I’ve been intending for years to read George MacDonald, and I’ve recently finished his Phantastes. Published in 1858, it’s described as “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women” and takes the form of a semi-allegorical journey through a fairyland markedly different from the standard Victorian model.
A young man called Anodos (pathless in Greek) finds himself transported into an enchanted forest, where he’s menaced by evil tree-spirits and helped by an assortment of beautiful ladies, wandering knights and kindly matrons. Searching for a woman he’s sung into life out of marble, he finds instead a sinister shadow that follows him without needing to be cast by anything.
During a stay in a vast palace, apparently deserted except for presences just beyond vision, in the course of which he reads (or rather experiences) a number of strange tales, Anodos finds his Marble Lady again. However, he breaks a taboo on touching her and is plunged into a sunless underworld of suffering. From here, he must find a way to redeem himself through heroism, and to lose his shadow.
This is a short novel and, for mid-Victorian literature, not a difficult read, although it contains elements that might feel awkward to readers only used to modern books, especially its long paragraphs consisting of description or internal monologue. Nevertheless, Anodos is an engaging first-person, veering between the ideals, enthusiasm, recklessness and foolishness of a young man, and the mixture of action and mystery comes fast enough to make the story very readable.
MacDonald’s Fairyland has all the blend of beauty and horror, splendour and danger, as anything in the Brothers Grimm, although that isn’t immediately obvious. Anodos’s first encounter is with a tribe of cute flower fairies, though well realised, but that’s the last time anything of the kind rears its head. Fairyland is the journey from youth to maturity, so it starts with childhood. Indeed, many of his encounters seem to have a sexual edge to them, though expressed in symbolic or romantic terms.
Phantastes is an allegory, but not one that pushes its meaning down the reader’s throat. The shadow that dogs Anodos, for instance, could be interpreted in many ways, ranging from arrogance to the sorrows of adulthood. Many episodes, though clear enough in detail, are less so taken as a whole, and display a rich symbolism, rather than straightforward allegory.
When Anodos escapes from the dismal underworld, for instance, he comes to a cottage on an island, where a beautiful, kindly old woman sings him comforting songs between allowing him through the cottage’s four doors. Each of these doors leads him to a far-off setting, representing a sorrow of past, present and future, and a fourth destination he remembers nothing of on his return. The episode suggests many interpretations, but its strength lies in the power of the emotions it evokes.
George MacDonald isn’t the most fashionable fantasy writer these days, but he had a profound influence on writers ranging from Lewis Carroll to Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S Lewis regarded MacDonald as his greatest influence. Reading Phantastes might require a little readjustment of mindset for a reader used to modern styles, but it’s well worth the small amount of effort. I strongly recommend it, and I’m looking around for other MacDonald books, especially his late romance Lilith.