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The Sweet and Mystical Beauty of George MacDonald's Phantastes

August 2nd, 2006 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

"Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow." – Anodos, Phantastes

How shall I compose a review of a book so penetrating and lovely? Indeed, how does one review a poetic myth? I think that the only way I might be successful is to convey to you a sense of the grandeur and inspiration to virtue MacDonald'sPhantastes imbeds in the reader.

C.S. Lewis wrote that MacDonald’s works “baptized his imagination” and that he “knew hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” MacDonald, through his learning, virtue and tender love of others, seemed to apprehend the very spiritual world and the kingdom of God and, further, had the writing ability to communicate that vision to us mere mortals. (Good Wikipedia article on him here.)

Phantastes is the story of a young man named Anodos, who newly inheriting an estate finds his way into Fairy Land, a place full of magic, knights and castles, giants and goblins, nymphs and fairies. In this place the inhabitants – and soon Anodos himself – begin to expect the unexpected and live in full assurance that nothing happens without reason. Therefore, it never disturbs Anodos that no one gives him direction upon entering Fairy Land. He simply wanders through the woods trusting what MacDonald leaves unnamed, though we might call it Providence, to guide his ways and teach him what he needs to learn.

Along the way Anodos, who finds he is gifted with the power of song, sings a beautiful enchanted marble woman back to life. She runs off and he pursues her since he has fallen in love with her. However, his love nearly destroys him. He is blinded by it and so becomes seduced by a beautiful marble woman who has the appearance of the lady he recently set free. Only the heroic daring of a noble knight frees him to continue on his way to the Fairy Palace.

Anodos’ curiosity leads him to the Church of Darkness, where despising the warning of a witch-like lady there, opens the door to a dark closet and finds himself beset by his Shadow. This Shadow becomes a plague to him.

Nevertheless, he manages to reach the Fairy Palace. Because of his Shadow and blighted heart, he can hardly see the gorgeous Fairies that inhabit the marvelous castle. In a room prepared especially for him, he reads and reads fantastical tales in which he finds himself becoming the protagonist. The most powerful of these tales concerns an enchanted mirror that a student named Cosmo must free a beautiful young lady from. (How can I give away what happens? I must move on.)

In the Palace, he again finds the beautiful lady from the forest trapped in the form of a marble statue. By aid of a powerful song arising in him (the poetry of the songs is one of the most delightful parts of the book) he sets her free once more. However, his presumption of touching the lady causes her to run away into a ruined land and down deep into the bowels of Fairy Land where the Goblin Fairies dwell.

Anodos emerges on the other side and comes to the house of a wise old woman who restores him by singing beautiful, sad songs. She tells him not to despair and to comfort himself by remembering that she has knowledge of Good, which she cannot tell him of.

Anodos sets off to learn virtue, but I cannot say more for I would ruin the story for you. Let MacDonald tell it to you – he is the master. I hope that what I have written may kindle some desire to pick up the book and see it for yourself.

To sum it up, Phantastes is about the nature of love and the cultivation of it in the soul. Rather than adduce arguments, MacDonald in his “mytho-poeic” way – as Lewis describes his style – paints pictures that make the soul yearn and the heart ache for what is good and beautiful. He inflicts upon the searching man or woman a wound of the very best kind and assures us that true love and meaning exist and that the blessed life is possible. What MacDonald does for children (and children-at-heart!) inAt the Back of the North Wind he does more richly in Phantastes.

Here is an exhortation for you from a passage in which Anodos is comforted by the Wise Woman: Then putting her arms around me, she held me to her bosom; and as I kissed her, I felt as if I were leaving my mother for the first time, and could not help weeping bitterly. At length she gently pushed me away, and with the words, "Go, my son, and do something worth doing," turned back, and, entering the cottage, closed the door behind her.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.