Inner Landscape outer man
IT IS A longstanding cliche among those in the George MacDonald Society that MacDonald (1824-1905) is an unjustly neglected writer and thinker. Linked to both the Victorian social reform movement and the Pre-Raphaelites, his work was read and admired by the distinguished writers of the day, including Lewis Carroll and John Ruskin.
But the mid-19th century was a time of prolific writers whose books, like those of Marie Corelti, were devoured by the public but quickly forgotten.
MacDonald almost suffered a similar fate but due to his unique vision, his best works endure and are likely to be more accessible to modern audiences than they were to those in the last century.
A Scot by birth he started out in life as a minister in the Congregational Church but was forced to resign over allegations that his views were not in accordance with the scriptures. Later he became a lay preacher hi the church of England.
His struggles to keep his wife and eleven children on his meagre earnings as a writer were assisted by the patronage of Lady Byron who was one of the first people to recognise his particular talent.
Indeed, as a visionary and radical religious thinker, MacDonald was often misunderstood by the Victorians who found him obscure.
It is true that MacDonald's message is not straightforward. His imagination conjured up strange worlds that are puzzling and sometimes bewildering.
Poetically, his main influence seems to have been Novalis, the German romantic poet. His belief that the heart was the key to life itself and all men and women are on a dreamlike journey home
wards, struck a deep chord with MacDonald.
Indeed, much of MacDonald's work takes up the theme of journeying through dreamlike worlds where common sense and the order of the natural world are turned inside out.
In Lilith, for example, Vane the hero, enters a dream
world through a mirror and like Dante's Virgil, embarks upon a personal quest of self discovery, travelling through ignorance and Hell to self knowledge and paradise.
Vane's life finally becomes a dream where he is left to wake into paradise itself. As Novalis put it "Our life is not a dream, but it should and will perhaps become one".
The dream-world in which Vane wanders owes much to the writings of Swedenborg.
Here, the relationship between spirit and matter has a mystical connection so that things of the spirit correspond to physical objects. Vane's thoughts act as a kind of prologue to the landscapes and people he encounters.
Here, the modern reader may well be reminded of Carl Gustav Jung's theory of syncronicity. Moreover, there seems little doubt that MacDonald's imagination had an important influence on major Christian writers of the 20th century.
This influence was particularly marked in the work of Charles Williams, an influential member, like CS Lewis and JIM Tolkein, of the Oxford-based group of medievalists, the "Inklings".
MacDonald's style could be overly sentimental and sometimes obscure. His fairy tales are not as pure as those of Andersen` and his novels do not engage emotionally in the. way that, say, Dickens's do.
MacDonald is essentially a visionary thinker and at its best his writing is challenging and unexpected. A radical departure from the style of the day is the way in which MacDonald seems to invite the reader to take an active role in the story and help shape its inner landscape.
For example, in his children's book At the Back of the North Wind, Diamond, the hero, is taken to a country at the back of the north wind. MacDonald writes: "I have now come to the most difficult part of my story. And why? Because I do not know enough about it".
Similarly, in Leith, Vane finds that words cannot begin to encompass the raw reality of experience: "I begin indeed to fear that it is an impossibility to tell what I cannot tell because no speech at my command will fit the forms in my mind".
MacDonald's work is full of the processes of change and transformation and his aim is to fuse the imagination of the reader with his own, so that the books become personal quests in themselves.
In addition, his notions of good and evil found little support in the established Anglican church for, like Blake, MacDonald believed that good and evil are inextricably bound up and that good will come out of evil evil being just another shape of good.
During his life, MacDonald wrote an impressive 26 novels, poetry and fairy stories but much of his time was spent preaching in the towns and villages of Victorian England.
In spite of the visionary importance of his writing, George Macdonald, in the spirit of his century, felt that this was what God had specifically intended for him to do.