Saturday, February 27, 2021

George MacDonald, Phantastes

Introduction

Opening Passage:

I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness. As I lay and looked through the eastern window of my room, a faint streak of peach-colour, dividing a cloud that just rose above the low swell of the horizon, announced the approach of the sun. As my thoughts, which a deep and apparently dreamless sleep had dissolved, began again to assume crystalline forms, the strange events of the foregoing night presented themselves anew to my wondering consciousness. The day before had been my one-and-twentieth birthday. Among other ceremonies investing me with my legal rights, the keys of an old secretary, in which my father had kept his private papers, had been delivered up to me. As soon as I was left alone, I ordered lights in the chamber where the secretary stood, the first lights that had been there for many a year; for, since my father’s death, the room had been left undisturbed. But, as if the darkness had been too long an inmate to be easily expelled, and had dyed with blackness the walls to which, bat-like, it had clung, these tapers served but ill to light up the gloomy hangings, and seemed to throw yet darker shadows into the hollows of the deep-wrought cornice. All the further portions of the room lay shrouded in a mystery whose deepest folds were gathered around the dark oak cabinet which I now approached with a strange mingling of reverence and curiosity....

Summary: It is the day after the twenty-first birthday of Anodos, whose name means 'the way up', although by an appropriate pun you could also read it as 'without way'. He will indeed have to change from being a pun or caricature of himself, aimless and without way, to ascending. In a little cabinet hidden away in a secretary that he inherited from his father, he will find a little woman, who shows him a vision of Fairy Land and promises he will enter it. This indeed happens the next day, when his bedroom becomes a forest.

He soon comes across a little cottage with an old woman and her daughter, who warn him of some of the more obvious dangers of the forest, and in particular the Ash and the Alder, who are malicious trees. After he leaves their cottage, partly ignoring their advice, he has to flee the Ash, and is saved, for the moment, by the Beech, who out of love gives him a special protection to carry with him. He eventually comes across a remarkable bit of marble covered with moss. Cleaning off the moss, he finds that the outer part is soft and also removable, like alabaster, and he scrapes that off, as well, discovering the form of a beautiful maiden. He is inspired to sing to her, and by the power of his song she wakes, but flees him.

Setting out to find her, he comes across a knight in rusty armor, Sir Percival, who warns him of the seductive enchantments of the Maid of the Alder, into whose trap he had fallen and for which reason he will not polish his armor until he has finished a quest. Anodos simply resolves not to be trapped, and continues after his Marble Lady. Soon he finds a white lady who is something like her, but discovers all too quickly that it is the Alder herself, who is working with the Ash. By the wiles of the Alder Maiden, he loses the protection of the Beech, and just narrowly avoids being killed by the Ash. After further adventures, in which he again ignores kindly advice, he enters the cottage of an ogress, and there discovers his Shadow. Now he has a second motivation beside finding the Marble Lady, to get rid of the Shadow, a terrible black shadow which will not disappear even when an ordinary shadow would. It also makes everything that falls into it seem ordinary and plain, as if were not something from Fairy Land. He falls in with a girl who carries a small crystal globe that gives out a beautiful harmony if lightly touched. Out of curiosity, he holds the globe too roughly and it shatters and she separates from him.

Other adventures follow. He comes to a fairy palace, in which there is a library in which reading the books makes you seem like you are living what the book describes, and he reads the story of Sir Cosmo of Prague, who discovers a lady in an enchanted mirror and dies to save her. He discovers that the statues of the palace dance, and only return to their pedestals when he enters the room, and among them he eventually finds the Marble Lady. Singing to her, he frees her again, but again she flees him.

If all of this seems a little random, it is so deliberately; the story is episodic, constructed out of dream-like scenes that have no obvious direct connection. But in Fairy Land, even mere juxtapositions have a deeper connection. All these things will tie together. He will meet the girl with the crystal globe again; he will learn more about Sir Perceval, who will slay the Ash, and Anodos will eventually become his squire. Sir Perceval has a connection to the Marble Lady. And all of these things are thematically bound by the notions of service and knighthood -- 'knighthood' in fact being originally a synonym for 'service'. The Shadow is tied up with Anodos's arrogance, and at one point he even tries to justify it on the grounds that he is above the common mass of people and can see through the enchantments that they take for granted. He repeatedly fails to listen as seriously as he should to the advice of persons of humbler station than he. He thinks that he can avoid the temptation of the Maid of the Alder simply by resolving to do so, failing to consider the significance of the warning of Sir Perceval, who had fallen into her trap despite (as Anodos will later discover) being morally a far superior person to Anodos. His thinking of the Marble Lady as his lady is presumptuous. At one point, he falls in with two brothers and joins with them in saving a kingdom; they both die and he alone survives. He later starts thinking of himself as an equal of Sir Galahad, despite the fact that he already knows that the two brothers who died were far better knights than he.

It can be good to have an Ideal, when it raises you to be higher, but there is a grave danger in it. Pursuing Ideals sometimes tangles us up with our Shadows; we become proud. In such cases, we must learn the lesson of Anodos:

I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. 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 nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal.

We err, wander, when we try to see ourselves in the ideal; the foundation of heroism is not our own fancied greatness but doing hard things humbly and small things well. It is easy to set out to find your Ideal; but the thing that you really must do is lose your Shadow.

C. S. Lewis famously said that Phantastes 'baptized his imagination', which I think is not always fully understood. A baptism is a death. That is the whole point of a baptism. But it is not a mere death; it is a death into a new life. What Lewis found in the work, and which is undeniably there, is Death. Death, not as a monster, not as an end, but as a sweetness that opens up rather than closes down the world. It is easy to see why Lewis, who struggled through much of his early career with a very dark pessimism about the world, would be so affected, so startled, as it were, by an imaginative vision in which Death was good and noble and sweet to the mind. It was not a change of understanding, nor a change of conscience, but quite literally a change of imagination. But much of what we call the world is not a matter of understanding or conscience, but merely a matter of how we imagine things to be. Changing that can change much. Phantastes is a fairy tale; it does not establish, it does not prove, it does not exhort. It does not even really show the world itself in a different way. But it does provide a context for learning a new way of imagining the world. That is not everything, but it is a basis for much else. And that is a lesson we all must learn at some point; we could put it in the words of Novalis in the epitaph to the last chapter: "Our life is not dream, but it ought to become one, and perhaps will."

Favorite Passage:

One peculiarity of these books, or at least most of those I looked into, I must make a somewhat vain attempt to describe.

If, for instance, it was a book of metaphysics I opened, I had scarcely read two pages before I seemed to myself to be pondering over discovered truth, and constructing the intellectual machine whereby to communicate the discovery to my fellow men. With some books, however, of this nature, it seemed rather as if the process was removed yet a great way further back; and I was trying to find the root of a manifestation, the spiritual truth whence a material vision sprang; or to combine two propositions, both apparently true, either at once or in different remembered moods, and to find the point in which their invisibly converging lines would unite in one, revealing a truth higher than either and differing from both; though so far from being opposed to either, that it was that whence each derived its life and power. Or if the book was one of travels, I found myself the traveller. New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me. I walked, I discovered, I fought, I suffered, I rejoiced in my success. Was it a history? I was the chief actor therein. I suffered my own blame; I was glad in my own praise. With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume, I would awake, with a sudden bewilderment, to the consciousness of my present life, recognising the walls and roof around me, and finding I joyed or sorrowed only in a book. If the book was a poem, the words disappeared, or took the subordinate position of an accompaniment to the succession of forms and images that rose and vanished with a soundless rhythm, and a hidden rime.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended. 

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