Phantastes

Monday, June 7, 2010


Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women
George MacDonald, 1858

Free E-Book Link: Phantastes at Project Gutenberg, manybooks.net

Phantastes is very literally a fairy story.  It concerns a young man, Anodos, who finds a door to FairyLand in an old roll-top desk, and his adventures therein.  It doesn't have a lot in the way of coherent plot, and I sometimes had a hard time working through the slower bits without skimming too much.  Mostly the book consists of a loosely connected series of vignettes that carry the reader from one strange or gorgeous image or tale-within-a-tale to the next. 

Many moments from this work seemed familiar to me, although I am not a formal scholar of such things, so I could not say how much is like source.  However:
George MacDonald inspired many authors, such as W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master": "Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later," said Lewis, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."   (Wikipedia)
One example: early on the main character is warned about the characters of various trees, and soon afterward a beech tree saves him from the wicked ash. 
A trembling went through the leaves; a few of the last drops of the night's rain fell from off them at my feet; and as I walked slowly away, I seemed to hear in a whisper once more the words: "I may love him, I may love him; for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree."
The entire scene is very poignant, and throws a new light on a similarly woman-like tree from The Last Unicorn.

Anodos spends much of the book following the trail of the “white lady”, whom he frees from various enchantments.  He is not, however, a fairytale hero.  There is a more subtle modern story layered in under all the fantastic happenings, about letting go of the idea of individual glory.  Anodos spends most of the time unreservedly accepting the dream-logic of FairyLand: believing people who seem good, not questioning the need (or lack of need) to eat or drink, following the path.  It is when he tries to apply his own ego, logic or stubbornness -- ignoring advice, straying from instructions, indulging his personal pride or greed -- that he gets into trouble.

Most intriguing in its symbolism is a sequence when daring to enter a forbidden passage in the house of an ogre saddles Anodos with a demonic shadow which then follows him for a good portion of the book.  His frustration with it reminds me slightly of Peter Pan's obsession with shadow, and how shadows are sometimes associated with mortality.  In any case, his shadow for a time drains the happiness and very magic out of anyone who ventures too close. 
Once, as I passed by a cottage, there came out a lovely fairy child, with two wondrous toys, one in each hand. The one was the tube through which the fairy-gifted poet looks when he beholds the same thing everywhere; the other that through which he looks when he combines into new forms of loveliness those images of beauty which his own choice has gathered from all regions wherein he has travelled. Round the child's head was an aureole of emanating rays. As I looked at him in wonder and delight, round crept from behind me the something dark, and the child stood in my shadow. Straightway he was a commonplace boy, with a rough broad-brimmed straw hat, through which brim the sun shone from behind. The toys he carried were a multiplying-glass and a kaleidoscope. I sighed and departed.
So either Anodos is hallucinating this entire adventure, perhaps stumbling around the village thinking he sees magic everywhere, or his (adult male) shadow is enough to squelch the magic in others, or there is magic everywhere if you do not prevent yourself from seeing it.   All possible theories, but none are fully confirmed.

There are many lovely stories nestled within the larger narrative, and although I enjoyed them individually, I did sometimes lose the thread of the whole.  (This can't have been helped by  the fact that I was reading this book on the computer in chunks.  I never needed an e-reader before...)  Many of the inner stories are of love misplaced, lost, or betrayed.  Anodos spends a few chapters 'retelling' books he found in a fairy palace, including a story with an almost early sci-fi feel about winged women living on a world where the seasons last for lifetimes.

What else to touch on?  The house of the four doors of Sighs, Dismay, Sadness, and Timelessness?  (I think of the spin given a similar idea in Phantom Tollbooth.)  The fantastic description of how the room initially blends into the forest? (It's like the only good scene I recall from the movie Troll.) The underground trip through the lands of the goblins (who respect humility) culminating in a literal leap of faith?  The propensity of Anodos to become a singer of magic songs when the spirit moves him?  The whole text is a surreal ride. 

Near the end it tries to wrap up, and MacDonald states his moral openly:
May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portions of it, where my darkness falls not.
Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.
After finding fulfillment in FairyLand by seeking to do good without the motive of personal gain, Anodos and the reader are dumped back out into the world of mortals.  I always like it when books or movies do such a story and then refuse to cop out with “it was all a dream”, so I give points for leaving in an unexplained absence of about a month. 

I enjoyed all the individual pieces of Phantastes, but it never fully coalesced into a solid whole.  It might have been better reading it all in one go, though.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Next Week: The Wood Beyond the World (and, time permitting, The Well at the World's End) by William Morris



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