George MacDonald’s Phantastes is generally regarded as pivotal in the development of fantasy literature: it is the first ever fantasy novel written exclusively for adults. Now of course we have fantastic literature intended for an adult audience going back centuries before that, to epic poems like Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal in the 14th Century, or — leaving English literature behind — to the Iliad and suchforth. MacDonald, however, does bear the distinction of being the first to introduce the world to the adult fantasy in its most common present form. C.S. Lewis further cemented MacDonald as the Godfather of Fantasy by calling him “my master” and harping on at length in Surprised by Joy about what a revelation Phantastes was to him and to his own authorial aspirations. The reason I’m saying all of this is that it’s very difficult to review a MacDonald book as a simple book. In this genre, it’s akin to digging up the Neolithic ancestor who first came up with irrigation, rapping on her dusty skull with the knuckles, and saying “eh. She’s all right, I s’pose.”
Of course, that’s precisely what I’m about to do. I didn’t develop a muscle spasm halfway through assigning five stars and accidentally drop MacDonald a few points. While Phantastes is an extremely important book both for this genre as well as (I’d argue) for literature in general, it hasn’t aged well and it was probably never the kind of book that delivered consistent entertainment to its audience (the reviews from its release waaaaay back in Victorian England are decidedly lukewarm). Today, it’s another one of those love-it-or-hate-it books that I seem to keep reviewing. To love Phantastes, however, probably takes the most effort out of any of the love-it-or-hate-its I’ve so far covered, simply because to do so requires the reader to be willing to give up quite a lot of what we usually expect out of a novel. A plot, for instance.
Yes, that’s correct: there’s really not much of a plot in this novel, at least not in terms of the fantasy setting. Phantastes does, however, begin with a sort of narrative arc concerning a young man named Anodos (Greek for “pathless”) who is about to take over management of his household following the death of his father. He has a crucial conversation about Fairy Land with his little sister, resulting in a fairy overhearing him and deciding nothing would please her more than to drop him headfirst into Fairy Land. There are some strong maturation themes here, obviously, but once the narrative leaves England and enters Fairy, MacDonald abandons any pretense of linearity. Anodos’s adventures (which take up the vast majority of the novel) are extremely episodic and unrelated. He careens from fighting giants in a castle to spiritually communing with trees to extended sequences of dreams within dreams (which actually tend to have more narrative cohesion than the “real” events). As this is going on, MacDonald’s writing is undergoing similar shifts, jumping from chivalric romance to dense Christian allegory (MacDonald was a Christian minister) within the space of a few pages.
I don’t wish to be entirely negative on the structure of Phantastes. MacDonald is in many ways a very sensitive author with beautiful, eerie prose that, once read, is difficult to forget. Many of Anodos’s experiences are striking in their symbolic depth or lushness of imagery, and the reader is left with a sensation that few authors have been bold enough to reach for: that Fairy Land truly is alien, that it’s not some concrete alternate Earth where the people happen to have pointy ears, but is instead an entirely different world that operates by different rules. In many ways, Fairy Land is the trope of the fantastic carried to its furthest extent: fantasy has crowded out the “normal” in this world, and the results are often as lovely as they are admittedly incomprehensible. It is a very pretty novel, but that said, I tend to think that a lot of readers will find it difficult to get through. Anodos’s adventures rarely seem to be leading anywhere in particular, and ultimately this robs the narrative (such as it is) of a lot of momentum.
Phantastes, then, is a novel that really has to be experienced and accepted on an as-is basis. MacDonald claimed to have written it in one long burst, without an outline or any real plan. I can well believe it (a rushed job might also explain the somewhat wonky punctuation here and there). Honestly, the closest I can get you to understanding the sensation of reading this book without actually quoting some of it is to ask you to imagine the kind of dream that confuses you even as you’re dreaming it, but once over leaves behind the lingering sensation that you might like to get back.