Philosophy in Fairy Land: George MacDonald’s “Phantastes”

It is difficult to find the half-forgotten novels of 19th-century writers like George MacDonald, who is remembered, if at all, as a children’s fantasy writer. Perhaps you have read At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, or The Princess and Curdie. Perhaps your library still has these books. But does it have MacDonald’s first adult novel Phantastes? Never mind: you can find an inexpensive Dover edition illustrated by Arthur Hughes at online bookstores, and there are countless editions by publishers I do not recognize.

George MacDonald, a clergyman, a devout Christian, and a writer of fairy tales and fantasies, was, by all accounts, something of an intense character. He was dubbed the Father of Fantasy for his wild imagination and love of the fantasy/fairy tale genre. And his influence on other writers, especially C. S. Lewis, was enormous.

In Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he writes that he had long been on a fruitless quest for joy and finally found it in the ending of Phantastes, which converted him to Christianity. In the preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, Lewis wrote, “What [Phantastes] actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise … my imagination.”

Phantastes is billed as a novel–but it isn’t quite. It is a hybrid mix of prose and verse and could be labeled “experimental.”

The story line is simple, and takes the form of a journey, but there is no particular plot. When the wealthy narrator, Anodos, wakes up on his twenty-first birthday, he is startled by a statuette-sized woman, who pops out of his father’s desk. During their talk, she magically grows into a tall majestic woman. And she tells him the news that he will go to Fairy Land. Not quite what he had in mind.

The room breaks down into a dream. It metamorphoses into an outdoor scene: the basin becomes a spring that runs into a stream over the carpet; the carpet’s design of grass and daisies turn into a border of grass and daisies. As for his dressing table:

My dressing-table was an old-fashioned piece of furniture of black oak, with drawers all down the front. These were elaborately carved in foliage, of which ivy formed the chief part. The nearer end of this table remained just as it had been, but on the further end a singular change had commenced. I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy-leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakable ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers. Hearing next a slight motion above me, I looked up, and saw that the branches and leaves designed upon the curtains of my bed were slightly in motion.

MacDonald’s surreal prose can be verbose, but you soon get used to it. I loved the fairy tale aspects of Phantastes. Sometimes the narrator falls into dreams and reads or listens to stories.I was especially fascinated by the story of Cosmo, a young bohemian who buys an antique mirror with unusual carvings on the frame. Naturally, it is a magic mirror; and in its reflection, a beautiful woman lives in Cosmo’s room. He becomes obsessed with her and begins to teach swordsmanship in order to make money to furnish the room elaborately. But how can he break the spell and meet the woman?

Some of the stories are told in verse. And some, decidedly, are better than others. Here are a few melancholy stanzas of one that goes on for four pages. Some of these are better than others.

Sir Aglovaile through the churchyard rode;
SING, ALL ALONE I LIE:
Little recked he where'er he yode,
ALL ALONE, UP IN THE SKY.
Swerved his courser, and plunged with fear
ALL ALONE I LIE:
His cry might have wakened the dead men near,
ALL ALONE, UP IN THE SKY.

As for the Christian symbolism in Phantastes, the reader joins the naive narrator in the struggle between good and evil, learns who the good trees are and who the evil (avoid the Ash and Alder!), realizes that fairies abide by different rules than humans, and pits himself against the ominous shadow picked up along the way. Anodos is always in trouble, because he doesn’t follow directions. And he is also often enchanted, i.e., under a spell, so we can’t blame him too much.

Truthfully, I delighted in the journey through Fairy Land, but the writing is uneven. Some scenes are tediously static. Lots of wandering through beautiful scenery. I preferred the stories Anodos hears to own rather dull adventures. And I alternately enjoyed and was exasperated by the poetry.

MacDonald was prolific, and he loved describing his Fairy Land, but my guess is that some of his other adult books would be more my cup of tea. Still, I can tick this off my genre-reading list. It is a fantasy classic! C. S. Lewis liked it more than I did.

N.B. Anodos (the hero’s name) means “pathless” or “without a road” in Greek.

10 thoughts on “Philosophy in Fairy Land: George MacDonald’s “Phantastes”

  1. Did MacDonald’s poem inspire this?
    Ballad
    (by C.S. Calverley)

    PART I

    The auld wife sat at her ivied door,
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    A thing she had frequently done before;
    And her spectacles lay on her apron’d knees.

    The piper he pip’d on the hill-top high,
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    Till the cow said, “I die,” and the goose asked “Why?”
    And the dog said nothing, but search’d for fleas.

    The farmer he strode through the square farmyard;
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    His last brew of ale was a trifle hard,
    The connection of which with the plot one sees.

    The farmer’s daughter hath frank blue eyes;
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    She hears the rooks caw in the windy skies,
    As she sits at her lattice and shells her peas.

    The farmer’s daughter hath ripe red lips;
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    If you try to approach her away she skips
    Over tables and chairs with apparent ease.

    The farmer’s daughter hath soft brown hair;
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    And I met with a ballad, I can’t say where,
    Which wholly consisted of lines like these.

    PART II

    She sat with her hands ’neath her dimpled cheeks,
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    And spake not a word. While a lady speaks
    There is hope, but she didn’t even sneeze.

    She sat with her hands ’neath her crimson cheeks;
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    She gave up mending her father’s breeks,
    And let the cat roll in her best chemise.

    She sat with her hands ’neath her burning cheeks,
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    And gaz’d at the piper for thirteen weeks;
    Then she follow’d him out o’er the misty leas.

    Her sheep follow’d her, as their tails did them,
    (Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
    And this song is consider’d a perfect gem;
    And as to the meaning, it ’s what you please

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  2. I think Lewis was so impressed because there was not much else like it at the time. The literary descendants of MacDonald went on to create much better-written work, but his imagination remains powerful. I will read this again someday … I don’t remember much about it although I got to know the children’s books almost by heart.

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    1. I remember being amazed by At the Back of the North Wind, and certainly Phantastes has that mysterious tone. And I’m very moved that it had such an influence on Lewis and the other Inklings. MacDonald wrote so much, and I haven’t the faintest what the others were about, but pefhaps they’re worth checking out.

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      1. He wrote a ton of realistic moral tales that I don’t think anyone reads anymore except for die-hard fans of Christian fiction. The essentials to read are The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, The Golden Key, the Light Princess, and some of the shorter fairy tales. There’s also his other “adult” fantasy, Lilith, which you might be interested in too.

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  3. I just got a collection of George MacDonal novels, and this was one of them. I was curious if it was worth the read but your review has got me intrigued. It’s interesting with MacDonald, I feel like a common theme in his book is a beautiful, old wise woman. Versus in many other fairytales the wise guide is usually an old man.

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