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George MacDonald (5) – Beauty and Death

2009 May 15
by Gordon Reid

 MacDonald denies over and over again that man can imagine better or more beautiful things than God. His works of fantasy and imagination are full of word pictures of mysterious beauties, hints of loveliness or magnificence just around the corner. And in the novels there are passages of breathtaking grandeur when he describes the face of Nature, her sunsets and storms, her mighty oaks and tiny daisies.

And most of all, MacDonald sees beauty in the human face, overlaid as it may be with grime or weariness or despair. All the beauty of the world is a revelation of the beauty that is God, and nowhere more than in the beauty of love. He shows love persevering in the midst of poverty, weakness and despair, redeeming and divinizing the situation.

And divinizing is the right word, for George MacDonald’s view of the Incarnation is that in becoming man, God did not become anything that he was not already. Man had been made in the image of God, and God had used his only Son as the model. So the eternal Son became a visible, concrete man very naturally. And it will be just as natural for his brothers and sisters to become God, to “partake of the divine nature” as St Peter put it.

To MacDonald, this world is the nursery where we grow and learn how to live in the wide adult world waiting for us. But he never despises or belittles this nursery life. No, his Lord did not despise it; he used it gloriously to live the divine life in, and so can we. But Jesus did not cling selfishly or fearfully to this life, and no more should we. When death comes, we must treat it as a great good – painful and frightening though its attendants may be. Some of the most moving passages in MacDonald’s works are those where he describes a dying in this world and an awakening in the next.

Tolkien wrote: “Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald”, and as William Raeper says in ¬†his excellent biography of MacDonald: “He meant exactly that. Though death is a theme central to Victorian literature, MacDonald does not treat it as a problem, but rather as the aim of all existence. Death is what gives meaning to life”.

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