For those who have yet to read George MacDonald, the most natural question of all is “which of his books should I start with?”
It is a helpful question, because the default option for most is to read Phantastes, the first MacDonald that C S Lewis read—and this often proves a mis-step. What pleased the teenage Lewis, a young man who was “waist-deep in Romanticism,” is not guaranteed to please every one of his admirers, and this has the unfortunate effect of leaving many of us at a loss: we have tried what we think the most “obvious” MacDonald (Lewis, after all, said that Phantastes “baptised” his imagination, and told his best friend to drop whatever else he was working on and “get this at once”!) It is also the only MacDonald prominently alluded to in a popular Lewis work (Surprised by Joy) so if it fails to impact us as it impacted Lewis, where else should we turn?
My own answer, to keep things simple, is two-fold.
1) Fantasy-lovers may love Phantastes on their first try, and if not, I hope it wins them over in the end. But a far safer initial option, even for those whose preferences lie in this direction, is the children’s fairy-tale classic, The Princess and the Goblin. What few people know about this book is that Lewis gave the same advice, to the same friend, and almost in the same words, that he gave concerning Phantastes. Writing to Arthur Greeves on June 15th, 1930, the now adult Lewis said that he had read Goblin for “about the third time this spring” and instructed him to “read it at once if you have it.” The story was a lifelong favourite of Lewis’s, it had a very clear influence on his Chronicles of Narnia, and it is no less a “must-read” for adults than for children: those who have paid attention to detail in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength will remember that Jane Studdock borrows both The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel from the library at St. Anne’s as a result of her very first meeting with the director.
G K Chesterton was, if possible, even more fulsome than Lewis in his praise of Goblin, stating (in his introduction to the biography George MacDonald and his Wife) that it had “made a difference to my whole existence.” J R R Tolkien too admits a debt, writing in a 1954 letter that his goblins “owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition…especially how it appears in George MacDonald.”
Our edition of this hugely influential children’s masterpiece has an exclusive introduction by Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham, as well as the author/reader exchanges often omitted from modern editions of the story, and all the original illustrations by Arthur Hughes, who was to MacDonald’s fairy-tales what Pauline Baynes was to Lewis’s seven tales of Narnia.
FURTHER READING: The Princess and Curdie (the sequel to Goblin) and At the Back of the North Wind. Our editions of each of these books (all C S Lewis favourites) form part of a matching set, and all have new introductions by Douglas Gresham.
2) Although The Princess and the Goblin is recommended for all ages, it is naturally, due to its reading level, deemed a children’s book. A second recommendation, still for MacDonald beginners, but more specifically for adults, is the Christian classic Sir Gibbie. This is the most popular of MacDonald’s “realistic” novels, with arguably his most beloved hero, and it may well have had some influence on the writing of Huckleberry Finn (authored by MacDonald’s friend, Mark Twain.) Whether Gibbie is MacDonald’s best novel may be a matter of debate, but it was another lifelong favourite of Lewis’s (he became aware of it as a teenager, just after his discovery of Phantastes, and was still recommending it to his correspondents the year before his death) and it appeals to the widest range of readers. I can think of no other MacDonald work which has, like this one, an almost flawless record of success with those to whom it is recommended.
Our illustrated edition of Sir Gibbie is the only unabridged translation of the novel, allowing everyone to enjoy the very same story which Lewis loved, but without the linguistic difficulties (almost all of MacDonald’s Scottish novels contain broad Scots dialogue which tends to cause problems for international readers. Our “Scots/English” edition offers the best of both worlds, with the original dialogue preserved, and a full English translation running alongside.)
FURTHER READING: Donal Grant (the sequel to Gibbie) and What’s Mine’s Mine. C S Lewis described the latter as “the best of all [MacDonald’s] novels” (high praise indeed, since he wrote around thirty!) and our 2023 edition has an exclusive introduction by Douglas Gresham, a full cast of characters, and a preface by myself. Our Donal Grant, like Sir Gibbie, is fully illustrated, and is the only unabridged translation of the story.