Sometimes referred to as the father of modern fantasy, George MacDonald was a prolific author who published fairytales, novels, poetry, works of theology and literary criticism. His friends included Lewis Carrol, John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice, Lady Byron, William Cowper-Temple, and several others, including those made during his US tour (1872-3), such as Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Dudley Warner, and others. His literary influence extends even further to authors such as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, W.H. Auden, Charles William, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
Considering his enormous impact on literature, it’s amazing how little attention MacDonald has received in the past century. This was one of the topics scholars came to the University of Aberdeen (MacDonald’s alma mater) to discuss at the latest George MacDonald Conference. From July 17th – 21st, attendees from all over the world—the UK, the USA, Canada, Taiwan, Australia, Sweden, Russia—came together to celebrate and promote further
scholarship on MacDonald and his works.
The conference was themed “MacDonald’s Scotland,” and the speakers discussed his writings in relation to his native roots. Check out the MacDonald Society Blog for my report on the conference trip to Huntley and conference reports from Sharin Shroeder (Taipei) and Caroline LaPlue (Aberystwyth).
My conference talk focused on MacDonald’s use of “Fairy land” in his novel Phantastes and the “region of seven dimensions” in Lilith to examine the ways in which MacDonald draws from Scottish faerie-faith. In both novels, the two protagonists, Anodos and Mr. Vane, enter otherworlds and undergo a conversion before returning to the normal world. Acknowledging this trope in literature, Northrop Frye, in The Anatomy of Criticism, calls this comedic device the “green world” and traces it to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and some of Shakespeare’s plays (like The Winter’s Tale and Midsummer Night’s Dream), in which “the action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world.” My thesis and project advisor at Bucknell, Alfred Siewers, traces this even further to Celtic mythology such as Immram Brain and the mythological cycle Tochmarc Étaíne (see “The Green Otherworld of Medieval Literature” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment). My talk attempts to shift the focus from MacDonald’s German influence to his native roots of Scotland to examine how landscape in MacDonald’s works functions under a Scottish, Christian-comedic context.