I admire people who spend time mastering their craft. There is a woodworker in my building, nicknamed the “Urban Lumberjack,” who has spent nearly fifteen years refining his ability to carve wood. His interest in drawing at an early age led to years of studying art and design. Day after day in his shop–sawing, chiseling, shaping–he sharpens his understanding of the form and function of wood while delivering beautiful, handmade furniture to his clients.
C.S. Lewis, one of the most prolific Christian authors of the 20th century, is one the finest craftsmen I’ve ever known. His ability to translate complex and difficult ideas into matter-of-fact, common sense language is unmatched in modern times. I think it’s fair to say that he and his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, are two of the greatest storytellers our world has ever seen.
But every good artist steals, and Lewis is certainly no exception.
Without the influence of a 19th-century minister named George MacDonald, we may never have had classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, or even Alice in Wonderland. It was George MacDonald whom C.S. Lewis claimed as his master, saying, “I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”
So who is this MacDonald? And why have many never heard of him?
MacDonald the Mentor
George MacDonald was an author, poet, pastor who lived and preached in Scotland at the end of the 1800s. He and his wife were blessed with eleven children. When he was not in the pulpit or taking care of his kids, he was writing fantasy books. Though his work is not well-known to the general public today, he is regarded as the founding father of modern fantasy writing.
This title is well-deserved. MacDonald served as a mentor to Lewis Caroll, especially during the writing and publication of Alice in Wonderland. When asked what he thought about the story, MacDonald famously told Lewis Caroll that the ultimate test of the book’s success would be revealed when MacDonald’s wife read it to their children. His kids loved it, and the rest is history.
Many other fantasy and fiction writers would continue to pay homage to MacDonald, such as G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Yates, and even J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien would later confess that MacDonald’s goblins and talking trees may have influenced his depiction of the ents and orcs that run rampant through the Lord of the Rings.
Though C.S. Lewis would never meet MacDonald face-to-face in this life, he utilized what he learned from him in order to make the impossible possible. In The Great Divorce, Lewis encounters none other than George MacDonald, who then becomes Lewis’ guide and conversation partner through his tale of the afterlife (Chapter 9).
The Art of Myth-Making
Why was George MacDonald so revered by these incredibly gifted thinkers and writers? MacDonald’s lack of well-known works indicates that it was not his writing skill or literary accomplishments that made him a hero. Lewis would claim that, “Few of his [MacDonald’s] novels are good and none are very good.”
Instead, MacDonald was a master of myth-making. On this point, Lewis would say that MacDonald was the best myth-maker he had ever read: “Every now and then there occurs in the modern world–a Kafka or a Novalis–who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know.”
It was this artform, along with MacDonald’s attention to crafting it, that captivated Lewis and the rest of these well-known writers. Though many today wrongly equate myth with “false story,” these writers knew the classic understanding of this genre. Mythical stories communicate sublime truths about the human condition. They aren’t just entertaining tales we tell ourselves. In fact, it is not the tale or words used to communicate the myth that matter the most. Instead, the importance of myth lies in the pattern of events.
For MacDonald, Lewis, and other fantasy writers, myth is not just the telling of a good story, important though that is. Instead, Lewis would suggest that, “Myth does not essentially exist in words at all...It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”
The One True Myth
MacDonald’s Phantastes changed C.S. Lewis’ life. A few hours after reading it, he claimed that he had, “crossed a great frontier.” Phantastes is the story of a young man who is pulled into a dreamlike world and finds himself hunting for his ideal of female beauty. This strange work baptized the imagination of Lewis. It was the first time, unbeknownst to him, that he encountered Christianity. Myth became fact in the mind of Lewis and he couldn’t shake it:
“The quality that had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live.”
So what is this myth? What was it that Lewis and others admired so much in the work of MacDonald? What was the thing that tied it all together?
It was this: Divine Sonship.
Simply stated, it was that Jesus’ death and resurrection redeemed us and made us sons and daughters of God by adoption. We became, "sharers in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) the day Christ rose from the dead because we were united to Christ and brought into the family of our Father. As full inheritors of His kingdom, we truly are the children of God.
This good news is, after all, the underlying blueprint of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. In the story of Christ, myth is turned into historical fact. Without the work of George MacDonald, this would still be true. But thank God for MacDonald, who undeniably influenced the work of Lewis, Tolkien, and others, who have brought us their own captivating versions of this age old story.