the Violet
George MacDonald's influence on David Lindsay
George MacDonald

In his study of “the Metaphysical Tradition in Scottish Literature”, The Great Shadow House, J B Pick writes:

Anyone who reads the work of David Lindsay soon after George MacDonald’s Lilith will immediately see resemblances in phrase, perception, and moments of vision...

— Pick, The Great Shadow House, p. 73

Gary K Wolfe cites a passage from MacDonald’s first novel, the “Faerie Romance for Men and Women” Phantastes, that “seems to suggest the central image of A Voyage to Arcturus” (Wolfe, Starmont Reader’s Guide 9: David Lindsay, p. 12):

No shining belt or gleaming moon, no red and green glory in a self-encircling twin-star, but has a relation with the hidden things of a man’s soul, and, it may be, with the secret history of his body as well.

Phantastes, chapter XII

There’s no question George MacDonald was a major influence on David Lindsay, as E H Visiak confirms in his essay “Lindsay as I Knew Him”:

The author who had most influenced him, he told me, was George MacDonald.

— Pick, Wilson, Visiak, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay, p. 98

This essay will look closer at that influence, specifically that of MacDonald’s two adult fantasy novels, Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895), which virtually bracketed his writing career, on Lindsay’s most famous novel, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).

First, a little on MacDonald himself.

George MacDonald

George MacDonald

George MacDonald was born in 1824 in Huntly, in the west of Aberdeenshire. He attended the University of Aberdeen and graduated with a degree in chemistry and natural philosophy in 1845. After some doubts as to what he was to do with his life, he took a degree in divinity at Highbury College, London, and became a minister of the Trinity Congregational Church in Arundel, West Sussex (8 miles from Ferring, where David Lindsay would later write Devil’s Tor). But MacDonald’s reluctance to preach along hard sectarian lines — for instance, his inability to accept the Calvinist doctrine that only the Elect would go to Heaven — made him unpopular with the congregation. His salary was cut in half and he left the position. Soon enough, ill-health forced him to give up his ecclesiastical career altogether.

He turned to writing, in which he’d already had some modest success (translating some of the early German Romantic Novalis’s poetry, and publishing his own poetic drama, Within and Without, in 1855). With Lady Byron as a patron, MacDonald wrote his first novel, Phantastes, an attempt to bring the form of the German literary fairy tale, or Märchen, to English readers. Thanks to translations of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen into English, fairy tales for children were already popular in England, but MacDonald’s attempt to get adult readers to take them as a serious literary form didn’t meet with a similar success. He continued writing, though, producing realistic novels (often with a Scottish setting), fairy tales for children, and sermons (a popular form of literature in Victorian times), and managed to make enough to support his growing family (he had eleven children). It was never a great living, though, despite being well-established in the literary world and counting the likes of Ruskin, Browning, and the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) as friends. (MacDonald read the latter’s Alice in Wonderland to his children in manuscript, and encouraged his friend to publish it.) He only achieved lasting financial security after being awarded a civil list pension by Queen Victoria in 1877. His final novel, the adult fantasy Lilith, was begun in 1890 and published in 1895, after which MacDonald stopped writing. He lived another ten years, and died in 1905, at the age of 80.

Although never in the first rank of Victorian writers, MacDonald seems to have been popular enough — his fairy tales for children particularly, including At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and The Princess and Curdie (1882), as well as shorter works such as The Light Princess and The Golden Key (both 1867) — to have been read by subsequent generations, including C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

David Lindsay would have been 19 years old when Lilith was published (in the same year as H G Wells’s The Time Machine).

Phantastes and Lilith

Cover to Phantastes by George MacDonald

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo.

Phantastes and Lilith have the same basic type of story. A lone protagonist ventures into a fantastic other world, at first with no explicit purpose, but eventually finding himself caught up in a moral or spiritual quest. With Phantastes this quest is for self-knowledge and maturity, as it’s a coming-of-age story; with Lilith, which is more of an end-of-life tale, the quest is for redemption of one’s sins and a revelation of the true nature of reality.

Phantastes is mostly set in Fairy Land, a vast wood peopled by flower fairies, walking trees, ogres, dragons, knights, and plenty of woodsmen’s and wise women’s cottages in which to spend the night. In feel it owes a lot to Germanic fairy tales, and although the story does ultimately follow a path of its hero Anodos’s maturation, the plot is episodic. Taking a quote from Novalis as an epigraph, MacDonald’s intent seems to have been to let his imagination wander at will, guided by its own thirst for wonders, strangeness, darkness, and adventure:

A fairy-tale is like a dream-picture without coherence, a collection of wonderful things and occurrences, e.g. a musical fantasy, the harmonic sequences of an Aeolian harp, nature itself.

— Translation of the epigraph of Phantastes from Manlove, Modern Fantasy, p. 65

Although this can make Phantastes feel less satisfying as a whole, the variety of episodes, and the fresh, adventurous tone, feels more similar to A Voyage to Arcturus than the later Lilith.

Lilith, however, is a lot more similar to Arcturus in overall form and seriousness of intent. Its protagonist, Mr Vane, spends his days reading in the family library, but begins to catch glimpses of a figure out of the corner of his eye. This turns out to be Mr Raven, who claims to have personally known Vane’s ancestors going back hundreds of years. Raven takes Vane to a mirror in the attic which is a gateway to another world — or, perhaps not so much another world as another order of existence, another dimension alongside our own.

Cover to Lilith by George MacDonald

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo.

Raven, though, isn’t bringing Vane to this other world so he can have fun. He wants Vane to “die”, and even has a place for him to lie down in, amongst a host of other dead people. But this isn’t death as we think of it — this “death” is, Raven says, the only real way to truly live.

Vane, though, is doubtful, and rather than lying down to “die” takes off to explore this strange new world. Amidst many other wonders, he encounters a group of playful, loving, parentless children living in a forest near to some childless “giants” (actually adults), all of whom are stupid and brutal. Wanting to save these children from growing up into stupid giants, as some of them occasionally do, Vane travels to the nearby city of Bulika, whose princess, having been told that a child will one day kill her, has forbidden there to be any in her realm. The people of Bulika are selfish and interested only in riches; the landscape is dry and waterless. The princess herself turns out to be Lilith, Adam’s first wife who rejected him after he refused to worship and obey her, and who is now a vampire or “white leech”, living off human blood. Vane realises he must free the land of Lilith’s rule to help his beloved children, but on the way must also learn the true meaning of Raven’s invitation to “die”.

Lilith is, at times, a dark and complex tale, and perhaps a divided one. The children speak in the cutesy baby-talk so beloved of Victorian children’s writers, and Mr Raven talks the sort of nonsense you might expect from the Alice books. But Raven’s nonsense is actually more the sort of deeply serious paradox to be found in mystical religious writing, and Lilith’s struggles against those who would redeem her from her state of darkness are fraught with a tormented psychological insight that feels deeply authentic. MacDonald’s ultimate argument is that by giving oneself up to God one can be freed from the burden of one’s sins and darkness, but he leaves his reader in no doubt that this is no easy task.

Phantastes, Lilith, and A Voyage to Arcturus

There are many points of similarity between MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. The protagonists of all three feel similar in character, at least at the start of their narratives. Na├»ve, adventurous, brawny bearded men, at once wilful and easily swayed by the circumstances they find themselves in, they are also quick to judge others without a great deal of self-reflection themselves. They can perhaps best be summed up by Anodos, the protagonist (and narrator) of Phantastes, saying, at one point:

I was in Fairy Land where one does very much as he pleases...

Phantastes, Chapter X

There’s a sense of new-morning freshness, wonder, excitement, and opportunity these lone wanderers feel on finding themselves in these fantastic worlds:

Then it came to me that I was in a marvellous world, of which it was assuredly my business to discover the ways and laws...

Lilith, Chapter XIV

As soon as he thoroughly realized the significance of these new organs, his heart began to pump. Whatever might, or might not, be their use, they proved one thing—that he was in a new world.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 6

There is, nevertheless, an air of moral seriousness throughout. Reading Phantastes, Lilith, or A Voyage to Arcturus, although you may be caught up in the wonders and adventures, you can never entirely ignore the feeling that any innocent frivolity the protagonist may feel (even if only in the early stages) comes at a price. Vane, in Lilith, is made aware of this at the start, as the world he arrives in seems to operate on several levels at once. His description of the kind of reality he finds through Mr Raven’s mirror could easily fit Lindsay’s novel:

While without a doubt, for instance, that I was actually regarding a scene of activity, I might be, at the same moment, in my consciousness aware that I was perusing a metaphysical argument.

Lilith, Chapter IX

The sense that these other worlds aren’t entirely separate from our own is most evident in Lilith, where Vane several times finds himself ejected from that world back to ours at points of moral failure, like a video game sending its player back to the start of a level. Both the other books, though, contain moments when the main character slips back into our world, in both cases with a feeling that our world could just as easily be secondary to the fantastic world as the other way round. In Phantastes, Anodos at one point goes through a door and finds himself back in his own past, which he leaves through a specially-marked doorway, returning to Fairy Land. In Arcturus, Maskull’s journey on Tormance connects with his time on Earth when he lies down in Tydomin’s chamber under Disscourn, and finds himself opening his eyes as the materialised spirit at the séance he attended at the start of the novel.

While in Phantastes Anodos is pretty much thrust into Fairy Land and left to his own devices, in both Lilith and Arcturus the protagonists have a guide who takes them there, and hints cryptically at the ultimate purpose of their travels. Mr Raven, in Lilith, could be described as playing a role halfway between David Lindsay’s Krag and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, in that he ushers Vane on his way to start with and is waiting for him at the end, but also pops up occasionally to provide nonsensical-sounding advice. Both characters want to in some way “kill” the protagonist, as a means of freeing them from their old selves. Raven is also, like Krag, at one point referred to as the devil:

Sir Upward [one of Mr Vane’s ancestors] was a great reader, she said—not of such books only as were wholesome for men to read, but of strange, forbidden, and evil books; and in so doing, Mr. Raven, who was probably the devil himself, encouraged him.

Lilith, Chapter I

In both Lilith and Arcturus, the protagonist is given the opportunity to take a quick route to redemption/enlightenment, which they either fail or refuse. In Lilith, this is Raven’s offer for Vane to take his place among the dead; in Arcturus, it’s Maskull’s initial attempt to climb the steps of the Observatory tower at Starkness, after which he’s told:

“Oh, you missed your opportunity,” said Krag, grinning. “If you had finished your climb then, you would have seen heart-expanding sights. From the fifth window, for example, you would have seen Tormance like a continent in relief; from the sixth you would have seen it like a landscape. . . . But now there’s no need.”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 5

Here, Krag is clearly describing the sights Nightspore sees in Muspel at the end of the novel.

Although Raven is a guide figure in Lilith, generally in MacDonald’s fiction that role is played by elderly female characters, and both of his adult fantasies feature grandmotherly figures whose homes act as points of refuge and recovery on the way, and who provide important advice to the protagonists. Female characters are important in MacDonald’s fiction, but they break down into three basic types: the inspiring innocent (often a child or a virginal young woman), the wise grandmother, and the dangerous, vampire-like mature woman (Lilith herself in Lilith, the Alder in Phantastes). Lindsay’s fiction is very different. None of his female characters are so unambiguously typed or morally polarised. The one woman who might fit into a MacDonald novel is Joiwind, and there’s a moment in Phantastes which, to me, recalls Joiwind’s initial interaction with Maskull in Arcturus. Anodos has just escaped his first real encounter with darkness — the shadowy, ogreish Ash, who stalked him through the fairy woods at night — and finds refuge with the Beech, a tree in female form. To protect him from evil trees, the Beech tells him to cut off a length of her hair:

As gently as I could, I cut with a knife a long tress of flowing, dark hair, she hanging her beautiful head over me. When I had finished, she shuddered and breathed deep, as one does when an acute pain, steadfastly endured without sign of suffering, is at length relaxed.

Phantastes, Chapter IV

This scene, in which a woman allows herself to be cut with a knife so as to provide the protagonist some inoculation against harm, recalls Joiwind’s sacrifice for Maskull. Having cut herself in the arm with a knife:

Joiwind delicately and skilfully placed the mouths of the two wounds together, and then kept her arm pressed tightly against Maskull’s for a long time. He felt a stream of pleasure entering his body through the incision. His old lightness and vigour began to return to him. After about five minutes a duel of kindness started between them; he wanted to remove his arm, and she to continue. At last he had his way, but it was none too soon—she stood there pale and dispirited.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 6

After many adventures, all three books end with the symbolic “death” of the main character, a moment in which they simultaneously exit these strange other worlds, and (in Lilith and Arcturus at least) receive the full revelation of what it meant, and how the universe truly works. Both Lilith and Arcturus end with a crescendo of enlightenment, a vision of the universe’s order, either the “great city, ascending into blue clouds” in Lilith, above which can be seen “the throne of the Ancient of Days. Over and under and between those steps issued, plenteously, unceasingly new-born, the river of the water of life” (Lilith, Chapter XLVI); or, in Arcturus, Nightspore’s vision of the true nature of Crystalman, and the “spirit-stream from Muspel”.

In all three novels, the ultimate antagonist is a “Shadow”. Phantastes has no single antagonist, but early on Anodos picks up an additional shadow, which disenchants the world he looks at of any sense of wonder or beauty, and which he endeavours to escape from; in Lilith, though Lilith herself is the most obvious antagonist, when it comes to her redemption it’s the terrible grip of “the great Shadow” (Lilith, Chapter XL) which causes her to struggle and suffer; in Arcturus, Crystalman is “a dim, vast shadow, without any distinguishable shape” (A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 21).

In both Lilith and Arcturus, the world the characters find themselves in is, essentially, a spiritual puzzle whose solution leads to the protagonist’s redemption:

“The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it.”

Lilith, Chapter IX

Which can’t help recalling Krag’s words to Maskull:

“We know you had your ear to the keyhole.”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 20

At the same time, the protagonists’ journeys are also described in terms of their trying to find their true home. Here, though, the crucial difference between MacDonald’s and Lindsay’s world-views comes to the fore. For MacDonald, finding one’s true home means recognising this world to be that home, and learning to feel at home in it:

“You have, I fear, got into this region too soon, but none the less you must get to be at home in it; for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.”

Lilith, Chapter 3

With Lindsay, this world is not and can never be our home:

“Because in feeling pleasure, we forget our home.”

“And that is—?”

“Muspel,” answered Catice.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 12

For both writers, a crucial part of this voyage is learning to tell truth from illusion:

“But, sir,” I faltered, “how am I to distinguish betwixt the true and the false where both alike seem real?”

“Do you not understand?” he returned, with a smile that might have slain all the sorrows of all his children. “You cannot perfectly distinguish between the true and the false while you are not yet quite dead; neither indeed will you when you are quite dead—that is, quite alive, for then the false will never present itself...”

Lilith, Chapter XLIII

“The stem, Maskull, is hatred of pleasure. The first fork is disentanglement from the sweetness of the world. The second fork is power over those who still writhe in the nets of illusion. The third fork is the healthy glow of one who steps into ice-cold water.”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 12

Also, there’s the need to reject one’s personal will. In MacDonald, this means overcoming the temptation to serve one’s personal glory rather than God’s purpose:

“But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s—not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!”

Lilith, Chapter XXXIX

With Lindsay, one’s will must be renounced because it does not belong to Muspel:

“Don’t be bitter,” said Maskull. “I’ll tell you another thing. Muspel can’t be willed, for the simple reason that Muspel does not concern the will. To will is a property of this world.”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 17

Despite differences in their ultimate stance (world-acceptance for MacDonald, world-rejection for Lindsay), both writers agree on the one element essential for freeing oneself from false beliefs: suffering. Throughout his work, even in the fairy tales for children, MacDonald’s protagonists learn the necessity of accepting pain as part of existence, and of accepting their own darker natures as part of themselves. Anodos in Phantastes learns to overcome his shadow, and this experience means he can recognise true evil in others when he sees it — as he does at the end of the novel, even when the virtuous knight he has decided to serve can’t, because the knight has had no inner experience of evil. In Lilith, although Vane must learn to accept his own failings, the most dramatic and affecting moment is when Lilith has to face her darkness, and renounce it, along with her (false, or injurious) ideas of herself as powerful and deserving to be served and worshipped. The most obvious example of this aspect of MacDonald’s work, perhaps, is in his children’s tale The Light Princess, about a princess cursed at birth with both a literal and metaphorical lack of gravity. She can only walk properly on the ground — and not be at risk of floating off into the sky — when she learns to feel sorrow. Lindsay’s Arcturus is shot through with examples of how every sort of pleasure must be rejected to free oneself from Crystalman’s world, and the surest way to do this is to embrace pain, which is literally embodied in the person of Krag, whose every touch causes a sensation of “healing pain” (A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 8).

Echoes and Answers

After the major similarities I’ve addressed above, I want to look at some lesser points where Lindsay’s writing resonates with MacDonald’s. In some cases, it might be that an idea in Lindsay’s work seems to have been sparked off by something in MacDonald’s, in others it almost seems as though Lindsay were adding to, or answering, a point made by MacDonald. None of these are meant to be taken as convincing evidence, but as possible points of influence.

Lindsay makes explicit use of new colours in A Voyage to Arcturus, with his “ulfire” and “jale”. MacDonald refers to new colours at least a couple of times in his fiction:

When I came to myself, the creature was hovering over my head, radiating the whole chord of light, with multitudinous gradations and some kinds of colour I had never before seen.

Lilith, Chapter X

Suddenly, far among the trees, as far as the sun could shine, he saw a glorious thing. It was the end of a rainbow, large and brilliant. He could count all seven colours, and could see shade after shade beyond the violet; while before the red stood a colour more gorgeous and mysterious still. It was a colour he had never seen before...

The Golden Key

Like the various forms of nutrition on Tormance, food in the forests of MacDonald’s Fairy Land has a more profound effect than simply to fill the belly:

This day I found plenty of food in the forest—strange nuts and fruits I had never seen before. I hesitated to eat them; but argued that, if I could live on the air of Fairy Land, I could live on its food also. I found my reasoning correct, and the result was better than I had hoped; for it not only satisfied my hunger, but operated in such a way upon my senses that I was brought into far more complete relationship with the things around me. The human forms appeared much more dense and defined; more tangibly visible, if I may say so. I seemed to know better which direction to choose when any doubt arose. I began to feel in some degree what the birds meant in their songs...

Phantastes, Chapter V

He drank copiously. It affected his palate in a new way . . . with the purity and cleanness of water was combined the exhilaration of a sparkling wine, raising his spirits . . . but somehow the intoxication brought out his better nature, and not his lower.

Maskull now began to realize his environment, as it were for the first time. All his sense-organs started to show him beauties and wonders which he had not hitherto suspected...

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 6

A minor similarity is to be found in an episode in Phantastes where Anodos experiences life on another planet via the magical books in a fairy palace, which become living realities when read. In one, he meets with a humanoid race whose women have wings instead of arms:

When I told them that the women on the Earth had not wings like them, but arms, they stared, and said how bold and masculine they must look...

Phantastes, Chapter XII

Which recalls Oceaxe’s curiosity about the women of Earth, in Lindsay’s Arcturus:

“Are there women there?”

“As with you, and not very differently formed.”

“Do they love?”

He laughed—“So much so that it has changed the dress, speech, and thoughts of the whole sex.”

“Probably they are more beautiful than I?”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 9

In Lilith, MacDonald presents us with the idea that all things that live were, originally, thoughts in the mind of God:

When some pray, they lift heavy thoughts from the ground, only to drop them on it again; others send up their prayers in living shapes, this or that, the nearest likeness to each. All live things were thoughts to begin with, and are fit therefore to be used by those that think.

Lilith, Chapter V

This idea is brought in several times in A Voyage to Arcturus — for instance, when Maskull sees living creatures appearing out of thin air in Matterplay (“That was exactly like the birth of a thought” (A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 16)), or when Leehallfae relates his origin from the mind of Faceny, in a passage that also echoes the use of that word “shapes” from MacDonald:

“Thoughts flow perpetually from Faceny’s face backwards. As his face is on all sides, however, they flow into his interior. A draught of thought thus continuously flows from Nothingness to the inside of Faceny, which is the world. The thoughts become shapes, and people the world.”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 16

In Arcturus, Maskull reaches Tormance on a crystal “torpedo” powered by “Back-Rays”, or “Light which goes back to its source,” as Nightspore explains (A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 3). The notion of light that goes back to its source occurs in Lilith, too, when Raven shines sunlight (or “sunrays”) on his magic mirror and they don’t reflect:

“Where are the sunrays gone?” I cried.

“That I cannot tell,” returned Mr. Raven; “—back, perhaps, to where they came from first. They now belong, I fancy, to a sense not yet developed in us.”

Lilith, Chapter VIII

This next point is an example of what I mean by Lindsay at times seeming to “answer” MacDonald. In Lilith, Vane talks to the Krag-like Raven about his right to a sense of freedom:

“What right have you to treat me so, Mr. Raven?” I said with deep offence. “Am I, or am I not, a free agent?”

“A man is as free as he chooses to make himself, never an atom freer,” answered the raven.

Lilith, Chapter IV

Lindsay’s Krag provides a different answer:

“To be a free man, one must have a universe of one’s own,” said Krag, with a jeering look.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter 20

Finally, two passages whose similarity could be coincidental, but which might equally be the result of Lindsay’s unconsciously associating two ideas he’d previously encountered together in MacDonald’s Phantastes:

The roof sank lower and lower, until I was compelled, first to stoop, and then to creep on my hands and knees. It recalled terrible dreams of childhood...

Phantastes, Chapter XVIII

The tunnel grew so confined that Maskull was reminded of the evil dreams of his childhood.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Chapter XVII


Measuring influence is never going to be an exact science, but can nevertheless add to one’s appreciation of the works involved. Lindsay’s vision was undoubtedly his own, as was MacDonald’s. But there are clear similarities of intent, form, and feel between these two key works of MacDonald’s and Lindsay’s most famous novel, making them good to study together, to better appreciate what their authors were doing, and how they achieved their ends.

The influence of MacDonald on Lindsay recalls that of Lindsay on C S Lewis (who was also, to further confuse the issue, directly influenced by MacDonald). Lewis thought Lindsay had worked out “what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction” (Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 11-12), but disagreed entirely with the philosophical points Lindsay made, as, it seems, did Lindsay of MacDonald’s. The feeling, with these three writers, is somewhat like three runners in a relay race taking the baton of influence from one another and then running in an entirely different direction.

Which is, perhaps, why each can still be read and appreciated today.


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