A Book to Share: Phantastes by George MacDonald

Any book inspired by the Celtic Otherworld is a book that is going to capture my interest (although whether it retains my interest beyond the synopsis or first chapter is often an entirely separate matter).  So, when Time’s “ever rolling stream” decided to reduce itself to a more manageable trickle on my behalf, I found myself able to look back through that list of books that I’d always wanted to read.

One such book was Phantastes.  The title alone is beautiful and interesting –  and apparently pronounced “fantasies” rather than the French pronunciation that my random brain immediately bestowed upon it.  I wanted to read the book not only because it has a fab title and it happens to be about my favorite place not in the world, but because it is written by the man who inspired CS Lewis, as well as Tolkien and others, and whose concepts of magic and beauty are quite simply stunning.

However, upon beginning Phantastes, I admit to being rather stumped.  Having read The Princess and the Goblin, I was prepared for symbolism, but I was also expecting a lot more coherence of a certain sort.  I had anticipated a plot rather like most books, that is a clear, linear adventure with an obvious challenge, a crisis, a climax, a triumph, and a conclusion.

What I got was Faerie.  The Otherworld doesn’t really make sense the way that our world makes sense.  Trees talk, mirrors might draw you from one dimension into another.  A door that leads into a house will not lead back out of it again.  Music has the power to awaken trapped souls.  Shadows are more than just darkness.  The Otherworld that our hero finds himself in is not a world that one makes sense of by means of comparison to our own world.  Faerie has its own dimension with its own rules and its own way of telling a story.

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.

After I had grasped this concept, I proceeded to wander aimlessly about the book along with our hero, hoping to discover the deep truths that I knew MacDonald had to convey.  I met with only marginal success.  I have the sneaking suspicion that this book will take about five reads to grasp the basics of the metaphors and another five to truly understand them.

The few themes I did uncover in the book were certainly powerful.  And without giving away the plot (not that I really could, since I barely understand it even now), I will talk about a couple of the elements I saw depicted in this story that touched me most.

Our hero’s name is Anodos, which, as I found out, actually means “ascent” or “upward path” in Greek.  This is deeply meaningful.  Anodos spends the story walking the pathways of Faerie.   He has no perceived destination.  He is simply traveling through Faerie to experience whatever he will experience.  His experiences come in episodes with tenuous threads joining some of them together, while others seem to stand entirely alone.  At least, that is what I saw (but I suspect there are likely a whole network of threads that I missed entirely because I was too busy clinging desperately at the first one I spotted).

The subtitle of the story is “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women.”  It is a romance, though a somewhat bittersweet one.  In any given novel that you might read today, the hero has a destiny involving ascension to leadership and heroism, attaining a prize, finding true love.  Any of these might do.  Often, they are combined.

George MacDonald doing what he did best.

Anodos’ story has no such conclusion.  In fact, the prizes he gains, he ends up losing.  His “ascent” is not material. The ascension to power and position, he must cast aside.  The woman he loves… well, let’s just say it’s not like other books.  But I don’t want to give it away.  The theme of Phanatastes (or, I should say, one of the themes), is not what you gain, but what you lose.  Anodos is continually seeking, but the truly wonderful things that he finds are the ones that he wasn’t looking for.  Wilfullness and the determination to forge his own path end very poorly indeed.  Humility and the willingness to listen to others and let the path itself guide him seem to work far better.  His “ascent” is found through “descent.”

This is not a book to read if you want a clear cut adventure with a clear cut ending.  There are battles, romance, and a quest of sorts.  It is just not that sort of book.  What I loved most about it was the ravishing beauty of the scenes, the dreamlike quality of the journey, and the haunting sense of something greater guiding Anodos’ footsteps.  I’ll have to read it again, and hopefully someday I will.  For now, the thought of falling back into Faerie is both tempting and terrifying.  Someday, I’ll try again.

Thou goest thine, and I go mine –

Many ways we wend;

Many days, and many ways,

Ending in one end.

Many a wrong, and its curing song;

Many a road, and many an inn;

Room to roam, but only one home

For all the world to win.

One thought on “A Book to Share: Phantastes by George MacDonald

  1. I’d say you have made a good beginning.

    Any book that is not worth reading again was not worth reading the first time.

    Some keys (golden keys?):

    “”It is no use trying to account for things in Fairy Land; and one who travels there soon learns to forget the very idea of doing so, and takes everything as it comes; like a child who, being in a chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing.” Like a child . . . who has gained the sophistication of an adult reader without having lost his childlikeness. When you are thus, the book will open up to you. Of course, one of its intended effects is to help make you that person.

    “Who lives, he dies; who dies, he is alive.” The central paradox of MacDonald’s thought–central also to Anodos’s quest. It is specifically what he has to learn about love.

    “Could I translate the experience of my travels there into common life? This was the question.” Indeed.

    Give it a little time, but not too much, and then try it again. I eagerly await your report on what you learn from the second reading.

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