Be Careful What You Read… C.S. Lewis’ Literary Encounter with George MacDonald

Surprised by Joy by C.S. LewisPerhaps one of C.S. Lewis’ more famous—or infamous—quotations is this:

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (Surprised by Joy, 182).

Hidden in this 20th century tweet is the idea that serious study will bring an intelligent and engaged thinker to a belief in God. The pre-Christian Lewis, however, was besieged not just by the philosophical proofs for the existence of God, but by the spiritually infused worldviews of the writers he most admired.

“All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.” (Surprised by Joy, 201-202).

George MacDonald by Jeffrey of LondonThe chief offender was George MacDonald, the 19th century preacher and writer of faerie tales. In Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis shares the moment of his first encounter with MacDonald, when he was 18, just before WWI:

“Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a Faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—‘Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.’ That evening I began to read my new book.

“The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new” (170-171).

Phantastes by George MacDonald coverI’ve posted the March 7, 1916 letter to his boyhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis’ teenage version of the same moment. He tells much the same story of discovering “another author to add to our circle” in a “rather tired Everyman copy”:

“Have you read it? I suppose not, for if you had, you could not have helped telling me about it. At any rate, whatever the book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once.”

Lewis stayed with MacDonald through his 20s. On January 11, 1923, he writes in his diary:

“After this I read Macdonald’s Phantastes over my tea, which I have read many times and which I really believe fills for me the place of a devotional book. It tuned me up to a higher pitch and delighted me.”

The spell continues. On Aug 7, 1918, he says to Arthur, “In my present mood few things have pleased me more than Macdonald’s ‘The Goblin and the Princess.’” In a period of great uncertainty and financial pressure, Lewis “yielded to a long-treasured desire” and ordered Phantastes by George MacDonald with Lin CarterMacDonald’s Lilith (Aug 19, 1925), which he later re-read when he was feeling down (June 25, 1926). His letters are filled with joyous moments—where the phrase, “I read another MacDonald,” is a clue to a correspondent that his time is well spent.

I have read both The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and the Curdie (1883), and loved them both. Recently, I read through Phantastes for the first time, and except for the Cosmo Story-Within-a-Story, I am sad to say that I was not mystified by MacDonald’s Faerie Romance. It was a good story, but was not, for me, the threshold of the region of awe as it clearly was for Lewis.

But for Lewis, in any case, the siege was successful. The spell worked its way upon the victim in the end. By the close of the 1920s, Lewis had reluctantly accepted the idea of a God. As he worked through the Phantastes by George MacDonaldimplications of his theism and considered the case for Christianity, it is natural that he turned to George MacDonald, the one who carried him across the frontier in the first place. He connected the idea of conversion with death, linking St. Paul’s idea in Galatians and Romans with MacDonald’s idea. Indicative of this Emmaus Road reconsideration of MacDonald’s works is Lewis’ letter to Arthur on Sep 1, 1933:

“I have just re-read Lilith and am much clearer about the meaning.”

The letters of the 1930s—we have no journal from this period—are filled with references to MacDonald as Lewis is drawn deeper and deeper into the Christian story. And when he becomes a public figure, it is George MacDonald who is so frequently recommended in his correspondence. Goerge McDonald by CS Lewis anthologyOne of these letter friends, Mary Neylan, also became a Christian. Years later when C.S. Lewis created an anthology of MacDonald’s works, he dedicated it to Mary Neylan, who “got more out of him than anyone else to whom I introduced his books” (May 20, 1945).

Classically, Lewis wrote this of his first encounter with MacDonald: “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer” (Surprised by Joy 172).” It is not insignificant to note, though, how he finishes the chapter entitled “Check” in his spiritual autobiography:

“I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes” (Surprised by Joy 172).

Atheists really must be more careful in their reading.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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79 Responses to Be Careful What You Read… C.S. Lewis’ Literary Encounter with George MacDonald

  1. jubilare says:

    MacDonald, my favorite “chief offender.”


  2. tlchurcher says:

    I Love CS Lewis but I love George Macdonald much more. I first came to read GM when I was 8 years old but didn’t discover his adult books till I was about 20. I understand what CS Lewis meant when he said his imagination was baptised when he read Phantastes. I feel the same. I don’t think there has ever been a faery (as distinct from fairy) story like Phantastes or Lillith. Happy to add that I met my husband through our mutual love of George Macdonald.


    • Wow–a faery romance! Cool story. I’m slowly exploring MacDonald, and loved the Princess books.


    • Ryan says:

      I’ve just downloaded the complete works of George Macdonald on Kindle and was wondering which 3 of his works I should read first? Many thanks from South Africa.


      • Great question. If you like fantasy books, I would go like this:
        1. Princess & Goblin
        2. Princess & Curdie
        3. Phatastes
        4. Lillith
        5. Back of the North Wind
        If your interest is more about thought, philosophy, theology, then I would also read through Unspoken Sermons over time.


      • tlchurcher says:

        Hi Ryan! That’s a hard one. If you prefer fantasies, than maybe start with one of his more tamed ones like The Light Princess or The Golden Key or The Wise Woman or The Princess and the Goblin (which is a children’s book) or perhaps Adela Cathcart since that is a period novel containing a bunch of short stories being told. To me his greatest works are Lilith and Phantastes which I would save for last. I would love to hear how you get on with them!


  3. Reading MacDonald is like being baptized into another world, and often learning along the way what is truest in this one. Lilith’s clenched fist or Adam and Eve’s house shed images where preaching may not go easily.


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  7. The only MacDonald that I have read is Phantastes and it did not really work for me. Is there anything that you would recommend as a starter?


    • Me neither. I liked the Cosmo story a lot though. Perhaps I had expected too much.
      I loved the Princess books (+ Goblin & + Curdie)–both fun fairy tales. Next in line for most readers are Lilith and Back of the North Wind.


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  17. Lovely. It was George MacDonald my husband was quoting the first time I heard him speak, and I turned to my sister and said, “I’m going to marry that man.”

    Liked by 1 person

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  48. Hansen says:

    Please don’t assume atheists is a homogeneous mass that all think and feel the same. For me religion is like believing in Santa Claus or a flat world; either you do or you don’t. It’s not a choice or an opinion, it’s just the way it is. And no book can change that.


    • No, you are right. Not every atheist is open to intellectual exploration and the curiosity of possibilities. I was speaking here about those who don’t negate other worldviews through simplistic categories, but those for whom the intellectual pursuit is one of humble certainty critiqued in the face of evidence, experience, logic, and philosophical construct.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hansen says:

        Any examples? And if you plan to write a blog with a comments section, perhaps insulting those who actually leave a polite reply by insinuating they are less intelligent, simplistic and narrow minded without actually knowing the person, is not the best idea.


        • Why would it be insulting? You said yourself that you reduce religion to belief in Santa Clause or ancient disproved science and that you aren’t interested in exploring past that. I’m generally talking to people who live in the tension of possibilities, so there is some possibility that there is a God or truth beyond the measurable universe. Those are the atheists I tend to meet and there really isn’t a need to dialogue with those who are absolutely certain (as I don’t have a lot of dialogue with, say, Mormons or Muslims or fundamentalist Christians or whoever doesn’t put their faith to the test).

          Liked by 2 people

          • Hansen says:

            It’s about believing or not beliving. In that regard, religion can be compared to other assumptions about reality. And not believing, as in being an atheist, is not about choice.
            The topic here is that one can be convinced to believe in a certain religion during converstations with others or reading a book. Some may be, but far for everyone. And for those who don’t, it’s not because they are not intelligent, creative or open.
            I had a discussion with a Christian once, and he failed to explain what it was all about.
            (And once with a creationist who used the same old argument about apes and humans)


            • I agree about the intelligence bit. Atheists, doubters, agnostics, and post-religious folk are among the most important contributors to intellectual life in the last three centuries (and more recently creative endeavours too).
              As far as choice goes, I’m not so sure. You are talking about 90% of people in human history–more if you think of Marxism as a religious ideology or ideology that answers the same kinds of questions (as I am tempted to). The atheist privilege to say all others choose is not universally demonstrable.

              Liked by 2 people

          • I have to wonder if you know that I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m curious about your statement that we “Mormons” don’t put our faith to the test. We should talk. 🙂 ❤


            • Different use of the comma! As in, I don’t have a lot of dialogue with these several groups, not these groups defined as untesting faith.
              I actually used to live in Lethbridge, Alberta, which had about as many LDS as evangelicals. It is just north of Cardston, the first non-American LDS temple. Mormons were my neighbours, colleagues, and sometimes my students. Here, they are mostly bright-faced missionaries at the door!
              Sorry to send that message to you.

              Liked by 2 people

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  56. John Gough says:

    Hello, Brenton. I wonder if you can help with a George Macdonald quote. In my reading of Elizabeth Goudge, who held Macdonald very high in her esteem, I found, amongst other moments where she mentioned Macdonald, or quoted passages from “Phantastes”, or prayers, this puzzling expression: “the secret too great to be told”.
    Goudge mentions this in the Foreword to her A Book of Faith (1976). But so far I have been unable to identify which of George Macdonald’s works this comes from.


    • Hi Sorry, just a few weeks behind in my correspondence!
      I’ve done a search but haven’t found that quotation in my files or online. Could it be a slight misquotation?


      • John Gough says:

        Many thanks, Brenton. I am sure this is not a misquote by Elizabeth Goudge. Since asking you, I have bought three other Goudge books (her anthologies of Peace and Faith and Prayers: I already had her anthology of Comfort) and checked all citations of George Macdonald. Unfortunately, the Diary of Prayer that cites this quote of Macdonald (pp 12, 326) lacks any source, or acknowledgement. Goudge was an old woman when she made these four anthologies, and she was not scrupulous with her sources, unfortunately. I shall have to continue digital FIND in all the Gutenberg Project texts of Macdonald (there are about fifty!). Many thanks for trying, on my behalf. John

        On Wed, May 25, 2022 at 10:42 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

        > Brenton Dickieson commented: “Hi Sorry, just a few weeks behind in my > correspondence! I’ve done a search but haven’t found that quotation in my > files or online. Could it be a slight misquotation?” >

        Liked by 1 person

      • John Gough says:

        Oops! The Goudge anthology was actually “A Book of Faith”, not her “Diary of Prayer”. I have sent a query to which claims to be the main organisation dedicated to Macdonald. Maybe they have searchable archives, or quotes. With best wishes, as always, John


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