Old MacDonald Had a Fantasy: Reclaiming the Original Fantasy Novel from Oblivion

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Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land?

George MacDonald

Phantastes appeared in print in 1857–nearly one hundred years before either The Fellowship of the Ring or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were published. It was a dismal failure and was out of print for a few decades until J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis started publishing their own works. 

Such failure does not make it any less significant—make no mistake, Phantastes is one of the primary reasons why we have the fantasy genre today and reading it, you will find many, if not most of the literary tropes which are still in common use today. 

The author was George MacDonald, a Scottish minister who had been forced from his pulpit basically for suggesting there was something akin to Purgatory for anyone who died without becoming a Christian. He ended up doing odd jobs for most of his life and barely made anything off his own writing. 

Today, George MacDonald is mostly popular and known in Christian circles, particularly the more educated conservative ones. This, while it has at least kept George MacDonald in print, tends to detract from his literary significance. And his applicability outside the bounds of the Christian religion.  

By the way, if you are interested in Tolkien’s Orcs and Uruk-hai, hi The Princess and the Goblin is must-read. You’ll find goblins which are more like what Bilbo and Thorin encountered in The Hobbit. Only Tolkien’s goblins can tolerate rhyming and song and MacDonald’s can’t. Have I tickled your interest yet? I certainly hope so. It’s a delightful novel, and one of my personal first encounters with fantasy fiction. 

There was something noble in him, but it was a nobleness of though, and not of deed. He may yet perish of vile fear.

George MacDonald

While Anodos is exploring his father’s desk, he discovers a hidden way into Fairy Land through a door at the very back. If you’ve ever seen a true antique desk—not a small writing desk—but one of the truly complex ones, it’s honeycombed with small drawers, pigeon-holes, hidden compartments, etc. If you’ve never seen one, I highly recommend combing your local antiques market or local museums just to have a look at one. 

What happens once he reaches Fairy Land is a series of events and disasters that seem to have very little to do with one another except that they happen to Anodos. There’s very little narrative to bind everything together which is probably part of the reason Phantastes didn’t sell well in its own day and is still relatively unknown now. 

The character of Anodos himself, if I’m going to be honest, is not all that likeable. He takes very little care to heed the warnings he’s given, he’s constantly fainting in fear, and he’s nearly always getting into trouble. Think Pippen from The Lord of the Rings only less humorous and certainly less dynamic. Perhaps Bilbo in The Hobbit, only Bilbo is likeable just for his no-nonsense attitude towards things. 

Annoying central figure and non-existent narrative aside, Phantastes is still worth reading whether you share MacDonald’s religious persuasion or not. 

1. It’s a Meditative Read

But it is no use trying to account for things in Fairy Lnad; and one who travels there doon learns to forget the very idea of doing so, and takes everything as it comes; like a child, who, being in chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing

George MacDonald

In the first place, the lack of narrative gives the novel an almost mystical quality about it. Since each chapter is more like an impression and less like something which contributes to an overall story, this forces you, the reader, to practice being present in the moment.

Think of it more like a meditation or a dream than an actual story. In many ways, it’s more like streams-of-consciousness like James Joyce than it is a mid-eighteenth-century novel. Only without the paragraph-long sentences and the graphic detail of bodily functions. And with fairies. 

Reading anything in depth requires presence anyway, but Phantastes challenges your ability to constantly focus on the words you are reading as you are reading them. There is no skimming. If you’re new to this type of reading, then I highly encourage you to try it. 

While the narrative itself is almost nonexistent, there are definite themes and elements that make Phantastes worth reading because they are enduring throughout most of what we now consider fantasy literature.

2. It has recognizable story elements and themes

The trees, which were far apart where I entered, giving free passage to the level rays of the sun, closed rapidly as I advanced, so that ere long their crowded stems barred the sunlight out, forming as it were a thick grading between me and the East.

George MacDonald

Long-time readers of fantasy will easily recognized the Old Forest of The Fellowship of the Ring, or the magic looking glass from Alice Through the Looking Glass, and even the wandering path Anodos takes from Stardust.

Even Anodos’ malevolent “shadow” which plagues him after he accidentally falls into the clutches of an ogre could almost have inspired the shadow Sauron sends over Middle Earth, or the Dark One’s influence over evens in the The Wheel of Time. Some may even see a bit of Gollum in it since one of the peculiarities of this unnatural shadow is that it takes all the magic out of even the smallest detail of Fairy Land which would have otherwise caused delight. 

Perhaps one of the most common themes throughout Phantastes is the disjoint between how something appears and the actual reality. While saying “nothing is what it seems” is perhaps a little too trite, it is nevertheless true. 

Only MacDonald turns this on its head. We already know Fairy Land is going to be different from our own so of course flowers and trees can talk. What isn’t expected is that what Anodos sees as a quest to “get the girl” turns out to be a quest to “forget himself.” 

I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved that one can come nearest the soul of another.

George MacDonald

In Chapter 5, Anodos discovers the marble figure of a beautiful sleeping woman. He sings to her until she awakens and then she disappears. Not entirely unlike the myth of Pygmalion (think My Fair Lady).  He “falls in love” at first sight and then spends most of the rest of the book trying to find her. In the process, he loses all caution for any and every warning he’s been given. The final time is when he finds out the woman he sang awake was already married and much more in love with her knightly husband than she ever could be with him. 

Anodos was in love with the appearance—without knowing, wanting to know, or caring about the actuality. 

He’s only cured of his despair when he defeats a giant and then serves the woman’s knightly husband as a squire. 

The same husband for whom he gives his life when the two come across a seemingly innocent ritual in the woods which ends up being something quite different. Anodos is incensed that anyone would disguise something evil as good and unmasks that the wooden figure that’s being worshipped is actually a hideous wolf-like monster. He slays the monster—but loses his own life in the processes. 

After this, he is not only happy—happier than he’s been the entire novel–he re-awakes again at home. 

Talk about plot twist. 

3. Mysticism without specified religion

If my passions were dead, the souls of the passions, those essential mysteries of the spirit which had imbodied themselves in passions, and had given to them all their glory and wonderment, yet lived, yet glowed, with a pure, undying fire.

George MacDonald

No one likes to be sold. It’s a key principle in copywriting and it should be a key principle in selling anything. 

Be that religion or a used car. 

Nevertheless, there’s a constant barrage of moralistic advice and drivel. Whether it’s someone yelling bumper sticker religion from the street corner, an activist accosting you on your daily business, the dreaded door-to-door witnesses and sales people interrupting your dinner time, or the constant barrage from social media about the latest social justice fad, no one actually likes being the object of these tirades. 

Unless they directly benefit from them in some way. 

George MacDonald doesn’t preach to you in his fantasy. In fact, as C.S. Lewis would later claim, Phantastesappeared to have very little to do with religion at all. Lewis should know. He read the book when he was at the height of his atheism. 

There is, however, something mystical in the quality of the events and of the writing itself. Anodos learns discernment, or is at least shown how much discernment he lacks. There’s small lessons in the true nature of love—not even necessarily erotic love either but the type of love for your fellow creatures which we should all bear one another. There’s even much in Phantastes about bearing a love for the natural environment—for the woods, the flowers, the sun, the stars. 

It’s not moralistic. It’s not political. It’s not even socially conscious. Well, except perhaps for the fact Anodos is guided along the way by a succession of wise women. All of whom give him warning which he ends up ignoring and subsequently falling into disaster.  Not exactly feminist, but it’s not anti-woman either.  

4. There is something beyond optimism

Yet I know that good in coming to me—the good is always coming; for though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it.

George MacDonald

Every evil that happens in Phantastes ends up turning something wrong to something right. 

There is a pattern to Anodos’ travel, even if there is no narrative arc. He runs into trouble but then finds a resting place and receives comfort and refreshment. Every disaster and problem he causes somehow leads to something better. 

There is something comforting here.

Mistakes happen—they will always happen despite our best intentions. The idea is not to just think happy thoughts. It’s to know that whatever happens you are going to be better for it. 

You’ll make better choices, you’ll strive harder to become who you are meant to be, you’ll finally start that business, you’ll set the time aside for yourself, you’ll take the trip you always wanted. 

This is more than mere optimism. 

This is walking into the world with both eyes open and deliberately determining that you will somehow be better. 

This is facing the monsters of the world and neither surrendering to them or becoming them. 

This is getting slapped in the face and choosing to have compassion on the person who slapped you instead of either letting them abuse you further or slapping them back. 

I seemed to feel the great heart of the mother beating into mine, and feeding me with her own life, her own essential being and nature.

George MacDonald

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