The Gospel in George MacDonald

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings edited by Marianne Wright, with selections from MacDonald’s work, with “appreciations by C S Lewis and G K Chesterton”.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth-century Scots writer who was popular in his own day, although now fairly obscure. His fantasy novel Lilith was recommended to students by revolutionary occultist Aleister Crowley, and MacDonald was cast as Virgil in the Dante-dream of Christian bigot and allegorical fantast C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Having read and enjoyed a couple of MacDonald’s book-length fantasies, I was intrigued by this title: The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings.

Receiving the book as an early reviewer copy, I was disappointed to find something very different from what I had imagined. It does not consist of chapter-length excerpts from MacDonald, with commentary on their theological significance. Instead, it has little snippets, from a sentence to a few pages in length, organized according to topics of inspirational substance. Very little here is drawn from MacDonald’s fantasies, which, if we are to believe his critics, are his best and most essential work, and there is none of his poetry. In addition to passages from his novels, there are excerpts from sermons and correspondence. Mindful of my duty as a reviewer, I managed to read the whole book. But it took a while, and I had to resort to the method of making it a prop for excremeditation. It has been in my bathroom for about six months.

If you think that MacDonald must have something special going on to appeal to both Crowley and Lewis, you’re right. I did find enjoyment, one way or another, in most of the content of this book. My eyes glazed over a bit when trying to follow some of the long dialogue passages written in Scottish dialect (although the more impenetrable expressions are glossed in footnotes). The sections on Work, Education, Moralism, and Resurrection have some of the excerpts I liked best, along with the terrific sermon passage on page 84, which the editor has categorized as on “The Boundlessness of Love,” and which genuinely approaches the Thelemic gnosis.

The book concludes with two “appreciations” by writers who were fans of MacDonald: G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Like the body of the book, each of these is stitched together from multiple published sources. I was sympathetic to Chesterton’s praise for MacDonald’s work, emphasizing its poetic and mystical qualities. I found it amusing, however, to see the Catholic convert Chesterton attempt to recruit posthumously the lifelong Presbyterian MacDonald (with his further heretical universalism) to his own church (313-14). My low opinion of Lewis, alas, was merely confirmed by what I read here, although it helped me to prioritize The Princess and the Goblin for my next reading in MacDonald’s oeuvre, whenever I might get to that.