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.