I can’t remember where I found out about Phantastes, that strange, wonderful book written by George MacDonald (1824-1905) at a time when adult fiction was supposed to be realistic and the idea of fantastic literature made people instantly think of children or young readers. One author leads to another, a book to another book in the huge net of Literature. Which book, which author, which comment lead me to George MacDonald’s Phantastes? MacDonald called it “A FAERIE ROMANCE FOR MEN AND WOMEN”. The title highlights two connections and an advice: a connection with medieval romance, a second one with faerie tales from the folklore legacy, an advice to make clear that the world of imagination contained in the pages which lay ahead is not intended for children. MacDonald’s Fairyland is a world of dreams and mystic paths that open a secret dimension of reality. It translates the ways of the spirit into a dreamland where secret battles take place. And it doesn’t matter if you believe in other world in the same way he did or if you think other worlds are here and now: when you enter Phantastes you’ll find yourself in a strangely familiar place, the kingdom of the mind. Such an experience reminds of the nightly quests, sorrows and joys we go through during our dreams when we are asleep. But under the frame of fiction MacDonald builds up Fairyland is not a dream as we know them. It is real. Not a world of the five senses, not either the bizarre visions of a dreamer. Lewis Carrol’s books resort to the dreaming world of the sleeper, as Jamie Williamson says in The Evolution of Modern Fantasy. MacDonald takes a different stance on the nature of the fantastic world, both in Phantastes and in his much latter work Lilith. A Romance.

Binding of the first edition,
published by Smith, Elder & Co.
London, 1858
Cover of the so called “Suppressed Edition”
1894, London, Chatto & Windus
1916 Edition by publishers J.M. Dent and E.P. Dutton & Co.
The Ballantine 1971 Edition
with an introduction by Lin Carter

“Both Alice books are dreams in a quite straightforward sense: Alice falls asleep, has a dream, and wakes up at the end. This is not the case in either of MacDonald’s romances, where the invented worlds would be more aptly described as alternate dimensions outside the continuum of the five senses. Precisely the relation between the primary and the invented worlds is ambiguous, but the latter are not the product of a simple sleeping dream.”


“…in either of MacDonald’s romances (…) the invented worlds would be more aptly described as alternate dimensions outside the continuum of the five senses”.

(Williamson, Jamie. The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (pp. 115-116). Palgrave Macmillan US. Kindle Edition).

Phantastes is somewhat a predecessor of modern fantasy, for all the main elements are there, at least at the more literal level.

“The book’s Fairyland is an imaginary world, in which Anodos the protagonist encounters magical beings and spells. With its castles, rustic homesteads, dark forests, and knights; its journey structure; and its rather pre-Raphaelite medieval atmosphere, the vocabulary of romance and fairy tale is marshaled unambiguously. In terms of MacDonald’s own inspirations and “sources,” this vocabulary to some degree relies on elements from actual medieval, and particularly Arthurian, romance; however, Spenser and much else from the Elizabethan period and the seventeenth century inform MacDonald’s treatment of his medieval vocabulary. The traditional fairy tale is echoed in many of the book’s motifs and is explicitly alluded to in places; specifically Scottish patterns underscore the battle of Anodos and the two brothers against the three giants. The inset ballad of Sir Aglovaile is clearly modeled on the border ballads. MacDonald was deep in Romanticism, both English and German, and in varying capacities, Shelley, Coleridge, Novalis, Hoffmann, Fouqué, and many more can be scented behind sections of Phantastes.”

Williamson, Jamie. The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (p. 115). Palgrave Macmillan US. Kindle Edition.

Williamson gives us a lot of clues in this paragraph: the constituents of fantasy fiction as we understand it today, the sources of vocabulary and motifs, the influences and kinships.

In order to get lost properly in the magic woodland of Phantastes I resorted to that huge source of literary supplies named Delphi Classics where I bought the Complete Works of George MacDonald. I still have to read his other fantastic narratives (and maybe some of the realistic ones), among them Lilith, a Romance, which belongs to the end of his literary career (only two other books were published after it).
Delphi provides all the lot nicely packed with indexes and extra content for a small price, but you can also find MacDonald’s works totally free at

The Victorian Website has a page with very interesting content providing material for learning, if learning is what you want to do. They have the complete text of Phantastes and a bunch of links that make a web inside the web to go all round through related works and topics.

I suppose I’ll have to go round several times, as I have such a bad memory. I still can’t recall the thread that took me to Phantastes and the fact that I got lost in MacDonald’s woodland probably added to whatever other facts were covering the track behind me. So today I only remember a room being turned into a passage that lead to a different world, and then the trees, so alive and restless, and the night, as alive and restless as the trees, and the sense of being surrounded by creatures that maybe were part of me, maybe not.

My roaming begun with the journey of Anodos.

Published by Mary Wolfhouse

Writer and freelance journalist. Mary Wolfhouse is a pen name and also an Internet avatar.

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