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George MacDonald's Preface to Letters From Hell (I889)

The book, of which this is an English rendering, appeared in Denmark eighteen years ago, and
was speedily followed by an English translation, now long out of print, issued by the publishers
of the present version. In Germany it appeared very recently in a somewhat modified form, and
has there aroused almost unparalleled interest, running, I am told, through upwards of twelve
editions in the course of a year. The present English version is made from this German version,
the translator faithfully following the author's powerful conception, but pruning certain portions,
recasting certain others, and omitting some less interesting to English readers, in the hope of
rendering such a reception and appreciation as the book in itself deserves, yet more probable in
this country.
It may be interesting to some to know that the title is not quite a new one, for just before the
death of Oliver Cromwell a book was published entitled Messages from Hell ; or Letters from a
Lost Soul. This I have not had the opportunity of looking into ; but it must be a remarkable book,
I do not say, if it equals, but if it comes half-way toward the fearful interest of this volume.
My sole motive towards offering to write a preface to the present form of the work was my desire
to have it read in this country. In perusing the German a few months ago, I was so much
impressed with its imaginative energy, and the power of truth in it, that I felt as if, other duties
permitting, I would gladly have gone through the no slight labour of translating it myself ;
labour I say, because no good work can be done in any field of literature without genuine labour;
and one of the common injuries between countries is the issue of unworthy translation. That the
present is of a very different kind, the readers of it will not be slow to acknowledge.
I would not willingly be misunderstood : when I say the book is full of truth, I do not mean either
truth of theory or truth in art, but something far deeper and higher the realities of our relations
to God and man and duty all, in short, that belongs to the conscience. Prominent among
these is the awful verity, that we make our fate in unmaking ourselves ; that men, in defacing the
image of God in themselves, construct for themselves a world of horror and dismay ; that of the
outer darkness our own deeds and character are the informing or inwardly creating cause ; that
if a man will not have God, he never can be rid of his weary and hateful self.
Concerning the theological forms into which the writer's imaginations fall, I do not care to speak
either for or against them here. My hope from the book is, that it will rouse in some the prophetic
imagination, so that even from terror they may turn to the Father of Lights, from whom alone
come all true theories, as well as every other good and perfect gift. One thing, in this regard,
alone I would indicate the faint, all but inaudible tone of possible hope, ever and anon
vanishing in the blackness of despair, that now and then steals upon the wretched soul, and a
little comforts the heart of the reader as he gathers the frightful tale.
But there is one growing persuasion of the present age which I hope this book may somewhat
serve to stem not by any argument, but by such a healthy upstirring, as I have indicated
already, of the imagination and the conscience. In these days, when men are so gladly hearing
afresh that 'in Him is no darkness at all ;' that God therefore could not have created any man if
He knew that he must live in torture to all eternity ; and that his hatred to evil cannot be
expressed by injustice, itself the one essence of evil, for certainly it would be nothing less
than injustice to punish infinitely what was finitely committed, no sinner being capable of

understanding the abstract enormity of what he does, in these days has arisen another
falsehood less, yet very perilous : thousands of half-thinkers imagine that, since it is declared
with such authority that hell is not everlasting, there is then no hell at all. To such folly I for one
have never given enticement or shelter. I see no hope for many, no way for the divine love to
reach them, save through a very ghastly hell. Men have got to repent ; there is no other escape
for them, and no escape from that.
I confess that, while I hold the book to abound in right genuine imagination, the art of it seems to
me in one point defective : not being cast in the shape of an allegory, but in that of a narrative
of actual facts many of which I feel might, may be true the presence of pure allegory in
parts, and forming inherent portion of the whole, is, however good the allegory in itself, distinctly
an intrusion, the presence of a foreign body. For instance, it is good allegory that the uttering of
lies on earth is the fountain of a foul river flowing through hell ; but in the presentation of a real
hell of men and women and misery, the representation of such a river, with such an origin, as
actually flowing through the frightful region, is a discord, greatly weakening the just
verisimilitude. But this is the worst fault I have to find with it, and cannot do much harm ; for the
virtue of the book will not be much weakened thereby : and its mission is not to answer any
question of the intellect, to please the fancy, or content the artistic faculty, but to make righteous
use of the element of horror ; and in this, so far as I know, it is unparalleled. The book has a
fearful title, and is far more fearful than its title ; but if it help to turn any away from that which
alone is really horrible, the doing of unrighteousness, it will prove itself the outcome of a divine
energy of deliverance.
For my part, believing with my whole heart that to know God is, and alone is, eternal life, and
that he only knows God who knows Jesus Christ, I would gladly, even by a rational terror of the
unknown probable, rouse any soul to the consciousness that it does not know Him, and that it
must approach Him or perish.
The close of the book is, in every respect, in that of imagination, that of art, that of utterance,
altogether admirable, and in horror supreme. Let him who shuns the horrible as a thing in art
unlawful, take heed that it be not a thing in fact by him cherished ; that he neither plant nor
nourish that root of bitterness whose fruit must be horror the doing of wrong to his
neighbour ; and least of all, if difference in the unlawful there be, that most unmanly of wrongs
whose sole defence lies in the cowardly words : 'Am I my sister's keeper!'

George Mac Donald.

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