I’m part of a small group of people whose purpose is to further their knowledge and understanding of the Inklings, through the reading of their own works, and the authors who have influenced them. Phantastes, by George MacDonald, has been the first choice and I chose to post to share with you, too, my reaction.
Since the book belongs to a different age and a different narrative taste, I don’t want to sum the plot. The whole modern thing about spoilers sure doesn’t belong to Phantastes, so that’s not the reason. The fact is that its pacing and reliance on plot are those of a 19th century book, and a summary would require me to solve many problems. It’s enough to say that, the day of his 21st birthday, the main character, Anodos, enters into Fairyland, and goes in search of his Ideal, finding it in a lady made of living marble. What follows is a hero’s journey combining the Bildungsroman genre with the tale of a knight’s path to perfection, proper of medieval romances.
The way writers approach to this archetype has definitely changed: stories of this kind today require a plot centered around the protagonist, while here plot and main character are the same thing, because what matters are the emotional and spiritual motions generated by meetings and events. Love is one the major motor of the story, but Anodos’ journey doesn’t unfold on this premise alone, especially since its purpose is to serve the concept of the Ideal. You may now understand better why I’m not eager to tell too much: I should proceed on summing up all the mental states and processes Anodos goes through, which I don’t want to.
I believe that many of the character’s names speak for this interpretation of a spiritual journey. Anodos means “ascent”, and his most present (and hated) companion is the Shadow; as I’ve already suggested, the marble lady is often called Ideal. Phantastes is really a fruit of its time, in the sense that it constantly (but not explicitly) refers to the cultural and philosophical tendencies of the time, like Symbolism (on which it’s heavily rooted) and Idealism.
The absence of a strictly plot-driven prose and of modern pacing didn’t really strike me, though. I’ve already read old books and know the difference in taste between our time and the older ones. The real discovery was how influential it is.
It would be rather interesting to further research what is a fruit of MacDonald’s imagination and what has been inherited from other authors’ efforts, but here you really find every element that makes the current depictions of Faerie. All our collective images about the nature of fairies and of their land are already present here in full maturity.
It’s hard to say if I a recommend to read it or not. Its style is, as I said, very different from what we’re used to. If you don’t have any trouble with old, slow-pacing books, you’ll go through it smoothly and quickly. If you want to make research about the roots of the fantasy genre and the modern fairy tale, made for both kids and adults, you must read it. If you don’t belong to any of these two categories, at least you should know that Phantastes is one of the many ignored foundations of the fantasy genre.