Silas Marner: A Fireside Read to Warm Your Hearth and Heart

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Silas Marner, George Eliot, 1861

In the novella Silas Marner, George Eliot merges realism and fairy tale. Unlike most European folk tales, the story begins in a Grimm place and ends up somewhere homey and heartwarming.

The title character is an archetypal outcast, a weaver who, through the treachery of a close friend, is cut off from any avenue to human affection. Eliot describes his severely limited existence as the execution of weaving jobs and the accumulation of money repeated incessantly.

When a half orphaned, half abandoned child wanders into his home, Marner finds new purpose and his life becomes entwined with local families.

Silas Marner is a tale of second chances. Eliot posits that whether you’re screwed up or you’ve been screwed over, transformation and redemption are possible, uncomfortable and infinitely rewarding.

As in all her work Eliot is at her best when describing the English countryside and at her worst when condescendingly stereotyping its people. I could read page after page of her describing a flat, featureless stretch of land, but my eyes roll when she generalizes the characteristics of farmers. Her patronizing tone has some purpose in this novel, so it’s more bearable than in Adam Bede

Ultimately, Eliot creates a great deal of sympathy for a seemingly unlovable loner and the wastrel aristocrats he inadvertently becomes involved with. The book starts off a little slow, but my enjoyment increased with every page. Who doesn’t like a fairy tale re-imagined in contemporary times (granted contemporary for Eliot meant mid-1800s)?

You might like Silas Marner if:

  • you’re fond of outcasts
  • it would do you good to read a story of redemption
  • you’re fond of fairy tales

You might not like Silas Marner if:

  • you prefer tragic endings

Final Thoughts:

Silas Marner is an uplifting read, which is rare in the English canon. Authors usually chose to show how a character’s flaws lead to misfortune. Whereas, Eliot starts with unfortunate and flawed characters and shows how their choices lead to their redemption. I like it. It’s nice to read a story with an uncommon plot and an uncommon emotional arc. This is a great, short read for cozy autumn or winter evenings. I might have just convinced myself to read it again soon.

What I Learned from Reading Slave Narratives

 

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, 1861

You should not read this post; you should just read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I can tell you that my heart hurt when I read Harriet Jacobs’ account of her life, but you need to feel that for yourself. You need to spend some time thinking about the white men who raped their slaves and then enslaved their own children. It’s not enough to just contemplate the fact that this happened, you need to hear from a woman who lived under these circumstances. Harriet Jacobs recounts living in terror from age fifteen, which was when her “master” began threatening her sexually. I could tell you how I feel about that, but you shouldn’t hear it from me, you should hear it from her.

You should think about the enslaved fathers who had no power to protect their wives and children from being raped. You should think about the mothers who felt that the only reason to keep living was their children and yet prayed that their children would die as infants rather than live as slaves.

I can tell you that Harriet Jacobs’ fear of being raped was so great that she hid in a crawlspace barely bigger than a coffin for seven years until she could escape to the North, but you need to hear it from her. Her words as she describes listening to the voices of her children below her, but being unable to talk to them or hold them are more important than the words you are reading right now.

This is such an important book. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the only firsthand accounts of slavery from a woman’s perspective. Just before the commencement of the Civil War, Harriet Jacobs began publishing her account of her life serially in The New York Tribune, but her very veiled descriptions of sexual harassment were deemed unsuitable for publication. At that time white women were protected from even knowing about the acts of violence that a man could legally commit against his black slaves.

Facts about the history of slavery are horrifying. Yet, it’s too easy to shudder at a line in a textbook and pass on the next sentence, the next chapter, the next thought, without truly contemplating the meaning of slavery for the enslaved. When we study history, we spend too much time on the lives of great men, and not enough time on the lives of the people. Personally, I think the best measure for evaluating the greatness of a historical figure is by the effect their actions had on the quality of life of the people within their power. All of the people within their power. No slave owner should be held up as a great man or woman.

I’m losing focus and I’m getting very tense. I am going to stop writing, because I am not important. Harriet Jacobs is important. If you are from the US or live in the US, you need to read this book.

Betrayed by my Favorite Author: Women Who Hate Women

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Adam Bede, George Eliot, 1859

Before I started this project, I considered George Eliot my favorite Victorian author on the strength of Middlemarch alone. She dethroned herself with the rest of her body of work. Yes, she. If you’re not familiar, George Eliot is the nom-de-plume of Mary Ann Evans. When I was assigned to read Middlemarch for a college course, I loved it. I will discuss that special novel when we come to it in this endeavor. Just know that there’s one metaphor that compares women’s native passions and energies to a river whose force diminishes as it breaks upon the rocks of all the other crap people expect from us.

Having read only Middlemarch, I saw Eliot as a feminist author who fought back against the stereotype of female characters whose only concerns are hair ribbons and marrying rich. A Mill on the Floss mostly confirmed this opinion. Then I came to Adam Bede.

Let me tell you how Eliot betrayed me and all women in Adam Bede. There is a character, Bartle Massey, who exists only to spew misogynist nonsense. Every line of his dialogue cut me. Not because a male character hates women, but because my beloved George Eliot wrote and published those lines. She put those horrible thoughts into the world for others to chuckle at. I will not comb through the text to find his most egregiously hateful statements, because reading even one makes my shoulders tense up. So, here’s the first one I could find:

“I must give [my dog] her supper too, confound her! Though she’ll do nothing with it but nourish those unnecessary babbies. That’s the way with these women—they’ve got no head-pieces to nourish, and so their food all runs either to fat or to brats.”

Do you not feel betrayed? How could George Eliot write that? I mean, fuck. I like to think I’m a pretty savvy reader, and I found no evidence that his dialogue was meant to be satirical. What’s worse, he serves no purpose in the novel other than as a mouthpiece for hate. Really. His only other role is moral support for the title character, a function which could easily have been served by at least two other characters. Seriously, if I were to draw you a diagram of the plot, and I’d be happy to do so, this joker’s name would appear nowhere, because he’s inconsequential.

Her portrayal of female characters is problematic as well. First we have Hetty Sorrel, a pretty young girl who is so astoundingly vain and empty headed that she manages to ruin or nearly ruin the lives of everyone near her. Then there’s Lizbeth Bede who destroys the happiness of the men around her by constantly whinging about trifles. And there’s Mrs. Poyser who also cannot stop complaining. Lastly, we have Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. Now, that’s pretty cool. A lady doing manstuff. Well, until she gets married and the Methodist church decides women shouldn’t preach because they’re dumb dumbs who do more harm than good. So, George Eliot provided us with stereotypes of female vanity and shrewishness elevated to the point of ruinous destruction.

Why? Why would she do this to me? I loved her so much and she stabbed me right in the feminism. I can’t help but think that Eliot was trying to throw her audience off the scent of her true identity or assert her membership in some male club by bashing women. Which sucks. That just sucks. Just don’t do that “I am a woman, but I’m not like other women. They’re the worst,” crap. Hey, George Eliot, are you a woman? Yes. Are you awesome? Yes. Therefore women are awesome. You’re not a special miracle; you’re evidence that all women have the ability to be insightful, eloquent artists, given the chance.

Listen, I am going to forgive George Eliot. What she did to me as a female reader of female authors really stings. But, every feminist takes a tumble at some point. We all screw up. Standing up to existing powers is exhausting and tricky. She redeemed herself with Middlemarch and I will apply its soothing balm to my psyche.

I don’t forgive Adam Bede, though. I have more problems with it. I find the characters flat, either wholly good or wholly sinful.

Victorians loved descriptions of quaint rustic scenes. Eliot provided them. Her tone in doing so comes off as extremely condescending to me. I slogged through her descriptions of country dinners with a grimace on my face. Then there’s this thing that happened that I just can’t stomach. Spoilers coming in the next paragraph.

Ok. Adam Bede is this strong, sexy carpenter. He’s tall, handsome, hardworking, good at everything, and wise in a quaint rustic way. Everybody in his whole town loves him. His younger brother, Seth, is a less awesome version of Adam. He’s a great guy, but no one really cares about him, because they’re too busy being impressed by Adam. Seth is in love with Dinah Morris. She looks like an angel. She’s so good and pure. She’s just so much better than other women that he could never love anyone but her. But Dinah only loves Jesus. She tells Seth that he’s just the kind of guy she would marry if she was going to marry anyone, but God wants her to blah blah blah not get married and help people yadda yadda.  (When people talk about Christianity, it sounds like the adults in Charlie Brown to me.) The plot proceeds. It’s a doozy. Hardships are endured. Christiany whomp-whomp sounds are made. Dinah falls in love with Adam. Adam finds that he loves her too.

Now, that all seems believable to me. I’m sure brothers have both fallen in love with the same woman. No doubt, a man has married a woman who rejected the proposal of his brother. What I don’t believe is Seth’s attitude about it. Seth, the poor dear, tells Adam that he loves being around Dinah so much that if he can’t marry her, he’s happy to be a bachelor forever and have her near him as a sister. Nope! Zero. That has never happened. If Seth had moved on and married someone else and regarded his feelings for Dinah as misguided puppy love, I would believe that he would condone the marriage. But, I cannot believe that any person would ever be ok with their brother marrying the one person they feel they could ever love. Just no. The last person to be ok with their brother marrying their one true love would be a younger brother who has spent his whole life in his brother’s shadow.

Let’s look at a parallel fictional example. Lady Edith and Lady Mary. Edith lives in Mary’s shadow. Edith was in love with cousin Whatshisface, the one who died on the Titanic. Mary was supposed to marry him to save the family fortune. Was Edith ok with this? No. She was resentful and so desperate for this dude’s affection that she thought a burnt-faced conman was said dead cousin and kind of fell in love with that weirdo. That was a stupid plot element, but it illustrates my point. Also, Edith fell for other people, because it is unnatural to just never seek out human affection again when the first person you’re into doesn’t feel the same way about you. Unnatural.

I do not generally need faithful realism in a work of fiction. However, I just could not buy into the ending of Adam Bede. George Eliot wants me to believe that Adam marrying Dinah and Seth living as their sad bachelor brother is a happy ending. Nope. My gut churned when Dinah and Adam fell in love. Everybody in that situation needed to find someone else to love. I get that these characters don’t often get out of their small town, but…. Just don’t marry the one person your little brother has ever loved. Just don’t. Please. Don’t.

I should mention that something very controversial happens in this book. Not just Victorian controversial, every time period controversial. Well, I can’t speak to what offended cavepeople, but if anything did, probably this thing would. So, it’s not exactly boring. Also, Eliot is a great writer. Every unlikable element of Adam Bede is beautifully written.

You might like Adam Bede if:

  • you are not a feminist
  • you’re a feminist who’s pretty good at shaking off misogynist statements
  • you like George Eliot’s other novels
  • I mean, it’s a well-written book. If the stuff I mentioned wouldn’t bother you and you generally like Victorian fiction, it’s a pretty darn good book. I hope you do read it and like it. It’s not for me, but I’d be perfectly happy to hear that someone else enjoyed it.

You might not like Adam Bede if:

  • the Bartle Massey quote above made your gorge rise.

Final Thoughts: My final thought is a message for Bartle Massey:

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The First Mystery Novel: Is Spectacular. You Should Read It.

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The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins, 1859

Well, mystery novels sure got off to a whiz-bang start with this genre-starting book. I mean, dang, is The Woman in White ever a startling departure from the literature that came before it? Yes. The answer to that question is yes.

The Good

  • Multiple perspectives. The premise of The Woman in White is that an earnest young drawing teacher, Walter Hartwright (get it, his heart is, you know, in the right place), has a crime to document and expose, so he has gathered the testimony of all persons who can shed light on the mystery. The novel consists of the narratives he gathered from these persons. This narrative structure turns the reader into a lawyer reading transcripts of depositions and trying to piece together a coherent idea of the events. Fun!
  • Multiple styles! I find texts written from multiple perspectives either incredibly enjoyable or incredibly frustrating. When Mary Shelley switches from Robert Walton to Victor Frankenstein to the monster without once varying her writing style, because, you know, different people express themselves differently, I want to throw the book across the room. C’mon, Shelley, get it together. However, when the author varies their style to suit the quirks, personalities and agendas of the various narrators: fun, fun fun. Collins does this. Hooray! I loved hopping between perspectives. Every part of the novel is written in first person, so there is much more stylistic range than, say, Game of Thrones.
  • Psychological intimacy. It’s addictive. These lengthy Victorian novels allow the reader to really get to know the characters. Even though Frederick Fairly dictates only one relatively short interval in the book, I know him. I’ve got his number. I have a nuanced knowledge of the motivations, fears and desires of Marian Halcolme and Walter Hartright among others. Detailed novels provide an intimacy with the thoughts of other (fictional) human beings that goes beyond the intimacy we have with our co-workers, most of our relatives, some of our good friends. I get to go inside their (fictional) brains and think their thoughts. If “I think therefore I am” than “I read Jane Eyre, therefore I think Jane Eyre’s thoughts” and “I read therefore I am Jane Eyre.” Reading is magic.

The Bad

  • That length is problematic. Or is it? I don’t know anymore. Bring on the long, Victorian novels! 700 pages seems daunting when I turn the first thirty pages. However, somewhere around page 300 I become so immersed in the world of the book that I never want to leave. Around page 500, I start to feel anxious, because I know I will reach the end and the period of my life when I am well-acquainted with and deeply concerned about the affairs of Blackthorne Park will end and I will be unceremoniously booted from the lives of the characters I have grown to know so well. Can you tell that I’m feeling a bit emotional about finishing this book? You know what, I should take length out of the bad category, because it’s goddamn patronizing of me  to assume that you won’t read a long book. The Woman in White is underrated and you’re a fool if you don’t read it. I’m not going to tell you that it’s too long to be worth reading, because that’s a idiotic thing for me to say. You’re a grown adult.You’re more than capable of sticking with a long novel.

The Ugly.

  • I really thought that I was going to hate this book based on the first few lines. There’s some problematic stuff when it comes to gender relations. But, I’m going to give Wilkie Collins a  break. I have a relatively uncommon concept of gender relations, because I went to Oberlin and Obies don’t believe in gender. I can hardly expect a mid-19th century novelist to have the concept of gender roles that I have. (They don’t exist. They’re a harmful societal construct. It doesn’t matter what genitalia you have, you can do, be, think, like and act any type of thing and any type of way. You’re not a boy or a girl, you’re a human being with a nebulous identity that no one can classify with a silly little word like boy/girl/man/woman/male/female. You’re not a dude/lady, you’re a rainbow.) So, yeah. Wilkie Collins probably didn’t feel that way about stuff. It grinds my gears to hear one of the only strong women in pre-1900s literature hate on herself for being female and think that her femininity and her strength can’t go together. (wait, just to be clear, femininity isn’t a thing.) Redo: think that her body and her moral fortitude can’t go together. Marian Halcolme is a badass and she dislikes herself for being female and constantly talks trash  about her gender and generally feels like she was born in the wrong body. She wasn’t born in the wrong body. Just because every female in literature before her fainted at the first sign of danger (ok, not Lady Macbeth), doesn’t mean that her resolute perseverance, her cool-headed tenacity and her indomitable courage are in some way not female/feminine. If a woman is brave she is not acting like a man. She’s a woman who is brave, because women can be anything and men can be anything. Please just let your children be themselves and discipline your children when they don’t let other children be themselves.

You might like The Woman in White if:

  • you dig mysteries.
  • you enjoy books with multiple narrators.

You might not like The Woman in White if:

  • you don’t have the attention span for long novels. But you do. Don’t wuss out on a book because of length. You’re better than that.

Final thoughts: This is an incredibly fun novel. Adventurous readers will enjoy it. I found it gripping and I can’t wait to read it again.

An Open Letter to Maggie Tulliver

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The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot, 1860

Oh, Maggie Tulliver. Mag, Mags, Magsy. Oh, Magpie. If only…. You shouldn’a…. It’s not your fault. Not like this!

In the long history of misunderstood literary youths, you are the least understood.

You just couldn’t do your gender roles, you poor, stubborn, affectionate thing.

If only your brother had your brains. If only women were allowed to exercise their mental capacities . If only your parents weren’t donkey-brained fools. They should have appreciated you, Magster. Everyone should have appreciated you.

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I’m sorry Phillip pulled that friend-zone nonsense on you. I’m sorry about what went down with your cousin’s fiancé. I’m sorry your brother was such a bully. You still loved him. More than he deserved. I’m sorry Victorian society had such strange and unreasonable expectations about female sexual purity. I’m sorry everybody always assumed the worst of you.

I wish you hadn’t done the honorable thing. It caused a lot of pain for a lot of people. I know you were sticking to your principles. Couldn’t you have compromised a little? Sometimes you just have to get by in society. It doesn’t feel good, but you do what’s required sometimes. Just to avoid causing a big painful kerfuffle. You got everybody all kerfuffled. I respect you though. So much. You always did your best.

I’m especially sorry about how things ended for you. I guess you’re probably ok with…that thing that happened, but I’m not. I’m not satisfied with your ending at all.

You were worth the whole damn lot of them. That’s a reference to a book published eighty years after your book.

Nothing ever went your way.

Just know you found the perfect love you craved in the hearts of your readers even if your author wrote you a crappy ending.

Love,

Sydney

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The Play Lincoln Was Watching When He Was Killed

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Our American Cousin, Tom Taylor, 1858

Our American Cousin has the dubious distinction of being the play that Abraham Lincoln was attending when he was assassinated. Ironically, given its dark history, the play is a delightful, farcical comedy. The plot centers around the visit of an American to his aristocratic English family. I believe a description of the characters will serve to illustrate Tom Taylor’s humor.

  • Asa Trenchard—the titular American cousin. “I’m Asa Trenchard, born in Vermont, suckled on the banks of Muddy Creek, about the tallest gunner, the slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state.” He’s rustic, a good shot with a bow and arrow, worldly-wise and savvier than his British relatives. Asa speaks in a stream of folksy colloquialisms. He is unrefined, but kind and practical. Taylor’s depiction of Asa’s culture shock cracked me up. Asa finds the valet assigned to him astoundingly useless, quipping “Hold on, say, I may want to yawn presently and I shall want someone to close my mouth.” After a few days in England, Asa figures out the foibles and hidden agendas of every member of his uncle’s household.
  • Lord Dundreary—a silly British nobleman visiting the family. “I never can forget—when I can recollect.” A lisping buffoon with odd facial hair, and a habit of mixing up words. Dundreary became an iconic comic character. Actor Edward Askew Sothern’s physical comedy and ad libs became so famous that bushy sideburns were known as Dundrearies and mixed metaphors as Dundrearyisms for a while. Dundreary is in love with Georgina.
  • Sir Edward Trenchard—a proud but terribly indebted lord. “A pretty time for such levity when ruin stares me in the face.” He considers suicide or marrying his daughter to a scoundrel as means to ending his financial difficulties.
  • Coyle—an old servant of the household who is now attempting to defraud them of all their property and marry Florence. “And now to show this pompous baronet the precipice on which he stands.”
  • Florence Trenchard—Sir Edward’s daughter. “Why will papa not trust me? Oh, Harry! I wish he would. I wish he would find out what a lot of pluck and common sense there is in this feather head of mine.” Florence truly is plucky. She realizes Asa’s value and helps him resolve the family conundrum.
  • Mary Trenchard—a cousin dispossessed by the will that gives Asa the family property. “Well, I must look to my dairy or all my last week’s milk will be spoiled.” Disinherited Mary must make her own living in her dairy. She’s sweet and domestic. Asa falls in love at first sight, because she’s the only productive person he’s met in England.
  • Georgina—a girl who’s trying to marry Lord Dundreary. “I’m too delicate.” Georgina pretends to be a delicate invalid, because that’s what turns on Dundreary.

While Asa seems to be the comedic figure, the play actually satirizes foolish, affected, avaricious British nobility. It is pretty funny to read a Victorian Brit’s take on Americans. I mean, I know I can’t speak for more than 30 seconds without including a metaphor involving possums, eels, or pigs in hollers. So, a pretty accurate portrayal of Americans.

You might like Our American Cousin if:

  • you’re a curious history buff.
  • you have a sense of humor.
  • you like puns.
  • you enjoy a little satire in your farce and a bit of farce in your satire.

You might not like Our American Cousin if:

  • you’re more serious than a badger in a bunny hole.

Final thoughts: This was well worth reading. I reread it before writing this post and I enjoyed it the second time too. It’s funny, entertaining and quite short. A good read.

A Fantasy Novel for Philosophical Loners

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Phantastes, George MacDonald, 1858

Do you feel a breeze? That’s a cool, refreshing puff of sweet, sweet fantasy fiction. The last glimpse of the supernatural I had was the ghost at the window in Wuthering Heights. But, I worked my way to Phantastes, a genre-starting novel by the brave forefather of fantasy literature in English, George MacDonald.

MacDonald influenced such giants as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. Phantastes is his first novel. It’s not the swashbuckling team adventure story that Tolkein standardized. Instead, a lone traveler journeys aimlessly through fairyland. He encounters strange enemies and allies, but the conflict in Phantastes is mostly internal. The wonders of fairyland provide a backdrop for a somber story of self-discovery.

The protagonist enters fairyland through an enchanted desk. You know, a magic item of furniture that contains a passage to a magical world. Anyone thinking of Narnia? He has no particular goal or quest, but simply follows his instincts as he travels. The plot structure reminded me of the last books of the Mabinogion, a series of Welsh-Celtic myths, because the main characters encounter a string of random obstacles; there’s no coherent plot line. It reads more like a travel journal than a novel.

The protagonist has enemies in the form of tree people. An ash tree is out to get him, for no clear reason other than the inherent evilness of ash trees. An enchantress known as the alder-maiden attempts to seduce him, reminiscent of the enchantress Duenna from The Faery Queene. He falls in love with a woman who is part statue, a direct reference to Pygmalion. However, his primary struggle is with his own shadow. Peter Pan, anybody?

His shadow takes on a life of its own. Like the shard of glass that fell into Kai’s eye from the Snow Queen’s mirror, the shadow prevents the hero from seeing any good in the world. Every beautiful person or scene he looks on turns sinister and mundane when his shadow falls over it. Plenty of metaphorical depths to plumb there. The shadow reminds me of Kelly Link’s story “Stone Animals,” in which the world around two parents gradually becomes haunted, one item at a time. I also thought of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-addled mind sees not people, but hideous lizard people. All these stories examine how easily our own perception can destroy our ability to see the beauty and goodness that surrounds us. How easily fear and doubt within can ruin our understanding of the world without. So watch out for reefer madness, kids.

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Look at the spectacular beard on George MacDonald! And the attitude. Fierce. 

It was nice to take a break from Victorian realism to ramble with fairies and enchantresses for a while. Phantastes is quite an impressive work of imagination. MacDonald stumbles a bit stylistically. This may sound silly, but his paragraphs are too long. There’s something about line breaks. They allow the reader to pause and process a subset of information. I found myself losing track of the narrative, because by the time I made it to the end of a paragraph I had forgotten something from the beginning of the same paragraph. Perhaps your brain moves ideas to a different memory storage area when you see this:

Anyway, this minor stylistic detail hampered my enjoyment of the text. The good news is that George MacDonald wrote more books and refined his style. You will see more of him on this blog and more glowing reviews.

 

If you’re a fantasy fan, Phantastes is at least worth a listen. There are two free versions on librivox.org

Here are some quotes for you to enjoy:

“What I did see appeared perfectly lovely; more near the face that had been born with me in my soul, than anything I had seen before in art or nature.”

It’s difficult to write an original metaphor about love and beauty. I like the idea of a face born with you in your soul, of recognition as a part of attraction and of searching nature for something corresponding to an idea born inside you. It’s not practical or realistic, but hey, this is fantasy.

 

You might like Phantastes if:

  • you’re a loner Philosophy major who likes fantasy.

You might not like Phantastes if:

  • you read fantasy for the swashing, the buckling and the team building.

Final thoughts:

I like it plenty, but I don’t love it. MacDonald’s later works are better. This is the most philosophical fantasy book I’ve read. So, if that’s your bag, go for it.