Phantastes, by George MacDonald
The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.
I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.
You will never read a book about perfect people in a perfect world. If you happen to stumble upon and launch into such a book, I predict you will put it down by chapter 2, if not before.
But why, exactly, is that? If we long for world peace, why don’t we enjoy reading about it?
A thorough investigation of that question could fill volumes and venture into the realms of psychology, philosophy, and myth, among others. But one accessible explanation is that we need characters we can relate to. And none of us is perfect.
Certain masterpieces shock us with unapologetic images of human nature at its worst. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor come to mind. The latter wrote that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
The intuitive outcome of my February 2020 reading was a resolution to make George MacDonald a literary staple of future winters. A logical accounting of what makes his fairy stories particularly suitable for the season, however, has proved more elusive.
MacDonald’s fairy tales are by no means escapist. Some, like “The Wise Woman,” are unscrupulously didactic. Nor does it do them justice merely to call them “hopeful,” in contrast to much contemporary literature I have run across of late. Continue reading