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.
Since my daughter and I and our book club just finished Heather Vogel Frederick’s Home for the Holidays, it seemed like a good time to review this series that we have been enjoying for more than four years now.
I stumbled across Much Ado about Anne (book two in the series) while looking up L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books at the library. We quickly fell in love with Frederick’s highly relatable characters and situations and their Concord, Massachusetts, setting. Not unlike the Harry Potter series, the books begin with the main characters in sixth grade, covering one year per book (with a couple of exceptions) and seeing them through high school. Since my daughter was a fourth grader at the time, we took a couple of breaks to let her catch up with age of the book characters.
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