In “Sir Gibbie,” George MacDonald shows us how goodness is not in action only, but also in the doer first. The virtuous person sees truly, judges rightly, and acts. It is the love of God within Gibbie that prompts him to do so.
Sometimes you read a book that causes you to marvel at the possibility of goodness in our human frame. As I reread George MacDonald’s Sir Gibbie (1879), I was filled with questions, the same questions I’m sure that prompted C.S. Lewis to call the novel a fantasy. In his Preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, Lewis termed MacDonald’s novels “a rich crop,” yet at the same time writes that “none is very good.” He felt “they are best when they depart most from the canons of novel writing… to come nearer to fantasy, as in the whole character of the hero in Sir Gibbie.”
Gibbie is fantastical in a sense because he doesn’t seem real. Could a child, a beggar at best, be so selfless to thrive off of serving others? Could he innately see others as good? With little love, training, or church influence? MacDonald surely anticipated his readers’ thoughts. Fifty pages in, he counters our doubts: “If anyone thinks I am unfaithful to human fact, and overcharge the description of this child, I on my side doubt the extent of the experience of that man or woman. I admit the child a rarity, but a rarity in the right direction.” This possibility challenged me like the best of sermons. After all, why is a man good?
Like Aristotle, MacDonald shows us how goodness is not in action only, but also in the doer first. The virtuous person sees truly, judges rightly, and acts. But MacDonald takes Aristotle’s virtue, his definitions of goodness, further because the better question to ask is why a man is good. Yes, I realize that much of MacDonald’s thought is prompted by the authoritarian Calvinism he grew up in and rebelled against. Perhaps that is why MacDonald explores this question thoroughly in Sir Gibbie by weaving a cast of characters who reflect different points of view.
MacDonald begins with Gibbie’s father. His indifference to his son has led to a type of blindness, one that we don’t like but we understand. Sir Galbraith has fallen in fortune after his wife’s death. Not only is he bowed by the work of the cobbler’s bench, but he is also deeply blinded by grief. MacDonald labels him a “miserable wretch” who lives under the power of “necromantic whiskey.” Yet his only son physically cares for him, making sure he returns home from drinking every night. “Not to be able to help was to Gibbie like being dead.” It is clear Gibbie loves his dad, but it is unclear whether his father truly sees Gibbie because he is the “town sparrow” flitting about shoeless and hungry. Wee Gibbie calls it “one of the laws of existence that fathers got drunk and Gibbies took care of them.” His father seems too damaged and doesn’t recognize what his son does for him before he dies. It prompted me to think that we can be blinded or indifferent to goodness because of life’s circumstances.
But our view of goodness can grow worse. With the introduction of Angus MacWholp, Fergus Duff, and the Laird of Glashruach, MacDonald shows it can be perverted entirely. These men immediately view goodness with suspicion. What is it in man that takes goodness, innate goodness, for guile? Why the penchant to distrust? Young Fergus thinks he has caught the “broonie” who has been secretly cleaning his aunt’s kitchen for weeks. Instead of wonder upon discovering this urchin, Fergus is filled with anger and boxes Gibbie’s ears. At his silence, Fergus beats him again, mistaking his muteness for willfulness. Once he brings the boy to the Laird, the misperception intensifies, and the Laird orders Angus to whip him for being “impertinent as he is vicious.” The Laird’s opinion is right because it’s his! This utter selfishness penetrates past indifference or blindness, yet it is one more way to view goodness, even as scripted antagonists. MacDonald soon illustrates how the Laird’s self-centeredness spawned dysfunction with his only daughter and led to his eventual bankruptcy and the loss of their generational land and home.
But there are plenty of characters who do see goodness or are led to it over time. The goodness in Janet Grant recognizes the goodness in Gibbie because her intimate relationship with God the Father opens her heart to this. Upon seeing Gibbie for the first time, “she fancied she saw the Lord himself.” MacDonald makes it clear that she no longer attends church and had no “theology,” but she spends treasured time with her Master and his words. Christ is a living man who helps her when she calls. Lewis says MacDonald’s “best characters are those which reveal how much real charity and spiritual wisdom can coexist with the profession of a theology that seems to encourage neither.” Janet feeds, cares for, and teaches Gibbie as one of “God’s mothers,” and it is no wonder then that her son Donal sees him for who he is and fosters a lifelong friendship. From young Donal to Sambo to Mysie to Ginerva, those who meet Gibbie in childlikeness do see him and are drawn to him in devotion. I think they are drawn to love itself.
Along the way, MacDonald introduces us to several believable characters, those who can see a glimmer of goodness at times and yet are often blind to it. Mistress Coale, the Reverend and Mrs. Sclater, and others represent those who change in their ways. The Sclaters especially are transformed by their guardianship of Gibbie. It is one thing to appear to do right. It is another entirely to know it. It is also one thing to preach truth from the pulpit and another entirely to practice it as MacDonald is quick to criticize through Gibbie’s simple actions. When the Sclaters bickered as husband and wife, Gibbie silently opened the Bible to chapter and verse. The argument stopped. But MacDonald is clear. Gibbie’s intent is not to shame but to lead to the truth.
We have always known that doing things for others brings Gibbie great pleasure. But this story is not a gospel of works. It is the love of God within Gibbie that prompts him so. Before Gibbie even knew who Jesus Christ was, MacDonald describes his experience on the mountain as he basked in creation: “The Presence, indeed, was with him, and he felt it… Yea, it was in his very soul.” It is not a complicated sermon but the most simple of aphorisms—“It is by loving and not by being loved that one can come nearest to the soul of another.” It is from the doer that love and goodness flow, or in MacDonald’s words, “nobody could understand Gibbie better without also understanding better all that was good and true and right.”
Author’s Note: For information on David Jack’s brave work of translating all twelve of MacDonald’s Scots novels, read more at The Works of George MacDonald and enjoy a listen to the Scottish burr here.
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1 C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: Harper One, 2001), xxxiii.
2 Ibid., xxvi.
3 Ibid., 125.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing)” (1882) by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.