Metaphysical Romance: The Structure of Phantastes

It is rare to follow up a review with an analysis, but PHANTASTES by Geo MacDonald merits the attention.

First, it is such an extraordinary book, quite unlike its precursors or epigones. It mimics carefully the characters and tropes of fairy tales, knights and spites and evils trees, goblins and living statues and wise old crones and so on, but uses them to depict psychological or metaphysical musings on the nature of art, imagination, and spiritual reality. Unlike a fairy tale, this work is not structured around a plot, but around a motif. Like its narrator, whose name means wayward, PHANTATES is a wayward book. None of those following his footsteps, nor Lewis, nor Tolkien, follow this waywardness.

Second, albeit often forgotten, PHANTASTES is arguably the father of modern fantasy genre. Geo. MacDonald predates Wm. Morris’ WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD by thirty-six years. To put it in perspective, ALICE IN WONDERLAND was published seven years after, and MOBY-DICK seven years before.

Third, the book is so odd that I cannot say I have read any other like it, albeit I boast a library of fantasy both wide and deep.

It is a not book I dare praise or dispraise to another, for I cannot tell whom it will fascinate and attract or bore and repel.

And, unlike every other thing I have reviewed, this is not a matter of taste or judgment. It is deeper than that. Some souls need baptism in such a work as this, and others simply do not. Those whom the horns of elfland faintly calling from the far hills must follow them: others cannot hear.

For these three reasons, the work merits more than a review. It merits profound study, but, alas, this critic is only capable of shallow and cursory examination, therefore my beloved readers must bring their own deeper wits to bear on my remarks below, should any venture into the wayward elfin forest of Fairy Land MacDonald reflects in his book.

The book is not meant to be open to analysis.

MacDonald in other writings speaks eloquently of the danger of scrutinizing fairy tales so closely the dreamlike glamor is rubbed off. Certainly the Freudian analysis, which likens every high and noble impulse into some crass sexual appetites, often a perverse appetite, will kill the elfin magic in an elfin tale as quickly as the swift and clinging shadow that found Anodos in the dark hut of the long-toothed ogress. It distorts all human faces like a convex mirror.

But any attempt, whether Freudian or wise, to reduce this tale to allegory, where each character or event has a clear one-to-one symbolic meaning with something in our world, would rob the high attempt of MacDonald of his glory. Poetry is meant to portray in signs and symbols a reflection of some deeper truth that words alone cannot capture. And indeed, one of the several themes in this tangled tale is the role of the poet in freeing a beauty he cannot capture, but is meant for a nobler soul than his own to own.

The story is literally a coming-of-age story, for young Anodos, orphaned of father and mother, comes into his paternal legacy in the opening paragraph. He is now the master of mansion and estates, and is given the keys to a locked desk in a dark room where he hopes to find perhaps a journal, perhaps an account of his father’s acquisitions: lands and moneys and so on.

Instead, within hidden cubbyhole, locked with a portcullis like a tiny castle, opened by a secret switch jammed with age, is nothing but a litter of faded papers and dry petals, void of scent or hue. At once on the threshold of this dusty nook is found a fairy-woman in a stark white robe like a miniature Grecian goddess. She says she will grant him a wish.

She steps forth, looms large, fends off his attempted embrace, and upbraids him for his unbelief in fairies, and his too-ready belief in his senses. She hints that she is his grandmother. If so, she represents the other half of his heritage: a maternal legacy from another world, a world not akin to lands and moneys and so on.

Figuratively, it is a spiritual coming-of-age, for the wayward adventures of our protagonist Anodos (a Greek word and a play on words, for anodos means wayward or pathless, but also ascending or springtime) follow the motif of warning, downfall, penance, renewal as is seen both in children’s fairy books and in theological monographs.

Thematically, it is a story about how imagination draws images from the unknown, captures them in part, and in part sets them free, and this acts as a looking glass. When we are feeling reflective, we study the reflected images of poetry, and see our lives in other lives, and see our world in other worlds.

But we see the truth as if through a glass darkly, albeit with the promise, which comes from beyond our ken, that one day we will know as we are known, and love even as we are loved.

Before then we must learn true love, which is to give without return, and unlearn false love, which is grasping and selfish, for it is a shadow of love, and it rots the heart.

And, depending on how deeply in the mirror the soul can pierce, the themes may run deeper yet, to metempsychosis, the interplay of body and spirit, the dreaming of daylight and reasoning of lunacies lit by the moon. The theme may run to the mingling of heaven and earth, mortal and immortal life, and problem of pain, the promise of joy. It is a tale about losing one’s love for love’s sake, and being a servant or squire as the path to mastery and chivalry.

It is a tale of death and rebirth, as, in a way, all true tales must be.

The work ends on the same ambiguous note it begins: are the events in Fairy Land a reflection of woes to come in his life on Earth? Or was the spiritual journey itself the conquest of those woes, now fitting him as ready to live his life well? He has no answer, but he fears sorrows to come, even as he knows joy beyond reason is hidden beyond sorrow.

If only our mundane eyes were enchanted by the fairy glamor subtle enough, we would see the hidden joy too. As it is, we see only shadows.

In terms of character, all are cyphers, deliberately kept as simple and archetypal as might be any figure from a myth. Anodos is a lad with no distinctive features, as he must serves as an everyman stepping from youth through youthful pride to mature awareness to sad wisdom, and mystically finding joy beneath sorrow.

The knight here is the ideal man, who humbly do penance when they falter, for the inner corrosion of the sin is reflected on the armor they wear, which no squire can buff to brightness until the hard blows of battle scrape the tarnish away. The Red Knight appears at each turning of the plot, and may be the figure into whom all young men are called to grow.

Likewise, the little girls met in Fairy Land always are innocent, carrying flowers or golden toys, and wise in the ways of fairy lore, as all little girls should be.

The ideal woman is a White Lady pure as marble, and her counterpart is a sepulchral Ash Tree Maiden, seductive and false, who is as empty as a coffin.

Old crones are either maternal and loving or are long-toothed ogre-women in disguise, chucking over books that praise the darkness.

Allow me the indulgence of a quote. This is read by an cold old crone in a windowless hut built from the side of a cypress tree, reading a cracked old book in the dark, just before the shadow of Anodos comes from her closet to claim him.

“So, then, as darkness had no beginning, neither will it ever have an end. So, then, is it eternal. The negation of aught else, is its affirmation. Where the light cannot come, there abideth the darkness. The light doth but hollow a mine out of the infinite extension of the darkness. And ever upon the steps of the light treadeth the darkness; yea, springeth in fountains and wells amidst it, from the secret channels of its mighty sea. Truly, man is but a passing flame, moving unquietly amid the surrounding rest of night; without which he yet could not be, and whereof he is in part compounded.”

Structurally, the work is a series of mirrors, as it were, of meditations or reflections.

The work is in three parts: In the opening third, we follow the wandering of Anodos from garden to forest to Pygmalion’s cave and a grotto of vile seduction, thence to a goblin desert to elfin river to the palace of the fairy queen. The pivot of the tale is in this palace, where he is surrounded by unseen presences and haunted by unheard music. In the enchanted library he reads and becomes the figures in a magic book, whose tales reflect his own.

The final third mirrors the opening. He wanders from underworld to winter sea, to an island of eternal day, to a tower of princely brothers, to a battle with giants. He encounters a bitter victory, knighthood, fame, pride, thence a downfall and imprisonment in a haunted tower. He is saved by a girl he wronged, and joins a red knight as a mere squire, but dies in saving his master from the deceit of a hollow idol.

After death, he encounters bliss, a kiss, and returns to life on earth.

As would have been in any other book in the Victorian Age, which was notoriously hostile to fairy tales, this tale does not end with the dreamlike quest having merely been a dream, like Dorothy in Oz at the end of the film. No, his sisters mourned his disappearance for the twenty-one days he was gone, his house was veiled in mist.

The parallels and reflections are too numerous to list here, some of them should be noted. As befits the backward nature of a book of reflections, let us start from the centerpoint and work outward to the beginning and end.

Whole volumes could be written on the layers of meaning in the twin tales-with-a-tale in the center chapter of the book. Anodos is in the elfin library, and, as if only fitting, the books are magical, such that the reader enters the story as the protagonist, and lives through, and acts in, the events depicted. What we on Earth do with the magic of imagination, in the world of imagination they do with literal magic.

The first tale speaks of a far world where the waters do not cast reflections of anyone who looks within. The year is longer than an earthly year, so the children in summer never live long enough to see the winter snowdrops bloom. Children are found, not born. Here the women have wings, the men do not, and neither sex communes with the other. The moment a one seeks companionship and love from the opposite sex, he dies, in hope of being reborn on another world — our own — where companionship is love, is romance, and is true love. Anodos tells something of love and life in our world, and a winged woman, as if enchanted by his words, departs to seek the snowdrop, and dies.(The implication is that she is to be reborn in our world. This implies that our world is but the antechamber to the next world in turn, where love that is here but seen in dark mirror-image there is seen and known fully.)

This tale is reflected in the tale of the Beggar-Child told by the Red Knight in the antepenultimate scene. She is gathering wings from cooperative moths and butterflies to affix to her back to return to a world where she had wings, but is constantly impeded by crude and clumsy mannikin men, who lumber about without faces.

These humanoid wooden figures, in turn, are a reflection or return of the Maid of the Alder Tree, who formed the first trial and first failure of Anodos in the work — a seduction by a woman who is hollow on the inside, and who, seen in daylight, looks like a wooden coffin set upright and carved with the face and feature of a fair woman, but who is a living sepulcher: a wooden corpse without a heart. She wants to be loved, but loves only herself.

In the elfin library, the tale of the far world of winged women who die to seek love is followed immediately by the tale of Cosmo von Wehrstahl & the Lady of the Looking Glass. His name, of course, means “World” and his family name means “of steel arms” for he is an expert fencer and armorer, a student in Prague, and, as it happens, a magician.

His tale is that of Anodos: an eager youth without aim in life finds the image of an ideal woman whom he cannot embrace, whom he pursues and tries to possess; he errs by using untoward means to get her (in this case, magic); to amend for this, his love becomes pure, and he perishes to free her.

The chapters before and after the scene in the elfish library concern the approach and departure of Anodos from the haunted palace of the Fairy Queen, whom he never sees. Indeed, he sees no one in the whole of his stay in the palace, but is given a bedchamber that reflects his own back on earth (opening the question of which bedchamber is real and which is shadow).

However, unheard music leads him to a gallery of statues, who only dance when he is not looking. He finds an empty pedestal where the statue of his ideal White Lady is hidden beneath a veil of invisibility. He frees her via an inspired song, but when he tries to embrace her, she flees through a forbidden door. Violating the warning by the queen on the door, Anodos runs through it, and palace vanishes behind him. He is exiled.

This exile is parallel to the desolation through which he passes in approaching the palace. For he first came across his White Lady hidden in a form of marble in the cave of Pygmalion (of the famed Greek myth) in the midst of a fairy forest. Spying a fair female form hidden in the alabaster stone, he recalls the fairy tales of his youth, that true love’s first kiss can break enchantments. This fails, and perhaps is a hint that his love is not true love.

By song he releases her, but the words of the song were self-centered. She flees without a word. When he follows, night falls, and he falls into the arms of a fair women he thinks to be her. But she is the maid of the Alder Tree, of whom he was warned both by peasant girl and sorrowing Red Knight, who had committed the same lapse Anodos immediately would.

The Maid of the Alder Tree serves the shadowy goblin of the Ash Tree. He slays men and buries them beneath his roots to fill up the rotted emptiness within his wooden heart.  The Red Knight, by setting axe to the Ash Tree at the moment when the goblin shadow inhabiting it is reaching to destroy the helpless Anodos, saves the life of the youth.

It is after this that Anodos, again heeding no warnings, opens a forbidden door in the windowless hut of a long-toothed crone (an ogress in disguise) and finds a tunnel leading to the night sky. His own shadow (which is called by the different name on earth) emerges suddenly, and affixes itself to the young man’s feet.

Now, everywhere he goes, the shadow is cast over the fairy folk and fair things he sees, so that magic poets turn into mundane children, pretty peasant maids are distorted and ugly, and a golden toy which sings upon a touch is broken into fragments, leaving the girl who treasured it weeping and destitute.

This shadow is the central antagonist of the work, if it has an antagonist. It will later inspire, or take the form, of a mighty and pitiless knight who wears a distorted face of Anodos himself. The pitiless knight defeats the youth without striking a blow, and entraps him in a tower where day and night are strangely reversed, and dreaming and waking are out of joint. The maiden whose orb he broke also visited the palace of the Fairy Queen, and was granted the gift of song. She frees Anodos from the tower as he freed the White Lady, that is, by song, and he discovers that the door was never locked.

The shadow is described thus:

But the most dreadful thing of all was, that I now began to feel something like satisfaction in the presence of the shadow. I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, “In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live.”

I need not elaborate on the symbolic and mythic meaning here. If you have ever wrestled with a seductive shadow cast by your own pride, you will recognize it. Otherwise, you might not.

After these words, Anodos enters a wasteland in truth, and is mocked by goblins.

In one of the most beautiful passages in this beautiful book, he then encountered a cheerful spring of water spouting from a rock in the desert, which becomes a babbling stream. Finding a small and untenanted boat (which will reappear, now adorned in gorgeous colors, in a later parallel scene) he travels from stream to river into forest and past fair flowering fields, and a paradise of roses (perhaps the source of the same dry rose petals seen in the opening scene) to the empty palace of the Fairy Queen.

The empty palace is full of courtiers and dancers and nobles and so on, but his eyes and ears are too crude and mundane to see and know. This theme that one must refine one’s senses to see and know the subtler and higher things recurs through the book, and is one of the main points. Joy is always waiting, even when disguised as evil and sorrow.

After the departure from the Fairy Queen Palace, Anodos again pursues and loses his ideal White Lady. He is tempted by an underworld crone, parallel to his temptation by the Maid of the Alder Tree, and he is again mocked, this time by Kobolds rather than Gnomes.

In both cases, he shows a strength previously absent, and forswears the love of the White Lady if she loves a man nobler than he, the Red Knight.

He finds himself on the shore of a winter sea along an empty land, and plunges in, an act of apparent suicide, but perhaps he is only dying to himself, killing his pride, not his life. A salvific little boat carries him to a windowless cottage seated foursquare on a flowery island where it day as long as the young-eyed old crone of the cottage keeps her hearth-fire lit. Her cottage is parallel and opposite to the windowless cottage of the long-toothed ogress, called the Church of Darkness, where his shadow first found him.

The four doors to exist the cottage are not explicitly named, but they are the doors of sighs, of tears, or despair, and of death, but one of those doors leads back through Fairy Land to our world, and, or so it is hinted, from our world to heaven.

The first and last scenes in Fairy Land are also parallel and opposite. Anodos encounters a pleasant peasant child who warns him of the dangerous trees in the elf wood. He finds a cottage protected by Oak Trees, and from its window sees the murderous Ash Tree, which sleeps at day and walks at night.

The oak cottage is home to a kindly and maternal crone, and is parallel to the foursquare cottage on the island of eternal day, whose kindly and maternal crone is a Mary figure that nurses Anodos back from the brink of death, and sends him to go befriend two brother princes, and fight three giants.

Anodos prevails over the giants whereas he fails and flees before the horror of the Ash Tree, whose shadowy hand stands between his eyes and the moon.

After the fight with the giants, and after he is freed from the tower of self-imprisonment by the very maiden his shadow earlier had wronged, he once more falls in with the Red Knight, and becomes his servant.

Together they come upon a deceitful pagan ceremony in a yew grove, but only Anodos can see the deceit: the Red Knight is beguiled. Anodos leaves his weapons aside, for he knows he faces a foe human steel cannot pierce. He interrupts the ceremony, overturns the wooden image of the altar (which turns out to be as hollow and empty as an evil Ash Tree).

Anodos slowly strangles a savage beast hidden in the empty heart of a hollow idol with his bare hands, but is swiftly stabbed by the worshippers of the beast. Dead, Anodos enters bliss, rests atop clouds or within a primrose, and for a time haunts and blesses the knight and his lady.

But a parallel scene easy to overlook is the garden of flower fairies through which Anodos walks before he enters the wood and in pursued by the Ash Tree. The charming little beings live in playful mockery of men. Here — and here alone out of the whole book — are found the fairies of popular Victorian imagination, wee pixies winged like insects, flittering and chattering and playing pranks.

They mock and torment the cottage cat in the selfsame way Anodos is later mocked and tormented by Kobolds, in her pulling sparks from her fur, in him eliciting a spark of nobility.

But it is mock funeral of a flower that merits a mention. A primrose told the other flowers they would not live long enough to see the snowdrop — the same thing said to a winged woman on a far word where children are found, not born — and in anger another flower, a pocket, bites her stem and kills her.

All this is portrayed as a lighthearted matter of song and rhyme, if not a little silly (it is clearly implies the primrose fairy is not dead, only the flower she used as a garment); but the imagery is grim and serious when magnified later.

For the flower funeral is the foreshadowing and parallel not only to the Beggar-girl gathering wings (if she is indeed the same figure as the winged woman who died on the world before birth to come here to find the snowdrop) but also the funeral witnessed by the ghost of Anodos of his own flesh being buried.

Anodos in spirit passes into the shape of a primrose, is plucked by the White Lady (now the wife of the Red Knight) and kisses him. In this, she returns the kiss by which Anodos first attempted to awaken her from being trapped in stone.

Earlier, when Anodos first flees in the moonlight from the shadow of the Ash Tree, he is saved and embraced and comforted by a lovely beech tree, who confesses her love for him, and hopes to meet him again.

She says:

“I fancy I feel like a woman sometimes. I do so to-night—and always when the rain drips from my hair. For there is an old prophecy in our woods that one day we shall all be men and women like you. Do you know anything about it in your region? Shall I be very happy when I am a woman? I fear not… But I long to be a woman for all that.”   

“I fear not” are the selfsame words with which Anodos closes his ruminations on what he learned during his venture into Fairy Land.

He comes awake again on earth, now free of his dread shadow, and find he had been missing for twenty-one days, a day for each year of his life erenow. The tale closes with his vision of the kindly crone from the island of eternal day seen in the leaves of a beech tree, no doubt the same one met in fairyland.

Of course the departure into Fairy Land at the opening is reflected in the return therefrom at the end, which may or may not be the beginning of another cycle of painful episodes or adventures in this world, as the young man now faces manhood.

But, if so, he is now armed with the lesson he learned in Fairy Land, which he states as boldly and plainly as any moral appended to an Aesop fable: first, a man who would be a hero is less of a man than he would be a servant; second, false love claims the beloved as a possession, whereas true love liberates her, even at the cost of one’s own loss; third, that good is always coming, though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it.

It is to find and stir up that simplicity and courage that the simple and courageous tales as told in Fairy Land are told. Such is the point and purpose of MacDonald’s strange and fair little book.