February 2014

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Ecstatic Reality: George MacDonald's Phantastes

Fantasy is built, in part, from the idea that the world is larger than consensus reality: that a fairy court can exist side-by-side with a mundane city or that there could be countries and whole worlds that exist outside the history books, in which great battles are fought and won or lost and dragons roam the land. Around any corner, through any closet, a new world might be discovered. Fantasy shares this sense with religion and spirituality, which posit -- or state unequivocally -- that what we get is far more than what we see. It is no surprise, then, that fantasy literature has borrowed liberally and frequently from religion, whether from the beliefs of ancient religions long passed or from theologies that still exist in the world today. The most well known fantasist to do so is likely C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books draw directly and obviously on Christian theology. Amid fauns and talking animals, readers are enmeshed in a retelling of the death and resurrection of Christ, though one that is disguised enough for younger readers to miss.

But Lewis was not the first to combine Christian imagery and ideas with the fantastical creatures of other traditions. When he was still a young man, before he became a Christian and a novelist, Lewis bought a copy of a novel called Phantastes from a train station bookseller. He had passed the book by before, but on that fateful day he began to read. "A few hours later," he would write in an introduction to the novel, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier." At the time, Lewis was already familiar with and entranced by fantasy and Romanticism. More important to Lewis was the quality of the fantasy in Phantastes, how it contained "the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live."

Phantastes: A Faerie Romance was originally published in 1858 and was the first novel written by George MacDonald, who would go on to write various other novels of the fantastic, including The Princess and the Goblin and Lilith. His novels are sometimes cited as the beginning of the fantasy genre as we know it today, a shift from the fairy tales and Gothic novels that preceded it in fantasy's history. It's fair to say, though, that fantasy doesn't have a single data point as its beginning. William Morris was writing his fantasies around the same time as MacDonald. And Phantastes wears its own fantastic influences proudly, bearing frequent quotations from Novalis and references to Greek myth and the adventures of King Arthur's knights. The novel also bears strong signs of MacDonald's original intent to be a preacher, though it does so without preaching itself.

Phantastes begins with a transition from one world into another, a method that William Morris had also made use of a few years before in The Hollow Land. The narrator and main character of Phantastes, Anodos, has turned twenty-one when the story begins, receiving his father's private papers as part of his inheritance. In the desk where the papers are kept, he finds a hidden compartment holding rose petals and papers tied with a ribbon, both aged. More importantly, as soon as he opens the hidden compartment a woman appears. She hints that his ancestry includes fairies and tells him that the next day he will discover the way to Fairy Land. He wakes in the morning to a transformation: his basin of water has overflowed and become a spring; a carpet designed to imitate grass and daisies has become actual grass and daisies; carved ivy has begun to grow. By the time he is dressed, he finds himself at the edge of a forest, with a path leading into its depths. The world is no longer what it seemed.

The transformation of Anodos's bedroom is only the first of many. More than once in the narrative, statues come alive. Old women change into young women and back again. Walls disappear under moonlight and reappear in sunlight. Doors lead onto unexpected landscapes. Anodos accepts these changes easily. He observes early on that "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." This lack of surprise is constant. Anodos describes the wonders he encounters, but rarely asks why things are happening and even more rarely -- perhaps never -- says no to an experience. He walks into houses and opens doors without asking permission; when asked to fight giants he immediately agrees; he deliberately breaks a singing globe for no clear reason.

Similarly, the lands he encounters pass by with few attempts to place them in a larger context. There are no maps detailing the acreage of the forest or the precise spot where the palace lies. The connection between one portion of Fairy Land and another always seems to exist as in a dream, as do the boundaries between Fairy Land and the regular world. The dreamlike quality in the land and in Anodos's actions creates a loose, episodic story structure. One episode involves the forest and an antagonist, the Ash, while in another, Anodos enters the palace of Fairy Land and tells of the stories he reads in the library there. In a later episode, he and two men, who call him "brother," fight three giants. These are linked into a cohesive narrative by our narrator and by several common elements -- a woman in marble, a knight, a dark shadow that attaches itself to Anodos -- but unlike later works of fantasy, there is no specific quest. There is no overall evil that needs to be encountered and defeated, no overall wrong that needs to be righted. The narrative's primary impetus is one of exploration and a pursuit of the woman in marble, though even the latter is less a driving force than an occasional whim.

Nevertheless, Anodos's actions have consequences that accumulate through the episodes. It eventually becomes clear that his path is one of self-discovery, spurred on by the disappointments of his search for the woman in marble and his attempts to rid himself of the dark shadow. The ultimate transformation is in Anodos's relationship to himself and his life. It is in those final transformations that MacDonald's theology rises from subtext to text. God and Christ are never mentioned, but a cycle of death and resurrection is pointed out and repeated. In the last pages of the novel, this cycle is literal. Anodos dies in Fairy Land and is resurrected in the world he left in the first pages, where his sisters have been waiting and worrying for twenty-one days -- the same as the years of his life.

But Phantastes is too strange -- too fantastic -- to be taken didactically or as a strict Christian allegory. Though Lewis was entranced by the difference he sensed in MacDonald's fantasy, he also writes, "Nothing at the time was further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was." Whether one agrees with MacDonald's theology or not, Phantastes provides a glimpse of a "divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality" and makes the world a little bit larger than it was before reading.