Caroline LaPlue: Aberystwyth University
Blog Post for George MacDonald’s Scotland
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend the George MacDonald’s Scotland conference in Aberdeen last month. I have loved reading MacDonald since I was nine, but over the years I have become accustomed to having to explain who he was, and I have been often guilty of deeming it easier to not mention him at all in literary conversations. When I came to Wales last year to study literature at Aberystwyth University, I wrongfully assumed MacDonald would be much better known in the UK than in the States, especially by literary scholars and professors. Discovering that my advisers knew no more about MacDonald than most people, I was taken aback, but I nonetheless decided to focus my dissertation on his novels. So I was understandably elated to have the opportunity to travel to Scotland, see Aberdeen and Huntly, and actually be surrounded by people who were as passionate about George MacDonald as I was!
Dr. David Robb of Dundee University opened the conference with a lecture exploring MacDonald’s place in Scottish literature. He suggested that eponymous hero David Elginbrod is an idealized version of Burns, who “might have done better,” but cannot represent Scotland well because of his known moral failings. Robb also spoke of MacDonald’s associations of the north with heaven, notably exemplified in At the Back of the North Wind.
Dr. Jennifer Koopman opened the first panel by looking at MacDonald’s use of language. She described the linguistic hierarchy found in MacDonald’s books, with silent communication as the highest form, followed by ancient languages, followed by the “local patois” commonly used by heroic characters in MacDonald’s Scottish novels, while the lowest form is standardized English. Second panel speaker Dr. Rachael Durkin suggested that Robert’s discovery of a violin in Robert Falconer paved the way for future inclusions of inauthentic instruments in Scottish literature.
In the next keynote lecture, Dr. Colin Manlove analyzed MacDonald’s “journey fantasies.” Manlove also connected MacDonald’s interest in science and chemistry to his fantasy.
Rebecca Langworthy began the second panel, demonstrating impressive knowledge of Huntly and identifying its presence throughout MacDonald’s novels. Per Klingberg analyzed the two versions of “The Carasoyne,” defending the changes in the ignored second edition. Adam Walker observed where MacDonald’s fantasies overlap or draw from older Scottish folktales and “otherworlds.”
Derek Stewart opened the third panel, exploring the geography and characters in Alec Forbes of Howglen, and the inspiration MacDonald drew from Huntly and Aberdeen. Joshua Rawleigh from Gordon College focused on Lilith, examining MacDonald’s repeated connections between home and death, and Rita Horvath of Yad Vashem noted the paradoxes in Diamond’s youth and yet mature behaviors in At the Back of the North Wind.
The next morning, pouring rain forced me to cautiously navigate the near-flooded streets of the Granite City, while the blowing wind rendered my umbrella nearly useless. I rather enjoyed the damp walk, though, because such water plays a major part of several of MacDonald’s works, but particularly in Alec Forbes. As the rivers of rainwater rushed over the pavement and through the impervious grey streets, searching for a drain, I could understand more intimately Annie and Alec’s experiences with flooding, and the significance of water in MacDonald’s life.
Dr. Dimitra Fimi began the day with her keynote lecture on MacDonald and “Celticity,” providing helpful definitions and history of Celticism before highlighting Celtic elements in his novels. Fimi affirmed Koopman’s hierarchy with her own matching research.
Amanda Vernon began the fourth panel, examining the “role of poetic imagination in MacDonald’s literary criticism.” She spoke on MacDonald’s fundamental belief that all new ideas and creativity are rooted in God. Debora Pfuntner then spoke about feminism and “secularizing the goddess figure” in MacDonald’s work to make it more palatable to secular audiences. Elena Pasquini discussed the angels in Phantastes, emphasizing community beyond physical interaction.
In the fifth panel, Maksim Medovarov examined the respective approaches of MacDonald and Eriugena to Apokatastasis and universal salvation. Dr. Kristin Mills looked at The Portent and the supernaturalism of the Highlands, submitting that MacDonald was the first to use “second sight” with Scottish folklore in literature. In Josh Richards’ fascinating lecture, he identified Neoplatonism in MacDonald’s sermons, especially highlighting “the return” of all God’s creatures back to Him, and that the loveliness of the world is a facet of the loveliness of God.
In the final keynote lecture, John Pazdziora explained that the Scottish landscape exerts a tangible effect on MacDonald’s characters. He theorized that the country represents home, permanence, and the ultimate destination, while the city represents transience, and the wild represents the struggles of growth and progress, as characters often have to traverse the dangerous wilds to gain spiritual maturation.
In panel six, Sharin Schroeder told of Margaret Oliphant’s interactions with MacDonald and her influence in getting him published, while Franziska Kohlt spoke about links between William Morris and MacDonald.
On Friday morning, we left for Huntly, but upon arrival, we quickly discovered that the allotted two hours would be insufficient because of the unexpected enthusiasm from the townsfolk upon our starry-eyed arrival. Our visit began with a bagpipe serenade, and when we began the town tour, we were invited inside two back gardens whose owners had heard of us and were anxious to enhance it our visit with their personal connections to MacDonald. Our tour paused at such notable places as the former Missionar Kirk where the MacDonalds’ attended church, the Bogie River by the family farm (the “Glamour” in Alec Forbes), MacDonald’s birthplace, and his grandmother’s next door house. Having (quite enjoyably) lost time due to the generosity of Huntly residents, we rushed to see the outside of Huntly Castle before hurrying to see some manuscripts before departing. Even then, however, we were again somewhat thwarted by the generosity of a large pot of soup and bread to feed us before we returned. Altogether, we were simultaneously unable to see everything we wanted, and able to learn much more than we were expecting; we had the best possible reason for falling behind when the local residents took the time to share their passion for the true Huntly.
Upon our return to Aberdeen, Fany Karda began panel seven discussing the connections in Phantastes to the real world; Grant MacAskill looked at the presence of God and gods in Scottish fantasies and fictions, including MacDonald; and Oliver Langworthy did a study of the Greek background of the name Anodos, or άνοδος, from Phantastes, and MacDonald’s own knowledge of Greek.
The concluding panel of the conference was particularly inspiring because it was a practical discussion focused on what we as individuals and as a group should do next to further MacDonald studies around the world. With representatives from across the globe, there was amazing potential for spreading our discoveries and passion. We discussed the upcoming bicentennial of his birth, what book editions need to be created to make them practical for undergraduate courses, and the need for a comprehensive MacDonald anthology. Pazdziora reminded us that not to try too hard to fit MacDonald into twentieth century or Lewis framework. “We need to come to him on his terms and in his time,” and we need to continue showing that George MacDonald is worth reading.