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