It is impossible to read George MacDonald’s Phantastes as a modern fantasy novel, or at least to read it well. That’s because it isn’t one. Despite the fact that the book is an acknowledged influence on everything from C.S. Lewis’ work on down, Phantastes itself remains firmly in the fairy story tradition, a half-step away from allegory and a few steps north of children’s literature. MacDonald himself noted that he was not writing for children, but rather for the childlike, striving to invoke a sense of wonder at the marvelous tableaus he revealed instead of attempting to convey a strong, self-supporting linear plot.
All that being said, Phantastes is a must-read for any student of fantasy literature precisely because it is such a seminal work. The special annotated edition from Paternoster, then, is a godsend, a chance for a new generation of readers to discover the work in a handsome, accessible volume. Lovingly currated by Nick Page, the book is introduced by a straightforward essay laying out MacDonald’s life and works, Phantastes in particular, for the new reader.
Page also provides extensive, clear footnotes. Were they useful just for identifying the authors of the epigrams at the start of each chapter, that would be enough to justify them. Fortunately for the reader, they run throughout the book, and provide invaluable clarification as to the details and themes of the text. Page deserves hearty applause for his work in presenting at text that, in lesser hands could have appeared dated an inaccessible, in such a way as to make the book a welcoming experience instead.
The story – or, more accurately, the narrative – concerns itself with the journey of one Anodos, who wakes up one morning to find that his perfectly jejeune bedroom has become a gateway to Fairyland. One translation of Anodos is “pathless”, and he certainly lives up to the name, wandering hither and yon across the terrain and seeing the marvelous, terrifying sights therein.
Since this is a fairy story, everything is heavily fraught with symbolism. Anodos’ journey, for all that he crosses half of the mythical landscape, is really an internal one, the denizens of Fairyland he encounters manifestations of his inward life and drives. It’s all done in dream-logic, as Anodos never has questions about how he’s getting home and never questions the rationale of his journey. Nor does he wonder why so many of the people he runs across are so willing to help him, if not previously aware of his presence. The answer is that the whole landscape and everyone in it is there for the purposes of his adventuring. They exist to help him come to self-realization, and they largely exist strictly in relation to him as a result.
The fact that not everyone does fall into that category is the main hint that Phantastes is the start of something new. The travails of the knight in rusty armor and his lady love, for example, intersect and entwine with those of Anodos, and they do so in a way that emphasizes the fact that while Anodos’ actions have impacted them, they had lives and loves independently of the interloper. It’s not A Song of Fire and Ice in its complexity, but it is a definite step toward a more character-driven narrative set amidst the fantastic trappings.
It is Anodos’ journey, however, that is the core of things, and that journey is one of love and faith. Time and again Anodos either falls in love or is fallen in love with by one of the lovely denizens of this new world he traverses, and it is his reactions to this feeling – sometimes pure, sometimes lustful (in a very prim, Victorian sort of way) that determine his course through the world. Gradually he moves from impetuous, sensual attraction to a more spiritual understanding of love in general, though not without some interesting missteps along the way. Much of this is accomplished through visions, or by long stretches of exploration where Anodos is the only character on-stage. What more heroic fantasy elements there are – a battle with giants, an encounter with an evil tree-spirit and so forth – are over in a flash. They are, after all, not the true trials that Anodos faces, and thus not as worthy of the reader’s time as the contents of the fairy palace where, for a while, Anodos dwells.
A story about the aimless wanderings and slow spiritual development of a character with remarkably few distinguishing characteristics by all rights should be deadly dull. That Phantastes isn’t, and that it still maintains some of its original impact and power, is a tribute to how well MacDonald crafted that journey, and how universal the questions he has Anodos address might be. The true danger of Fairyand is not the food and drink that might trap one there; it’s the ever-lurking twee descriptions and imagery. MacDonald avoids that trap easily, and some of his creations – the unleashed power of Anodos’ shadow, the cottage of four doors and the visions that lay beyond them, the devilish ceremony at which Anodosy finally proves his true spiritual worth – have what Lovecraft might have referred to as a true touch of the cosmic. Even the most mundane trips through nighted forests and green meadows seem fresh and marvelous here, and characters like the lovestruck tree spirit maintain a uniqueness and vibrancy that an intervening century has not dulled.
The volume closes with some additional materials: some translated poetry, an essay from MacDonald entitled “The Fantastic Imagination”, and a bibliography. All make excellent supporting materials for the reader who wants to dig deeper. The main text, however, is more than enough to stand on its own, equal parts a lesson in the history of the genre and a good read in its own right.