Review: Phantastes

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.

I downloaded this free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

  • 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.

7 thoughts on “Review: Phantastes

  1. I love fantasy but my world pretty much stops and ends with Tolkien. I am decently well-versed in YA fantasy, but other than that I’m lost. I have to admit that when I started reading your review and saw that the book was old enough to be public domain I hesitated a bit…but I’m glad I read the whole thing, because this book sounds fantastic, definitely worth checking out. Thanks also for focusing on a public domain work that I can download right…about…now.

    • A good rule of thumb is to read the authors that your own favorite authors loved. ‘-) That’s how I ended up reading, and loving, Phantastes, through my love of Tolkien and Lewis.

  2. This book sounds very good and I’m interested in the fact that it was inspirational to C.S. Lewis. I too love fantasy as a genre and to find an adult fantasy novel written in the 19th century is wonderful. I’m excited that it is on Project Gutenberg, I will definitely be downloading this one.

  3. Good points here. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, and I can’t wait to return to it. At times MacDonald’s style is uneven and seemingly unedited, in my opinion, and the story could be very difficult to follow. But his overall effect is one of tremendously powerful beauty, rimmed with something that is hard to describe, but might be akin to holy Joy, as Lewis might put it. “Refreshing” is also a great descriptor, I agree. The “Magic Mirror” chapter is a beautifully haunting story all unto itself!

  4. Since you’re already familiar with The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, I’ll recommend the book Imaginary Worlds by BAF editor Lin Carter. It’s a good overall history of the fantasy genre from William Morris to Tolkien and beyond. I’m slowly tracking down all the BAF editions and have about two thirds of them.
    Regarding Lord Dunsany, I prefer his short stories to his novels. Dover has an edition of Wonder Tales, which contains my favorite Dunsany short, The House of the Sphinx.

  5. Good review, but I want to take issue with your comments that he shed his idealism. Once he escaped from the square castle, having been imprisoned by his inflated opinion of himself, he has this valuable quote:

    Then first I knew the delight of being lowly; of saying to myself, “I
    am what I am, nothing more.” “I have failed,” I said, “I have lost
    myself–would it had been my shadow.” I looked round: the shadow was
    nowhere to be seen. Ere long, I learned that it was not myself, but
    only my shadow, that I had lost. I learned that it is better, a
    thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up
    his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will
    be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer
    of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or
    dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself
    for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas,
    formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my
    ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal.

    Thus, he went through what he noted as valuable elsewhere, quoting: “We are ne’er like angels till our passions die.” What he lost was selfishness, what he kept was his idealism.

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