Opening Doors to Fairyland: George Macdonald’s Phantastes

The 19th century Scottish theologian George MacDonald originally planned to be a respectable minister, earning theological degrees and finding a deep faith that was to underlie most of his works. Unfortunately for this first career choice, by all accounts he was terrible at it, to the point where annoyed parishioners cut his salary. But if this failure was a (possible) loss (or gain) for the Congregational Church of Scotland, and a heavy personal loss for MacDonald, it turned out to be a decided gain for fantasy literature. For with a family of eleven children, MacDonald needed money, and if he had failed as a minister, he could, he hoped, turn his love of fairy tales, writing and Scottish culture into profitable stories.

This did not work out well either; MacDonald’s works failed to hit the bestseller lists, and he was forced to turn to literary patrons and lecture tours for further financial assistance. But if his writing was a financial disappointment,his explorations of fairylands helped establish the genre of English children’s literature of the fantastic.

His influence, however, tends to be forgotten or underrated, largely because MacDonald, who can be occasionally annoyingly Victorian, is not always the easiest writer for contemporary readers to approach. His books could be—in fact, frequently were—meandering, sometimes delightfully, sometimes annoyingly. He was more fond of morals than the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland (a book, incidentally, that he enthusiastically encouraged the publication of), dropping morals into all of his fantasy books, sometimes into seemingly every page. Many of his characters, particularly his children, are either stereotypes or unrealistic or both. But for all of this, he could also create scenes of stark beauty and delightful detail. His works proved that the fairy tale in English did not need to be merely a didactic children’s tale, but could contain philosophical and literary depth.

And, by showing how Christian theology could be subtly, almost invisibly, woven into the fairy tale and creative mythology, his works caught the imagination of writers as disparate as J.R.R. Tolkien, W.S. Auden, Madeline L’Engle and (reputedly) J.K. Rowling.

(And, as it turns out, he was the grandfather of the guy who wrote Forbidden Planet. So now you know. Influential everywhere.)

One word of warning before we continue: I will not be covering all of MacDonald’s works, which include several romantic and realistic novels set in Scotland that were apparently very influential in Scottish literature and which I just couldn’t get through. I will only be sampling some of his fantasy works. Also, although this is mainly meant to be a reread of his children’s books, I’m starting off with a discussion of one of his adult books, Phantastes—largely because if I start with the first of his children’s fantasies, At the Back of the North Wind (coming up soon) none of us will get through this reread.

So with that out of the way: Phantastes!

Phantastes seems to open as a typically ponderous Victorian novel. You probably know the type. And then, two paragraphs in, a fairy shows up. Which just goes to suggest that the first paragraph can create a slightly misleading impression. Slightly. The fairy promises the narrator, holder of the unlikely name of Anodos, that Fairyland does exist, and he will be lucky enough to travel there, and soon. And indeed, by the very next day, he finds his room transformed into the borders of Fairyland.

Or, as others might suggest, allegory.

Shortly thereafter, after ignoring the well meant advice of various women (including an ogre) he is tricked by beauty, and meets his shadow—in this world, a near demon. By now, he realizes, he cannot easily return home, so, followed by the demon—and distracted by more women—he makes his way to the Citadel which has been magically prepared for him, where, in proper fairy tale fashion, he finds himself served by invisible hands eager to fulfill his every desire. And, in somewhat less proper fairy tale fashion, he sings a white lady to life before falling into the underworld of fairyland and its dangers, trapped in a tower with his shadow, and finally dying—the only way he can return to the mortal realm.

Oh, and encountering some terrible poems along the way.

I’ve left out most of the (many) digressions, which give this work the feel of fairy tale piled on fairy tale piled on fairy tale, all adding to the struggle—and it is a struggle—of the narrator to move through the realm of faerie. Fairyland, for MacDonald, is a world of transformation and deception, dream and nightmare, song and silence. His fairies dance between archetypes, characters stolen from Grimm’s fairy tales or Arthurian knights, and creatures of nature, living in flowers and infusing trees with the ability of independent thought and movement, or creatures of fancy.

(Incidentally, I don’t know, but I wonder how much of Tolkien’s Ents may have come from MacDonald’s trees—not quite Faerie, but somehow infused with magic and independent thought and movement, some dangerous, some benign, some protective. Tolkien himself, of course, claimed to have been inspired by—or deeply annoyed by—his great disappointment in the ending of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but he was familiar with at least some of MacDonald’s work. And MacDonald, too, may have been filled with Macbeth disappointment, although I can’t be sure about that.)

But Fairyland is also, for MacDonald, a metaphor for the journey of the soul, and its search for beauty and truth. Anodos has little personality—some might say no personality—aside from the occasional tendency to justify deserting women because, after all, he’s given them a wonderful memory of him. Oh, and his tendency to open doors even when advised not to, but, that is standard for fairy tales. Oh, and his ongoing tendency to want to kiss the beautiful women he encounters even when he’s already learned that many of them are evil. One mistake I can see, Anodos, but this ongoing search for beautiful women who want to kill and maim you is just not healthy. (And for someone apparently familiar with fairy tales he’s learned absolutely zilch from them.) Oh, and his tendency to fall for women who very clearly have other romantic attachments, although to be fair that part is undoubtedly drawn from the courtly love tradition.

Aside: some of the gender stuff here is rather, well, odd, even for a Victorian novel. Anodos keeps running into—and lusting after—beautiful woman after beautiful woman, most of whom end up being evil or severely unavailable, but his real admiration and love is reserved for the men he meets: the two brothers ready to fight giants, the knight romantically attached to the marble lady Anodos lusts after, and so on. The beautiful lady who turns out to be evil is another standard Victorian trope, but falling for a man—as Anodos does, if chastely, towards the end of the book—is slightly more unusual for the period. And for all of Anodos’ pursuit of beautiful women, the fairy tale does not end with even the hope of his marriage. As far as I know, MacDonald’s own marriage was happy—he and his wife had 11 living children, and she accompanied him on lecture tours—but Phantastes was written after they had been married for some time, and a certain ambivalence towards women appears strong in this book.

But most of this book is not about Anodos’ character growth, or his dealings with women, or even about Anodos at all. He is, all too clearly, a stand in for the soul’s journey through faith and dreams, troubled by doubt, unsure of what to see and to believe. Anodos’ shadow demon, as we learn, is actually Doubt; as he falls under its influence, Anodos finds it harder to see aspects of fairyland – or beauty. The suggestion here is that without faith in God, no one can find or see goodness or beauty, but the Christian part of this is not overly explicit, and the book can be read without any overlay of faith at all. But to see wonder, to see beauty, and to not have it vanish takes, MacDonald claims, the ability to banish—or at least control—all doubt. That done, the traveler can move through Fairyland and see and understand its beauties and dangers.

(And learn the important truth that cats can’t be trained by fairies, either. So now you know that too.)

Phantastes gives a hint of what would be MacDonald’s later strengths and weaknesses as a writer: his brilliant imagination, his often poetic writing, his gift for magical description, coupled by unfortunate sentimentality, a gift for forgetting his plot and getting way, way off the point (in this case, illustrated by a digression to chat about an alternative universe immediately followed by the interjection of a long short story right in the middle of the narrative, just as Anodos is supposedly exploring a strange and mysterious magical castle. Mind you, in this book, that short story is one of the highlights. Here and in later books, these digressions can help illustrate his themes, but I couldn’t help wishing more than once that he would illustrate his theme with something that would either advance the plot or illustrate his characters.

I hardly know whether to recommend this book. It can be exquisitely beautiful, and painfully slow, and occasionally dull, and overly moralizing. But I can say that from time to time I was caught by MacDonald’s enchantment, by his underlying concept that we can build a land of Faerie in our minds, and travel there. And I loved the fairy library. I do think, if you read it, this is a book best taken in short gulps, chapter by chapter, allowing the enchantment to linger, but not overstay its welcome.

(Oh, and most of you will want to skip the poetry. It’s okay, I promise.)

Fair warning: the free version of this book available at Gutenberg in HTML format contains numerous formatting errors and can be difficult to read. Try a library copy.

Mari Ness promises that if she ever meets beautiful women in fairy land, she will be careful. Especially if they look like trees.


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