Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Study of Fantasy: Beginnings lead to Phantastes

Hey, remember waaaaay back when I posted about doing an in depth reading study of the modern fantasy genre from its beginnings until today? I haven't forgotten, promise. I'm still doing it. Why is it taking me so long?

One word: Phantastes.

Now when I sat down to read up on the history of modern fantasy, I wasn't exactly sure where to begin. Fantasy author, editor and critic Lin Carter, who wrote the book Imaginary Worlds, seemed to think it didn't properly start until William Morris. The History of Fantasy wikipedia (that fount of all knowledge) page included such stories as "A Christmas Carol", "Alice in Wonderland" and practically everything Hans Christian Andersen wrote as the beginnings of fantasy in the modern era. But I was looking for the beginning of fantasy as a recognizable new genre which I don't think those stories do. A Christmas Carol as supernatural elements, true, but I don't believe it is the supernatural that makes fantasy. Alice in Wonderland takes Alice to a fabulous imaginary world full of wonder, but doesn't treat Wonderland like a real place. Hans Christian Andersen, as wonderful as his works are, is clearly writing modern fairy tales, which I maintain is different than fantasy even if subtly so.

Wikipedia also recommended John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River, which I did read. (It wasn't hard, being quite a thin volume.) But this too seemed to follow the fairy tale conventions too closely to be true modern fantasy. Also there was Sara Coleridge's Phatasmion which in 1837 was described as "the first fairytale novel written in English". Definitely intriguing. But I bypassed it for one simple reason: it was very difficult to find. Not online. Online you can find it right here (and I'll probably read it one day) but I don't really like to sit around reading novels off my computer. I wanted it either in book form or on my kindle. So Phantasmion will have to stay on the back burner for a while.

Then there was George MacDonald. Lin Carter obviously considered him a pre-modern fantasy genre writer, a writer of modern fairy tales. However, I decided to start with him for one strong reason: his work was, by the admition of the authors and popular consensus, a huge influence on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, two of the most influential fantasy authors of the 20th century. MacDonald's book Phantastes had the advantage, as well, of being widely considered as the first book of its kind written for adults. So in the end I decided to start my study there.

Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women
by George MacDonald

I'll come right out and say it: this was a hard book to read, and I'm no slouch about reading literature from other centuries. Language wise it's not difficult as some books this old are, and I actually highlighted quite a few quotes from the story in my kindle. It's told in first person point of view and the entirety of the story is about the main character's wanderings through fairy land.

It begins on the main character's 21st birthday, when he comes into possession of his late father's desk. He opens it up with a key and in a little nook he finds a small fairy lady. (Seriously.) This fairy, who is apparently his grandmother according to wikipedia's plot summary though I didn't get that from the text myself, helpfully(?) transports him to fairy land and he spends the rest of the novel wandering around there. 

The problem with the story is that this is about all you can say for any sort of coherent plot. The rest is incredibly episodic, doesn't have any sort of internal consistency and no driving force or goal. Though there are certain recurring elements. Anodos, the protagonist, finds a marble statue and sings it to life but then she runs off through fairy land and he spends a good part of his time trying to find her again. He has an encounter with his shadow which proceeds to follow him through fairy land and though this shadow is portrayed as a sinister force it is not clear exactly what threat it poses to Anodos. There is also a knight in rusted armor who is apparently Sir Percival but again I missed that in the text. Anodos meets the knight a few times during his wanderings, is saved by him from a malevolent force, finds out that the knight is the one his marble lady truly loves, and ultimately becomes his squire. 

At one point Anodos finds himself in a fairy castle which has no other visible inhabitants. And it is during this interlude that he decides to, and I'm not even exaggerating this, completely recount for his readers a book that Anodos reads in the library of the castle. This story of a man named Cosmo and his magical mirror (Seriously.) is somewhat more interesting that Anodos' adventures, which at this point isn't hard. Eventually Anodos finds that his marble lady has once again become a statue in the castle and he manages to free her with his singing a second time but she runs off again. The most interesting episode of Anodos' wanderings, in my opinion, was hen he randomly encounters two princes who be befriends and joins in their quest to slay three ravaging giants. The two princes are killed in the process however and Anodos ends up wandering again. Then he is captured in a tower by his shadow for no discernible reason and then freed for no discernible reason by the rusty knight. 

While serving the knight Anodos sacrifices his life for no discernible reason and dies, lingering in the realm of fairy land in a state of perfect bliss for a little while and uttering some of the creepiest lines ever written. 

"Ah! my friends," thought I, "how I will tend you, and wait upon you, and haunt you with my love."

Eventually, though, he wakes up in the real world, 21 days having passed and goes back to his life, wiser for the experience.

Needless to say, I found the lack of direction in the plot very tedious, which is why it took me FOREVER to finish reading this book. In hindsight (and after you get to the ending where he's... floating around as some sort of blessed dead waxing eloquent it's much more obvious) that this book really isn't a fairy story, it's more of an allegory of spiritual truth. I get the feeling that if I went back and reread it with this in mind, instead of taking it at face value as a story, I would enjoy it more. The prose is often very beautiful and MacDonald puts some very insightful words into his character's mouth. I've found myself highlighting (such a great kindle feature) many passages in this book.

But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning?

As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love.

The first I knew the delight of being lowly; of saying to myself, "I am what I am, nothing more."

I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood.

In the end I'm glad I read it. It made me realize that the "person finds a secret way from our world into another world" isn't a cliche of the fantasy genre invented for wish fulfillment. It's a direct descendant of the ancient myths and legends where men and women often get taken or go willingly into the Otherworld, the realm of the faerie. This seems so obvious in hindsight, especially since I have read many, many such myths and legends from Celtic tradition, but I honestly had not thought about it from that angle before. As much as I love Narnia (one of the great achievements in fantasy in the 20th century) I was getting a bit fed up with that kind of story, the "portal story" as it's called. But now I think this is rather a problem with some modern versions of the portal story and not with the motif itself. Particularly fantasies where the relationship between our world and the imaginary world is unclear, comprising an incomplete cosmology.

My conclusion is that Phantastes is rather dry as a fantasy novel, but well worth at least one reading, especially if one knows what one's getting into. It's an important stepping stone in the transition between fairy tale and modern fantasy.

Next time: The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

Also, check in tomorrow for my second installment of the Rule of Three Blogfest story.


  1. Ha! I'm glad I'm not the only one. I had the same problem with both MacDonald and Morris (let me know what you think of him) - the language is often interesting, the events sometimes exciting, but it's like a child wrote them! There's no linear development of character or any causal relation between half the events.
    Not entirely sure the authors are to blame, however. Until Grimm, Andersen and Tolkien came along, there was hardly any coherency in legends, it would seem - that is, I had the same where's-the-plot reaction when reading Chretien de Troyes.
    But you've read Douglas Anderson's collection of Tales Before Tolkien, right? Many of those authors are very good and in small doses, meandering fantasy is easier to take.

  2. Actually, I haven't read Tales before Tolkien, but it's on my list now! As for Morris... I'm 92% through The Wood Beyond the World and I feel like if I could take Morris' plot and MacDonald's prose, setting and characterization, we'd have a pretty good book on our hands.

  3. Oh, good idea! Add a splash of Dunsany's over-the-top prose, and there you go :-)

  4. Oh if we could add Dunsany I'd say MacDonald's prose and characters, Morris' plot, Dunsany's setting and cosmology. That would be awesome.

  5. Books with plot are more fun, it's true.

  6. It's been a long time sine I read Phantastes, but I remember really enjoying it. One thing to take into account, MacDonald was a minister; all of his work is allegorical. I would say that it's a direct reason for Lewis' allegory as well. I may have to go back and re-read it, now, though, as I don't remember having any issues over plot, but, then, I went into it knowing it was a spiritual allegory, so I may have been more tuned into what was going on in that sense.

    On a slightly different note, I have a planned post about the origin of the fantasy mythos, but I have a slightly different take on it.

  7. Speaking of Fairies, lovely, you won the giveaway! (Though she isn't anyone's Grandmother, as far as I know, for all that she fits into a desk nook.) Send me your snail mail addy to Jenny underscore ray 2004 at yahoo dot com and I will ship her to you! :)

  8. Wow, that sounds like quite the saga. Thanks for recapping it. It reminds me a little of a novel I read long, long ago...Shadow Castle or something like that I think.

    Also, don't know what happened but your blog fell out of my tracker for a while, so that's why I haven't been around. Got it fixed now! :)

  9. Matt, plot is a necessity, of course, but I think direction to the plot is almost equally important to me as a reader.

    Andrew, I actually knew those things already so I SHOULD have been expecting it. Still, it's hard to like an allegorical story when it's that boring. Lewis did it better.

    I really look forward to your take on fantasy. I have been specifically focusing on modern fantasy because I have always been well read in the myths and fairy tales that are its roots, but I've only been reading modern fantasy for 10 years so there was a huge gap in my familiarity with the genre.

    Jenny, yay! I am thrilled.

    Nicole, welcome back. ;)

  10. Hehehe sounds interesting, even if it was a bit of dry reading. It's good to see where fantasy came from. :-)

  11. I actually feel like I read the entire book from this post. Great insights into the beginnings of fantasy here!


Comments, Precious, we appreciates them!