“My spirits rose as I went deeper into the forest … I found cheerfulness to be like life itself – not to be created by any argument”[1]
– George MacDonald, Phantastes

“I did not yet know the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness.”[2] – C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

“It is an indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected.”[3]    – Oswald Chambers 

Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895) are considered among a handful of George MacDonald’s best fantasy novels but are little read. The plots, significance, and sampling of insights from each work are presented in a pair of articles in this issue of An Unexpected Journal. These reviews will help us to better understand the seminal influence of the writer who pioneered the modern fantasy genre, served as mentor to Lewis Carroll, and inspired a host of other renowned authors including C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden, Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz), T.H. White (The Once and Future King), Neil Gamain, Madeleine L’Engle, and Oswald Chambers.

It was MacDonald’s Phantastes, which Lewis once picked up at a train station for some weekend reading, that transported Lewis to a “new region [in which] all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed.”[4] While Lewis was not yet a Christian at the time (he claimed that while reading Phantastes “nothing was at that time farther from my thoughts than Christianity”), MacDonald inspired Lewis to later write his own faith-imbued fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis wrote in his diary that, “I read MacDonald’s Phantastes over my tea, which I have read many times and which I really believe fills for me the place of  a devotional book. It tuned me up to a higher pitch and delighted me.”[5] Elsewhere, Lewis described MacDonald’s works as “fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and mythopoeic.”[6]  Lewis considered Phantastes and Lilith among the handful of MacDonald’s most important stories, along with The Golden Key, The Wise Woman and the Curdie books.[7] When asked for a list of the ten books which most influenced his writing, Lewis placed Phantastes at the top of his list.[8] The tribute Lewis pays to MacDonald and Phantastes in The Great Divorce perhaps does as much justice to his debt as any statement:

When I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) [it] had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life.[9]

Renowned as a fantasy writer, MacDonald followed closely in the spirit of German Pietists, Romantic poets, and Idealist philosophers so prominent in the early nineteenth century. MacDonald quoted the poet Novalis in declaring that “imagination is the stuff of intellect” adding that it is “the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding.”[10] Lewis echoed MacDonald in exalting the imagination as he wrote, “for me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”[11] Without such meaning, Lewis added, rational arguments are rendered empty and lifeless, the terms of argument reduced to mere words rather than symbols filled with significance.

MacDonald’s imagination was more than mere literary device, however; it was grounded in his Christian faith. He thus reasoned:

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect . . . We live by faith, not by sight.[12]

MacDonald added that God “‘hath set the world in man’s heart,’ not in his understanding. And the heart must open the door to the understanding.”[13] Due to his Christian faith, MacDonald’s flights of imaginative fancy leave us better grounded, rather than adrift, in non-existent worlds. MacDonald even goes so far as to claim that the imagination is key for scientific progress:

The poetic relations themselves in the phenomenon may suggest to the imagination the law that rules its scientific life. Yea, more than this: we dare to claim for the true, childlike, humble imagination, such an inward oneness with the laws of the universe that it possesses in itself an insight into the very nature of things.[14]

C.S. Lewis later made the same argument in his essay De Futilitate, arguing that it is only because our minds and the universe are governed by the same laws that we can make any sense of things by our own efforts with mathematics and science.[15]

MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858) and Lilith: A Romance (1895) bookend his writing career, being his first and final fantasy novels. They also thematically progress from the wonder of life to the significance of death. Pairing Phantastes and Lilith together in this way parallels another of MacDonald’s fantasies, The Golden Key (1867), in which a magic key is discovered at the end of a rainbow. After searching an enchanted land, the key is found to unlock a door that leads to a heavenly land. In Phantastes, the young man Anodos awakes to find himself in the enchanted world of Fairy Land, where for twenty-one days he discovers a deeper meaning behind the everyday world. In Lilith, Mr. Vane finds in his family library a passageway to a fantasy world where souls prepare themselves for death and purification for the next life; the nemesis of such plans is Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam who renounces both the responsibilities of marriage and family. We review Phantastes here, leaving Lilith as the topic of an accompanying article.

In C.S. Lewis’s List, David Neuhouser expounds on the significance of Phantastess themes for Lewis: it followed in the tradition of the Romantics in which Lewis was “already . . . waist-deep.”[16]  Anodos and his rationalist, alter-ego mirror how Lewis was torn between “a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth” and “a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’”[17]  Lewis’s description of spiritual longing (or sehnsucht) is found repeatedly in utterances of Anodos regarding unknown, indescribable, and voiceless longings of his soul. That a deeper, unifying magic enchants our everyday reality is another theme shared by Lewis and MacDonald, as is the humility that such a reality engenders.

Phantastes presents an enchanted world in which the sojourner Anodos discovers the beauty of (or perhaps behind) nature and embarks on a quest of longing in his pursuit of  romantic love. Having recently turned twenty-one, the young man Anodos encounters a small Greek statuette in his library which speaks to him of Fairy Land and fills him “with an unknown longing,” finding in her eyes unknown seas and a heaven of stars.[18] The next day his room transforms into the woods of Fairy Land. Trees take on personalities, with the woods populated by trusty Oaks and Elms, a great Beech, naïve Birch, and dangerous Ashes and Alders; light-hearted flower fairies act out mock plays. Garden fairies are “more staid and educated” than those of the fields and woods, and such fauna die when the fairies leave them rather than the reverse.[19] Fairy Land is best comprehended with the eyes of a child, “who, being in a chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing.”[20] Anodos is befriended by a beautiful woman which turns out to be a Beech tree aspiring to someday become a woman. Anodos soon finds a more suitable companion in love when he uncovers from the vegetation a block of alabaster in the form of a woman, to which he finds himself singing (despite his lack of such ability outside of Fairy Land) hymns to her beauty, after which she comes to life then departs. Anodos later believes he has found her and falls entranced as he listens to her stories, but falls asleep then wakes to find that instead he has been tricked by the hostile Ash and Alder trees. Anodos later learns from a woman he meets that he (as well as the knight Sir Percival) have been fooled by such trees which present themselves as the fair lady of alabaster, though they desire only the love of a man and not the man himself, offering a self-destructive type of beauty (their true hideousness is seen plainly in the light of day) in exchange for power over their lovers.

Fairy Land wins over Anodos with its wonders, but evil and battles yet lurk. After meeting an agnostic farmer (though his wife and daughter are not so faithless), Anodos begins to doubt his belief in Fairy Land, until “a gush of wonderment and longing flowed over my soul like the tide of a great sea” as he spies how “trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning” with their roots “planted deep in gloom.”[21] Soon thereafter, however, Anodos discovers the form of reason that disenchants when he meets his shadow. Upon discovering a dark cottage in a clearing in the forest, Anodos enters and is warned by a woman inside not to open a closet door, which only piques his interest all the more. Upon entering, Anodos discovers the dark figure of his shadow awaiting him, which then accompanies him on his further journeys in Fairy Land. His companion disenchants almost immediately; when his shadow follows Anodos in lying down for a rest, the ground underneath the shadow ends up scorched, and in various encounters the aura of resplendent life dims under the shadow’s influence and even causes a cherished small crystal globe of a young maiden to shatter. Anodos is initially seduced by his attendant’s demystifying influence, reasoning that “in a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me . . . I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste land instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live.”[22] Lewis’s Puddleglum voices the exact opposite in The Silver Chair, when refusing the Queen of Underland’s denial of sunny Overland, declares that their supposedly imaginary “play world . . . licks your real world hollow” as “the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.”[23]    Nevertheless, as Anodos continues his pilgrimage to the palace of Fairy Land,  he still yearns to see the Spirit of the Earth and revels in the dancing reflections of the moonlight as he wonders, “why are all reflections lovelier than what we call reality . . . always lovelier?”[24] He concludes, “this feeling is no cheat; for there is no cheating in nature and the simple unsought feelings of the soul. There must be a truth involved in it, though we may but in part lay hold of the meaning,”[25] and continues his journey “into the deeper fairyland of the soul.”[26]  Anodos finds even in song birds “sweetest music [with] a tinge of sadness,” showing how “much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows,” for “joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy.”[27]

MacDonald presents the arts as incomplete vessels of true beauty. Dancers in the palace seemingly sway to the “law of music,” moving Anodos to tears and “a kind of trance of speechless delight,” though he is left only “faint and longing for more.”[28]  Further, art elevates nature to its highest form of meaning, as in a story which Anodos learns of a magical mirror which can turn common rooms into spiritual encounters. However, MacDonald clarifies that it is not “that art rescues nature from  . . . every-day life” but imagination “reveals Nature in some degree as she really is.”[29] The imagination does not bestow beauty upon nature; she reveals what is already there. MacDonald cites the English writer John Lyly (1553- 1604), who claimed that a work of art could never be finished, as “always in absolute beauty there is somewhat above art.”[30]

Anodos discovers even deeper enchantments when he finally reaches the glistening marble Palace of Fairy Land. He revels in the palace’s great halls, the wonders of nature displayed within, its revitalizing baths and gems on display, and the starry reflections found within. The lakes of Fairy Land reflect only the light of the moon and the stars, though the sky reflects everything like a domed kaleidoscope. He further learns that in Fairy Land babies are birthed by nature within the forests, their personalities determined by the seasons and even the weather, then discovered and raised by maidens. As they grow up, only the men receive arms fit for useful work; the women instead grow “resplendent wings . . . wherein they can shroud themselves from head to foot in a panoply of glistering glory.”[31] When beset with great pangs of sadness or when simply falling in love, the beings of Fairy Land feel an intense longing, seek solitude, and die; Anodos speculates that when they are reborn in our world, they then seek to find their loves.

MacDonald portrays a more complete love than Anodos has yet encountered because the actions of each party have been fully self-sacrificial.

Anodos discovers a tale of fully self-sacrificing love in the library where he spends his afternoons. In the library, he is mystically engaged by books of philosophy, history, fiction, travel, and poetry which seem to draw him personally into their quests for deeper spiritual truths. One such story of a university student named Cosmo, a princess, and a magical mirror that connects them captivates Anodos. Cosmo purchases a mirror in an antiques store, then soon learns that by way of the mirror he is able to entertain a lovely but saddened woman who can sense his room, yet is unable to see him. Cosmo soon falls in love and arranges his room to please the woman and comes to anticipate and enjoy her visits. Cosmo deploys some magic rituals so he can finally meet the woman through the mirror; the rituals work, though the woman declares that it was Cosmo’s sacrificial love that drew them together. She explains that the mirror enslaves her until it is broken, though to do so would mean the end of their visits. Cosmo destroys the mirror, and months pass before he learns any more of his visitor. He hears of a princess with an attachment to an antique mirror that has gone missing; he also learns that the princess had been recovering from a long illness only to more recently falter. Cosmo realizes that the princess is the woman he has come to know through the mirror, they manage to find each other, and they meet to declare their mutual love. With this story, MacDonald portrays a more complete love than Anodos has yet encountered because the actions of each party have been fully self-sacrificial. Cosmo destroyed the mirror to grant the princess her freedom at the expense of any claim to her; similarly, she declares her willing exchange of freedom to be a servant in her love to Cosmo.

MacDonald weaves these notions of love and of hope throughout the fabric of Phantastes’ Fairy Land. Anodos continues his pursuit of love — his search for the alabaster lady — and finds an entire hall of marble statues which come to life and dance, though his alabaster ingenue is missing. Eventually he finds her (empty) pedestal, but instantly a song rises within him which causes her to appear, after which she flees. Through chasms, over sea, and finally to an island, Anodos continues his search until he finds her with the knight, Sir Percival (an innocent soul, who had warned Anodos earlier about the deceptive Ash and Alder trees). She is grateful for Anodos twice rescuing her with song, but she is beholden to Percival; Anodos later realizes that Percival and the marble lady are his ancestor when he finds the couple entombed in a chapel. Throughout the discussions between Anodos and the alabaster lady (often in sung verse), the themes of love and hope persist, for they speak of life spent in undefiled love and of how the griefs of life teach that “moans that are not sad, the pangs of death are throbs of life, its sighs are sometimes glad.”[32] Anodos is also encouraged that, despite any inconsolable sorrow he may encounter, an old woman who has befriended him “knows something, though she must not always tell it, that would quite satisfy” Anodos, even in “the worst moments of your distress.”[33] Anodos will later discover that such hopeful secrets are key to the enchantment of Fairy Land.

MacDonald embeds sacrificial love and hope more deeply into the fabric of Fairy Land in the final journeys of Anodos. Anodos learns of two brothers preparing for battle against three giants who have captured a castle and then terrorized the countryside. Anodos joins them and ultimately helps them prevail, though he is the sole survivor. In preparing for the battle, Anodos prophetically sings odes about them to their father, the King and the lady of the elder brother, which cause the brothers at first to weep, though they then arouse their courage and weep no further. Anodos next finds himself trapped in an unusual prison, the walls of which appear only in the daylight.  Anodos finally escapes when the walls are stymied by the song of a lady who turns out to have been the young maiden whose globe Anodos and his shadow had broken earlier. The Fairy Queen raised her and gave her the ability to sing “till my heart is like to break, just like my globe, for joy at my own songs.”[34] The joy of Fairy Land is her strength, as it were, for “the light and the music of her broken globe were now in her heart and her brain.”[35] Anodos then realizes that he has also come to finally lose his dreaded shadow, allowing another “self . . . to arise, like a white spirit from a dead man,” though “doubtless, this self must die again. . . . Self will come to life even in the slaying of self.”[36]

The journeys of Anodos through Fairy Land conclude after he apprentices himself to a noble knight and encounters a sacrificial ceremony in Fairy Land which has an aura of evil about it. The knight is too innocent to recognize such evil, but Anodos manages to take the place of one of the intended victims, and he sacrificially gives his life to end the practice. Even here, hope reigns. Anodos himself becomes an enchanting fairy in this dreamworld, for the “essential mysteries of the spirit” embodied in his passions “yet lived, yet glowed, with a pure, undying fire.”[37] He enchants flowers and clouds, realizing that “it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another . . . love gives to him that loveth, power over any soul beloved.”[38]

This is MacDonald’s recipe for enchanting Fairy Land: joy, hope and faith are to be found everywhere. Disciples of MacDonald such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton include the same secret ingredient.

Upon his return to “reality” (from the twenty-one day journey, which seemed to Anodos like twenty-one years), Anodos wonders about the relevance of his adventures in Fairy Land, or if he may one day wake to find himself back there, facing the same battles. He is encouraged by the “blessedness” he experienced there and by the old woman’s “solemn assurance that she knew something too good to be told.”[39] This is MacDonald’s recipe for enchanting Fairy Land: joy, hope, and faith are to be found everywhere. Disciples of MacDonald such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton include the same secret ingredient. G.K. Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by musing that “there was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”[40]  C.S. Lewis speaks of how our desires in this life are, at worst “dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers,” but at their best “the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.” Lewis further reminds us that though “we cannot mingle with the splendours we see,”[41] yet “all the leaves of the New testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”[42]

The enchantments of Fairy Land and the journeys of Anodos in Phantastes provide MacDonald with all the material for a sermon on a number of matters. The wonder and beauty of nature, through eyes illuminated by the imagination, enchant the soul. The longings of Anodos for such beauty and love help us recognize that our own hearts are neither easily nor trivially satisfied. The love that is complete only when it is fully self-sacrificial both leads us to Christ and provides an ethical standard for us to follow. Finally, the hope that persists within and enchants Fairy Land guides our own longings, battles, and final journey. While full of wonder, it is no wonder that Phantastes has been so influential.

Citation Information

Seth Myers, “Phantastes: Enchanting Beauty and Sacrificial Love,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 69-87.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///phantastes-enchanting-beauty-and-sacrificial-love/


[1] George MacDonald, Phantastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 55.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1986), 145.

[3] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers: Christian Disciplines (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 2000)  287.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 145.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Phantastes by George MacDonald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), xi.

, CS Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis, 1922 – 1927, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 177.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Phantastes, xxix.

[7] Ibid., xi.

[8] C. S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, ed. David Werther, Susan Werther (NewYork: Bloomsbury: Academic, 2015).

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 66.

[10] George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts (US: Editora Griffo), 14.

[11] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Falansferes” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 265. Also online http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf

[12] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 24.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] George MacDonald, , “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 13.

[15] C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

[16] C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me, 390.

[17] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 170.

[18] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 8.

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] Ibid., 24.

[21] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 54.

[22] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 61.

[23] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 159.

[24] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 66.

[25] Ibid., 67.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 105.

[29] Ibid., 90.

[30] Ibid., 111.

[31] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 79.

[32] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 143.

[33] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 144.

[34] Ibid., 164.

[35] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 165.

[36] Ibid., 166.

[37] Ibid., 180.

[38] George MacDonald, Phantastes, 181.

[39] Ibid., 184.

[40] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 160.

[41] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 7.

[42] Ibid., 17.