George MacDonald’s Phantastes

Phantastes

George MacDonald’s Phantastes has always read to me like a journey into the heart of a Victorian house: the sort of journey experienced by the young heroine of his children’s book The Princess and the Goblin when she wanders through endless corridors full of doors till she finds the secret stairway leading to the forgotten room where her great great grandmother lives, surviving on pigeon’s eggs, air and wisdom. The middle-class Victorian house was insistently alive. Furniture was elaborately carved with foliage; cabinets full of pottery were displayed, often in the shapes of animals and people; cornices sprouted acanthus leaves and ceiling roses blossomed; book covers and frontispieces swarmed with flowers, beasts and trees. Phantastes opens with the unlocking of a desk in a study, whose interior turns out to contain a living being, a miniature woman of the kind you might find on a Victorian mantelpiece or casual table. A little later the narrator’s room, with its grass-like carpet, its foliage-carved table, its green marble washstand, morphs into the forest glade it was designed to resemble, like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are. The journey through Fairy Land that follows alternates between houses of different kinds – cottages, palaces, towers – and a pathless forest. But the forest is the kind of wilderness encountered in old romances, and calls books to mind rather than places, with its fairies, dryads, monsters and knights errant. Each chapter is headed by an epigram, duly attributed to its author; and the narrator’s adventures are punctuated by acts of reading, beginning with the fairy tale read to him by his little sister on the night before he opens the desk. In fact, the story never leaves the house in which it began, and the narrator keeps emerging from his adventures like a reader lifting his head from a book in which he has been immersed, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the life he led before he started reading – then plunging back into the story, where all the action that really matters to him is taking place.

One could say, in fact, that the story never leaves its narrator’s head – that it’s a kind of pre-modernist experiment in Woolfian stream of consciousness. As its title suggests, this book is the fantasy par excellence, because it concerns itself with the imagination, analysing its operations with the seriousness and concentration of a scientist. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where the word originates, ‘Phantastes’ is the part of the brain where the images collected by the senses are stored before being processed by the understanding and stowed away in the orderly cabinets of the memory. It’s an uneasy faculty, whose physical form is a gloomy young man with ‘hollow beetle browes’ and ‘sharpe staring eyes’ who claims to be able to foresee the future. The room he inhabits in the front part of the human head is painted with ‘infinite shapes of things’, including non-existent beasts like centaurs and hippodames (sea-horses); while the buzzing flies that fill it have a more worrying significance, since they represent:

…idle thoughts and fantasies,
Devices, dreames, opinions unsound,
Shewes, visions, sooth-sayes, and prophesies,
And all that fained is, as leasings, tales, and lies.

The linkage of fantasy or imagination with ‘lies’ and ‘opinions unsound’ articulates an anxiety about the imagination which is very specific to the period of the Reformation when Spenser was writing, when each religious faction saw this faculty as responsible for spawning the hordes of dangerous fictions that threatened to obscure and even obliterate the Gospel truth. Spenser’s House of Alma – the human body – is under siege by a ‘troublous rout’ who are associated both with the Catholic Irish, who resisted the Reformation, and with the troublesome flies that buzz around Phantastes’s chamber (the rout resembles a ‘swarme of Gnats at eventide’ rising out of the ‘fennes of Allan’). The imagination, then, spills out of its confines in the head and floods into religion, politics, social struggle. As well as receiving images the imagination bodies them forth (as Shakespeare put it), populating the world with the strange physical and philosophical fusions that bedeck its interior walls. It paints as well as being painted, colouring what its possessor sees until the absurdest propositions and most doubtful doctrines seem to be empirically demonstrable – objectively true. And all this without recourse to the more settled, rational portion of the brain, the understanding. No wonder Spenser and his contemporaries worried about its potential influence on religious doctrine and political dissidence.

Yet despite its suspicion of the imagination Spenser’s Faerie Queene is also a love song to it, as the Romantic poets recognized when they adopted variations of Spenser’s stanza form in place of the couplets beloved of the eighteenth-century poets. And MacDonald shares the Elizabethan poet’s view of the potential deadliness of the imagination, precisely because he finds it so infinitely seductive, and because he believes so strongly in its capacity to reshape the world by casting its own interior light upon it. When he first crosses the border into Fairyland the narrator discovers he has fairy blood, thanks to the empirical evidence of his vision. He can see fairies as only fairies can, both the pretty flower fairies of the Victorian decorative tradition and the hideously clawed tree-dwelling ogres of Gothic legend – both the benign woman of the beech tree and the vampiric woman of the alder. It’s his fairy vision, perhaps, that enables him to see the female ‘spirit of marble’ in a cave and release her from her prison, as a great sculptor might have done – in which case having fairy blood is equivalent to being a verbal or visual artist. But this vision can be distorted, as it is when he later releases a quasi-Jungian shadow from a cupboard, which interposes itself between his eyes and anything beautiful he encounters, rendering it ‘commonplace’ and ugly and encouraging him to damage it and drive it away. His vision’s capacity to shape the world, then, can operate in two directly opposite ways, that is, to beautify or defile it. The same is clearly true of art, for MacDonald – especially the verbal arts; and this is why he represents the act of reading in his novels as such an adventure.

Like The Faerie Queene, then, MacDonald’s narrative is full of beautiful visions and deadly traps, and it is difficult for the narrator to distinguish between them. This is not, however, true of MacDonald’s readers, who often have the horrible feeling that they could warn the young man against the dangers he is running into if he’d only listen. This is because the implied reader of Phantastes has been educated in the ways of romance, and above all of the fantastic romances of the middle ages and the early modern periods, which underwent so many reprintings in the nineteenth century. Romance writers like Spenser expected their audiences to take an active part in the narrative, identifying the nature of each new menace or potential ally through a host of clues embedded in the language of the poem or story. MacDonald’s implied reader knows exactly how to do this – and ironically so does the narrator, who is always recognizing retrospectively that he should never have fallen into what was in the end a thoroughly familiar act of folly. But the traps he springs on himself are as attractive to him as the elusive beauties he is always pursuing; it’s as if the possibility of the former is what makes the latter so alluring. Indeed he himself – MacDonald’s narrator – has two sides to him, as his name suggests, since ‘Anodos’ can mean (according to my rather dodgy source in Wikipedia) either ‘pathless’ or ‘ascent’.

In fact Anodos has more than two identities. If the structure of the book is like a nest of Chinese boxes – a mind within a book within a desk within a library within a house – then the narrator has a plurality of nested selves. He is both Anodos and Anodos’s shadow; but he’s also the Percival-like knight who has been disgraced, and who sets out to erase the stains of his disgrace through a lifetime of struggle. He reads about this knight at the beginning, in a cottage on the border of Fairyland, and keeps meeting him throughout the rest of the book, as if he is meeting his future self or some imagined alternative version of his current self, an alter ego. Again, Anodos is both the heroic young man in the last ‘act’ of the novel, one of three brethren who kill three monstrous giants, and the monstrous egoist who preens himself on this victory and sets out to capture and imprison weaker knights, like another giant, as further proof of his power. He is both the squire who humbly devotes himself to the service of Sir Percival in this final section and the youth who can clearly see the nature of a corrupt religion when the knight cannot, and gives up his life to destroy it. He ‘is’ effectively all the male characters in his story, in the same sense as a male reader or artist ‘is’ all the characters or shapes he conjures up.

It would be easy to conclude that all the female figures in the book are also constructs of the male reader-artist’s brain; but the book is dedicated, it seems to me, to the task of liberating them from him – of developing what may eventually turn out to be a grown-up relationship between the male narrator and the women he either meets or imagines. I suggested recently that William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End dedicates itself to creating a civilized relationship between men and women, as against the kind of hierarchical relationship between them privileged by Morris’s culture. The same could be said of Phantastes, since the narrator is again and again sent on his way by female potentates: the miniature woman he finds in his father’s desk (some kind of manifestation of Anodos’s dead mother?); the beech woman who is waiting to become a ‘real woman’, perhaps in the sense that she is waiting for the narrator to stop fetishizing women, making idols of them; and above all the great great grandmother figure he finds in a cottage on an island, who sends him out on successive adventures in an effort to shape him. As Iuean Ledger has pointed out to me, most of the readers in Phantastes are women, and we’ve already established that reading is for MacDonald an energetically active art. The evidence for this view of reading is in his tremendous essay on ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, where he says of his own stories: ‘It might be better that you should read your own meaning into [them]. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of [them]: your meaning may be superior to mine’. And the women in Phantastes are always reading their own meaning into things, to the consternation of the narrator, who cannot follow the operations of their intellects any more than he can follow the fiercely agile motion of their fleeing bodies.

He never succeeds in catching up with the marble woman he releases near the beginning of the story – I think because he never quite succeeds in thinking of her as anything other than his own creation, with the result that he is always looking for her in the wrong place. And the end of the story finds him alone, unpartnered, looking tentatively towards his future in England, but unsure as to whether he will be able to ‘translate the experience of my travels […] into common life’. The danger of the male imagination in this book is that it makes women what it wants them to be and cannot see what they are as independent beings. It also makes men into what they see themselves as being, which robs them of their own independence, their capacity for change. The real identities of men and women are multiple and mobile, and manifest themselves at odd moments throughout the narrative, as when the narrator encounters his alter egos (the shadow, Percival, the giant knight), and is thrown into confusion, no longer certain who he is. The constant shifting of a person’s identity is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s work: the impossibility of pinning a person down, of defining them without degrading them, is equally a concern of his celebrated story ‘The Golden Key’. But Phantastes is also about something else: the difficulty of achieving dialogue. And that brings us to the vexed question of MacDonald’s prose style.

It’s an awkward, knotty style, made up of many short clauses separated by far too many commas. There’s very little conversation in it (as Alice complains about the book she’s listening to at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland), which sometimes makes it hard to digest. But the absence of conversation also reinforces the impression one gets of inhabiting the inmost recesses of a person’s skull, peering out through the eyes without paying much attention to the evidence of the other senses, except sometimes for the hearing (MacDonald is a passionate lover of music). And the convolutions of each sentence reinforce the impression that MacDonald or his narrator is reporting back on inexplicable experiences he has really undergone, struggling to convey them with precision because they matter to him, although their meaning is elusive.

Here’s an example:

‘All this time, as I went on through the wood, I was haunted with the feeling that other shapes, more like my own in size and mien, were moving about at a little distance on all sides of me. But as yet I could discern none of them, although the moon was high enough to send a great many of her rays down between the trees, and these rays were unusually bright, and sight-giving, notwithstanding she was only a half-moon. I constantly imagined, however, that forms were visible in all directions except that to which my gaze was turned; and that they only became invisible, or resolved themselves into other woodland shapes, the moment my looks were directed towards them.’

The striking thing about this passage is all the buts, althoughs, notwithstandings, ors, and howevers with which it’s filled, as the narrator strives to explain to us the precise meteorological and luminescent conditions that make it surprising he couldn’t see anything precisely, or that what he saw when he did succeed in getting things into focus was nothing like what he had expected to see. The words ‘haunted’ and ‘imagined’ act here as lenses held up to the reader’s eyes in a kind of thought experiment, as a means of demonstrating how the state of a person’s mind affects their vision. MacDonald didn’t have to write like this; The Princess and the Goblin is a masterclass in stylistic clarity. It was only by using this style that he could give Phantastes its peculiar tone, which is that of a scientist trying to describe an experience for which all his training in logic and empiricism has not prepared him.

It’s satisfying, then, to think that the book was published the year before On the Origin of Species.

 

 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz title page
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz title page

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of those books that has had a gigantic impact on twentieth-century culture without anyone quite knowing why. The impact comes as much from a specific filmed version as from the book ­- more so, probably -­ though as with Peter Pan the film in question emerges from a theatrical tradition initiated by the author. But the book itself was also phenomenally successful, and unlike Peter Pan seems to have been viewed with suspicion by critics and teachers. Ever since I first read it (aloud, to my daughter) I’ve wondered why I was told as a youngster that it wasn’t much good. There are a number of possible reasons: Baum’s explicit disavowal of instructive intentions (though Nesbit and Barrie disavowed these too); the fact that it’s a fantasy, completely fabricated by the author, without one foot in reality (Nesbit), a wryly sardonic tone (Nesbit, Barrie, Carroll), or impeccable scholarly credentials (Tolkien’s Hobbit); or that the central character is a young girl (though it shares this with Alice in Wonderland). Yet in spite of the opinions of experts, the book did so well that Baum gave up his many other enterprises to concentrate on entertaining children. And the basic story, as relayed in book, play or film, has continued to feed into American culture ever since. What has made it so Great and Powerful?

There’s a beautiful clarity about the book which is matched by Denslow’s original illustrations. The territories Dorothy travels through are colour coded (grey for Kansas, blue for the Munchkins, green for the Emerald City and so on), the successive encounters she has are neatly arranged each in its own chapter, and the style is amazingly economical: it made me think of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or the literary retellings of old fairy stories Baum mentions in his preface. There’s something almost geometrical about the way adventures come in threes or fours, as they do in fairy tales, and about how the story itself is constructed in two halves: a single journey to the Emerald City followed by two journeys away from it, first to the Wicked Witch of the West, then to the Good Witch of the South. This clarity and precision could be mistaken for crudeness and simplicity; but I don’t think it’s simplicity that we find in either version of the story, film or book.

There are three things people tend to remember about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and that get carried over into its adaptations. The first is Dorothy’s companions on her adventures; the second is the wizard; and the third is Dorothy herself, who is often dismissed as a cypher. (The Wicked Witch of the West is memorable too, but only in the film.) None of these would stay in the mind, I think, if they weren’t capable of eliciting a range of readings and emotional responses. The companions could be said to personify certain personality traits ­ intelligence, sensitivity, courage ­ like allegorical figures. But they themselves don’t believe they stand for these qualities, despite displaying them on many occasions before being ‘given’ them by Oz himself. And they’re a wonderfully improbable
trio: two simulacra and a talking animal. Each of them isn’t what he seems: the scarecrow isn’t a man, though he looks like one, and we’re reminded of his non-humanness repeatedly, since he doesn’t sleep or eat and can’t be harmed by events and creatures that threaten Dorothy. The same is true of the tin man, except that unlike the scarecrow he was once human, so that his most inhuman quality ­ the substance he’s made from ­ masks the fact that he knows what it is to be made of flesh and blood. The lion looks and sounds like the King of Beasts from Aesop’s Fables, but is full of self-doubt which means he is effectively no lion, since in Aesop the King of Beasts is defined by his confidence in his own power. At the same time, all three companions already possess the thing they think they lack. The scarecrow’s intelligence saves the travellers repeatedly; the tin man’s sensitivity constantly threatens to rust him; and the lion leaps over abysses and fights appalling monsters without a qualm. So they’re neither what they resemble nor what they think they are. The sense that they’re displaced, that they have no fixed identity any more than they have any fixed abode, is what makes them the ideal companions for a little girl far from home.

The second memorable element in the book is the Wizard, the charlatan or humbug who benignly terrifies his subjects into submission with ingenious displays of special effects. He’s the perfect monarch for the land that spawned the companions, since he’s even less what he seems than they are. In the book he seems to be many things in quick succession: a bodiless head, an angelic woman, a monster, an invisible presence, a raging bonfire, so that his resemblance to the shifty God of the Old Testament is obvious; he even tests the faith of his people by demanding a sacrifice, sending them to kill a Witch who has never been defeated. But he’s no God: just an ageing balloonist from Omaha, a salesman (like Baum himself) whose previous job was to announce to the world that the circus, that festival of trickery, skill and illusion, had come to town. As a salesman his gift is to change not things but people’s perceptions of them. He changes the colour of the Emerald City by making its citizens wear tinted glasses. He fills the scarecrow’s head with needles to show him he’s sharp, gives the tin man an ersatz heart to reassure him he possesses a real one, and doses the lion with Dutch courage to reinforce his bravery. And he bestows these gifts on the companions after they’ve exposed him as a charlatan. This shows how much his subjects want to be conned. He is the product as well as the orchestrator of their imaginations, and his subjects take every opportunity to thicken the air of mystery that surrounds him.

Outside the Emerald City, his rule is ineffectual. Anything that doesn’t respect his power can flourish in Oz: Wicked Witches, dangerous animals, carnivorous trees, narcotic flowers. He’s too benign to interfere with anyone who will not listen to his grand pronouncements or be seduced by his shows. But these are not personal failings ­- merely demonstrations of the extent to which he’s a construct of his people, who also construct themselves, as the companions testify.

Oz, in fact, is the ultimate democracy. Every ruler gets elected, with the exception of the despotic Witches, and all of them come from humble backgrounds (you can’t get much humbler than a man of straw and a walking tin can). There’s no individualism in the country; cooperation is the natural reaction to every problem. Even Oz and his subjects have to co-operate if his magic is to work. And as representatives of artificially segregated human traits, Dorothy’s three companions depend entirely on teamwork. As they encounter each new challenge they begin by determining which of their talents is required, and all are required with equal frequency, while their possessors show an equal willingness to sacrifice themselves for all the rest. And they’re as ready to rely on random passers-by as on each other: a stork and an army of mice are recruited to deal with problems for which they themselves are ill-equipped. In this they appeal to the communitarian impulse of fairy tales; few fairy tale heroes or heroines win through without a team of unlikely accomplices. They are aware of this, perhaps, because they themselves are such accomplices, the first of their kind to get rewarded for their services with kingdoms.

It’s not surprising, with this example in front of her, that when Dorothy gets separated from her companions she responds by showing all the qualities they represent. Her intelligence and affection emerge when she secretly feeds the lion, who is held captive by the Wicked Witch of the West, and her courageous defiance of the Witch ends in the Witch’s death. It’s also no surprise when at the end of the book the Good Witch of the South reveals that Dorothy, like her companions, has all along possessed what she thought she lacked: in her case, the means to get back to Kansas. She wears the magical silver slippers needed to get there; but she also desires to get there, which means that the grim one-roomed farmhouse with its joyless occupants who never smile or laugh was always a home to her, despite its greyness. In other words, she had what she thought she didn’t have in Kansas as well as in Oz.

So Dorothy, like her companions and the Wizard, both is and isn’t what she seems: a little girl lost, from a miserable background, with no special powers. She and Toto contribute to the Kansas farmhouse what it lacks: joy, life and colour; and the book’s ending confirms this when Toto barks ‘joyously’ as he runs towards the barn, and Aunt Em embraces Dorothy with an emotion we’ve not seen in her before: ‘My darling child!’ she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her with kisses’. By the time this reunion takes place Kansas has in any case been imbued with colour by its constant presence in Dorothy’s mind throughout her adventures. Anywhere that’s longed for so passionately can’t be colourless. So Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry could be said to co-operate, like Dorothy’s companions, despite their apparent incongruity. Together they make a mutually supportive community, and the lack of any one of them affects the rest. Baum gave his book a moral, despite his claim to offer his readers ‘only entertainment’.

But it’s no triumphalist celebration of the individual’s victory over impossible odds. There’s something melancholic about the situation of all its main characters, and that melancholy lingers on at the end as they go their separate ways ­ albeit into new and welcoming communities. That’s the other thing that lingers after you’ve finished the novel, at least for me: its mournful tone, packed as it is with people who remain somehow displaced and unsure of themselves even after getting what they wished for. No wonder it inspired some decent music.