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.