Phantastes by George MacDonald
As you well know, fantasy is my genre—I’m pretty sure I bleed The Legend of Zelda. But modern fantasy as we know it was shaped by J. R. R. Tolkien, and I want to learn more about fantasy as it stood prior to the game-changing The Lord of the Rings. I’ve featured Lord Dunsany’s 1924 novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, on The Literary Horizon before, but Phantastes is a much earlier work that was published in 1858. (Both, incidentally, are part of the now defunct Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which looks like a good resource for my casual investigation into pre-Tolkien fantasy.) C. S. Lewis considered his reading of Phantastes at 16 as the “night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized” (100). With Phantastes in the public domain, I thought it was as good a place as any to start.
Phantastes is the story of Anodos, a young English gentleman. After the death of his father, Anodos discovers a secret compartment in his desk—but he’s confronted by a fairy woman before he can read them. She tells him that he will enter Fairy Land tomorrow. The next morning, he wakes up to find his childhood bedroom transformed into Fairy Land. There, he discovers his female ideal, the darkness within his soul (as manifested in his shadow), and that the only way out of Fairy Land is through.
It’s easy to see why Lewis, with his love of dreamlike fancy over the more solid imagination of Tolkien (as explained by Laura Miller), loved Phantastes so much; MacDonald favors a gentle pace for Anodo’s rambling quest, as to better dwell on the fantastical images and side stories Anodos runs across. For example, when Anodos finds himself in a grand palace in Fairy Land, he visits their beautiful library and spends two chapters relating two novels he’s read; one set in a world of winged women and armed men and one about a man discovering a woman in a mysterious mirror. In Fairy Land, Anodos’ adventures are filled with similarly fantastical characters—murderous and motherly trees, a girl trying to build wings out of butterfly wings, and a disgraced knight, to add a few. While I’m not shy about my preference for a solid plot, Phantastes is full of beautiful images and concepts; I was immensely taken by the great hall in the grand palace Anodos stumbles across. It’s less unnecessary flavor and more amazing set pieces for Anodos as he hashes out his issues in Fairy Land.
Phantastes is an adult version of the, I feel, fairly traditional narrative of the put-upon child or youth discovering power in a secondary world—Harry Potter, obviously, but also the latest film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. But instead of discovering his own power, Anodos goes through a painful process of disappointment and failure to ultimately shed his arrogance and idealism and commit himself to living honorably and honestly; in short, real power. Anodos doesn’t get the girl and he slays a giant only to find his beloved comrades perished. But he does overcome his shadow with a philosophy that, despite the distance in time (and circumstances) between MacDonald and I, sounds refreshingly like my own—“the best way to manage some kinds of pain fill thoughts, is to dare them to do their worst; to let them lie and gnaw at your heart till they are tired; and you find you still have a residue of life they cannot kill”, for instance.
In fact, I would characterize Phantastes as refreshing—perhaps an odd descriptor for a century and a half old text, but it’s quite true. MacDonald’s writing style here reminds me of Lewis in The Last Battle without the bitterness (and the Apocalypse); wistful and occasionally sad, but ultimately hopeful. Anodos wonders “Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality”, but it affects the whole work, not just dreamy Anodos. One song (oh, there are plenty of songs in Phantastes) finds a knight dumbfounded by his deceased love’s beauty in death; she witheringly responds that “Death for a woman can / Do more than knighthood for a man”. While the women in Phantastes can certainly be Victorian paragons—especially Anodos’ Lady of the Marble—they’re also varied, interesting, and not wholly reliant on Anodos; for one unnamed girl, he’s simply the brief catalyst for her fully realized self. For a Victorian fantasy novel, I was pleasantly surprised.
Bottom line: For a Victorian fantasy novel, Phantastes is surprisingly refreshing, using its imaginatively beautiful set pieces as background for Anodos to hash out his issues and ultimately become a better person through failure. While light, well worth the read.
Incidentally, the cover I’ve selected is from an upcoming hardcover edition of the text to be published by Hendrickson Publishers on June 30. Check it out on Amazon here.
- Lewis, C.S.. Surprised by Joy. The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis. New York: Inspirational Press, 1994.
- MacDonald, George. Phantastes. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1858. N. pag. Project Gutenberg. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.