George MacDonald and His Work, by G.K. Chesterton

George MacDonald and His Work
G.K. Chesterton
June 11, 1901

Reprinted with the kind permission of John Flynn, from George MacDonald in the Pulpit, compiled by J. Joseph Flynn and David Edwards and published by Johannesen Printing and Publishing, 1996. 

   One by one the eminent novelists of the Victorian era are being born again to the democracy in the form of cheap editions, so that by this time the aspiring chimney-sweep could really buy the nucleus of a very good paper library for a few shillings. There is one novelist whom Messrs. Newnes have just noticed in his manner who is, unless I am mistaken, one of the most remarkable men of our time. Dr. George MacDonald will be discovered some day, as Blake, another man of genius, artistically faulty, has been discovered: until then he will be, like Blake, neglected, contemned, and quarried industriously by people who wish to borrow ideas. If to be a great man is to hold the universe in one’s head or heart, Dr. MacDonald is great. No man has carried about with him so naturally heroic an atmosphere. At one time he used to give performances of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” appearing himself as Great-heart; and the mere possibility of the thing is typical, for it would be possible with no other modern man. The idea of Matthew Arnold in spangled armour, of professor Huxley waving a sword before the footlights, would not impress us with unmixed gravity. But Dr. MacDonald seemed an elemental figure, a man unconnected with any particular age, a character in one of his own fairy tales, a true mystic to whom the supernatural was natural. 

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   Many religious writers have written allegories and fairy tales, which have gone to creating the universal conviction that there is nothing that shows so little spirituality as an allegory, and nothing that contains so little imagination as a fairy tale. But from all these Dr. MacDonald is separated by an abyss of profound originality of intention. The difference is that the ordinary moral fairy tale is an allegory of real life. Dr. MacDonald’s tales of real life are allegories, or disguised versions, of his fairy tales. It is not that he dresses up men and movements as knights and dragons, but that he thinks that knights and dragons, really existing in the eternal world, are dressed up here as men and movements. It is not the crown, the helmet, or the aureole that are to him the fancy dress; it is the top hat and the frock coat that are, as it were, the disguise of the terrestrial stage conspirators. His allegoric tales of gnomes and griffins do not lower a veil, but rend it. In one of those strange half-decipherable books, like the wild books of a prophet, which he has published in his old age, the hero is shown a glorious rose-bush, and told that it is standing in the same place as the piano in his drawing-room. To understand this idea is to understand George MacDonald, so long as we remember that it is not the rose-bush that is the symbol, but the piano. 

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   In the book with which Messrs. George Newnes have opened the cheap publication of Mr. MacDonald’s work, “the Marquis of Lossie,” this is clearly shown. It is not one of his best; artistically speaking, it teems with faults. But almost all the faults of this novel are the virtues of a fairy tale. The clearness of the ethical issue, the unclouded war of light against darkness, with no twilight or skepticism or timidity; the elemental sense of landscape and of man as the child of Nature, the stainless heroism of the heroes, the patent deformity of the evil characters; all this shows a spirit which looks out upon the world with the young and innocent and terrible eyes of Jack the Giant-Killer. Dr. MacDonald is far too good a poet to be a good novelist in the highest sense; for it is the glory of the novelist to look at humanity from a hundred standpoints: it is the glory of the poet to look at it from one. Dr. MacDonald sees the world bathed in one awful crimson of the divine love; he cannot look through the green spectacles of the cynic even for a moment. He can no more describe the cynic than Shelly could have described a Baptist grocer or Keats a city merchant. The fashionable scoundrels in Cr. MacDonald’s novel are not the inane, good-humored, automatic beasts of the field, as dignified and calm as cows, that such men really are. They are unintelligible, ugly creatures, like the dragons of a fairy tale, eating maidens from unearthly caprice. They exist to be fought, not studied. 

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   But the interesting point about “The Marquis of Lossie” is this, and it contains the whole secret of Dr. MacDonald’s work: It is the story of a young Scotch fisherman, who, in his impregnable simplicity and honour, goes up to a fashionable house in London, in order to rescue a fashionable lady (whom he knows to be his half-sister) from a disgraceful marriage deconvenance. The story, as I have said, is not told with anything like the full measure of Dr. MacDonald’s art; it is difficult to lay one’s finger on a single scene which is quite properly proportioned, which has not too much philosophy and too little psychology. Yet the whole story is as vivid and as tense as a detective story. We read it with a profound sense of something greatly exciting us, and we cannot tell what it is. Then it will all become clear to us if we happen to remember Dr. MacDonald’s magnificent fairy tale, “The Princess and Curdie.” That tells of a miner-boy, who, under the mysterious commands of a fairy grandmother, goes to save a king and a princess from the plots of a monstrous and evil city. Suddenly we realize that the two stories are the same, that one runs inside the other, and that the realistic novel is the shell and the fairy tale the kernel. All the awkwardness, all the digression, all the abruptness or slowness of incident, merely man that the hero longs to throw off the black hat an coat of Malcolm McPhail and declare himself as Curdie, the champion of the fairies. All of the excitement of the story lay in the fact that we knew that he was so. 

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   Dr. MacDonald enters fairyland like a citizen returning to his home. But though a genuine mystic and genuine Celt, he has not reappeared in the movement of Celtic mysticism which has taken place in our time, chiefly because of that singular idea which has taken possession of it, that it is the duty of a mystic to be melancholy. It will take them a century of two perhaps to realize the truth that Dr. MacDonald, I fancy, has always known, that melancholy is a frivolous thing compared with the seriousness of joy. Melancholy is negative, and has to do with the trivialities like death: joy is positive and has to answer for the renewal and perpetuation of being. Melancholy is irresponsible; it could watch the universe fall to pieces: joy is responsible and upholds the universe in the void of space. This conception of the vigilance of the universal Power fills all Dr. MacDonald’s novels with the unfathomable gravity of complete happiness, the gravity of a child at play. A curious glow pervades his books: the flowers seem like coloured flames broken loose from the flaming heart of the world: every bush of gorse is a burning bush, burning for the same cause as that of Moses. This sense of a perfect secret almost painfully kept by the universe is what shames the weariness of modern mystics. As if anyone who knew a secret could be weary. 

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There is another artistic matter in which Dr. MacDonald gave a profoundly original lead, and a lead which has never been followed. This was in his realization of the grotesque in the spiritual world. He has written children’s poems full of a kind of nocturnal anarchy, like farcical dreams. The Owl says:
    I can see the wind; now who can do that? 
    I can see the dreams that he has in his hat. 
    Who else can watch the Lady Moon sit
Hatching the boats and long-legged fowl
On her nest the sea, all night, but the Owl? 
These wild weddings of ideals have no priest that can join them, except the naked imagination. But the pint of Dr. MacDonald’s originality lies in this: that while other modern authors have written nonsense, he alone has written what may be called celestial nonsense. The world of “Alice in Wonderland” is one of purely intellectual folly: there are times, indeed, which must have come to any imaginative man, when he feels suddenly homeless and horror-stricken in the world of mathematical madness, when he feels unreason to be older and crueler than reason, and when he realizes, the deep truth that nothing on earthy is so desolate as unlimited levity. But Dr. MacDonald’s world of extravagance, where the moon hatches the ships and the oysters gape to sing, is penetrated through and through with a warmth of world-love, the cosmic comradery of the child. Even monsters are pets on that enormous nursery. 

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As I have said, Dr. MacDonald will not be discovered for some time to come. There are men and movements which the moment they have passed are at their very furthest from us, like some point of a wheel when it has just touched the ground. We live now among poets who cannot conceive of the universal power containing any larger feelings than their own: they cannot imagine, in the tremendous words of Dante, “the love that drives the sun and all the starts,” for the loves of which they write would not drive thistle down. But he great thought which Dr. MacDonald utters and leaves unuttered alike in a kind of fatalistic optimism will never wholly cease to haunt and attack us. At a hundred odd moments, in corked streets, in twilight fields, in lamp-lit drawing-rooms, there will come upon us the confounding, and yet comforting, notion that we and all our nationalistic philosophies are all in the heart of a fairy tale and playing an uncommonly silly part in it. 

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George MacDonald in the Pulpit may be purchased from Johannesen Printing and Publishing.