great love of thine?
I pray, put me not in good case
Where others lack and pine.
Nor claim I thus a place above
Thy table's very foot;
'Tis only that I love no love
That springs not from the root;
That gives me not my being's claim;
That says not child to me;
That calls not all men by the name
Of children to His knee.
And from this great love of God's, shown to all men, he realizes how direct and personal is this love to him alone.
Art thou not each man's God--his own,
With secret words between,
As thou and he lived all alone,
Insphered in silence keen?
* * * * *
My story, too, thou knowest, God,
Is different from the rest;
Thou knowest--none but thee--the load
With which my heart is pressed.
Finally recognizing God's life within him, he ascends to the highest question of all: What does God want him to do?
What is his will?--that I may go
And do it, in the hope
That light will rise and spread and grow,
As deed enlarges scope.
I need not search the sacred book
To find my duty clear;
Scarce in my bosom need I look,
It lies so very near.
* * * * *
I am not worthy high things yet;
I'll humbly do my own;
Good care of sheep may so beget
A fitness for the throne.
* * * * *
And if I ponder what they call
The gospel of God's grace,
Through mists that slowly melt and fall
May dawn a human face.
* * * * *
Love was his very being's root,
And healing was its flower;
Love, human love, its stem and fruit,
Its gladness and its power.
* * * * *
I find his heart was all above;
Obedience his one thought;
Reposing in his father's love,
His father's will he sought.
* * * * *
Lord, thou hast much to make me yet--
Thy father's infant still:
Thy mind, Son, in my bosom set,
That I may grow thy will.
My soul with truth clothe all about,
And I shall question free:
The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt,
In that fear doubteth thee.
Amazing! What a personal portrait!
It is impossible to establish with certainty the precise stages of mind and heart George MacDonald went through during these years of his youth. But certainly this lengthy poem, and the impression gained from Robert Falconer's four years "in the desert," from Alec Forbes' and Hugh Sutherland's spiritual quests, gives a picture of progressive spiritual growth. George MacDonald's own awakening may also correspond with that of Thomas Wingfold, whose fictional quest began with serious doubt, which then gave way to a hope that expressed itself tentatively: “No, my hearers, I call not myself a Christian, but I call everyone here who obeys the word of Jesus, who restrains anger, who loves his enemies, who prays for his slanderers, to witness my vow, that I too will henceforth try to obey him, in the hope that he whom he called God and his Father will reveal to me him whom you call your Lord Jesus Christ, that into my darkness I may receive the light of the world!” (Thomas Wingfold, Curate, Ch. 31).
Personally, I find the inner turmoil of MacDonald’s late teen years as revealed in The Disciple perfectly understandable and normal. I understand it well because it mirrors my own development, which I have recounted in other places. What intrigues me more, however, as I’ve alluded to already, is that, emerging from this period, I do not see the continuing progression of growth that I would like to see. I’m not saying it is not there, only that I hunger to know more about the ongoing development of his ideas and his inner walk with God for the rest of his life. How dearly would I like to know more of the “inner story” behind, say, the writing of the sermons MacDonald published in 1867, 1885, 1889, and 1892. And yet they all seem to have been written, not merely by the same man but by a man at the same place in spiritual outlook.
In his poem “A Prayer,” presumably written in his later years, MacDonald writes: When I look back upon my life nigh spent…I more of follies than of sins repent. I suppose in a way this gives us another of those brief window-glimpses into MacDonald’s reflections about his own life. Many would also point to The Diary of an Old Soul in a similar vein (albeit that its selections were penned when MacDonald was in his early fifties, certainly far from “old.”)
I look back on my own life, my writing as well as my beliefs, my personal life and relationship, and I too more of follies than sins repent. But O how great were some of those follies! And I was certainly still far too folly-prone in my 40s, even my 50’s, nor am I immune to them now in my late 60s! To observe the breathtaking perspective, insight, wisdom, literary command, and spiritual depth evident from MacDonald’s earliest writings all the way through his career simply amazes me.
After all this, however, there remains an intriguing if somewhat puzzling incident out of his own biography to reflect on. What was apparently MacDonald’s first attempt at the art of fiction, penned probably in 1858 or 1859 when MacDonald was thirty-three or thirty-four, was a novel called Seekers and Finders. In it the character of Robert Falconer makes his first appearance. Of it Greville comments: “It was too metaphysical and argumentative to attract any publisher, in spite of much terse, epigrammatic writing…My brother Ronald and my best of friends…have read it, and with myself endorse its author’s decision that it had better remain unpublished.” Jointly the two sons decided to destroy the manuscript. (George MacDonald and His Wife, pp. 307, 319-20)
The incident clearly points to a period in MacDonald’s life, now hidden to us from view by the passage of years and this decision by his sons, when something less than mature writing craft was in evidence. Of it Greville comments, “The book is wholly consistent with its writer’s life-long convictions.” Yet this expunging from the historical record such potential blemishes on MacDonald’s “fully formed” artistic craft that might have been revealed by Seekers and Finders and that obviously concerned Greville in Far Above Rubies, unfortunately prevent us delving more deeply into the matter.