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Journey Into Understanding: Adapting George MacDonald’s Phantastes

November 15th, 2021 | 9 min read

By Alexi Sargeant

Cave Pictures Publishing is creating a graphic novel adaptation of George MacDonald’s classic fairy tale allegory Phantastes, a work that famously was a major influence on a young C.S. Lewis. I got to discuss the project (currently on Kickstarter) with Mandi Hart, president of Cave Pictures Publishing, and Meredith Finch, the writer who adapted Phantastes into graphic novel form, after previously working with Cave Pictures to adapt MacDonald’s The Light Princess.

(Full disclosures: I was paid by Cave Pictures Publishing to consult on Kickstarter strategy for this project. Conversation below compiled and edited for length and clarity.)

In this conversation, we’ll delve into the genesis of this adaptation, what Mandi and Meredith love about George MacDonald’s sometimes-difficult writing, and what they’re hoping readers will gain from encountering MacDonald’s story in this form. And we discuss the Christian insights of the fairy tale, without, I think, spoiling the strange turns the story takes.

Alexi Sargeant: Thanks so much for joining me. We’re discussing the upcoming graphic novel Phantastes, based on the George MacDonald classic. So first up, Mandi, What led to Cave Pictures Publishing working on a graphic novel adaptation of Phantastes?

Mandi Hart: Well, I think it probably started after we did our adaptation of The Light Princess. Meredith Finch adapted George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Light Princess for us. And we thoroughly enjoyed that project, the artwork was just spectacular. And as we were distributing the graphic novel and getting to interact with readers, we found a lot of enthusiasm for the project itself, but also for George MacDonald more broadly. And certainly as we have developed and honed Cave’s mission and vision over the years now, we always point to C.S. Lewis and Tolkien as two primary reference points with their respective mythologies.

But before there was Lewis or Tolkien there was MacDonald. We reviewed several of his short stories and ultimately landed on Phantastes for a couple of different reasons. Certainly, Lewis pointed to Phantastes as the story that “baptized his imagination.” But also, its layers of complexity and allegory. Some of George McDonald’s other stories are a little, I guess, more obvious or less subtle. The Light Princess certainly is a nice clear Gospel allegory, whereas Phantastes, I think you’d have to work a little bit harder to find all the layers of meaning. So we knew that we would at least try to work with Meredith again if she was available, and interested. And she was!

She kind of took an artist retreat for a couple of days and just immersed herself in the story and she had been reading other works by MacDonald and looking at other reference points. And she brought back just a very clear theme, about the protagonist Anodos discovering the necessity/blessing of self-sacrifice and self-denial. He enters Fairy Land with this somewhat hedonistic mindset, he’s looking ahead to the rest of his life at the age of 21, anticipating inheriting this grand estate and everything that that entails both in terms of material resources, finances, reputation… And his journey through Fairy Land just resets his paradigm.

Alexi: For readers who are familiar with something like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Phantastes may seem strange in that the plot is less linear, the allegory is a little more mysterious. What flights of imagination or Christian insight stand out to you as worthwhile in Phantastes?

Meredith Finch: Indeed, it’s not an obvious story. It took several weeks for me—it really felt more like being back in university versus the Narnia stories are more obvious: Aslan is Christ, going up at the end of The Last Battle everybody’s going to heaven… This was much more couched in mystery, and I think the verbiage that he uses in Phantastes can be at times very complex and difficult to get through. Certainly worth it when you do push through it. But it wasn’t a sit-down-and-just-read-it-through-in-a-night kind of story.

Mandi: And then there are both contained episodes throughout Anodos’ journey in Fairy Land, and there are also some characters who show up a couple of times. We found that attractive, that there are both these singular events that you can hone in on and unpack, and then there are some threads that run all throughout, that you watch Anodos interact with these characters over the course of his time in Fairy Land, and getting to track that series of interactions and unpack the meaning behind them.

Alexi: Yes, there is this set of almost archetypal figures that he encounters—the Lady and the Shadow and the Knight—that seemed to represent some really important things.

Meredith: Yes, I was going to say, Anodos’ Shadow is a highlight for me. And yet, I don’t want to give away too much of what that represents. I think I want the reader to have the same journey I did of understanding along with Anodos, taking that journey into understanding that Shadow that follows him through much of the book.

Here’s what I will say. Like C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald really emphasizes the concept of self-sacrifice. And I think as Christians sometimes we talk about God being love, we forget that the greatest love that even we can show each other is that of self-sacrifice. It’s not “I made dinner, so you should thank me for dinner,” or “I clean the house so you should thank me for cleaning the house.” It’s not looking for the acknowledgement but doing it out of love. I’m doing it because I love the people that I’m with. And then taking that out into the broader world. Maybe it’s a sacrifice of, I’m angry, but I’m not going to express “I’m angry.” Instead of showing somebody who irritated me anger, I’m going to show them love. You see self-sacrifice throughout Phantastes, you see it in C.S. Lewis’s writing. For me it’s the biggest reminder always of faith and Christianity.

Alexi: As we’ve discussed, George MacDonald is a major influence on later writers like C.S. Lewis, but currently is less well known than the folks he influenced. What do you hope readers will get from encountering George MacDonald in this form, through this graphic novel?

Meredith: I would love to see people fall in love with George MacDonald, just like I have, just like C.S. Lewis did. He has such an honesty in his writing.

Mandi: Indeed! And I hope readers will get a deeper chronology and history of fantasy fiction more generally. And specifically, with Lewis calling him “my master,” that is a really stunning statement from someone as prolific and influential as Lewis. MacDonald wrote such a wide breadth of publications, he certainly had a lot of fiction, but also many sermons and theological treatises. And he’s just such an interesting person, a theologian, a creator of the fantasy genre, and his stories are so theological without being overly evangelistic, or blunt.

Alexi: There’s a subtlety there, you’re saying.

Mandi: Absolutely, he really draws your imagination into a fantasy world and within that world within a particular story, he’ll write these these statements or have a line of dialogue that is just such a powerful little contained statement of truth.I have found myself multiple times in reading or listening to various stories of his just hitting the pause button and going, “Wait, wait, let me just listen to that sentence again.”

Alexi: Yeah, in another piece for Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson, highlighted a moment where Anodos is comforted by a wise woman, and she leaves him with this message, “go, my son, and do something worth doing,” which I think works nicely as one of these bite-sized moments of MacDonald.

Can you talk a little about the artists that have been brought on board for the project?

Mandi: Yes! Christine Norrie did the first couple of chapters of Phantastes for us. And she has worked both in graphic novels and comics, as well as in more traditional publishing. So we really enjoyed getting to see her approach to the graphic novel format and to the paneling, in particular. Once we get into Fairy Land, she took a much more organic approach to the visual storytelling, she didn’t just restrict herself to certain panel layouts on a given page or given spread. We just loved seeing how she crafted the artwork, which is so unique and so captivating. And then right at the halfway point, Anodos crawls through a tunnel and emerges in a new region of Fairy Land, which is where our second artist takes over.

Meredith: I would be a terrible writer if I didn’t highlight the work of the artists on this book. Because Christine Norrie’s work is incredible. It is absolutely out-of-this-world exactly what I envisioned Phantastes would look like. And then to have Andrew Pepoy step in and take over the artwork, just as Anodos’ journey sort of takes a different tone. And Andrew has done Archie and Betty and Veronica and Simone & Ajax in his own creator-owned stuff. It’s so funny because I met Andrew several years ago at New York Comic Con, talking about him possibly working on this project. And then we ended up with Christine, and I just see God’s plan in that. That it is in fact Andrew who’s gonna finish us off with this book and bring it home. I’m so blessed to work with such incredible artists. And Andrew taking over the book just reaffirmed to me that God’s hand is in everything. And truly we just trust and let him drive. Always do our best but let him drive and he’ll take us great places.

Alexi: The Phantastes graphic novel is crowdfunding on Kickstarter. What excites you about getting to do this as a crowdfunding campaign?

Mandi: Well, we’re excited to see the audience for the book go ahead and get on board while we are finishing up the production, rather than waiting until we’re done, where our journey is finished and now we just have a final product. To have leaders that are with us on the journey of completing the project is going to be really fun. And to offer The Light Princess as an additional item if backers want the George MacDonald duo from Cave Pictures Publishing. And then also have the opportunity to connect with readers! Whether it’s through a personal call with Meredith Finch or project review with Cave being able to meet virtually in a virtual space, meet the readers and get to know who is finding Phantastes, who’s finding The Light Princess impactful for them, important for them and, and being able to just hear from them and have that inform how Cave moves forward with our our next projects and future endeavors.

Alexi: I understand you both first encountered George MacDonald while working on The Light Princess. How has your relationship with his writings deepened since then?

Meredith: Yes, I first learned about George MacDonald from Mark Rogers, Cave’s publisher, when he approached me about The Light Princess. I knew C.S. Lewis—I think everybody knows C.S. Lewis. But what I didn’t know was that George MacDonald was given credit by C.S. Lewis himself for baptizing his imagination. And so that really piqued my interest. And I sat down to read as much George MacDonald’s writings as I could. And I found them fascinating as a writer, but also as a Christian, just his approach to faith and God and life. So I wrote Light Princess and that segued into, I would say, a full on love of George MacDonald. Much like C.S. Lewis, his writings are accessible, but intelligent. Sometimes as a Christian, you’re looking for something that is a little more highbrow.

Mandi: Right, that’s George MacDonald. For me too, it was Cave that brought MacDonald to my attention. And part of me kind of felt like oh, my goodness, where have I been? This man who was so influential on Lewis, I read Lewis growing up and have read him as an adult. But I never had encountered George MacDonald, which made me feel a little silly. But I so enjoyed Light Princess, and then began to read more of George MacDonald’s work. And some of that was prompted by Cave doing title reviews, project reviews, trying to decide what we wanted to take on as our next publishing venture. But it’s continued up until the present. Literally just over the weekend I finished listening to At the Back of the North Wind. He was so prolific that it’s taken me time to get through all of his work. But every George MacDonald work that I encounter is just so rich. And so it’s been of my own volition that I’m trying to get through as much of his catalogue as I can, just for my own edification as well as to gain greater appreciation for how he impacted and instructed the Inklings generally but Lewis in particular.

Alexi: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Mandi and Meredith. It’s exciting to get the chance to talk about George MacDonald, Phantastes, and the graphic novel adaptation currently on Kickstarter.