Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sir Gibbie

When my mother first read us a George MacDonald novel, I think she picked the very best book to get us started: Sir Gibbie. My brother and  I both enjoyed hearing her read it at the time, and I personally have picked it up for many re-reads since then. The nice thing about Sir Gibbie is that the Scots brogue really isn't too bad in the Michael Phillips edition entitled The Baronet's Song. Much thicker in the original novel, yet Phillips' reprint is a highly recommended beginning for those of you who have never read this author before, and those of you still getting used to Scottish dialect.

So if MacDonald is someone you've always meant to look up, but never gotten around to, try Sir Gibbie. This noble little boy endears the hearts of all readers during his journey to manhood, and the novel combines all the best of thoughtful character introspection and a good plot that never lets down on its tension.

The Book
Wee Sir Gibbie roams the streets of his Scottish town doing small acts of kindness while his father sits drinking in their tumbled down apartment in the Widdiehill. Sir Gibbie's the son of a run-down baronet; a George Galbraith who lost all his property to creditors years before. People don't know how much is actually hidden in the boy's head regarding his family past. Some say he's mad; some say he'll forever have a child's intellect. Nobody knows for sure, because George Galbraith's son Gilbert is mute, and always will be.

When his father dies of drink, Gibbie encounters the first sorrow he has ever known. His life would have remained as it was, however, searching for the lost and found items of the town and helping the drunks home at night, until drunk sailors near the dockside tavern murder a friend of his and shatter Gibbie's innocent security. He sets off by himself, following some vague words of his dead father's: 'Up Daurside' and his whole aim in life is to find that place, wherever it may be.

But Gibbie's life is never quite as easy after that. Hungry, with no one to take care of him, and innocent of the whole idea that stealing is wrong--he helps himself as he comes to things--Gibbie is considered a thieving tramp by those he meets instead of an innocent street urchin. And when his strange ways earn him an undeserved whipping, he takes shelter with a kind old couple to hide from the Laird of Glashgar, whose land he is travelling through.

Unknown to wee Gibbie, something has turned up in his real hometown that has set all his former friends hunting for him. In contented oblivion of the uproar surrounding his tiny identity, he's happy to take reading lessons with the boy Donal, shepherd the flock of Janet and Robert, and avoid being seen by the laird or any of his men.

But changes are coming. And once destined to be a baronet, it would be a poor waste of nobility to spend one's days among the sheep in the Scottish hills now, wouldn't it? ;)

My Thoughts
When we first read Sir Gibbie, our family didn't really identify worldviews, and if you had said 'universalism' to us, we would have stared at you with blank expressions. Since then, of course, I've come to realize that this book isn't as perfect as I thought it was, worldview wise. But the universalism isn't as heavy as in, say, The Maiden's Bequest, which fairly oozes it, and altogether I think Sir Gibbie is a book entirely worth reading. This boy growing to man is a perfect example of a hero who's laudable from the first chapter to the last, and doesn't make any mistakes of the sinful kind, but is still endearing and completely relateable.

Those of you who follow my blog regularly have heard me mention this before, but those who haven't might find this interesting. George MacDonald, the author, held a pulpit in the traditional church for some time, in an era when Calvinism had shifted to a kind of terrified insecurity as to one's salvation. People taught predestination, but a predestination of the horrifically wrong kind, that of  no one ever really being sure whether they were of the elect or not. True predestination, of course, is something entirely different, but MacDonald was so disturbed by this false theology of his time that he swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Instead of God saving a certain number who didn't even know they were to receive grace, according to what the church was teaching, MacDonald taught that every soul would eventually find heaven and a close relationship with the Lord. Since the church refused to let him preach this, MacDonald left his pulpit and instead took to writing novels, which is the most powerful support I know  to the idea that every book, without exception, is trying to get you to agree with a certain idea. However, this universalism isn't overpowering in Sir Gibbie. If the reader was young enough, like my brother and I, the false concepts would probably go entirely over their heads, and an older and more discerning reader can pick out whatever is necessary to take the book captive to biblical ideals. The good thing about MacDonald is, in spite of his poor theology on eternity, he can still put in a lot of meaty Calvinistic ideas, and his characters are strong on seeking the Lord's wisdom and guidance. So these books offer good Christian characterizations, with only a few references here and there to universalism. Sir Gibbie also includes some mild language and profanity.

MacDonald chose to portray the Scottish culture very idyllically.  Being of Scottish descent myself, I always enjoy a biased portrayal, and all in all it's quite a nice setting of heaven on earth, with enough misfortunes to keep things interesting. Glashgar's not the rough country of Kidnapped, for instance, and the villains are very gentle ones in Sir Gibbie: more villains of ideas than of actions.

I haven't read the unedited version of this work, though I hope to someday. I have, however, read a different adaptation than The Baronet's Song, which included a cut scene I think Phillips should have left in. When Gibbie *spoiler* goes to live with Mr. Sclater, the minister *end of spoiler* his quaint custom of serving the dinner guests ties in his personality at the beginning of the story, when he's looking for lost and found items. Gibbie's a soft-hearted, helpful person, and that never changes throughout the story. But at the same time he's a principled boy, and when he refuses to serve alcohol to a man who has a problem with it, I think that illustrates his caring concern and helps transition between innocent young Gibbie, and principled, but more knowledgeable, older Gibbie. I'm not sure why Phillips removed the scene, but I'd like to get an edition where it was left in.

MacDonald was a very good poet as well as novelist, and includes a beautiful song of romantic regret towards the end of the book, the first verse of which is as follows:

My thoughts are like fire-flies pulsing in moonlight;
My heart like a silver cup full of red wine;
My soul a pale gleaming horizon, when soon light
Will flood the gold earth with a torrent divine.

And for those of you who love a little Scottish folklore, Gibbie's work as a secret 'broonie' to a busy housewife are most amusing and endearing. I think that was probably my favorite section of the book during Gibbie's childhood--how the woman would come out every morning and find her work all done for her, with Gibbie peeping down eagerly through the rafters!

As far as Gibbie's adult life, with the added love romance, that too is most enjoyable. He's such a lovable hero--he grows up, and yet he stays the same dear fellow who's always helping others and trying to smooth the path for everyone he meets. A main character with a childlike maturity, and a story that brings me back to read it again and again.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Dear Lady Bibliophile,

    We were so excited to see the title this morning! I have not read Sir Gibbie for many, many years, but I remember how beautiful the story was from when Mom read it aloud to us back in the depths of childhood... : ) It's on my vague and endless mental list of necessary re-reads.
    Thanks for the review!

    ~The Philologist

    P.S. You, my dear, have got one serious email coming as soon as I find time to compose it. (!!!)

    1. I am thinking of bringing this book with me on vacation in a couple of weeks. :) I love reading George MacDonald's books at the cottage, and it's been way too long since this one. I've read it many places--even took it to a babysitting job across the street when I was nine. :)


      P.S. *gulp* I await in trepidation...

  2. Dear Lady B,
    Aw...that's so cool he decided to be a "brownie". It sounds like a wonderful story and I'd like to read it sometime. :)

    P.S. Oh, dear, I think I need to read a certain chapter... :P ;)

  3. If you would still like to read the unabridged original of "Sir Gibbie" (and still haven't), I have a new illustrated edition coming out before Christmas, with a brand new introduction by Michael Phillips. It's also a translation, so the speech portions are in double Scots/English columns, while the regular narrative is laid out in the normal way.

    1. That sounds really neat! Is it for sale on Amazon? I'd love to look it up!

    2. It will be, and will also be for sale on our own website for a slightly lower price. We're about a month away from publication, and there isn't a pre order option, but I'll post the link to the website bookstore where you can see my previous two translations. (They are also available on amazon as well as the website.)http://www.worksofmacdonald.com/products/

  4. The above comment was by me...I didn't intend it to be nameless...


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