Review: Phantastes by George MacDonald

Phantastes CoverPhantastes is a novel by George MacDonald, first published in 1858. It tells the story of Anodos, a man of 21 years, who finds his way into Fairy Land, and wanders through it in search of his Ideal of beauty.

The novel can be said to be a precursor of the fantasy genre. In many ways it is like a fairy tale (its subtitle is, after all, ‘A Faery Romance’), but it develops that genre towards what we know today as fantasy (fantasy, of course, was not a recognised genre in 1858). The result of this is that it straddles the line between those two genres, but were it to be published today, fantasy is undoubtedly the genre it would be placed in. This can be seen in how it was reprinted in 1970 in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of books as the fourteenth installment. This series was created by Ballantine after the success of The Lord of the Rings and is considered by some to be the series that created the genre of fantasy in book stores. But not only has this book been influential on the creation of the fantasy genre, it also directly influenced many of the most famous writers within that genre. Perhaps most famously, C.S. Lewis cited Phantastes as a book that changed his life.

Despite the highly influential nature of the book, or perhaps because of it, Phantastes is a very complicated book for me to review. I find myself deeply torn on how I view the book: while reading the book, I really did not enjoy it, but having finished the book, many of the reasons for my distaste of it can be seen to be justifiable. I’ll try and walk through those thoughts in the hope that that’ll be indicator enough as to whether you would enjoy reading the book or not.

One of the first things that struck me about the book was how empty, meaning, and pointless it all felt. One of the reasons for this is that the protagonist of the story is a rather flat and uninteresting character. There is very little personality to be found here, let alone any complexity. Another reason for the empty feeling the book has is that the inhabitants of Fairy Land read as if they only exist for the benefit of the protagonist–they don’t seem to have an independent life of their own at all. This is particularly true of the female characters in the story, almost all of whom are perfectly willing to drop everything to feed and comfort the protagonist no matter the situation. A final reason for the empty feeling of the book is the writing style, which has a wandering quality to it that makes everything seem a little hazy and imprecise.

Despite this long list of apparently deep flaws, however, once you have read the whole book, you can see that many of the aspects I detailed serve a specific function. The character can be seen as an Everyman type in line with the fairy tale influence on the novel. The novel itself can be read as a metatextual exploration of that character’s inner life as he reads fairy tales from books in his room, explaining why the writing style is so wandering (that’s how minds work) and why the inhabitants of Fairy Land seem so dependent on the protagonist (the novel itself is a self-serving daydream). Moreover, the ending of the novel makes it clear that the novel is about the protagonist overcoming his problematic views on women.

Keeping all that in mind, what do I think of the book? In the end, I feel I do have to prioritise how I saw the book as I was reading it. After all, if I hadn’t been forced to read the book, I would have stopped reading it partway through, making the eventual payout at the end of the novel worthless. I might re-read the book at some later point out of curiosity to see how knowing the whole book affects my perception of the book in the beginning, but I don’t recommend the book to any but those who are extremely curious about early fantasy novels, and are willing stick through to the end.

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