“I’ve heard of it” is a perfectly true label in this case, because I had only heard of George MacDonald before picking up a copy of The Princess and the Goblin off our local used bookstore’s wonderful table of $2.50 novels (they’re all mass-market paperbacks, but by no means are they all bad paperbacks). I suspect a large portion of my readership is better acquainted with George MacDonald than me, since there were several volumes of his around our house that turned out to be a little too dense for me when I briefly picked them up around age ten.
I won’t belabor you, therefore, with a description of what his writing is like. Instead, I’ll talk about his place in the history of fantasy.
George MacDonald shows that, while Tolkien was genre-defining, he was by no means genre-establishing. In fact, some fantasy conventions associated with Tolkien were well-developed by MacDonald’s time, a good eighty years earlier. Fantasy exploded after Tolkien and the web of influence became much more complex, but the influence did not begin with him, because George MacDonald stood as a link between the beginnings of contemporary fantasy–J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis–and the fairy tales written down by Grimm and Anderson but stretching back into time immemorial.
The part of the genre that Tolkien really did establish was the fantasy novel as distinct from the fairy tale. Fairy tales needn’t be the one-page accounts we generally think of today (C.S. Lewis referred to the Chronicles of Narnia as fairy tales), but they are always relatively short, thematically simple, unembellished, and self-contained. The Princess and the Goblin doesn’t contain any long genealogies, histories, languages, or maps. They are irrelevant. Indeed, it doesn’t even answer every question it raises, nor should it. Mystery and wonder are central to fairy tales. Maps and such are quite relevant to The Lord of the Rings, because it’s an epic-scale work of fantasy and thus a different type of story.
Tolkien’s connection to George MacDonald can be seen much more clearly in his shorter works, the ones that can properly be called fairy tales rather than epic fantasy: Farmer Giles of Ham and especially Smith of Wooton Major. Simple storytelling runs through both; themes of beauty and mystery are predominant in the latter, and Smith‘s fey bear a striking similarity to the woman in the attic in The Princess and the Goblin. The Hobbit is an intermediate work between the two types of fantasy.
The presence of and need for a map makes an interesting litmus test for which sort of fantasy a story is. Narnia has no official map, and ones drawn by illustrators are unsatisfying. There is no need. There’s a wood and a lamp-post and a beavers’ dam and a witch’s house between two hills; where, precisely, these exist in relation to each other is irrelevant. In the later books, particularly The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, maps become more feasible and useful, but nevertheless they are not necessary, because the point is still to be swept along with the spectacle, rather than to create a detailed account of the precise mechanisms. Other contemporary fairy tales can be identified by the map test and the principles of simplicity and mystery: Lewis’ space trilogy (especially Perelandra), James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, and even My Father’s Dragon, which has a map but certainly doesn’t need one.
Alas, the fantasy market for both adults and, increasingly, children has turned almost entirely to epic fantasy rather than the short-and-sweet fairy tale. It’s a pity. The latter, as embodied by George MacDonald and those within his sphere of influence, has much to offer.
My copy of The Princess and the Goblin also happens to be illustrated by Pauline Baynes, another common thread connecting MacDonald, Lewis, and Tolkien, and one of the most discriminating illustrators in the world.