“I” was given the key to my father’s writing desk on my twenty-first birthday, and upon opening it I discovered a secret compartment in the back. A fairy appeared, and said that I would find my way to Fairy Land the next day (and suggested that my grandmother’s side of the family might have fairy blood). Sure enough, the next morning, I woke up, and the carpet with flowers on it that I had designed had turned into grass and flowers, with a stream from the faucet flowing through. I walked into the forest, but, perhaps unwisely, departed from the path and turned east.
I found a cottage where the mother and daughter fed me dinner and warned me about the Ash and the Alder. The Oak is reliable, but the Birch is a little wishy-washy. They suggested I stay the evening, since it seemed like a fairy gathering was being planned but I wanted to see the fairies play and dance. The Ash headed southwest, so I continued in my direction, finding fairies playing in the flowers and boating on leaves (which would soon sink, and they repeated it), setting off fireworks with glowworms. They lived in the flowers, and departed when the flowers died. The rose fairy was upset that they were using her petals for boats (the petals lasted longer), because she used them as clothes, but after having a good cry over it, she grabbed a petal and headed down to boat herself.
Wandering farther, the goblin-like form of the ash came on me, and I ran as fast as I could. I tripped over a tree root, but a two arms held me from behind, and a beech-woman said I was safe from the Ash. She said that all ash trees were self-centered, but that this one had a hole in his heart that he was trying to fill by killing people and burying them at his tree to nourish him. She told me to cut a lock of her hair, which she fastened around me to protect from the Ash. She held me all night and sang me to sleep. She repeatedly said “I may love him, for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree.” She also wanted be a woman (which I said she was, and a beautiful one); there was a prophecy that one day all the trees in the wood would become men and women.
I found that when I ate the food in Fairy Land I could see the human forms better, could begin to understand what the animals were saying, and felt that I somehow knew which direction to choose better. I climbed up a hill, and finding a small cave, I took a rest in its shade. I found Pygmalion-like carvings on the wall, where the sculptor waited for the (female) sculpture to come to life. I saw a vaguely-defined marble sculpture of a woman in translucent alabaster. Wanting to see her better, I tried waking her up. Kissing the alabaster didn’t work, but I sang a song that occurred to me (mostly of how much I wanted to be with her), and by and by she came to life, whereupon she promptly ran away.
I ran after her, and encountered a knight with slightly rusty armor. He was ashamed of something that he had done, warning me by a referral to the story of Percival and the Alder-tree (which I had not completely read at the cottage), and had vowed not to polish his armor expect through the blows of honorable combat. I soon met a beautiful white woman, who I hoped was my marble woman, despite some internal misgivings. She was beautiful, and she told me a story-spell, she I were one in the story, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw she was tearing up my protective birch-lock girdle and gave me to the Ash. I could not run away, but at the moment someone started chopping the Ash’s tree (I found out later it was the knight), so he hurried back to deal with him. The Maid of the Alder simply ignored me, and I wandered away, understanding the shame of the knight.
I spent the night at a cottage of a woman who understood about fairies, but whose husband mocked her for believing in the fairies (you have to have fairy blood in you to see the fairies). The next day I came to a woman’s cottage, entered it, and opened her cabinet (despite being told not to). The mirror in her cabinet releases a person’s shadow, and mine followed me, blotting out whatever was behind it, and slowly overcoming me with despair. I continued east, somehow knowing that my exit was that way, until I eventually came to a river. A boat was there, and I floated down the river, until one night I landed at a castle.
It was dark, so I could not see much, although the water at the top of the arc of the central fountain caught the sky’s light wonderfully. Since the arrival of my shadow my ability to see the fairies had largely faded away, although I was aware that they were around me. Eventually I found a room with my name on it, Sir Anodos, except that I was hardly worthy of the title of Knight. I was served dinner, presumably by fairies, although I could only see the dishes moving, and then slept well.
Over the next week or so I wandered the palace, seeing no one, but often sensing fairies dancing. The palace was decorated in white marble and black stone, with fountains, and a magnificent swimming pool. The pool had an abstract mosaic that appeared random at first glance, but when I considered how it might be improved, I found that each stone was in the perfect place. The pool also had a much larger perspective in the water than out of it. There was also a library with the most engrossing books, where I felt like I actually became the protagonist. (One such book was about Cosmo, a young academic who bought a mirror where a woman walked in the image every night. She could not see him, but she could see the surroundings, and as he replaced things that she did not like, like the anatomical skeleton, she could tell that someone cared about her. Eventually he took the drastic step of casting a spell from a book of Alchemy to bring her to him, but she was actually the princess of the town, put under a spell. By the time he had resolved to break the mirror to free her, and likely preventing himself from seeing her again, the mirror had been stolen. He located it and destroyed it, but was mortally wounded, although the princess did find him as he lay dying.)
Eventually I found a magnificent room with curtains. I heard music and dancing from behind the curtains, but when I looked behind, there were just stone statues. In one of the rooms was a magnificent marble statue on a table that looked like my marble woman. Over the course of several days I found that if I would wander the room, not thinking about the dancing, but darting quickly behind the curtain immediately when the thought came in my mind, I could catch them in the act. Once they had been seen, they simply continued dancing, and I was able to go to the other rooms, which were connected, until I found the one with my statue. I sang another song to it, which seemed to almost awaken it, so I touched the legs, imploring it to come to life. It did, but there was a very visible sign saying “do not touch,” which I had disregarded. The statue ran out the back door of the palace, and I followed.
I pursued my lady down the staircase of a deep hole in the ground to the kobold kingdom. My way was blocked by kobolds saying that I could not have her and that she was given to another. In an honorable moment I said “in that case, let him have her,” and they had nothing to say, nor could they block my way. I continued underground, finding a kobold woman who said I could have her, and became a beautiful human woman. I rejected that disgustedly and continued, eventually making my way out to the shore, where there was a boat which took me out to an island at sea.
The island had a hut in which a very old woman (with young eyes) lived. She sang me a refreshing song, and when I woke up, she was facing one of the four doors on the four sides of the room, and weeping. Then she turned to the next door and sighed. She did the same for the third door, except she was quiet apart from a little cry, and finally she faced the fourth door, when she shuddered. Then she sat down at her spinning wheel. When I went to go explore through the door I had entered, she warned me that I would not find what I expected, and to look for a red mark to return.
The first door took me to a scene where I re-lived my brother’s death. I was so distraught could barely find the red mark to return. The second door took me to a great hall where a woman very similar to my statue waited for the knight I had seen. When he returned, she embraced him and they spoke very lovingly to each other. The third door was Dismay, and I found that a woman I had loved a few years before had died. She tried to prevent me from going through the door, but went anyway into the Timeless, where I lost all memory. She came and retrieved me, but because she did, the water would rise and cover her cottage for a year (not a problem as long as she kept the fire burning, and she had plenty of wood), but she told me to hurry across the isthmus (the island was not actually an island) before the water rose and covered it.
After crossing the isthmus, I found a high tower and knocked on the door. Two brothers were preparing to fight three giants who had terrorized the kingdom, and the old woman had come to them some time earlier and promised a third person to help them. So I learned to make armor, and trained with them. The giants found us first, but we managed to defeat them, albeit at the cost of the lives of the two brothers. The brothers were sons of the king, and he grieved for them and knighted me for my part in the efforts.
He sent me to give the news to someone, and I had to cross the forest (which is where all the unpleasant things in Fairy Land seem to live). I was feeling pretty good about myself for having defeated a giant, when a great knight blocked my way. I felt inwardly that I needed to plant my lance and charge at him, but I was too terrified to be effective and at his command meekly followed him into a prison in a tower some ways off. He shut the door, and I was stuck there with my shadow for many days. Every evening that the moon could shine on the tower, however, gave me the conviction that I was free. One day at noon I heard a voice singing, and for some reason went to open the door, which was unlocked! (The singer was a girl I had previously met carrying a glowing glass ball. I had broken it by holding it too long, and she had run off crying, to the Fairy Queen, who had given her the ability to sing, and now she wanders around blessing people with her singing.)
I decided that walking in my armor was too difficult, and besides, I did not feel worthy of it, so I took it off and determined to be a squire to someone else. Shortly afterwards, the knight I had first met (and the lover of my statue-woman) came along, fresh from killing a dragon. I offered my services. He proved to be a very easy master, for he felt that squire and knight should be friends. After preventing a fairy asking butterflies for the donation of their wings so that she grow her own wings from being trampled on by wooden creatures, we came across a religious gathering in a cathedral of living yew. The knight thought it was a gathering of good, but I knew it was evil when a youth they lead to a door at the base of the throne on the dais shrunk back and they pushed him in. I got a white cloak from the girl standing next to me (I gave her my battle-axe in pledge of its return), and joined the next procession. When I got up to the top, I, with difficulty, pushed the wooden image sitting on the throne off it onto the steps. A great wolf leaped out of the hole and attacked me. Likewise, the whole assembly drew their swords and came forward. I clenched my hand on the throat of the wolf, but was killed, even as I killed it.
I came to consciousness in my sepulcher, with the knight and his lady mourning my passing, although they said that I had died well. I realized that it is in giving love, not receiving it, that we draw closest to the soul of another. I expressed my desire to minister to the hurt men, women, and children. Then I felt myself becoming corporeal and limited again, waking up to find myself in my own room. Now I set out to live out what I learned in Fairy Land.
Phantastes is MacDonald’s first work, and it is much more a story of Faerie than it is what we would consider a fairy tale or even fantasy. Faerie, as described by C. S. Lews and Tolkien (who were both influenced by MacDonald), seems to be descended from the Celtic ideas of a parallel, supernatural land. The Celts viewed everything in the world as mutable; that is, the form something has in the world is not fixed, and might become another form. So there was this parallel world to ours, which intersected with ours, and you might find yourself in the parallel world unexpectedly. The parallel world was typically hostile to humans, but even when the inhabitants were trying to be nice, it often resulted in pain for the human, due to time flowing differently (loved ones might be dead upon return) or materials not remaining the same (treasure in Faerie might become worthless rock in our world, just as our treasure is most certainly rocks in Faerie).
MacDonald’s Fairy Land is a similar place, where something’s form is likely to change. So trees have a living form which reflects their personalities: the Beech becomes almost a woman, the Ash is goblin-like, the Alder-woman is a beautiful head with a coffin body (she has no heart). Statues become women and back to statues. Looking up at the sky from underneath the water of a pool may reveal a very different view than looking up into the sky at the surface. The doors of the woman’s cottage do not seem to lead to the same place the next time they are opened.
Fairy Land retains the numenous and dangerous character of Faerie. In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis points out that until recently the forest was seen as wild and dangerous—between wild animals, robbers, and the likelihood of getting lost if one strays from the path, the forest was not altogether safe, and it lurked on the edge of the English and Irish villages. MacDonald’s character observes that the forest was where he encountered most of his unpleasant adventures. Yet at the same time, the fairies lived there, as well as good people and creatures.
The influences of MacDonald can clearly be seen in C. S. Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works. The forest in Phantastes has a similar feel to Mirkwood, although Tolkien makes the woods feel normal but inhabited by evil, or overshadowed by the evil of the Necromancer, while Phantases‘s wood has a more numenous feel to it. Tolkien’s Ents and Lewis’ Narnian tree spirits likely have some influence from MacDonald, although they probably pull on earlier stories more heavily. Tolkien’s wood outside of the Shire seems like a influence of MacDonald, perhaps a different perspective of a hungering, hating Ash-like tree. The fluidity between Earth and Narnia in the earlier books may be an influence of MacDonald. The refreshing story that Lucy reads in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is most certainly influenced by the library that Anodos reads in the fairy palace. There is a passing reference in one of the Narnia books to someone possibly having fairy blood in their line, which is a nod to MacDonald, whose character states that the extent to which you can eat the food and see the fairies is related to the person being descended from fairies at some level. In fact, the structure of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is reminiscent of Phantastes, notably that you have the feeling that the story has an element of allegory to it while you are reading it, but until the point where the central theme is made plain (Aslan’s death and resurrection, and Anodos’ understanding about giving love). Although, for that matter, Phantastes seems like a version of The Pilgrim’s Progress that has been made dreamlike and all the allegorical names substituted with word pictures.
I, personally, did not like Phantastes all that well, mostly because MacDonald did a good job of making the forest, where most of the story take place, feel numenous and dangerous. Because of this much of the book feels overshadowed with a flavor of darkness. Also, the dreamlike flexibility of things and the fluidity with which scenes flowed into each is a little to amorphous for my taste, although some of that might be simply the allegorical pressure on the storyline. I felt like Phantases is more similar to The Wood Beyond the World than it is to fantasy stories. Both books are really stories about Faerie, which is fundamentally not a “nice” place. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia is fundamentally nice, Lloyd Alexander’s land of Prydain is fundamentally nice, and, more recently, Harry Potter’s wizarding-England is a nice place, apart from He-who-must-not-be-named.
I feel like this is a good book to read for background on different presentations of Faerie, but it not really a “fun” read (although, to be fair, I read it in one sitting). Readers looking for story may want to look elsewhere. However, C. S. Lewis was deeply influenced by the book, and if you can decode the allegorical elements it may be heavily philosophical. I must say, that I understand the feel of Faerie better after having read the book, although that is certainly not MacDonald’s purpose. Philosophical readers may want to read the book twice to see where the message behind the allegory.