George MacDonald and the English Romantics

The latest Children’s Literature and Youth Culture Colloquium (CLYCC) talk was given by Bill Gray on George MacDonald and the influence of English Romanticism on his writing, called “At the Back of George MacDonald: Romanticism, Fairy Tales and the ‘Redemptive Child'”. Most approaches, including my own, tend to be from the German Romantics whose agenda was partially concerned with the making of the post-Napoleonic German nation.

There are two strands of the English that come together for MacDonald. Firstly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw the numinous in children’s literature writing:

From my early reading of Faery Tales, Genii &c &c – my mind had been habituated to the Vast … Should children be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii? – I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative – I know of no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’, & ‘the Whole.

Coleridge was also a fan of the Arabian Nights so stands as a writer who understands and enjoys the fantastic, realising what it can give the reader. Not only joy but an appreciation of the wider world and could imagine it differently. William Wordsworth, in the Prelude, developed the idea of the innocent chid which William Blake had developed with the Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Also worth bearing in mind is the debate that children’s literature should either be education, therefore didactic, or entertainment (a debate which we appear to have come back to in the debate between Pullman against Lewis / J.K. Rowling).

MacDonald’s childhood reading was Bunyan, the Bible and Milton (which appear to have been staples for children as far my reading goes). Questioning Charles Lamb about what he should be reading, Lamb answered that, whilst the bookshop keeper could not reach the classics, “Mrs Barbauld‘s and Mrs Trimmer‘s nonsense lay in piles about” (Charles Lamb). Both Barbauld and Trimmer were adherents of the didactic school and the fantastic was being pushed aside by them and thus the child reader’s imagination was not being stimulated. MacDonald clearly read Mrs Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories which partally led to his thoughts concerning the afterlife of animals, adding to his dismissal from his ministry.

At the Back of the North Wind (serialised in 1868 and published bookform in 1871), the text which was mainly discussed,  was originally serialised in Good Words for the Young. In the book, Diamond inverts the relationship between the parent and child through his attention to the baby. The parent temporarily gives up drinking, reflecting the temperance movement, but the baby becomes the most important part by looking after them so echoing Wordsworth’s idea of the child being the father of man. Curdie extends this in the ‘Princess and Curdie’ books where he ultimately takes control of the Court and shows how it could be made better. Although the ending is one of collapse, there is a possible way to avoid it by following ther redemptive child but MacDonald is more subtle than Kingsley who somewhat bludgeons the reader with that idea in the Water Babies.

MacDonald also sets up another continuing debate, one that stems from readings of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The orthodox reading of the Fall, which C.S. Lewis subscribed to, is that the loss of innocence is a tragedy whereas radical readings see the Fall as a blessing, the felix culpa, which MacDonald and Pullman follow. Lewis discusses his feelings towards the fall in his novel, Perelandra (part of the Ransom trilogy) and Pullman goes into detail in His Dark Materials; both,  as Gray argues, misreading each other through the notion of misprision.

The talk had a great deal of subtleties which I have not fully explored here as they raised questions and made me rethink my own approaches to the early Golden age and various threads feeding into children’s fantasy. I do wonder if George MacDonald deserves a re-appraisal now for his influence of the Inklings, Pullman and bringing together of various strands ideas of Romanticisms, religion and literature.

Recommended Reading
The Complete Fairy Tales, George MacDonald (Penguin, London, 2000)

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