Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.
Phantastes (1858) is a mixed genre foray into fantasy, written very early in MacDonald’s career. The story is framed as an episodic journey, but it incorporates many sideplots and poems, so that many chapters are only loosely strung to the narrative. This relatively difficult book has some dark themes and is written primarily for an adult audience.
The plots and subplots deal with themes of imagination, bondage and freedom, love and infatuation. Anodos falls in love with a statue, but cannot free her from her pedestal; Anodos is warned about the Ash Tree, which is precisely who he finds himself encountering; and so on.
This book had great appeal for C. S. Lewis—before his conversion—and wrote in Surprised By Joy that it “baptized [his] imagination.” For my own part, I can say that some of the images and metaphors were profound; others, rather protracted. This is definitely one of MacDonald’s most ambitious works of fiction, and may appeal to more ambitious readers.
When C. S. Lewis recommends a novel, one expects to see sweeping themes like those of the Space trilogy, or elegant metaphors like those of Narnia; I didn’t find either to be in large number here. The fantasy is more of art for art’s sake, or language for language’s sake; it was costly reading with no payoff.
I am a great fan of George MacDonald, but not a fan of his darker work. (I should add, Lewis has pointed me to other fantasy works that I found disappointing, like those of Charles Williams.)
“We receive but what we give.” (loc. 854)
“The waters lay so close to me, they seemed to enter and revive my heart. I rose to the surface, shook the water from my hair, and swam as in a rainbow, amid the coruscations of the gems below seen through the agitation caused by my motion. Then, with open eyes, I dived, and swam beneath the surface. And here was a new wonder. For the basin, thus beheld, appeared to extend on all sides like a sea, with here and there groups as of ocean rocks, hollowed by ceaseless billows into wondrous caves and grotesque pinnacles. Around the caves grew sea-weeds of all hues, and the corals glowed between; while far off, I saw the glimmer of what seemed to be creatures of human form at home in the waters. I thought I had been enchanted; and that when I rose to the surface, I should find myself miles from land, swimming alone upon a heaving sea; but when my eyes emerged from the waters, I saw above me the blue spangled vault, and the red pillars around. I dived again, and found myself once more in the heart of a great sea.” (loc. 1089)
“Hardly knowing what I did, I opened the door. Why had I not done so before? I do not know.” (loc. 2448)