I have been slayed…by Phantastes…

Book Review: Phantastes By: George MacDonald

Coming off of reading the biography of C.S. Lewis by George Sayer, I discovered many new authors that shaped Lewis, and that I haven’t read before.  I found the complete works of George MacDonald for two bucks on amazon.com and downloaded them to my Kindle.

George MacDonald

MacDonald was the author that most influenced Lewis back to his faith from eighteen years as an atheist.  Sayer mentions two books by MacDonald that Lewis was especially fond of: Lilith and Phantastes.  Of MacDonald and his work Phantastes, Sayers writes:

“The writer who most influenced Jack in his journey towards Christianity was the Aberdeenshire minister George MacDonald (1824-1905).  Jack found his book Phantastes at the bookshop in Great Bookham Station and paid one shilling and one penny for it.  He read it with intense delight and wrote at once to Arthur (a close friend) describing it as “a great literary experience.”  He had no idea then that it was also a spiritual experience.  Not until years later did he call it “Holiness.”” –  Location 1421 of 6677.

Let me be cliché: Phantastes was epic.  It was amazing.  The imagination is a powerful and important tool to engage in the receiver of a story.  And MacDonald pushed mine to its fullness.  I’ve read few authors with that kind of literary power.  His prose and poetic style was deeply effective in the telling of the story of the main character Anodos.

At the height of his poetic style, Anodos speaks with descriptions such as this:

“I dared not ask her to stay; in fact, I could hardly speak to her.  Between her and me, there was a great gulf.  She was uplifted, by sorrow and well-doing, into a region I could hardly hope to ever enter.  I watched her departure, as one watches the sunset.  She went like a radiance through the dark wood, which was henceforth bright to me, from simply knowing that such a creature was in it.

She was bearing the sun to the unsunned spots…”

Lewis read Phantastes when he was sixteen, and has this to say of his experience:

“That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me[,] not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” – Lewis, C.S., Surprised by Joy

Phantastes is the story of Anodos, a young man who is pulled into an imaginative fairy world to go on a journey that he doesn’t fully comprehend until his death.  Ultimately it’s an allegory on the meaning of our life on earth, told through poetic genius.

What starts out as a story of a man in search of his ideal, Anodos learns by the end of his journey that it is only in letting go of our ideals that we finally and truly find what we’ve always been looking for.  Surrender is the path to the glory of Life.

Upon rebirth into his native country, Anodos comments:

“Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.”

And earlier in the story he says:

“Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain?  or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?”

Doug Thorpe gives a brilliant review of this masterpiece:

“I was dead, and right content,” the narrator says in the penultimate chapter of Phantastes. C.S. Lewis said that upon reading this astonishing 19th-century fairy tale he “had crossed a great frontier,” and numerous others both before and since have felt similarly. In MacDonald’s fairy tales, both those for children and (like this one) those for adults, the “fairy land” clearly represents the spiritual world, or our own world revealed in all of its depth and meaning. At times almost forthrightly allegorical, at other times richly dreamlike (and indeed having a close connection to the symbolic world of dreams), this story of a young man who finds himself on a long journey through a land of fantasy is more truly the story of the spiritual quest that is at the core of his life’s work, a quest that must end with the ultimate surrender of the self. The glory of MacDonald’s work is that this surrender is both hard won (or lost!) and yet rippling with joy when at last experienced. As the narrator says of a heavenly woman in this tale, “She knew something too good to be told.” One senses the same of the author himself.

I couldn’t give a higher recommendation for this book.  I found it incredibly powerful.  There comes along a story in my reading every once in a while that absolutely slays me.  This has been the one so far this year.

2 thoughts on “I have been slayed…by Phantastes…

  1. My own reaction to Phantastes was similar when I read it years back, although I was so astounded by the dreamlike power that I was unable yet to untangle much of its philosophical meaning, though I sensed its presence. I hope to reread it before long and experience it anew, but it is still one of my favorite books. If you enjoyed it, you might enjoy the topics I blog about: I’m hugely influenced by not just Macdonald, but also Lewis, Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton. Some of my blog followers and frequent commenters are as well.

    Thanks for this review — it was a pleasure to read and be reminded of this amazing book. I own a copy of Lilith (bought for $1 at a library booksale!) and am eager to discover its power.

  2. You blog about some of my favorite authors, though I haven’t read Chesterton yet. I have his Orthodoxy book on my shelf, and will be getting to it sometime this year. Thanks for the feedback!

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