There are some books that take more effort to reading than you can give at a first glance. Maybe it’s too intellectual for you to comprehend at whatever stage of life you’re in. Maybe it’s a book that needs to be read multiple times to be comprehended. In any case, it’s a book you struggle to read but you power through it and feel unsatisfied by the time you’re done with a first reading. I have several books like this: T.S. Elliot’s Christianity and Culture, Augustine’s Confessions, C.S. Lewis’s Dymer, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, etc. I can now add George MacDonald’s Phantastes to that list!
As such, please don’t consider this review of Phantastes to be a comprehensive one. This is just a first impressions as the book is one I’ve wanted to read for a while now. Most people don’t make a habit of going back and reading mostly forgotten 19th century fantasy novels for the reason that they’re antiquated. Phantastes is most remembered now because of the role it plays in the biography of C.S. Lewis. He name checks the book in his autobiography Surprised by Joy and explains that it appeared to him at an important moment of his development. A 16 year old Lewis purchased a copy of the book at a book store and had something of a religious experience reading it as a young atheist. He famously stated the book “baptized his mind” and opened his mind to the world of mysterious and spiritual.
I can’t speak to the same as a first time lay reader. I’m not as well read as Lewis was and I’m almost ten years older than he was at the time he read it. The story is challenging to follow and describe. At a glance though, It’s clear just how much it’s ideas affected Lewis considering how many ideas and motifs appear in his later books. The book starts as a young man named Anodos opens a secretary he inherited from his family and discovers a fairy within it. He wakes up the next morning to discover his bedroom has transformed into the entrance to a magical realm known as Fairy Land. From there, the stumbles upon different aspects of the realm and meets magical creatures and mythic figures like Percival the Knight.
“To solve my speculations, and to dispel the awe which was fast gathering around me as if the dead were drawing near, I approached the secretary… when suddenly there stood on the threshold of the little chamber, as though she had just emerged from its depth, a tiny woman-form, as perfect in shape as if she had been a small Greek statuette rouse to life and motion.”Phantastes by George MacDonald, Chapter I Page 7, Digireads 2019 Edition
The lead character’s entrance into Fairy Land echos in the Narnia books where characters find themselves wandering into strange fantasy worlds beyond their imagination. The story’s structure and allegorical storytelling also bears similarity to Dymer, Lewis’s early epic poem following his service in WWI. Both stories rely on heavy amounts of allegory and complexly hypnotic layers of symbolism. They are achieving very different thematic goals however.
Phantastes is challenging mostly because it doesn’t hold the readers hand. Anodos’ name is the Greek word for “pathless” and it’s clear his search through fairy land is somewhat aimless. He mostly stumbles upon boughts of beauty and evil and reacts to the various temptations. The descriptions of the world are luscious and fantastical. The world breathes with mystery and creativity as the forest literally comes alive and transforms all around hun in amazing ways.
Anodos ends up spending over twenty years in Fairy Land living a full life, training to become a knight and finding himself caught up in tangles between humans and mythic creatures. Much of the symbolism is buried within the surreal nature of it’s events which depict living statues, living trees and supernatural beings. For much of his journey, he’s stalked by a menacing shadow of himself that seems to threaten him as he goes on his journey to it’s bitter end. I can’t begin to decipher everything this book is accomplishing if only because these abstract images and evocative descriptions are challenging to keep track of.
Their evocative nature is quite appealing though. The world of Fairy Land is mystical and strange. It doesn’t seem to follow rules or logic at times but it never stops being exciting and new. Anodo’s adventures capture a deep yearning for beauty and nature in this strange world. Even when the actual plot and moment to moment allegory shift with his journey, the moment always feels descriptive enough to feel captivating.
Lewis famously said that George MacDonald was a mediocre writer with a limitless imagination. As Lewis writes:
“If I were to deal with him as a writer, a man of letters, I should be faced with a difficult critical problem. If we define literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank – perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages… where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style… But he does not maintain this level for long… What he does best is fantasy – fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”Preface to George MacDonald by C.S. Lewis
I can’t speak to how well MacDonald conveys his themes and symbols in Phantastes compared to his other work. I hardly understood it. In some ways I could hardly follow what it is the famously Calvinist man was trying to even describe in a story such as this. It wasn’t until the book’s final chapter when Anodos returns from Fairy Land that the book started to evoke some of the religiosity I had assumed his work would make more obvious.
“When the thought of the blessedness I experienced… is too high for me to lay hold upon and hope in it… I find myself, unconsciously almost looking about for the mystic mark of red, with the vague hope of entering her door… I have come through the door of Disney; and the way back from the world into which that has led me, is through my tomb. Upon that red sign lies, and I shall find it one day, and be glad… Yet I know that good is coming to me – that good is always coming though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.”Phantastes by George MacDonald, Chapter XXV, Page 146, Digireads 2019 Edition
The prose is dense but the emotions are intoxicating. In the 21 days he spent in Fairy Land, he felt 21 years of life experience, maturity and escapism. Returning to Earth, he can’t help but feel a yearning to return to that world. In going through such supernatural experiences, he came to understand himself and the nature of evil and death better than he could in the natural world. He looks up to the sky with contentment that he was blessed to know so much about these two worlds.