Fairy Tales by George MacDonald (1871)

The Cloud Tellers by by Josephine R. Unglaub

C.S. Lewis

“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.”…“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 … It was Holiness. It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side.”…“It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity—something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge.”

It is difficult to overstate the influence of George MacDonald.  In his own day he was hailed as a visionary, befriended by the likes of Mark Twain and sought after by royalty.  Queen Victoria gave MacDonald’s novels to her grandchildren and granted him a Civil Pension in 1877.  The impact of his work grew stronger after his death, notably contributing to the conversion of C.S. Lewis.  He was a master of story-craft and his complex imagination yielded literature textured with layer upon layer of meaning in the fabric of simplicity.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

We should, however, be careful about working too hard at any exact interpretation of these stories. MacDonald himself resisted giving any explanations, and when asked what one of them meant, he tersely replied, “So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up and bark for him.”1 He left the stories to speak for themselves. And they do not speak to us as allegories or intellectual puzzles aimed at the mind but rather as mythic tales aimed at the heart. They are meant to show us truths that do not easily reduce to rational explanations and provoke a more intuitive response from the reader. There are layers of meanings at work here, all of them valid: physical, spiritual, mythical, and psychological. Each of these layers interpenetrate and illuminate each other, which is why these stories are not so much meant to illustrate theological truths as to help us find our way into a different way of experiencing these truths.

MacDonald projected his own inner life into his stories to make them feel universal, a reflection of our own personal stories. His words arouse our dormant longings for truth and goodness as we journey with his young protagonists on their paths through danger and discovery and miracle. Alongside these young heroes and heroines we meet supernatural beings and find familiarity and friendship with these residents of a realm beyond our own. MacDonald’s tales are not unlike dreams, mixing all their disparate elements together into something that creates an impression and a feeling rather than simply communicating an idea.

Has your life been shaped by fairy tales?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

George MacDonald

George MacDonald

(1824–1905), Scottish novelist and poet. Educated at the University of Aberdeen and at Highbury College, London, he became a *Congregational minister, but in 1853 left the ministry to devote himself to literature. His writings, largely based on the life and customs of NE Scotland, include the novels David Elginbrod (1863), Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865), Malcolm (1875), and Donal Grant (3 vols., 1883). MacDonald’s books, which were highly valued by C. S. *Lewis, reveal firm religious faith, moral enthusiasm, and Christian optimism. He was also the author of several religious works, including Unspoken Sermons (1867, 1885, 1889) and The Miracles of our Lord (1886).

Unraveling Phantastes

Ever since C. S. Lewis penned his autobiography, there have been readers—even Lewis scholars—mystified by Phantastes. Compelled to read the book that Lewis said “most shaped my philosophy of life,” and “baptized my imagination,” they pick it up, get bogged down within pages, and put it down. Permanently.

Some find that if they begin with MacDonald’s children’s books, read a few fairy tales, then try a novel along the lines of Sir Gibbie or Alec Forbes, by the time they return to Phantastes they are much better equipped. But perhaps the best key is understanding the historical context: the relationship between a reader and a text has changed considerably since the early Victorian period.

Few early Victorians were privileged enough to own many books, and a book was not simply read once and set aside. It was read and reread, the reader engaging with the text ever more deeply, each reading revealing new connections and presenting yet another journey. It was only during the lifetime of MacDonald, with the advent of penny novels and lending libraries and the popularity of magazines and serializations, that this approach to reading significantly changed. Phantastes, like all books before it, expects a long-term relationship with the reader.

It is helpful when reading Phantastes to follow one theme that is noticeable early on in the tale … what it means to “die to oneself,” for instance. As this unfolds, other interwoven themes become evident, providing the next thread for the next read. The more one reads MacDonald, the more familiar one becomes with his primary themes, and the easier it is to follow their relations to each other, as well as to the books alluded to in the tale.

MacDonald points to these books not only to introduce them—he is also inviting the reader into a deeper conversation. As one reads the other books mentioned and then returns to MacDonald, suddenly one is part of a conversation that has been going on since God’s first story. MacDonald is responding to Tennyson responding to Blake responding to Dante, who in turn is responding to John responding to Christ, who is reminding us of the words of Isaiah, or the Psalms, or Moses. This conversation between texts is part of the Christian heritage, part of understanding who we are and who God is.

The episodic nature of Phantastes is sometimes off-putting to contemporary readers, and yet this structure is part of MacDonald’s effort to help the reader understand just how important that tradition of literary conversation can be. The 21-year-old protagonist Anodos is drawn into the realm of stories, Fairy Land, so that he may discover his own true identity. His education thus far has inspired “nobleness of thought, [but] not of deed,” and his understanding of love is selfishly immature. Each separate episode he enters is a story that slowly shapes and changes him.

Anodos learns not only from acting in these stories but also from reading them—his new education begins with books of “Fairy Land, and olden times, and the knights of King Arthur’s table.” As his journey continues he is drawn into drama, poetry, songs, dreams, dance, pictures, memories. And in these, he realizes, he is “the chief actor therein … for I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine.” As the stories conclude and he awakes “to the consciousness” of his present life, he realizes that he has changed as a result—that he was, in fact, vicariously “buried and risen again in these old books.”

When Phantastes ends, a matured Anodos returns to his family and home “somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question.” Not only the question for Anodos, but the one MacDonald places firmly before his readers.

C. S. Lewis wrote that a first read reveals the plot and characters; it is in the experience of rereading that we find wisdom and strength. But be forewarned; rereading Phantastes did change his life.

Sources and Resources

P. H. Brazier, C. S. Lewis—Revelation, Conversion, and Apologetics, vol. 1, C. S. Lewis: Revelation and the Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 33–34.

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, “Sacred Story,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 86: George MacDonald: Writer Who Inspired C.S. Lewis (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2005).

The Poetical Works of George MacDonald (2 vols., 1893). His romance, Lilith (1895), was ed. by G. MacDonald (son) (1924), with introd., pp. ix–xx. Letters, ed. G. E. Sadler (Grand Rapids, Mich. [1994]). C. S. Lewis (ed.), George MacDonald: An Anthology (1946). G. MacDonald (son), George MacDonald and his Wife (1924). R. L. Wolff, The Golden Key: A Study in the Fiction of George MacDonald (New Haven, Conn., 1961). K. Triggs, The Stars and the Stillness: A Portrait of George MacDonald (Cambridge, 1986). D. S. Robb, George MacDonald (Scottish Writers, 11; Edinburgh, 1987). W. Raeper, George MacDonald (Tring, Herts [1987]); E. Sainsbury, George MacDonald: A Short Life (Edinburgh, 1987). W. Raeper (ed.), The Golden Thread: Essays on George MacDonald (ibid., 1990). R. B. Shaberman, George MacDonald: A Bibliographical Study (Winchester, 1990). A. Matheson in DNB, 1901–1911, pp. 513–15.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1023.

Hein, Roland. The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
MacDonald, George. The Complete Fairy Tales. London: Penguin, 1999.
Manlove, C. N. “George MacDonald’s Fairy Tales: Their Roots in MacDonald’s Thought,” Studies in Scottish Literature 8:2. January 10, 1970. http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/ssl/vol8/iss2/12.
Phillips, Michael. George MacDonald. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1987.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Josephine R. Unglaub

Josephine R. Unglaub

Art: The Cloud Tellers

Josephine Unglaub is a German-based artist and photographer with a passion for surrealism. Her work can be found here: https://lemanshots.wordpress.com

Terry Glaspey


Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com


Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life