J.R.R. Tolkien VS. C.S. Lewis

on the merits of

George MacDonald

I read C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien voluntarily, but I would not have picked up, much less finished, a George MacDonald fantasy story had he not been assigned reading at University. I remained strangely fascinated with George long after completion of course requirements. He grew on me and I, like a young evangelist, tried to share him with more than one friend. No one finished the books I lent out. In fact, no one seemed to get past chapter one.

In early parenthood, having a captive audience, I attempted to spread the joy of MacDonald once again. I began a diligent bedtime reading of one of George’s short fantastical stories to my young daughters. I soon found my listeners lost interest in the plot unless I edited out Victorian anachronisms as we went along. In the process, I faced the fact that MacDonald was no wordsmith. Plus, he kept inserting, pell-mell, unreadable verse thinly disguised as lyrics.

It is arguable that Narnia would not exist without MacDonald’s groundbreaking work, for C.S. Lewis said he never wrote without quoting him. Some claim MacDonald lies just under the surface of many more modern-day fantasy works, but, except for a narrowing group of literary geeks, the audience for MacDonald himself shrinks.

While neither Tolkien nor Lewis ever met George, Lewis adored him and Tolkien abhorred him. I imagine a MacDonald-themed discussion between the two literary giants might begin as follows—

Lewis: “Tollers, I don’t think you fully appreciate our predecessor MacDonald. I’m not speaking of his skill with words, of course, but his particular patterning of events.”

Tolkien: “Jack, my friend, any man can borrow from faery and have moments of genius. MacDonald originated but a few memorable passages.”

L: “I do confess MacDonald’s craftsmanship is undistinguished, fumbling, floridly ornate, and over-sweet at times … ”

T: “At all times.”

L: “Tollers, the man baptized my imagination … ”

T: “Which is why you only got as far as Anglicanism.”

L: “I agree with you, and many other naysayers, that his poetry was bad but his creative vision was prolific.”

T: “MacDonald’s poetry would not sell so much as to buy a single jar of peanut butter for his inordinate number of children. As for his imagination— he borrowed Scottish faery, which is powerful enough to hold its own even in the hands of a bad writer.”

I will stop the dialogue here. Taken further it only goes downhill. The truth is, Tolkien has proved right in the long run. Personally I side with Lewis but if MacDonald stories are to regain mass appeal, they must be rebuilt from the ground up. That is my aim.

If I succeed in resurrecting MacDonald at all, it is in payment of a debt. MacDonald widened my world when it was narrowing to point of collapse. Now, with the release of In Light of the New Moon (with more to follow), I am hoping MacDonald gold can shine once again. Though I have jettisoned every one of his pithy poems, I have done my best to keep both him and his beautiful sense of faery very much alive.

A.J. Prufrock

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