Imagine waking up and finding a forest growing in your room. Imagine that the night before, you’d been visited by a fairy-like woman who tells you that you’re going to find yourself very soon in Fairy-Land. That is how MacDonald begins his dream-like, otherworldly fantasy entitled Phantastes. Phantastes tells the story of Anodos and his travels through Fairy-Land. It describes the creatures he encounters, the people he meets, and the magical beings he finds himself surrounded by. I can imagine how, at first, the novel seems to be completely disorienting and certainly not everyone’s favorite book. I, however, found the qualities that perhaps make the novel disorienting and hard-to-follow to some to have the precise effect the author intended: to transport not only his characters, but also his readers, into Fairy-Land.
Anodos finds himself in Fairy-Land, and is constantly pulled further into the world of the fairies. He, however, fails to understand at first just how dangerous Fairy-Land truly is. In his naivete, he thinks he has nothing to worry about, despite warnings about an evil Ash Tree, an ogress, and other evil creatures roaming the woods. He begins to heed the warnings of others, but, because he knows nothing about the world in which he exists, he continuously falls into traps that modern readers may shake their heads at. After all, if you have a feeling of misgiving about the hut you’re thinking of entering, maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t enter it.
But Anodos enters this world and at once finds himself entranced. He can’t go back, and he doesn’t want to go back. He only wants to go forward: forward into the depths of Fairy-Land. And as Anodos travels further into Fairy-Land, he brings his readers with him. He paints a picture of the world in such a way that the readers are drawn more and more into the story. It’s a truly immersive tale that one just cannot help but be drawn into. As Anodos treks through Fairy-Land, I found myself completely immersed in his story—every path he walks down, every person he encounters, every frightening thing that happens to him intrigued me, terrified me, and enticed me. I couldn’t help but keep reading. When reading this book, I felt myself entranced, longing to keep reading, to immerse myself in the world and enjoy every piece of it. Even the frightening pieces, such as when Anodos is latched onto by his shadow in the ogre’s hut, or when the Ash-Tree is chasing after him in the woods, I almost felt as if I were there with Anodos, experiencing the frightening sensations myself.
Anodos in Fairy-Land experiences both hope and despair, joy and sorrow, and grief and longing. When he finds himself tricked by the Lady of the Ash, he finds himself in a stupor of depression and sadness. Readers cannot help but feel his pain as he wanders hopelessly through the forest. Yet, Anodos finds hope even in the middle of his sorrow. He says in one passage that “I learned, that the best way to manage some kinds of painful thoughts, is to dare them to do their worst; to let them lie and gnaw at your heart till they are tired; and you find you still have a residue of life they cannot kill.” (MacDonald, 55). Anodos finds himself in a hopeless situation, but unwilling to give up. He presses on, struggling through the midst of his sorrow and despair, into hope. Yet even as he struggles towards hope he stumbles into more sorrow, for then he is attacked by his shadow, a demon that latches onto him and causes him to despair and lose sight of the magical nature of Fairy-Land. But Anodos finds himself discovering an interesting thought: “Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows. Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love” (MacDonald, 67). Anodos finds that even in the midst of sorrow, one can find joy; in fact, joy cannot exist without sorrow, and sorrow breeds deepest joy.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis talks about the effect that MacDonald’s Phantastes had on his life, especially his journey in search of joy. Lewis yet again encountered the irrepressible joy that he had been seeking his whole life, in fact, he was now less confused and distant. The voice he had heard throughout his whole life urging him towards joy was becoming clearer. After all the years spent searching for joy, Phantastes put it nearly within his grasp. He fell for the book and could not help but be completely enamored with it, for “never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself” (221). Lewis found joy uniquely in the text. I’m going to let Lewis say it:
For I now perceived that while the air of the new region made all my erotic and magical perversions of Joy look like sordid trumpery, it had no such disenchanting power over the bread upon the table or the coals in the grate. That was the marvel. Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert… Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common thing and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. (222)
This book caused him to see the real world with the same magic with which he saw the imaginary world. Instead of longing for the imaginary world to be real, this book caused him to view the real world with the same magic that he viewed the imaginary. He saw the beauty and imaginativeness in the world around him instead of being blinded to its existence by the horrid nature of reality. Phantastes opened his mind to what could be, to the joy that he could encounter.
Phantastes is the type of story that, when reading, you simultaneously want to be in the story and are grateful you’re not in the story. You appreciate where you live but you long for something more magical than here. When I read this story, I couldn’t help but understand the longing he expressed—the desire to be in another world, not this one, and the sadness he feels upon arriving again in this world. I read stories often from the mentality of escapism: escape the horrors of this world and be in the magical otherworld described in the stories. But when reading how this book affected Lewis, my mind has begun to consider: how could books such as this enhance my appreciation for the real world and show me the beauty existing in it. For even in the dream-like and whimsical happenings of Phantastes, there is the beauty of reality surrounding. As I write this I’m sitting in a grove with moss underfoot, magnolias, evergreens, and other magical trees surrounding me. It feels very secluded in the middle of a busy campus: almost like a fairy-land. But this place is not fairy-land: it’s real. This magical place that has happened to cross into my life is a real, existing place. I don’t need to travel in my imagination to find it; I can instead seek for and find such places in the ordinary world in which I live. Perhaps magic really is all around us.
Books such as Phantastes always spark my imagination, but they also increase my appreciation for the natural world and God’s marvelous creation. He made this world to be full of beauty, and in such places I see glimpses of heaven. This tiny grove is a pocket of fantasy reminding me of the true fantasy to come, the reality that awaits all God’s children in heaven. When I read such books as Phantastes, I find myself looking forward to heaven so much more. This fantastical story of a fairy land full of magic and wonder and beauty and mystery simply points to a more fantastical place than we could ever imagine.
Phantastes is a marvelous adventure that I praise God I had the pleasure of embarking on.
MacDonald takes us through this magical world and pulls readers into a place at once so beautiful and terrifying that they cannot help but immerse themselves in it’s beauty. It is a story of hope and despair, joy and sorrow. As Anodos travels through this fairy-land he encounters so many things that cause him grief and pain, yet he also cannot keep from experiencing awe, hope, wonder, and joy. Anodos’s experiences in the Fairy-Land are a magnificent and enticing adventure that point us not just to the beauty in this life, but also what Christians can look forward to in heaven.