Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald

Phantastes George MacDonaldPhantastes: A Faerie Romance: “I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness.”

I read Phantastes for the first time in 2012, and while reading it, I was very confused with the progress of the story.  So many questions swirled around in my head as to the plot, such as why Anodos, the main character, decided to go to a particular place and why he didn’t listen to advice and what was the point of his wanderings?  I approached the book as I would a book like The Lord of the Rings where I was expecting an obvious quest in the culmination of something grand. What I received was a sort of lazy, fanciful wandering by Anodos as he continually encountered faerie princesses and maidens, along with a knight, giants and other evil malefactors.  While there were instances of adventure and situations where he had to employ his strength and good sense, these instances seemed solitary experiences that did not connect to the whole.  I just couldn’t figure out the point of the story.  When I couldn’t find it, I was left somewhat disappointed and unimpressed.  Flash-forward to my second reading this year and an epiphany! ….

I finally understood that, as the first sentence indicated, Anodos’ experiences were a dream of sorts.  Our dreams often don’t follow expected flow or outcomes and in this case, nor did Anodos’ dream. And so like a stream of consciousness novel, I allowed it to wash over me and was rewarded with a completely different experience. Novalis, an author of the early German Romanticism which influenced MacDonald, explains it more eloquently, and MacDonald prefaced the beginning of the book with his words (translated from German):

Lily Fairy Luis Ricard Falero

Lily Fairy – Luis Ricard Falero ~ source Wikipedia

One can imagine stories without rational cohesion and yet filled with associations, like dreams; and poems that are merely lovely sounding, full of beautiful words, but also without rational sense and connections—with, at the most, individual verses which are intelligible, like fragments of the most varied things. This true Poesie can at most have a general allegorical meaning and an indirect effect, as music does. Thus is Nature so purely poetic, like the room of a magician or a physicist; like a children’s nursery or a carpenter’s shop. . . . “A fairy-story is like a vision without rational connections, a harmonious whole of miraculous things and events—as, for example, a musical fantasia, the harmonic sequence of an Aeolion harp, indeed Nature itself.
• • • •
“In a genuine fairy-story, everything must be miraculous, mysterious, and interrelated; everything must be alive, each in its own way. The whole of Nature must be wondrously blended with the whole world of the Spirit. In fairy-story the time of anarchy, lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of Nature makes itself felt in the world. . . . The world of the fairy-story is that world which is opposed throughout to the world of rational truth, and precisely for that reason it is so thoroughly an analogue to it, as Chaos is an analogue to the finished Creation.”

Without my original linear expectation, the book gained a life of its own, lush and full of beautiful women (faeries), a knight in rusty and shining armour, old hags, living trees and many other fantastical characters.  The gorgeous descriptions took over as I followed the dream as one would sleepwalking yet still being completely aware.

Take The Fair Face of Woman Sophie Anderson

Take The Fair Face of Woman – Sophie Anderson ~ source Wikipedia

“Numberless unknown sounds came out of the unknown dusk; but all were of twilight-kind, oppressing the heart as with a condensed atmosphere of dreamy undefined love and longing.  The odors of night arose, and bathed me in that luxurious mournfulness peculiar to them, as if the plants whence they floated had been watered with bygone tears.  Earth drew me towards her bosom; I felt as if I could fall down and kiss her.  I forgot I was in Fairy Land, and seemed to be walking in a perfect night of our own old nursing earth.”

Upon turning twenty-one, Anodos (which in Greek means to ascend or move upward), a young man, has a vision of a lady who is standing by his father’s desk, a desk he inherited upon his death. She tells him that he will find his way into Fairyland and lo, when Anodos wakes the next morning, his bedroom has been transformed into a land of vegetation and he takes a path into the wood.  He encounters old wise women, young beautiful women, treacherous women, and often his curiosity and bad judgement lead him into dangerous situations.  He acquires a menacing shadow due to his unwise choices and must puzzle out its fate.  He meets a knight and learns of dishonour and perseverance.  He falls in love and learns of love unrequited.  But gradually all Anados’s experiences work on his inner character and slowly we see a transformation. As he spends more time in Fairyland and faces more challenges, his strength of character appears to grow along with his wisdom. At the end, he is trusted with much, risks much and has a deeper understanding that life is full of the unexpected and all we must do is to meet it and struggle to the best of our ability, knowing that goodness and mercy is something worth fighting for.  Through Anodos’ experiences, the reader learns that evil can often be masked for good, that human kindness and mercy is often worth more than life itself, that paradoxes are the flowers of life, that love can transcend human understanding to reveal deeper truths, and that Death is not to be feared.

This Fairyland is a metaphor for the journey of the soul and Anodos’ search for truth and beauty culminates in a gaining of wisdom at the end.  It’s a beautiful story, a story that deserves to be read at least twice to discover the magic it contains within.

A Fairy Tale Arthur Wardle

Some of my favourite quotes are:

“As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy.”

“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.”

“How many who love never come nearer than to behold each other as in a mirror; seem to know and yet never know the inward life; never enter the other soul; and part at last, with but the vaguest notion of the universe on the borders of which they have been hovering for years?”

“It is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness. I knew that love gives to him that loveth, power over over any soul he loved, even if that soul know him not, bringing him inwardly close to that spirit; a power that cannot be but for good; for in proportion as selfishness intrudes, the love ceases, and the power which springs therefrom dies. Yet all love will, one day, meet with its return.”

At that moment she was changed by magic to a wonderful little elf

At that moment she was changed by magic to a wonderful little elf – John Bauer
~ source Wikimedia Commons

C.S. Lewis on Phantastes in a letter to Arthur Greeves March ? 1916:

“I have discovered yet another author to add to our circle — our very own set: never since I first read “The well at the world’s end” have I enjoyed a book so much — and indeed I think my new ‘find’ is quite as good as Malory or Morris himself.  The book, to get to the point, is George MacDonald’s ‘Faerie Romance’, Phantastes, which I picked up by hazard in a rather tired Everyman copy ……. Have you read it?  I suppose not, as if you had, you could not have helped telling me about it.  At any rate, whatever the book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once: and it is quite worth getting in a superior Everyman binding too.

Of course, it is hopeless for me to try and describe it, but when you have followed the hero Anodos along that little stream to the faery wood, have heard about the terrible ash tree and how the shadow of his gnarled, knotted hand falls upon the book the hero is reading, when you have read about the faery palace — just like that picture in the Dulac book — and heard the episode of Cosmo, I know that you will quite agree with me.  You must not be disappointed at the first chapter which is rather conventional faery tale style, and after it you won’t be able to stop until you have finished.  There are one or two poems in the tale — as in the Morris tales you know — which, with one or two exceptions are shockingly bad, so don’t TRY to appreciate them: it is just a sighn, isn’t it, of how some genuiuses can’t work in metrical forms – another example being the Brontes.”

32 thoughts on “Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald

  1. I’m pretty sure I read this in highschool because I recognized the name “MacDonald” from the Curdie books. Man, I was not prepared. It put me off him until 2008 when I re-read the Curdie books and even then it took me another 4 years to try Lilith.

    I am a fan of linear, quest oriented, story telling so MacDonald’s style is tough for me to deal with. I suspect his style is a big part of why he hasn’t survived time in the same way as say Dickens.

    • I think MacDonald was on the cusp of fantasy and other writers built upon his (and others) work to make fantasy into something recognizable. I appreciated MacDonald’s wonderful descriptions and while his themes were strong, his illustrations of them lacked cohesiveness and some maturity in writing. But, looking back, his work is something that you just can’t categorize which makes it even more interesting. And you can tell he’s writing from his heart which is something I always appreciate. So, with its flaws, it gets high thumbs up from me!

    • At The Back of the North Wind is one of my favourites. I haven’t read Lilith yet. For some reason, it unnerves me a little. It might be even be more of a stretch to enjoy than Phantastes but with this reading, I feel more equipped. I must check out your blog for reviews. It’s good to see you back and perhaps somewhat more Frenchified! 🙂

  2. Thanks for this! I read Lilith some years ago & had a reaction somewhat like your first with Phantastes. I didn’t hate it or anything, but it mostly went past me, I think. I came to MacDonald with Tolkien-ish expectations as well. And I’ve had a copy of Phantastes on the shelf for years also. Maybe it’s time to revisit!

    • You’re welcome! I’m so glad that I gave it another shot. I believe I could read it a third time and be even more enthralled. But that’s what a classic should be, right? A book you can read over and over and still glean something from.

  3. spectacular photos as usual! i almost missed the peacock in the last one…
    i read this many moons ago and loved it: it precipitated me into a love of fantasy that lasted many years… i still like it and should reread it soon… many tx for an elegant post…

    • Thanks, Mudpuddle! I really love the Lily Fairy but all of the pictures are lovely. I’m so glad to hear that you’re a fan. As soon as I let go of my expectations the story came alive for me. I’ll have to continue to read more of MacDonald’s works.

  4. The thing is, until Tolkien did LOTR, fantasy literature was all over the place, and as far as I can tell it was often this episodic, dreamy kind of thing. I find it much more difficult to read since there’s less in the way of a plot to pull me through the story, and it’s also more difficult to remember. I’ve read Phantastes two or three times, but all I can remember right now are a few images.

    I’ve got a collection of Lord Dunsany’s stories on my pile for this year, which I read ages and ages ago but all I can remember is that it wasn’t easy going, and I think this was why — but I’m not sure. We’ll see I guess.

    • Yes, exactly. You’re left with images. I wonder if that was part of MacDonald’s intent or if he’d be surprised by the effect it’s had on us both? Have you read anything of the early German Romanticism? I haven’t but this book has made me curious about it. Oooo, I will be looking forward to your thoughts after you read Lord Dunsany and what you find similar in MacDonald’s writing.

      • I’ve read heaps of German Romanticism, which is wonderful stuff. Besides the obvious – E. T. A. Hoffmann – try to find Ludwig Tieck’s novella “Blond Eckbert” or “Fair Eckbert” which is one of the most beautiful dream-tales I know.

        • Thanks, Tom! It was hard to find in English (my German is not good enough for the original) but I found it in a compilation of German novellas and have ordered it. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. I read MacDonald’s short story “The Gift of the Child Christ” and thought it was great. But I haven’t read anything else. I need to put MacDonald on my reading schedule. Sounds like “At the Back of the North Wind” might be the place to start.

    • I haven’t read The Gift of the Child Christ. Another book to put on the list for next Christmas! And yes, At The Back of the North Wind would be the perfect place to start!

  6. What a great review Cleo! I love the prose and am tempted to pick it up, but I have too many books going on all together at the moment, but I must read this and soon!

    • I finally see why Lewis loved MacDonald. MacDonald is to Lewis what Virgil is to Dante. He even turns up in Lewis’ The Great Divorce!

  7. Thanks so much for showing “another side” of MacDonald. I, too, am very familiar with the Princess and Curdie series or books, yet I did realize he wrote much more than that. What I found interesting when I was teaching Children’s Literature to undergrads is that he was trained and served (for quite a time) as a minister, or vicar.

    • I highly recommend At The Back of the North Wind. Just a beautiful book and it shows even another side of MacDonald. He was a minister but had issues with the Calvin doctrine as some of his beliefs conflicted with it. It would be interesting to read a biography on him.

  8. I really liked this one when I read it a few years ago. _Lilith_ is on my list for someday. I have Lord Dunsany on my list as well — the one I want to reread is _The king of elflands daughter_. It is an odd novel, but I liked it better than his short stories.

    • I’d really like to read The King of Elflands Daughter too. So many rabbit trails to books and not enough time to read! Sigh!

  9. I read this one a long time ago but can’t remember any details & I don’t remember having any negative thoughts related to it. I’ve been meaning to re read it again but I have a bit of a block towards anything like this for some reason even though I didn’t years ago. That usually means I just have the bite the bullet & start reading it – like I did for Anna K.

    • You do have to have an open mind when you read it and I would think that one would enjoy it more in a certain mood. Probably some down-time to let your mind wander …… and how many of us have that lately? 😉

  10. I’ve never read this one, but it sounds of a similar quality to what I remember of Lilith – or at least what my memory is of how Lilith “felt,” if that makes any sense. Phantastes wasn’t really on my radar, but perhaps I should add it and a reread of Lilith to the ever-growing list…

    • I haven’t read Lilith yet. I’m anticipating it with some trepidation and hope I enjoy it. I think you’d like Phantastes. Different but pleasantly unique!

  11. I read this because I could not resist buying the beautiful edition at the bookstore. McDonald is interesting, but I really don’t enjoy his style. Yet he influenced C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. They got something out of his writing, I didnot.

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