George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858), featuring the coming-of-age tale of the twenty-one-year old Anodos through Fairy Land, bears the marks of MacDonald’s near obsession with the art and philosophical ideals of German Romanticism. This early nineteenth-century movement is marked by an optimistic vision of personal growth, the pursuit of longing for its own sake, and the striving for autonomy – elements that clearly inflect Anodos’s adventures. Yet, despite MacDonald’s admiration of this celebratory picture of human existence, Phantastes develops a more recognizably Christian view of human nature and desire than most Romantic works put forward.

One of MacDonald’s most well-known influences was the German Romantic philosopher-writer known as Novalis, whose work MacDonald quotes at length across the epigraphs of Phantastes – especially the novella Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802).[1] Throughout this novella, the title character, Heinrich, is moved to tears by his longing for the unattainable “blaue Blume,” or blue flower, a symbol of beauty, grace, and perfection. Like many Romantic poets, Novalis depicts this longing as intense and painful but categorically positive, part of a “call to self-understanding and autonomy” – an appropriate and noble pursuit of a divine state.[2] In the epigraph to the second chapter of Phantastes, just before Anodos prepares to follow his own desperate longing to enter Fairy Land, MacDonald cites a key line from Ofterdingen, where Heinrich weeps with longing for a “blue stream.” [3] With this citation, MacDonald appears to follow Novalis in endorsing the unsatisfiable longing for unknown realms as an unqualified good in itself, representing part of the self-actualization process.

But if Phantastes closely imitates Novalis’ work, it also engages closely with a novella by the lesser-known writer Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, a devout Catholic and outlier among German Romantic writers – Das Marmorbild, or The Marble Statue (1818). Phantastes owes striking debts to the plot and vision of Marmorbild: both works feature a protagonist who becomes obsessed with a marble statue of a lady that comes to life; each protagonist then finds himself captivated, distracted, and distraught with yearning for this idealized form of female beauty. Offering a very different take on the concept of longing from many contemporaries, including Novalis, Eichendorff emphasizes how desire can be either edifying or damaging.[4] The edifying version leads to heaven, but the damaging version reflects a dark side of human nature and need for salvation, creating a dichotomy that MacDonald will incorporate into Phantastes.

In Eichendorff’s narrative of Marmorbild, Florio, upon a visit to the town of Lucca, becomes enthralled by two female figures he must learn to distinguish between – Bianca, the young lady to whom he is presumably about to become engaged, and the marble lady, Venus, an imposing statue resting by night on a lake and a lively and seductive woman by day. The novella places these figures in clear opposition. Florio is quickly drawn to Bianca, but he just as quickly forgets her when the memory of Venus reemerges and captivates him. Though advised to steer clear of Venus, Florio arranges to visit her castle grounds anyway, and, becoming “intoxicated” with desire, follows the mysterious lady into her bedchamber. The implied consequence is clear – his seduction will lead to total ruin.

In the climactic scene, however, Florio is saved not by a sensible realization or piece of moral instruction, but by a stronger form of desire that overrules the first – he hears a “pious song” played by his friend Fortunato from the castle grounds that “plung[es] his whole spirit” into an even deeper longing, reminding him of his “old dreams of youth.”[5] In effect, the antidote to destructive desire is a more powerful desire – the yearning of nostalgia. Implicitly, Florio is overpowered by longing for his heavenly home. While Venus herself urges him to “forget all that,” to focus on his present desire, Florio allows the song to take him back to old memories and to realize, with horror, how “alienated from his own being” he finds himself; he thus cries in desperation just before his escape: “Lord God, do not let me lose my way in this world!”[6] His desire for the primal and eternal – for heaven – productively  overrides his lust. As Florio learns at the conclusion, this noble form of desire is channeled through beauty, but only a divine form of it – whether the beauty of a song, or the beauty of the noble Bianca herself. The statue of Venus is a lifeless relic of a bygone era, but as Fortunato’s closing song suggests, Bianca, as a Christian, is a figure of the “heavenly grace” embodied in the Virgin Mary, and Florio is therefore right to pursue her.[7] In the juxtaposition of these forms of desire, Eichendorff suggests – in an effort to reconcile Romantic sensibility with Christian theology – that Florio is not expected to resist his longings, but to submit all of them to the one of highest order.

In his own affirmation of Romantic desire, MacDonald follows Eichendorff in distinguishing a destructive form from a heavenly form of longing (a dichotomy that exists in Anodos himself, whose name means both “pathless” and “ascent”). But Phantastes goes even further in highlighting ways that the pursuit of desire – as a means of seeking autonomy – can degrade and devastate the soul. From his first encounter with the Marble Lady, Anodos is driven by a far more desperate and even threatening kind of passion, a desire that destroys by evoking a sense of depraved entitlement. When Anodos first discovers the lady’s shape in the cave, he develops a “wild hope” that he may be able to bring her into existence, that she may “glorify my eyes with her presence.”[8] He proceeds to sing her to life in words that show his feeling of prerogative: “Thee they found not, many finding – / I have found thee: wake for me.”[9] His bold sense of right to the lady is clear. Even after she runs away from him, Anodos, entitled beyond all reason, expects that he will soon find her in the forest “waiting … to meet and thank her deliverer.”[10] From then on, he pursues his passion with a complete disregard for rule and an offensive indifference to the wishes of the Marble Lady herself. When he enters the Fairy Palace and finds her pedestal in the hall of statues, he sings again to bring her back, then ignores the warning to “TOUCH NOT!” – he “sprang to her, and in defiance of the law of the place, flung my arms around her, as if I would tear her from the grasp of a visible Death, and lifted her from the pedestal down to my heart.” This time, she not only runs away, but “shudder[s],” and “tremble[s],” and reproaches him for touching her.[11]

Given such problematic details, Albert Pionke equates Anodos’ pursuit of the Marble Lady to sexual assault.[12] Anodos’s desire for the lady does suggest a dangerous sexual entitlement, and in doing so it represents as well a critique of the traditional Romantic view of desire – as affirming the autonomy and striving of the subject. In Anodos’ aggressive, threatening pursuit of desire, MacDonald shows how desire can indeed prompt autonomy, as Novalis theorized, but an autonomy that objectifies and overrules the rights and wishes of others. This form of autonomy is far from what Novalis had envisioned, but MacDonald, in a more realistic vision of human weakness, demonstrates the limitations of the Romantic values of self-actualization. In a vision closer to Eichendorff’s than to Novalis’s, MacDonald affirms humanity’s inherent corruptibility and predisposition to evil. And as Anodos sinks into despair after losing the object of his attraction, the novel reveals his desperate need to be saved from himself.

While Florio’s salvation comes in the form of his own desire for aesthetic beauty (the pious song), Anodos’s salvation is depicted in several forms – including the intercession of the knight Sir Percival, who rescues him from Maid of the Alder Tree, after his desire for the Marble Lady leads him straight into her trap. But MacDonald, like Eichendorff, also affirms the power of yearning, even a yearning for beauty, in its proper context. Though Anodos’s absolute pursuit of erotic desire proves harmful, his initial longing to enter Fairy Land is clearly productive. When visited by the fairy lady in the opening chapter, Anodos is filled with “unknown longing” as he looks into her eyes, recalling powerful memories, like Florio, of his earliest childhood, which prompt him onward toward Fairy Land.[13] And although MacDonald does not affirm Anodos’s erotic captivation with physical beauty as Eichendorff does of Florio (the fairy lady of chapter one explicitly forbids Anodos to think of her that way), he nonetheless follows Eichendorff in endorsing the overwhelming desire for beauty as a sign of humanity’s inherent spirituality and orientation toward heaven, a desire he finds to be noble and right to pursue.

As the novel continues, Anodos’s initial longing for the beauty of the fairy lady not only drives his process of spiritual growth – including an eventual growth in humility – but, at the conclusion, becomes explicitly fulfilled in his brief death in Chapter 24 (before he is resurrected in Chapter 25). At this point, Anodos maintains that every part of him, including his deepest longings, enters a blissful “spiritual life”:

[T]he souls of his passions, those essential mysteries of the spirit which had embodied themselves in the passions, and had given to them all their glory and wonderment, yet lived, yet glowed, with a pure undying fire. They rose above their vanishing earthly garments, and disclosed themselves angels of light. But oh, how beautiful beyond the old form![14]

In this transcendence of the passions, MacDonald thus shows Anodos’s once “unknown” desire to be the same kind of divine nostalgia seen in Florio – a signpost to Heaven itself. In portraying his protagonist’s death, MacDonald acknowledges even more explicitly than Eichendorff how authentic desire is transcendent, sourced in heaven and ultimately pointing heavenward. And in Phantastes, this sort of authentic desire takes a particular form. Where Anodos’s erotic desire for the Marble Lady is accompanied by an egotistical sense of entitlement, his desire for the fairy lady and for Fairy Land is marked by a sense of awed gratitude. Correspondingly, this desire is also marked by a humble understanding of his own frailty and need.

In his theology, MacDonald was believed to be skeptical of orthodox doctrines of sin. Yet Anodos’s experiences in Phantastes regularly emphasize the very real existence and cost of human frailty in ways that defy the Romantic ideals that enticed him. MacDonald firmly rejects the idea that human beings can meaningfully work toward their own self-actualization – instead, their “greatest” acts of autonomy prove so destructive that they must be saved from their very selves. Growth, education, and the experience of beauty remain fundamental to MacDonald, as they are to Novalis and the other mainstream Romantic poets. But his work departs from their influence by highlighting not humanity’s potential to strive, but its need to be drawn into transcendence by an agent outside the self. In the end, MacDonald makes clear that it is only by acknowledging inadequacy and resisting the pursuit of autonomy that the desire for heavenly glory will one day be fulfilled.

Citation Information

Kelly Lehtonen, “Romanticism, the Marble Lady, and Orders of Longing in Phantastes,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 57-78.

Direct Link:


[1] Robert Lee Wolff offers the most detailed analysis of the importance of Novalis, whose given name was Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, to the work of Macdonald in The Golden Key: A Study of the Fiction of George MacDonald (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961).

[2] Kristin Gjesdal, “Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg [Novalis],” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Winter 2014): <>.

[3] George MacDonald, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (London and Toronto: Dent and Sons, 1916), 7.

[4]  The original source of both Eichendorff’s and MacDonald’s marble lady plots is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 10. According to Ovid, the sculptor Pygmalion makes a statue that he finds so beautiful he falls in love with it, and after Aphrodite transforms it into a woman, he marries her. Both Eichendorff and MacDonald take the original Ovidian myth in a very different direction.

[5] Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, The Marble Statue, trans. Frank G. Ryder, in German Literary Fairy Tales, ed. Ryder and Robert M. Browning (New York: Continuum, 2002), 161, 163.

[6] Ibid., 163.

[7] Ibid., 168.

[8] MacDonald, Phantastes, 43.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid., 51.

[11] Ibid., 136, 148-49.

[12] Albert F. Pionke, “The Art of Manliness: Ekphrasis and/as Masculinity in George MacDonald’s ‘Phantastes’,” Studies in the Novel 43, no. 1 (spring 2011): 21-37.

[13] MacDonald, Phantastes, 5.

[14] Ibid., 231.