‘I regard George MacDonald as my master’ wrote C.S Lewis of the pioneering Scottish fantasy writer and Christian minister born in Aberdeen in 1824.
Although surprisingly obscure today, the list of writers inspired by MacDonald’s literary endeavors includes eminent figures such as Tolkien, Carroll, Nesbit and Auden. The Scott himself though, found inspiration through German Religious theory, fantasy and nature. The consequential heterodox theology however, which formed the basis of his preaching’s, found little favour among his Arundel church parish and after struggling on a salary accordingly reduced by £50 per anum, MacDonald was forced to leave.
Unperturbed, the Scott constructed an alter of words with the help of the German Marchen, (a genre which, for want of a more fitting translation, we term ‘Fairy Tale’.) By employing fantasy as a means of illustrating his beliefs it is arguable that the preacher was enabled to leave a greater mark on civilisation, if not through his own work directly, then through that which it inspired. Arguably one of MacDonald’s most successful results is ‘Phantastes’, a Bildungsroman described its author as a ‘faerie romance for men and women’ . The winding narrative follows Anodos on a ‘dream like journey across a mysterious landscape’ which, beginning in his bedroom turned grassy glade, follows his metaphorical progress through forests, a labyrinth and the fairy palace. Similar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Jekyll and Hyde, the reader is left to decide how far the story derives from the ‘wandering dream of a diseased imagination’.
Fans of Alice in Wonderland’s wandering narrative and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’s morality laced fantasy will find the lesser know Phantastes a delight. Even religious skeptics who shy away from Bunyan style allegories will appreciate MacDonald’s eloquently imagined narrative. The stream of language, that appears to echo the flow of the constant lakes/ river’s and seas encountered by Anodos, is reason enough to spend time in MacDonald’s Fairyland.
With its warning of religious currents and reasons why one would avoid Phantastes, this has not been the promotional post MacDonald might have hoped for, nonetheless I urge any interested in fantasy’s origins to have a romp through the fairy land that ‘baptised’ the imagination of Narnia’s creator.
‘It is no use trying to account for things in Fairy Land; and one who travels there soon learns to forget the very idea of doing so, and takes everything as it comes; like a child, who, being in a chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing.’
All quotes are taken from Nick Page’s 2008 Special Annotated Edition
Text originally published in 1858