April 14, 2016

George MacDonald, a favorite author of Mrs. Browne

by Claudia Browne, RSSAA Grade 7 Class Teacher [March 20, 2016]

I was delighted when librarian Karen Totten asked me to write an article about George MacDonald, one of my favorite authors. She knew of my passion for his books and his philosophy, and that each year of my eight-year journey with each of the classes I have taught, I have read one of his stories to my students.  
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a man of multi-faceted depth — a controversial theologian (he rejected the traditional Calvinistic religious views of his day), a spiritual mystic, a poet, novelist and essayist, a highly successful lecturer, an actor, editor and fantasy writer (he would have made a great Waldorf teacher), as well as husband and a father of eleven children. He wrote over fifty books, thirty of them novels, which sold millions of copies though never bringing him wealth. These novels reflect the insights, both practical and profound, born out of a life of near poverty, poor health, and endured hardships, as well as spiritual triumphs.
MacDonald was re-introduced to the 20th century by C.S. Lewis known for the Narnia series, as well as other works, who credited MacDonald with his own spiritual awakening and conversion. Lewis states, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master.”  
Other renowned writers have voiced similar acknowledgements. G. K. Chesterton said of MacDonald, “If we test the matter of originality of attitude, George MacDonald was one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century.”  The poet W. H. Auden adds, “In his power ... to project his inner life into images which are valid for all, he is one of the most remarkable writers of the 19th century.” MacDonald was a mentor of Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and impacted other writers as well, notably J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the well-loved Lord of the Rings series. MacDonald counted as his friends John Ruskin and Mark Twain.  
Today, MacDonald is chiefly known for his fairy tales and stories for children. While my own introduction to his writing was a novel (Sir Gibbie, still my favorite), it is not, of course, how I begin to share his stories with students. The Princess and the Goblin is always my choice for first graders. It has all the components of a great fairy story — subtle but powerful magic, a heroic princess, hordes of goblins, and their “creatures,” and Curdie, the poor but heroic miner boy who has to be rescued by the Princess before he can rescue her.

Other favorite tales include The Lost Princess, Little Daylight, The Light Princess, and more esoteric, The Golden Key. There are other edited stories for older children, as well as a few youth editions of MacDonald’s adult novels, including Wee Sir Gibbie of the Highlands.
What is it that I cherish about this beloved storyteller of Scotland? Besides the stories themselves, I think it is his characters — their goodness, humility, striving:  heroes so unlike many today. They have taught me so much, and I love introducing students to these shining examples of upright human beings.  
MacDonald started out as a Congregational pastor, so it is no surprise to encounter some lengthy passages of worthy but “preachy” substance in his novels, and even in the children’s stories. These passages, quite typical of the Victorian era of abundant and drawn-out descriptions and philosophical insertions by the narrator or author, are easily shortened or omitted altogether as one sees fit, when reading to children. Also, unless one reads an edited edition, it might be quite a struggle to understand the Scots’ dialect!
The numbers of people who have heard of George MacDonald are not significant. A writer such as MacDonald will never have the mass appeal of many contemporary bestselling authors. MacDonald allows no casual readers. He always stretches you, persuades you to think, points your mind and emotions and sensitivities into previously unexplored regions. When people emerge from the experience of one of his books, they are changed. One can say, “This man has made a difference in my thinking.”
I leave you with this quote (from Paul Faber, Surgeon) in
The Wind From The Stars: Through the Year with George MacDonald, an anthology of quotes from his various writings:

“Love is the first comforter, and wherever love and truth speak, the love will be felt where the truth is never perceived. Love, indeed, is the highest of all truth; and the pressure of a hand, a kiss, the caress of a child, will do more to save, sometimes, than the wisest argument, even rightly understood. Love alone is wisdom, love alone is power; and where love seems to fail, it is where self has stepped between and dulled the potency of its rays.”


Claudia Browne, current 7th grade teacher (Class of 2021) at Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor Lower School, hails from Wisconsin and is a very proud Green Bay Packers fan. She has taught for 19 years at the Ann Arbor program, and finished 8th grade with the Classes of 2005, and 2013.

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