After opening a drawer and finding a tiny woman, Anodos is transported to the land of Faerie. There he has many adventures while he struggles to find a purpose for himself.
“It is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness.” —Phantastes
C. S. Lewis famously recounts in Surprised by Joy how he picked up Phantastes at a train station bookshop and subsequently found that it had changed his life:
“The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.”
He was still a teenager, but he writes that, “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.” It would take him many more years before he became a theist and then a Christian. However, it appears that he carried within him a conviction that what George MacDonald writes in Phantastes carries something of Truth in it. For him, the store rings of something real, something more real than many an author ever achieves.
With such praise behind Phantastes, and from one of my favorite authors, I expected great things from the story. Initially, however, I found myself bored. The protagonist enters Faerie without any sort of quest, leading him to wander around the country aimlessly, inviting himself into residences, running into knights, and so forth. The protagonist himself is not sufficiently likable to make these events of interest. Indeed, he seems weak morally and physically, and generally insipid of character.
Of course, the point of the story is very much that the protagonist is far from being a paragon of virtue. Ultimately, the point of his story will be to learn that he must let go of his pride and humble himself in order to love others truly. In this, he represents Everyman, so it is perhaps ironic that he comes across as so unlikable: he is but a reflection of ourselves. But it is only when his character development begins, in the last quarter of the story, that the story itself also becomes engaging.
Phantastes is one of those books that no doubt becomes more interesting with rereads and more interesting when readers really dig into it, discussing it with others or in a classroom setting. However, its slow pacing and lack of end goal is likely to make it offputting to many contemporary readers, especially those accustomed to plot-driven books like the typical YA novel.
15 thoughts on “Phantastes by George MacDonald”
Ah that is too bad. I have not read anything of his aside from The Princes and the Goblin, but I really enjoyed it.
I think I might have liked this one better if I had studied it in a class and had more background. As it is, I was mostly bored by the lack of goal, which is a very unusual thing for contemporary books, which are usually plot-driven. Someone suggested my description of it made it sound like a medieval travel narrative, but even though I do like medieval stories, I have to admit the travel narrative never interested me!
Maybe I will put this on a backburner somewhere for one day when I feel antsy. I would be curious to see how I feel about it.
We had a big meeting about what to teach in our required freshman seminar, and this book came up. I’d never heard of it, but this guy with a PhD in medievalist lit raved about it. Now I’m like, “Yeah, he WOULD. Weird medievalists…”
Um, well, I don’t doubt that a class could make the book interesting or that it does speak to people. And yet I do think it would be a difficult and even unappealing read for the average freshman.
Lol, I like how you tried to be kind to the medievalist there 😂😂😂
I would have LOVED reading it in college. It’s an amazing, unique book, worth a read even if the style ends up not being your thing. Of course, I am a medievalist and won’t apologize for thinking we like awesome stories, haha
Ha! I love it. I’ve disappointed a medievalist stranger! Pardon 🤣
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No worries! 🙂
I do think medieval literature is a lot more interesting than it usually gets credit for! In this case my concern is that the book is being proposed for a required freshman seminar, meaning that it is a class full of people who didn’t choose to be there and aren’t largely English majors, much less medievalists. A not insignificant number of college students I have met have difficulty reading, understanding, and summarizing a newspaper article, which is a far less complicated text. While I don’t disagree that students should be challenged or that challenging texts result in more interesting discussions and papers, I do wonder if Phantastes might work better in an upper-level course….
You’re not wrong that it’s a difficult book for the modern reader, but I personally found it to be one of the great transformative works of literature. My imagination had already been “baptized” by a childhood raised on the Bible, and on Narnia itself, but Phantastes still opened my eyes to new wonders. It’s a magnificent dreamscape, rich in color and meaning, and I was always enthralled. It was years ago that I read it, so I don’t recall much about Anodos beyond that I felt he was intended to be a semi-blank Everyman, and thus I concentrated more on what happens to him rather than on his personal development. But man, what dreamscapes he passes through! What sheer magic! The final scenes left a huge impact on me. It’s a book where I can’t pretend to have really understood it all after one reading, but I was grateful just to bathe in its magic and originality. I can’t wait to return to it. Perhaps soon, hmm…
It also makes a fascinating companion piece to his “Lilith.”
And that short story about Cosmo’s Mirror that appears in the middle? That was pretty haunting and memorable to me!
I’m still I hoping I can reread this book one day and see what makes it so powerful for people! As it is, someone suggested to me that it sounds like a medieval travel narrative. As much as I enjoy the few medieval texts I have read, the travel narrative sadly never appealed to me! I did find the ending the most moving, however, and it is possible that I would enjoy the book more if my edition had had an introduction or some sort of criticism to help guide me through.
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An intro or notes could be very useful for this book. I only got through the unabridged Pilgrim’s Progress with a heavily annotated edition that helped me appreciate it.
I had a free ebook version so that was probably my mistake! Sadly, a good annotated classic is usually something I have to purchase. Even the library doesn’t always have a good annotated copy of a book! But I think I could try to return to this down the road with a better edition and see how it goes. Although a lot of people argue that criticisms ruins reading, I often find my appreciation enhanced by some critical background!
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Apparently there is an annotated version produced for Phantastes’ 150th anniversary. I’d love to read that too.