George MacDonald, The Father of Modern Fantasy

George MacDonald is one of those Victorian authors whom people dislike, don’t understand, or simply have never heard of. I love The Princess and the Goblin, but try reading At the Back of the North Wind, which is Dickensian in its depiction of London, or The Princess and Curdie, which is a baffling and disturbing sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, written ten years after the first book. More baffling still are his fairy tales. These are not the beautifully written and finely drawn fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. MacDonald’s fairy tales can be dark, strange, and metaphorically jarring.

Here’s a passage from “The Golden Key” that will give you an idea:
“The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.”
MacDonald, George. “The Golden Key.”)

George MacDonald worked as a clergyman, but left the church to pursue writing full-time. He knew Charles Dodgson—yes, Lewis Carroll—and was a fan of the Alice books. People often think British fantasy for children gets its start with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But it doesn’t.
MacDonald is a father to British fantasy in the way that Daniel Defoe is the father to the survival story. Virtually every survival story, from Coral Island to Gilligan’s Island to Survivor, can be traced back to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. As for MacDonald, people may know about him, but they probably haven’t read his books, and they usually don’t know how profoundly this writer influenced the development of fantasy in the twentieth century, particularly for such writers as C. S. Lewis.
If you want to know more about MacDonald, his life and influence, check out this truly fabulous online exhibition,
George MacDonald: The Forgotten Father of Fantasy Fiction.
The canvas was created by Live Life Aberdeenshire in conjunction with the BBC. It includes prints, photographs, and everything you will ever want to know about MacDonald. Just remember to read one of his books as well.

C. S. Lewis on George MacDonald

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.