Robert Falconer: Excerpt from Michael Phillips' Introduction to the New Edition

Excerpts from:

An Introduction to a New Edition of Robert Falconer

Complete Original Text, with English Translations Side-by-Side all Scots Dialogue

By Michael Phillips
Author of George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller

            The day is one I will never forget.

                My wife Judy and I were in our first enthusiastic year of having discovered the writings of 19th century Scotsman George MacDonald (1824-1905), the man C.S. Lewis called his spiritual “master.”

                Our journey of discovery had only just begun. We had read but a handful of MacDonald’s fairy tales, the Curdie books, At the Back of the North Wind, The Wise Woman, and Elizabeth Yates’ wonderful edited edition of Sir Gibbie—all that was to be found in our local library. We had never seen one of the full-length realistic novels. Still more remote were MacDonald’s volumes of sermons, which Lewis credits as being so influential in his faith. They simply weren’t to be found. We had no idea whether any still existed. This was decades before the internet. The only way to find books was in libraries and bookstores.

                Planning a visit to my aging grandmother in Everett, Washington shortly after our marriage in 1971, we heard of a huge used bookstore in Seattle. On the day after our arrival, we made the pilgrimage to Shorey’s, this bookstore of bookstores. Dared we hope that we might unearth any MacDonald titles buried in the vaults of the past in this enormous literary Fort Knox?

                Merely walking through the doors set my skin tingling with expectancy. Being from a small town, the place was beyond anything I had ever seen. I was a boy walking into Disneyland!

                We went immediately to the “Fiction” section. Gaping at massive shelves from floor to ceiling, with books piled everywhere on the floor, we immediately realized that we were looking for needles in a hundred haystacks. Yet every book lover knows the delight of being thus overwhelmed. So we settled in for however long it took. If any MacDonald volumes were there, hidden in this vast depository filled with the musty aroma of dust, leather, paper, and sheer antiquity, we were determined to find them.     

                Scanning the spines and titles and author names in the section of “M” authors, however, yielded only disappointment. Over and over, back and forth, my eyes roved along the shelves. But no MacDonalds were to be seen.

               After some time, however, looking more closely, my eyes gradually noticed something. Behind the books I had been perusing were more books. The shelves were filled two rows deep! What met one’s eyes glancing over the outer titles amounted to merely half the titles on hand. A second entire floor-to-ceiling inventory was stacked behind it. Rows and rows of books, an entire phantom library, was hidden from view, completely unseen unless one removed the outer books to reveal them.

                With sudden renewed exhilaration for the hunt, I grabbed the spines of a few “M” novels, pulled them out, and peered into the dark chasm behind. Quickly I scanned the hidden spines, replaced the books in my hand, and moved along the row, then repeated the process...again.

                Then came the moment.

                Suddenly my eyes fell on the words “George MacDonald” engraved in gold on two old, dusty spines that had been hidden from view.

                I gasped, wide-eyed with anticipation.

                Reverently I reached forward, as if I had just discovered a long-lost treasure (as indeed I had!) and removed the two books. I sat down cross-legged on the floor, holding them as if a newborn infant had been placed in my hands. With gentle fingers I opened and began perusing them. No one opening a chest full of pearls and gold doubloons from a sunken Spanish galleon could have been quivering with more reverential excitement than I was in those moments.

                The first was a black Hurst and Blackett copy of Robert Falconer, the second a two-column Lippincott edition of The Marquis of Lossie, both from the 1870s. How could I know at that moment what a huge role these two books would play in my future—in conjunction with the Yates’ edition of Sir Gibbie—or that this discovery would eventually launch my career as an author, publisher, and novelist. At that moment, all I could think of was finding the right moment to dive in and begin reading.

                That adventure began when I started in on Robert Falconer that same evening in my grandmother’s house:

                 Robert Falconer, school-boy, aged fourteen, thought he had never seen his father; that is, thought he had no recollection of having ever seen him. But the moment when my story begins, he had begun to doubt whether his belief in the matter was correct. And, as he went on thinking, he became more and more assured that he had seen his father somewhere about six years before, as near as a thoughtful boy of his age could judge of the lapse of a period that would form half of that portion of his existence which was bound into one by the reticulations of memory...

          ...Not only is Robert Falconer dear to my heart because of that memorable day in Shorey’s; for more than a century it has universally been considered one of MacDonald’s most important works. The towering figure of Robert Falconer himself certainly shines out with singular stature in the gallery of MacDonald’s fictional characters. The book is also significant for the many windows it opens into MacDonald’s own life. MacDonald once said that no biography of him need be written, because whatever needed to be known about him could be found in his books. And none of his novels offers so many autobiographical glimpses of its author as does Robert Falconer. In its pages, we discover a moving portrayal of a pilgrimage of faith that began in earliest childhood in the 1820s and 1830s, and, we must assume from the writings that poured from his prolific pen, one that lasted through the decades and into the 1890s with the writing of Lilith and Salted with Fire and his final volume of sermons, The Hope of the Gospel. It is not going too far to say that we gain our most personal “inside glimpses” into the spiritual foundations that produced MacDonald’s transformational theology in the pages of Robert Falconer.

             ...The character of Robert Falconer first emerged many years before the actual publication of his story. He had appeared first as the central character in a play, then later in a novel adapted from the play—MacDonald’s first attempt at fiction writing. Neither effort was ever published. The character of MacDonald’s creation, however, had already taken such powerful hold on his author that the son born to George and wife Louisa in 1862 was named Robert Falconer MacDonald. Falconer then walks onto the pages of MacDonald’s first published novel, David Elginbrod (1863), as an important, though relatively minor character.

                When the character of Falconer at length finds his way into literary immortality with his own full book, he has developed in his author’s consciousness into a man of strength and integrity who is destined to touch all who cross his path. He is a man whose devotion to God has been forged in the furnace of doubt and question, enlarged by the quest for a higher Fatherhood than the doctrine of his youth, energized in the practicalities of life, and perfected through obedience and service to his kind.

                The story of Robert Falconer and his search for God as a loving Father is so profound and important that it deserves to be published and read in as many editions as possible. It is therefore with my heartiest best wishes, and my hope that this new edition will find a wide and enthusiastic audience, that on behalf of all who love MacDonald I express a profound debt of gratitude to Jess Lederman, its publisher, and David Jack, translator of the Doric.

Read Michael Phillips' full introduction in our new edition of Robert Falconer!