Phantastes by George MacDonald
It’s been widely argued (for example, by Lin Carter in Imaginary Worlds) that fantasy literature as we know it today began in the 1890s with William Morris’s romances, such as The Well at the World’s End. This is an oversimplification, since, in a sense, fantasy goes back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh, written down around 2000 BC. Still, it was Morris’s romantic adventures, set in a world of long-ago that doesn’t line up with real history, that led both to the American pulp fantasy of the 1930s and 1940s (Howard, Leiber and the rest), as well as to a succession of more idiosyncratic fantasy novelists, culminating in the quantum leap of Lord of the Rings and everything that came afterwards.
Perhaps the most important immediate precursor of modern fantasy was the Scottish minister, poet, novelist and essayist George MacDonald. Many of his books were realistic, but he wrote a string of fantasy tales aimed variously at adults and children, though he himself described his target audience as “the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” His children’s fairy stories, such as The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind, have remained popular, but his writing career was bookended by two major fantasy novels for adults: Phantastes and Lilith.
MacDonald was born in 1824 in Scotland, descended from the MacDonalds of Glencoe, victims of the notorious massacre in 1692. He studied at the University of Aberdeen and in 1850 became a Congregational minister, first in Arundel, then Manchester, but neither he nor his congregations were comfortable with one another. MacDonald’s theology was liberal, possibly influenced by some of the less conventional Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. He rejected the concept of divine punishment, arguing instead that God’s only concern was to cure sinners, and believed that everyone would ultimately be saved.
He eventually settled into teaching at London University and writing. He produced a large number of books through his life and was a friend of writers as various as Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. A photograph survives of MacDonald in a group of writers that includes Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope. He died in 1905.
MacDonald influenced several strands of literature, including the ultra-realist “Kailyard” school of Scottish literature, but is perhaps best remembered for his fantasy. This started in 1858 with Phantastes, described in its subtitle as A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. It’s a strange, inventive, exuberant novel, which leaves the reader wondering whether they’ve read an account of a dream, a vision, an allegorical journey or an actual adventure. Whichever it might be, it’s a haunting book full of danger, romance, action and beauty.
The first-person hero is a young man named Anodos (Greek for pathless) who, it must be assumed, lives somewhere in roughly contemporary Europe, although little is specified about his background. After a curious episode where Anodos meets a beautiful fairy lady who claims to be his grandmother, he wakes to find his bedroom transformed into a landscape that proves to be Fairyland.
At first, this appears to belong to the cute, sentimental fairies of the Victorian age, as Anodos meets a group of tiny flower fairies. I know of at least one person who stopped reading at that point, but it doesn’t last more than a few pages and this kind of content never recurs.
It’s possible that MacDonald intended to start the journey with innocence and childhood, but he immediately leads Anodos into a dark, perilous forest which is anything but cute. Here he’s menaced by the evil spirit of the Ash tree, a being that suggests more than a hint of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow.
The forest holds both beauty and danger. Anodos is helped by a series of beautiful ladies, wandering knights and kindly matrons; but, searching for a woman he’s sung into life out of marble, he finds instead a sinister shadow that follows him without needing to be cast by anything. This is a little like the shadow that attaches itself to the title character of Cabell’s Jurgen. It’s entirely possible that Cabell, writing some sixty years later, knew Phantastes, although strange shadows are common enough in folklore.
During a stay in a vast palace, apparently deserted except for presences just beyond vision, Anodos reads (or rather experiences) a number of strange tales and eventually finds his Marble Lady again. However, he breaks a taboo by touching her and is plunged into a sunless underworld of suffering. From here, he must find a way to redeem himself through heroism, and to lose his shadow.
The book is very clearly allegorical, but defining the allegory isn’t straightforward. Overall, Anodos appears to travel through various stages of his life, from innocence to experience and beyond, on a journey that confronts and tests his various ideals, fears and desires, but MacDonald avoids any easy answers.
The shadow that dogs Anodos, for instance, could be interpreted in many ways, ranging from the arrogance of youth to the sorrows of adulthood, or perhaps the cloying effect of unromantic reality. Many episodes, though clear enough in detail, are less so taken as a whole and display a rich symbolism, rather than straightforward allegory.
When Anodos escapes from the dismal underworld, for instance, he comes to a cottage on an island, where a beautiful, kindly old woman sings him comforting songs between allowing him through the cottage’s four doors. Each of these doors leads him to a far-off setting, representing a sorrow of past, present and future, and a fourth destination he remembers nothing of on his return, apart from a feeling that it’s the most horrific of all. The episode suggests many interpretations, but its strength lies in the power of the emotions it evokes.
As befits the tale of a young man discovering the world and himself – though perhaps surprisingly from a Victorian minister – there’s a strong sexual undercurrent to Phantastes. When Anodos is saved from the evil ash tree by the spirit of the beech, for instance, it takes the form of a beautiful lady who lulls him to sleep in her arms, in an extremely sensual scene.
A very curious scene, just after Anodos has acquired his shadow, strongly suggests sexual symbolism. He falls in with a girl carrying a small, beautiful globe that produces a sweet sound and is clearly precious to her. She tells Anodos that “You must not touch it…Or if you do, it must be very gently.” At first, Anodos respects this request, until, under the influence of the shadow, he handles it too roughly and breaks it, leaving the girl lamenting the loss of her treasure.
MacDonald uses a variety of styles and narrative approaches to tell his tale. The greater part of it is a blend of fairy story, with all the beauty and horror, splendour and danger, of the Brothers Grimm and the mixture of adventure, love and allegory characteristic of the mediaeval romances.
The stories Anodos experiences in the palace, though, are of a different kind. One is a strange, romantic ghost story set in Prague, while another is a very early example of science fiction, set on a planet with such a long year that few of its inhabitants live for more than a season or two. A modern SF reader, of course, might object that a planet so far out from its sun would be unlikely to support life; but it should be borne in mind that this was 1858, before even Jules Verne had turned to SF. The fact that MacDonald was able to explore the possibilities of other planets based on actual scientific concepts makes this episode worthy of more fame than it has within the genre.
This is a short novel and, for mid-Victorian literature, not a difficult read, although it contains elements that might feel awkward to readers only used to modern books, such as its long paragraphs consisting of description or internal monologue. Nevertheless, Anodos is an engaging first-person, veering between the ideals, enthusiasm, recklessness and foolishness of a young man, and the mixture of action and mystery comes fast enough to make the story very readable.
MacDonald’s other great fantasy romance, Lilith, which he wrote near the end of his life, is a darker work with a more overt religious allegory, though also with the touch of science fiction he displays once in Phantastes – the strange world the later book is set in isn’t Fairyland, but “the region of the seven dimensions”.
George MacDonald isn’t the most fashionable fantasy writer these days, but he had a profound influence on writers including Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle. C. S. Lewis regarded MacDonald as his greatest influence, and his love affair with MacDonald’s works began with Phantastes. He later recorded that “Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” Lewis’s SF trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) are considered to owe a great deal to MacDonald’s influence.
In a way, MacDonald’s work is as much the product of another age as the mediaeval romances that influenced him, but in another way, they’re utterly timeless and as relevant to a reader today as in his own time. Phantastes is the work of a young man who – like Anodos – is discovering and coming to terms with his skills and imagination. It’s a beautiful, exuberant book, well worth reading.