Informing the Inklings

George MacDonald and the Victorian Roots of Modern Fantasy

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Michael Partridge, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
  • Winged Lion Press
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


All creative people are inspired by those who preceded them, and in England’s Antiphon (Macmillan, 1868) the writer George MacDonald captures this truth in a choral image, showing writers as singers responding to each other. In acknowledgement of this connection, the George MacDonald Society met in 2014 to examine the debt that the Oxford myth-makers known as the Inklings (an informal group of writers associated with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) owed to their predecessors. The selected papers presented in Informing the Inklings (edited by Michael Partridge and Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson) look from MacDonald back to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others as well as forward, via the Inklings, to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2007). They contribute to an understanding of the development of mythopoesis over the last 200 years or so.

Malcolm Guite’s contribution, for example, traces a threefold link from Coleridge to John Henry Newman and on to Lewis, as elucidated in a little-studied poem by Lewis. For Guite the imagination is a golden key, passed from Coleridge to later writers. He memorably illustrates this point with a discussion of dwarves. Coleridge, Guite writes, gives us a vivid image of a “supposedly giant intellect which has become a dwarf because it has lost the childlike capacity for awe” (26). MacDonald takes this a step further, assuring us that the dwarf will continue to think of himself as a giant. The key is then passed to Lewis, and The Great Divorce (Geoffrey Bles, 1945) includes a scene in which a lady identifies (and kisses) the “deluded dwarf” (27) who is really speaking. Lewis then returns to the image and the associated insight in the chapter of The Last Battle (The Bodley Head, 1956) entitled “How the Dwarves refused to be taken in.”

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson’s golden key is one of discovery: she offers an engaging account of her own journey with MacDonald, a pilgrimage of library shelves, a diversion into the nature of mythopoesis, and a consideration of a mentor’s impact. She encourages readers to “forget the penniless preacher forced to write fiction” (51) and to focus instead on a “storyteller for storytellers” (33) who grew up in an exceptionally literate environment and who was later mentored by the literature-loving, library-establishing A.J. Scott. Scott and other influences enabled MacDonald to take his place in a mythopoeic tradition that continues today.

Daniel Gabelman directs attention to “Organised Innocence” as he discusses MacDonald’s understanding of what it means to be childlike. He first considers two contrasting threads of attitudes toward young people. The moralistic approach talks down to the child in its earnest desire to instruct; the Romantic approach sees the child as a small sacred being that is at one with nature, celebrating the “pure unclouded brow” (in Lewis Carroll’s words, quoted on p. 82). MacDonald’s belief that we must all strive for childlikeness and that the childlike gravitate toward fairytales allows him, Gabelman argues, to find a harmonious new path between these two extremes, speaking truth through beauty. In the subsequent chapter, Jean Webb takes up this theme with a careful discussion of MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (Strahan & Co., 1871), in which she shows that the protagonist Diamond is both a child of nature who experiences its poetry and a child of his time who inspires others to work for a better world: the novel’s passage about a primrose perfectly encapsulates her point.

While Gabelman is interested in Carroll’s romantic notions of childhood, Kirstin A. Mills highlights the dreamlike quality of the Wonderland world and considers the pathways that link such nebulous environments to the later work of Carroll and MacDonald and on to the consistent, chartable secondary worlds of Tolkien and others. Mills argues that an important waymarker in this progression was the development of the mathematical theory of hyperspace, space that is beyond the three dimensions that we perceive. Her thesis is weakened when she acknowledges that Alice Through the Looking-Glass (Macmillan, 1871) was published prior to this mathematical development: can we really assume that Carroll saw the new theory coming? However, it is intriguing to ponder the possibility that mathematics influenced the appearance of the secondary worlds that are so fundamental to modern fantasy.

George MacDonald recognized the “wonder of the ordinary” (202), and the twelve contributors to this volume offer thoughtful appreciations of the ways in which he passed on that wonder to and inspired creativity in the choristers who responded to his song. Readers who seek to better understand the Inklings by a consideration of their literary heritage will find much here to make their hearts sing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julie Falkner is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2021


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.