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George MacDonald’s Phantastes: The Dazzling Depth of Fairy Land

Last year we as a faculty at Cair Paravel Latin School had the enriching pleasure of reading and discussing “The Light Princess,” “The Golden Key” and The Princess and the Goblin, three delightfully profound fairy tales by George MacDonald.  The experience led me to take another whack at MacDonald’s Phantastes, and I’m mostly glad that I did.

The novel is about the journey of Anodos through fairy land.  Anodos encounters men and women, spirits of trees, ogres and dragons on his journey.  Against the advice not to enter an ogress’s house and not to open a certain door he releases his shadow.  His shadow represents his evil self, and the rest of his adventures in fairy land revolve around his quest to free himself of his shadow.

Why am I mostly glad that I read MacDonald’s book?

First, the book is of historical importance.  The subtitle of Phantastes is A Faerie Romance.  It is considered one of the foundational works, if not the foundational work, of English fantasy literature, combining that genre with that of the fairy story.   If you are interested in fairy tales and fantasy stories, MacDonald’s work is something of a must read

Second, Phantastes is an excellent example of the creation of what J.R.R. Tolkien calls a secondary world.[1]  The making of a secondary world is the act of sub-creation in which the author, made in the image of God, imitates God the creator   The imitation is not identical, however,  because man is a creature and can only create using preexisting materials.  On the other hand, God creates out of nothing.

Although Phantastes is a work of sub-creation, it differs from Tolkien’s great creation of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  In spite of being a work of fantasy, Tolkien’s world can be grittily realistic and even harsh.  It is also epic in its sweep.  In contrast to Tolkien’s epic struggle of saving the world against evil, MacDonald tells the story of a soul’s struggle against its own evil self, its shadow.

For this reason, Phantastes is much more psychological and symbolic, even allegorical, and can thus be read on several levels.  Anodos, the main character’s name, is a combination of two Greek words:  the prefix meaning “above” and “again” and the noun mean “path.”  The book then is about an upward path out of the realm of darkness and evil into the realm of goodness and light.  The story is also the walking again of a path already taken.  Significantly, Anodos has just turned twenty-one, often seen as the passage into adulthood and so a time of reflection on one’s childhood and youth.  In Phantastes Anodos comes of age by reliving and reviewing his past in the realm of faery.

Third, in a remarkable way Phantastes successfully fulfills Tolkien’s four functions of a fairy story.  The first function is that of fantasy.  The work of the imagination creates a secondary world that is different from the primary world, the world of observed “fact.”  The contrast, however, is not between a “true” primary world and a “false” secondary world.  In reality, fantasy allows us to view the primary world in a new light, just as Anodos sees his past in a new and deeper way.  The capacity to see differently the primary world is recovery, Tolkien’s second function of fairy stories.  In particular, recovery helps us to see that the familiar and often seemingly dead and dull world of “fact” is full of life and exciting possibilities both for good and evil.  Recovery leads to escape, the third function, in which we do not desert reality but rather by seeing it in a new way we can transform it.  Anodos is changed from a selfish to a loving person by his trek through fairy land.  Finally, the happy ending of fairy stories brings consolation.  Tolkien invented the word “eucatastrophe” to describe the highest form of consolation in which a tragic event, a catastrophe, actually works for the good.  “It denies … universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium; giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (p. 81).  Anodos’s death in fairy land is symbolic of his death to his selfishness.  He has lost his shadow.

Tolkien and MacDonald also share an awareness of the lasting effects of evil in this earthly life.  Frodo is never the same after his struggle with the ring of power.  The wound he received on Weathertop from a Morgul sword never fully heals.  So also, Anodos continues to look around for his shadow, even after he has been changed by fairy land.

Fourth, Phantastes is a transformative experience for the reader.  C. S. Lewis claimed that it baptized his imagination and taught him to love goodness.  Reading Phantastes is to plunge into a world of vivid colors and strange occurrences.  One experiences it before one understands it.  It is something of a psychedelic trip, without the drugs.

Be warned, however.   The dreamlike and symbolic character of Phantastes makes for much more difficult prose than Tolkien’s.  It is best to read it in small doses, which are then pondered before moving on to the next section.  Also, if you’re looking for a clear plot line, you’ve lost your way.  As in a dream, one can never know what will happen or actually what is happening or has happened.

Phantastes is available on line or can be purchased in print version.  Take the time and make the effort to read it.  There’s really nothing quite like it.


[1] For this and other references to Tolkien’s views on fairy stories, see his “On Fairy-Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1966), pp. 38-89.

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