As much as C. S. Lewis professed a debt to George MacDonald, he says (somewhere), “Few of his novels are good and none is very good.” I know that my reading project centers on the “Great Books,” but I also enjoy visiting satellites of those marvelous lights. I have Tom Clancy on my list for this year, after all! So maybe I could be allowed to write today on a nineteenth-century author whose novels aren’t “very good.”
Last year, I didn’t say anything about MacDonald, because I thought the book I read then, Malcolm, didn’t even rise to the level of “not very good.” Part of it had to do with the nearly total lack of the Wise Christian Teacher who so often features in MacDonald’s novels, a void replaced by a soap opera involving a marquis and his brother (who was also the marquis at some point), wives possibly dead and possibly alive (which makes for possible bigamy), the question of which character is whose child, the question whether two of these younger characters with a possibly budding mutual attraction might be siblings (Hello, Luke and Leia!), and the further question whether such children are legitimate – the last point depending on whether a certain wife was dead or alive when . . . . Oh, it’s all too confusing.
It’s not enough that the potboiler’s pot boileth over. Most of the answers to the mysteries of the plot are given by characters speaking in Scottish dialect. Now I’ve read enough MacDonald to have a good familiarity with the language of his rustic Scottish characters, but here we have a character, a piper, with a stranger than usual patois, a linguistic idiom whose origin I can’t explain. This piper might say, “She’ll pe seein’ a’,” when he means, “I see everything.” Among his quirks, he uses she for the first-person singular pronoun, future continuous verb constructions for all tenses, and voiceless consonants for all stopped consonants: p for b, t for d, etc. Add to this confusion the fact that the piper is blind and yet talks about seeing things, and I found myself almost always in the middle of the North Sea when he spoke. So why, oh, why did MacDonald place the solution to the main conundrum of the wives in the mouth of this piper?
Today, on the other hand, I finished reading The Marquis of Lossie, the sequel to Malcolm, and I’m ready to say that the joy I had in the end was worth all the confusion of the first book in the dilogy. (Dilogy? Really?) I got not just one Wise Christian Teacher, but two. I also found a nineteenth-century female character not defined simply by her degree of chastity in relation to men but by her philosophical doubts and struggles. I enjoyed a plot set mostly in London, where Malcolm did his best to speak the Queen’s. And I faced many needed challenges to my complacent Christianity, which is really why I read MacDonald. Just one example: Which is worse, to doubt the existence of God, or, believing He exists, to doubt his importance to every moment in life?
Before I sign off, a word about the 1980s editions of MacDonald novels “retold for modern readers,” complete with new titles and covers that make them look like today’s Christian romances. Of course, I’m reading MacDonald’s original versions, but I don’t look down my nose at these reworkings. I read my first MacDonald novel in a book club that used the updated, abbreviated version, and I’ll always be grateful for that introduction. Editor Michael R. Phillips, knowing his audience, shortened the books and toned down their Scots vocabulary considerably. But by doing so, he introduced a new generation to stories with lessons deeper than any found elsewhere in their section of the Zondervan Christian bookstore, even if MacDonald’s spiritual pupil, Lewis, thought the books weren’t “very good.”