The story of a man and his journey into the faerie land, Phantastes is rather a series of experiences than a continuous plot. The main character is no brave hero, and by no means does he succeed in all his adventures. But the true value of the book comes from understanding that it is by weighing our experiences rather than succeeding in them all that we find meaning in this life. Being composed of so many events that take place in the protagonist's journey, Phantastes could almost be chopped up into several short stories and served as a chronological anthology. But MacDonald, contrary to the conventions we are accustomed to today, chose to keep the narative together and present it as if it were one contiuous plot. Therefore, those who expect action are as little likely to find it as the are to enjoy the book. But for those of us who are romantics who can get lost in the beauty of each of these episodes, there is a glorious treasure to be found in this journey to the land of faeries.
This is an enchanting work of high fantasy, lyrical in its composition, spiritual in its nature, and enlightening in its effect on the careful reader. As the subtitle says, Phantastes is a Faerie Romance For Men and Women. The Fairy Land in which Anodos, the narrator, ventures is not the fairy land of youth's innocent dreams; rather, it is an otherworldly plane full of great beauty and terrible ugliness, impish little fairies and horrible, teasing goblins, nurturing spirits and malevolent entities. Anodos' discovery of a fairy inside his deceased father's old desk leads to his unplanned journey into this world of wonder. Interestingly, upon entering Fairy Land, Anodos leaves the beaten path and makes his way through the woods all on his own. He meets a diverse cast of characters along the way, reckoning with dark beings who threaten his spiritual well-being while also finding great and needed comfort at crucial times from nurturing maternal forces. His own shadow takes on perhaps the most malevolent influence of all the beings he deals with. He often finds himself compelled to sing, and his songs are powerful enough to free a beautiful White Lady from inside a statue; he remains infatuated with this lady for a long time, trying desperately to find her; his love for her, he comes to realize, comes in large part from his feelings of having been the one to free her, and an important point the author seems to be suggesting is that the love of a giver is much more pure than the love of a benefactor. Much of this story is allegorical; Anodos basically comes to know himself and to see the world more objectively as a result of his journeys. He often resorts to tears, yet he also raises his voice in song to uplift others. He discovers the power of brotherly love and the beauty that is all around, yet he cringes at the sight of the shadowy creatures that would do him ill. His journey is challenging because he naturally falls prey to feelings of pride and egotism, but his losses and sorrows eventually coalesce themselves into something of beauty, for it is these experiences that help him grow more spiritual. Much has been made of MacDonald's religious beliefs, but Phantastes to me calls forth no religion other than spiritualism and personal growth and maturity. Good and evil do not exist in Fairy Land, except in the sense that there is both good and evil in each individual spirit. Doubtless, some will not like MacDonald's 19th-century, florid style. There is action in this novel, but it definitely takes a back seat to exposition and philosophical musings. Some will surely find Phantastes exceptionally boring, but those readers willing to follow Anodos deeply into Fairy Land will embark on an enlightening, touching read that will almost surely make them better persons for having taken the literary journey.
The author was unknown to me when I first picked up this book. I had last delved into fantasy novels as a child, the most notable being the writings of Tolkien & CS Lewis. Phantastes was something on another level completely. Where it may lack the adventure, characterisation & humour of other books, it is a powerful psychological journey. While reading, I was "Anodos" and his experience in the Faerie Lands brought revelatory knowledge of my innermost self. I wept as I slept securely in the warm presence of the Beech & felt again the deep maternal love of my mother for her young child. I shuddered with the recognition of the infernal shadow that sped toward me in the Ogre's cottage knowing that the picture matched my own experience also, and I left that house running, carrying with me an overwhelming sense of despair. I also found that as the character Anodos found redemption and finally his release, that I too, have known this longing all my life. George MacDonald, the author was a man who travelled a hard road, constantly seeing those dear to him dying of the prevalent illnesses of the Victorian era. He lost his mother at a young age and the memory of her is felt through most of his work as are many of the influential & formative experiences of his life. He is a man motivated to use his perceptive writing to influnce people to be greater men & women and I thank him for it.