In C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a strange account of a journey through purgatory, the narrator encounters the spirit of George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century fantasist. The narrator writes:
“I tried, trembling to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life.”
You can find this detail in Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis buys a copy of MacDonald’s Phantastes, and the book opens his mind to new worlds of reading.
The appearance of MacDonald in The Great Divorce is a tribute to both the man and the writer, but you can find other tributes to MacDonald elsewhere in Lewis’ books. In MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Irene, the little princess, sits bored in her nursery one rainy afternoon, and she climbs the stairs of the house to find her Great-Great-Grandmother living in the attic. The grandmother is a spiritual figure, who acts as Irene’s Gide and mentor as the princess journeys into the mines of the goblins.
Read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the morning the adventures of the wardrobe begin:
“But when next morning came, there was a steady rain falling, so thick that when you looked out of the window you could see neither the mountains nor the woods nor even the stream in the garden.”
Now, look at The Magician’s Nephew, and the beginning of Polly and Digory’s friendship:
“Their adventures began chiefly because it was one of the wettest and coldest summers there had been for years. That drove them to do indoor things: you might say, indoor exploration.”
These are only three examples of Lewis deliberately using George MacDonald. According to A. N. Wilson in The Man behind Narnia(2014), Lewis claimed he never wrote a book without quoting MacDonald. Wilson writes: “… the passages of the Narniastories which I have enjoyed are the bits which have done much better by MacDonald.”
Lewis owes much to this earlier fantasist, and when I think about the beginnings of British fantasy, I think of MacDonald. He is the true grandfather of British fantasy—not Lewis Carroll or Charles Kingsley. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has a place in the development of children’s fantasy, but the book is a different animal from that of The Princess and the Goblin.
In the words of Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, “There are Ents and Ents, you know; or Ents and things that look like Ents but ain’t, as you might say.” Alice is fantastical, and the book is filled with nonsense and the absurd; but fantasy, it ain’t. If you are looking to discover the roots of fantasy, then find yourself some George MacDonald—and enjoy.