Phantastes by George MacDonald

George MacDonald is a key figure in the development of modern fantasy. A friend of Lewis Carroll (whose Alice in Wonderland he read to his children in manuscript, and encouraged the Reverend Dodgson to publish), and an influence on the Inklings (C S Lewis first read Phantastes in 1916 and went on to champion MacDonald’s writings; Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major was the result of his trying, and failing, to write an introduction to MacDonald’s The Golden Key). As well as fairy tales for children, realistic novels, sermons, etc., MacDonald wrote two “faerie romances” for adults, one at the start of his career (Phantastes, in 1858) and one near the end (Lilith, in 1895) — though one of his most famous statements, in the essay “The Fantastic Imagination”, makes it clear he made no real distinction about age:

For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

MacDonald’s approach to fantasy owed a lot to the German Romantics (of whose Märchen, or literary fairy tales, de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine was his favourite), in believing that the imagination, just like the landscape was to so many Romantic artists and poets, was not just a frivolous indulgence, but a realm in which serious spiritual truths could be revealed, for, he believed:

The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God.

And it’s this idea, perhaps, that most attracted Lewis and Tolkien (whose idea of “secondary creation” seems closely related), but also, I think, it’s this sort of moral seriousness that influenced David Lindsay, another reader of MacDonald. At his best (but not always), MacDonald managed to be serious in meaning without having to underline any explicit moral. As he says in “The Fantastic Imagination”:

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.

Phantastes cover by Gervasio Gallardo, for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series

The protagonist of Phantastes (and I haven’t found a really good explanation of the title’s meaning, nor how it’s pronounced) is Anodos, whose name means either “pathless” or “upward path” in Ancient Greek (and as he at one point in his adventures hears tittering fairies saying “Look at him! Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!”, it’s at least the former, but most likely both). On his 21st birthday, given the keys to his dead father’s escritoire, he finds a secret compartment that holds a tiny fairy, who grows to full size and tells him he’ll be journeying to Fairy Land tomorrow. The next day, he wakes to find his bedroom half-transformed into a fairy landscape, with a stream pouring from his wash-stand and grass in place of a carpet.

What follows is more a series of episodes than a single narrative, though there is a general movement towards some sort of a moral education on Anodos’s part (this is a coming-of-age story, after all). First, there’s some slapstick with tiny flower fairies, which might come straight out of an early Disney film, but afterwards there’s horror, as Anodos is pursed through the wood by some sort of shadowy walking tree. He’s saved from that by another tree, or tree-woman, who warns him to “shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre,—you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair”. Later, he finds a woman encased in alabaster, though she runs away when he frees her, and when later still he thinks he’s found her again, it proves to be the deceptive Alder, who looks beautiful from the front, but behind is “hollow, as if made of decaying bark torn from a tree”. After this, he acquires a living shadow, which casts a disillusioning, cynicising darkness on everything it passes over. He finds temporary release in a Fairy Palace, which seems to represent the world of art, both as escape (Anodos spends time sampling other, very real-seeming worlds through the palace’s library) and redemption (he finds, again, his alabaster woman, shrouded by his shadow, and realises he can free her by singing).

Cover by Jim Lamb for 1981 Eerdmans edition

The story seems to consist of a constant shuttling between states of darkness (entrapment by the Alder, disillusionment by the shadow) and visions of light or beauty (the alabaster woman, the fairy palace), with Anodos coming to learn of his own powers as a poet (his singing), while also being genuinely disillusioned that he might be some sort of knightly hero. He finally accepts this and becomes the squire to a genuine knight, but in the end finds a capability that this knight, because of his purity, lacks: having been corrupted by his contact with evil, Anodos is better at spotting it, and when the knight is taken in by the apparent holiness of a church that is actually sacrificing its young worshippers, Anodos realises it is evil, and fights against it. (Something that can’t help making me think of MacDonald’s own background. He was, initially, a minister, but couldn’t bring himself to preach the Calvinist idea that only a predestined elect would go to Heaven. His wages were cut in half, and he soon gave up on a church career.)

MacDonald’s primary motive in Phantastes seems more to have been following the whims of his imagination, and exploring this faerie realm to see what it could teach him (and his readers). He wrote the book in part under the patronage of Lady Byron (mother to Ada Lovelace, and a mathematician in her own right), and although Phantastes was not a critical or popular success when it came out, it did earn him some recognition, and led to a lifelong career as a writer.

John Bell illustration from an 1894 edition

To me, Phantastes is one of the founding texts of modern fantasy, standing in the same relation to the genre as The Turn of the Screw, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde do to modern horror. Like them, it has the feel of illustrating the findings of twentieth century psychology a good half century before they were discovered. The difference with Phantastes, though, is that its story is too messy for it to make the same impact as those seminal horror novels and stories. With Phantastes, the fundamental story of psychological growth reads almost in pure Jungian terms — Anodos is drawn on by his quest for the anima-like “Alabaster woman”, who has, like the seed of his own psyche, “the face that had been born with me in my soul”, while fleeing his Jungian shadow, which at one point is literally his shadow — but that story has to be sought amidst a welter of wonders, side-stories, and diversions. In story terms, Phantastes resembles the tangled, sometimes-treacherous fairy wood Anodos himself tramps through, and it feels as though the story is something that emerged from those tangles as MacDonald went along, rather than something he told intentionally.

MacDonald, like Jung, had faith in the imagination as a self-healing realm of inner meaning. As he says in his long essay, “The Imagination, its Functions and its Culture”:

If the dark portion of our own being were the origin of our imaginations, we might well fear the apparition of such monsters as would be generated in the sickness of a decay which could never feel—only declare—a slow return towards primeval chaos. But… a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have… For the end of imagination is harmony. A right imagination, being the reflex of the creation, will fall in with the divine order of things as the highest form of its own operation…

And it’s his taking the imagination seriously that makes him so important as a fantasist in the modern tradition, and lifted him above the twee, imitative fairy tales of his day. Phantastes might read more like an experiment in imagination than a polished masterpiece, but it is nevertheless a significant work.

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Years ago I went to see a film about two Dublin junkies called ‘Adam & Paul’ (one of the central conceits of the film was that you never found out who was Adam and who was Paul). You know how a film can sometimes transport you into a different world? Well I saw the film in Dublin within five minutes’ walk of where most of it was shot. The difference between the world created in the film and the reality waiting for me outside the cinema was paper-thin. Similarily, I read ‘Phantastes’ sitting in a wood while mitching off school. An old, dark but – in places – very pretty wood. I really enjoyed the book, but still wonder what it might have been like if I had (say) read it in an attic.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Both an attic and wood sound like perfect places to read Phantastes! (Or Lilith, whose gateway to another world is in the attic.) I just read it on the sofa.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Sofas are good!

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