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.
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.
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.