There is, I believe, a reason why some fantasy literature–think The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings–has endured with the passage of time while the works of George MacDonald have slipped into relative obscurity. Yes, C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Surprised by Joy of his experience reading MacDonald’s first work of fantasy, Phantastes:
“That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”
What do we let ourselves in for by reading this novel? The story, uses the familiar concept of a dream-based adventure. We’ve seen this in Pilgrim’s Progress, Piers Ploughman, and two of the three more recent works mentioned above. Unlike those more successful examples of dream stories, MacDonald’s seems more like a genuine dream: rambling, incoherent, and confusing. Let’s just consider a bit of the jumble that makes up this book.
Anodos, the protagonist, inherits a key, which leads him into the realm of the faeries. While there he meets a variety of women, is pursued by anthropomorphic trees–male and female, is saved by a female birch tree, encounters Sir Percivale, sings to statues, enters a palace that seems to be his own, and eventually dies only to be returned to the real world. This confusing collection of elements truly does little justice to the complexity and miscellany of the book. As a novel, it seems disjointed and confusing. One might argue that Pilgrim’s Progress, which I have often praised, is equally random, but at least Bunyan’s great work has that constant form: Christian must reach the Celestial City. Everything in that work revolves on the resolution of his quest. MacDonald’s work, however, stands less true to novelistic expectations and more true to the complexity of dreams.
But then perhaps MacDonald, by hewing close to the world of dreams is actually more true to the world of life with its complexity and illogic than the finely plotted works to which I have compared him. It seems fairly clear that the faerie realm represents adult human life in MacDonald’s view. Anodos reaches that realm only a couple of days after reaching the age of twenty-0ne. His adventure lasts twenty-one days although to him it seemed to last twenty-one years. Surely that triple repetition of the number is not coincidence. And what does Anodos do during his twenty-one days/years in faerie land? Initially he pursues an unattainable ideal of beauty in his marble lady while at turns pursued by his own darker side and the evil elements of that world. In the end, his triumph comes when he abandons his vain quest and sets himself to more lofty pursuits, martyring himself as he fights idolatry. In good William Holden fashion (Sunset Boulevard), Anodos narrates a bit of his own afterlife:
I was dead, and right content. I lay in my coffin, with my hands folded in peace. The knight, and the lady I loved, wept over me. Her tears fell on my face.
“Ah!” said the knight, “I rushed amongst them like a madman. I hewed them down like brushwood. Their swords battered on me like hail, but hurt me not. I cut a lane through to my friend. He was dead. But he had throttled the monster, and I had to cut the handful out of its throat, before I could disengage and carry off his body. They dared not molest me as I brought him back.”
“He has died well,” said the lady.
My spirit rejoiced. They left me to my repose. I felt as if a cool hand had been laid upon my heart, and had stilled it.
Maybe then, despite its flaws, Phantastes is not quite as ill conceived and incomprehensible a work as I initially suspected. In these pages, MacDonald presents an allegory of life, one that does not preach quite as clear a sermon as does Bunyan’s but one that is perhaps even more true to life.