The Birth of Modern Fantastic Literature and the "King of the Fairies'" George MacDonald

10 December 1824, the Scottish minister and author George MacDonald was born in Huntly, Aberdeenshire.
"Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” (C.S. Lewis)

John Bell: "A Strange - Phantastes: A Faerie Romance",
illustration from MacDonald's iconic work (1894)  

The idea of spinning a fantastic yarn is probably almost as old as the developed languages themselves. The first written documents of humanity still available seldom get along without involving mythic elements, beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata to the Odyssey and the medieval romances. The motives of myths and legends along with a fascination for bygone things at large were enthusiastically apprehended by the early Romantics, especially in the German-speaking area and while the Brothers Grimm collected and recorded genuine folk tales, authors such as Novalis, Tieck and de la Motte-Fouqué told tales of fairies and spirits and castles and brave knights that are, by today’s standards, the basic repertoire of High Fantasy. But the actual beginning of modern fantastic literature is usually said to start with George MacDonald’s “Phantastes” and “Princess and the Goblin” at the end of the 1850, when the major poets of the Romantic Movement already were literary history.

George MacDonald with son Ronald (right) and daughter Mary (left) in 1864. Photograph by Lewis Carroll

It might have been the wish to escape the narrowness of his Scottish Calvinistic upbringing that brought young George to the Romantics and finally to develop his own fantastic surroundings. George MacDonald became a minister, nevertheless, even though he never felt comfortable with the more austere aspects of Calvinism. A pastor since 1850, MacDonald took up writing and published his first fantastic tale “Phantastes” eight years later. He had his literary breakthrough with a sentimental tale of the highlands, “David Elginbrod”, in 1863, without neglecting a certain mysticism and supernatural elements. MacDonald continued to publish more or less realistic fiction along with fantasy and soon became a friend as well as an influencer of many of the great representatives of Victorian literature, from Lewis Carroll to John Ruskin as well as the Americans Longfellow and Whitman. The success of his books enabled him to move with his large family to Italy, where he wrote most of his literary output. MacDonald died at the age of 81 in Surrey, his ashes were buried in his beloved Riviera dei Fiori in Liguria.

Religion, or Calvinistic Christianity according to MacDonald, remained a golden thread in his writings, with a strong dose of predestination and musings over crime, punishment, repentance and atonement. His persuasion is tangible in his fantastic tales and Kunstmärchen, literary fairy stories, as well, and it is hardly surprising that similar spirits like C.S. Lewis hailed his writings with enthusiasm. MacDonald’s merit in terms of fantastic literature certainly is his bridging function in the English-speaking world to translate the mindscape of the Romantics into the Age of the Novel in Victoria’s days, where his tales took root, flourished and influenced not only his contemporaries and Lewis but Tolkien as well as Chesterton and Auden – and remain readable to this day.

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