Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Phantastes by George MacDonald

In Surprised By Joy, CS Lewis famously wrote of his first acquaintance with this early work of fantasy, "I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes...That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer."

Like many others, I put this "faerie romance" on my to-read list on the strength of Lewis's glowing recommendation. And I just got around to reading it last weekend.

Anodos, our young everyman hero, is exploring an old desk in his recently-inherited castle when a stately fairy appears to him and promises that the following day he will find the path into Faerie itself. When he wakes, he find that his room has transformed into a forest, and so he goes wandering into the country of the imagination, hunted by Ash, Alder, and shadow, rescued and assisted by Beech-tree, knight, and wise-woman, but trailed the whole way by a Shadow of which no-one and nothing can rid him.

The plot is meandering--I actually thought it was the least tightly-crafted of MacDonald's fantasy works, including Lilith and The Princess and the Goblin. The imagery is, as usual with MacDonald, striking and memorable, something wonderfully new, yet which you feel as though you've known your whole life. There is a little Victorian sentimentality plaguing an early chapter, but after that it's all satisfying moral dilemmas and epic quests. For example, at one point Anodos meets a knight in rusty armour:
"Never," he added, raising his head, "shall this armour be furbished, but by the blows of knightly encounter, until the last speck has disappeared from every spot where the battle-axe and sword of evil-doers, or noble foes, might fall."
In my post on The Wise Woman, I gave a brief explanation of mythopoeia, which I defined as a story which communicate eternal truth through the medium of fairy-tale and legend. A few days ago, I stumbled across an article by a modern fantasy author, Lev Grossman, whom I don't know from Adam, but he described Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe like this:
I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.
I think Grossman gets it exactly right. In mythopoeia, your life becomes a confrontation with your own sins and faults. Lewis did it in Narnia, but George MacDonald did it even more clearly in Phantastes.

So, Phantastes is a mythopoeic story, and in many ways a really good one. It actually has a very similar theme to The Wise Woman--in fact, I could swear that the Wise Woman herself, with her mysterious cottage, makes an appearance. Just like the two little girls in that book, we find Anodos carrying around an awful weight: his Self. From the beginning of the book, he's clearly callow and foolish, finding in Faerie only the dangers which he brings with him. His Shadow rides him, waxing with his self-conceit and fading as he is given grace or wisdom. Again, Phantastes is all about the inability even of wise counsel and discipline to change a person's heart. It asserts, as The Wise Woman did, that you can feel good about yourself without ever being freed of your sin.

CS Lewis said that Phantastes "baptised his imagination" and I can believe it. Part of the book really is about the sanctified imagination. Anodos, like most newcomers to Faerie Land, falls in love with its extraordinary beauty. But when he finds his Shadow, it begins to affect his eyesight: under its influence, all things seem to be withered and ugly. And eventually Anodos learns to embrace this twistedness:
I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, "In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live."
There you have it, the unbelieving imagination, which refuses to see the goodness and mercy and justice of God in the world, however plainly written, but locks itself up into a world smaller than the world. The baptised imagination, however, sees with the eyes of faith, and thus always lives in Faerie:
But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning?
For Nature, as she really is, is a book written by God, if we have the guide by which to read it.

All these are ideas which CS Lewis and his friends repeatedly included in their own fiction. Many other smaller details do as well: Phantastes, perhaps even more than Spenser's The Faerie Queene or Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, contains a thousand little pictures that I first saw in Narnia. When a girl in the forest warns Anodos:
"Trust the Oak, and the Elm, and the great Beech. Take care of the Birch, for though she is honest, she is too young not to be changeable. But shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre,—you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair, if you let her near you at night."
--it's hard not to hear the Beaver's whisper: "Some of the trees are on Her side."

Phantastes is a beautiful story of love and redemption, a long quest to abandon the Self. There are things in it as simple, yet noble, as anything you have read in Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm. There's also a good deal of stuff that I, a fairly paint-by-numbers, Westminster-Shorter-Catechism-loving Presbyterian, raised an eyebrow at. The Universalism is apparent, if not aggressively so, the references to Nature are a bit too worshipful for my taste, and I thought that the main character's spiritual experience at the end was a good bit more Neoplatonist than orthodox. George MacDonald is, as always, as deeply flawed as he is profound and thought-provoking, and I never fail to be grateful that his greatest pupil, CS Lewis, used him to rather more orthodox ends. But Phantastes was lovely, and worth the reading.

Find Phantastes at Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.


hopeinbrazil said...

You really piqued my interest with this review. Thanks for sharing your keen observations.

Jill Stengl said...

A beautiful and insightful review! I first read this book in my college days and was quite mystified. *grin* After expanding my literary horizons over the years, I quite enjoy MacDonald now.

I also really appreciate your reviews of obscure classics. My TBR-list is growing ever longer, thanks to you. ;-)

I found your blog through your recent comment on the Tales of Goldstone Wood blog, by the way.


Suzannah said...

Oh, hello, Mrs Stengl! I'm so glad you're enjoying Vintage Novels. I hope you find many, many good reading recs here.

I just last night finished reading your daughter's first book (preliminary review here). Most enjoyable! It's so difficult to find good reading for young girls and I'm looking forward to recommending HEARTLESS to my friends.

Jill Stengl said...

I'm delighted to hear that you enjoyed Heartless. I'm still very fond of it. :-) It's gratifying to read a review from someone who understands the themes. The TofGW gets better and deeper with each book. I will be interested to see what you think of the later books in the series.
My daughter challenges me to write something deeper than the fluffy romance books I wrote years ago. I still have much to learn about writing and literature (and everything else!), but I'm happy to keep learning for as long as I live! :-)

The Yuletide Kid said...

Thank you for your extensive and thoughtful review of MacDonald's PHANTASTES. You obviously are more steeped in theology and philosophy than I am. I have read a number of MacDonald's works but am not in any way an expert. Besides PHANTASTES, I've read THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, THE PRINCESS AND CURDIE, LILITH, and two or three of his Scottish novels that had been homogenized into modern English. My favorite, be far, was LILITH, easily MacDonald's darkest and most profound work. No book, with the possible exception of Ellis Wynne's Welsh classic VISIONS OF A SLEEPING BARD, ever took me into the heart of evil as LILITH did. There is a chapter on Death towards the end of the book that chills me to this day.

As ever,
The Yuletide Kid

Suzannah said...

LILITH was particularly good - I keep meaning to re-read it someday for a review. If you can get MacDonald's realistic novels in their original formats, I recommend those as well!


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