Sunday, February 27, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 8

I was discussing this book briefly with my mom recently and I want to add a clarifying note here (which I really should have had at the beginning of the series): This set of blog posts is not meant to replace reading the book. In large part, I do not consider such a summarization to be possible, as the true magic of the book is not in the story or in my brief philosophizing about it, but rather in the actual descriptions and actions in the book.

My commentary is supposed to be an addendum to the book, not a replacement. I hope to make the book easier to understand and perhaps also more interesting, maybe spark some brief discussion or new thoughts and perspectives. If I can do just that much, I will be successful.

That said, chapter 8 is a turning point in the book with the introduction of the protagonist's shadow. The shadow will stay with him through much of the rest of the book, and as with much of the rest of the book, it hints that it is an allegory for something in the real world, without shouting such an allegory. It seems that this book almost continually draws forward towards allegory, akin to works like Pilgrim's Progress, but then almost immediately pulls back by filling in a variety of details that do not fit my attempt at systematizing the book.

This chapter is a perfect example of that trend. When reading it, my first thought is, "The shadow is symbolic of personal sin". It fits biblically (for instance, Romans 6-7 discussion of the sinful desires warring against righteous desires), so it seems like it should be obvious.

And yet there are many unaccountable details (to my mind at least): who is the ogre? Why is the shadow coming out of a closet? Why is there a night's sky in that closet? How does it relate to the quote about the darkness of night filling the universe? I do not have answers to these questions, and it makes me suspicious of the allegory that I myself suggest in the shadow. There is a dearth of consistency that makes me hesitate, which I think is perhaps the author's intention (or again, perhaps not).

Nevertheless, I think from reading the rest of the book it is pretty clear what role the shadow plays in the story. The shadow is the darkness that lies within the protagonist's heart, except that it is given a shape and form in Fairy Land. Wherever the author goes, his shadow goes with him and withers the life he finds around him, destroys the magic and leaves nothing worth keeping. It is the very same destroyer spirit that lived within the Ash, which the ogre vaguely references ("...Especially after meeting one in the forest, whom I dare say you have met"). Greed, lust and destruction are all wrapped together in this sinful destroyer spirit that haunts the narrator, Anodos.

Anyway, that's all for this chapter.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 7

This chapter contains more of the protagonist's musings on the Alder tree, the paradox of beauty and ugliness dwelling in the same being.

I have thought about this as well, and in brief I have come to the following conclusion: physical beauty is a physical manifestation of the grace of God. I believe that every person who lives is endowed with physical beauty by nature and by grace, and that it's only through an active (though not necessarily intentional) destruction of that beauty that someone can approach what I would call physical ugliness. Without going into detail (I am being brief), an example of this sort of thing is eating disorders. What makes this topic difficult for many people to grasp is that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has some truth to it, in the following sense: just because I do not find someone physically attractive does not mean that person is ugly (more properly, non-beautiful). So there has to be some concept of external or objective beauty in order for anyone to truly be beautiful, and I believe that everyone at birth is endowed with objective beauty by the grace of God.

To bring this back to the book, that includes people who do not love God and who walk contrary to his ways. It is this deliberately living contrary to God that fosters inner ugliness (and emptiness, much like the hollowed out sepulchral woman) even though one may still have the external beauty as from birth. But just like the Alder woman, over time the inner emptiness will slowly devour her life until even the external beauty is marred and destroyed.

The next encounter in the story clearly seems to be an intentional allegory, with the husband playing the role of an unbeliever (perhaps an atheist, kind but ignorant), and similarly with the son, though the son is described as being somewhat less benevolent and more scornful or disdainful, while the wife and daughter play the role of believers, those who believe they are in Fairy Land.

I hesitate to draw the allegory too strongly, because there is not a whole lot of details expressed here, but this allegory suggested itself to me immediately when I first read the passage. It reminds me of Pilgrim's Progress more than anything else: even though the family is left unnamed, the similarity in how the protagonist reacts to different characters in different ways is strongly reminiscent of Pilgrim's Progress. Upon further consideration, there are many sections of the book where there are similarities to PP, but never so strongly that I felt like Phantastes was being unoriginal.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 6

Phew, chapter 6. This book is very dense and it's only just starting to pick up in pace too. Once again, I will not post a synopsis (to save time), but will instead point out bits and pieces I find interesting.

First, the knight says "....lest the same evil... overtake the the singer that has befallen the knight." So I find this interesting because he defines himself as "the knight" and the narrator as "the singer". So here they are clearly typed. I believe these are both metaphorical types, though to be honest I don't have a clear picture of what they stand for. This is something I am still pondering, as these tropes will show up later in the story as well.

Another point I find interesting is how the narrator thinks "remembering how my songs seemed to have called her from the marble, piercing through the pearly shroud of alabaster...why... should not my voice reach her now, through the ebon night that inwraps her"? So it's like these are described as different types of shrouds, one a shroud of alabaster and the other a shroud of ebony. It's possible this was just meant as a literary device, but it seems to also portend some sort of allegory. Again though, I don't know exactly what.

The rest of the chapter is consumed with the Maid of the Alder Tree. Once more, this figure is an obvious allegory and is a sort of parallel to the Ash. While the Ash represents a sort of male vampirism (see my prior post on Chapter 4 for more discussion of Ash), the Alder tree is described as a sort of female vampire (in later chapters she is discussed more, I am melding that discussion into here). Just like the Ash, the Alder is cursed with a hollowness, an emptiness inside that she tries to fill by manipulating others and consuming their love, like the Alder tree tries to consume people's bodies.

They also use different means of entrapment. The Ash tries to manipulate your fear, the Alder tries to manipulate your desire, to steal your desire and devour it. They are different manifestations of the same spirit.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 5

This is yet another fascinating chapter. I won't give it a full treatment for lack of time, but I will point out the aspects that I find particularly interesting.

First is the reference to Pygmalion. This is an explicit reference that directly corresponds to the story so it is inappropriate to not know the mythology being reference. I quote here the synopsis from wikipedia:

According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides prostituting themselves (more accurately, they denied the divinity of Venus and she thus ‘reduced’ them to prostitution), he was 'not interested in women',[4] but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it. In the vertex, Venus (Aphrodite)'s festival day came. For the festival, Pygmalion made offerings to Venus and made a wish. "I sincerely wished the ivory sculpture will be changed to a real woman." However, he couldn’t bring himself to express it. When he returned home, Cupid sent by Venus kissed the ivory sculpture on the hand. At that time, it was changed to a beautiful woman. A ring was put on her finger. It was Cupid’s ring which made love achieved. Venus granted his wish.

The parallels are immediate and obvious, so I won't discuss that much more. What I will say is this: I believe the Marble Lady is a very important symbol in Phantastes, so it is worth meditating upon.

One thing that is really cool about the story is how the body of the Marble Lady is entrapped in a "pale coffin" of alabaster. This strongly emphasizes the artistic role of drawing forth a creation from the shapeless stone. I see this as a parallel to how great artists will have envisioned their creation before creating it.

How then do you draw forth the Marble Lady? A kiss does not reach through the tomb of stone. It is the power of song and music that draws forth his vision of perfection. I think this verse in the song powerfully captures and summarizes what I'm saying:

"Thee the sculptors all pursuing,
Have embodied but their own;
Round their visions, form enduring,
Marble vestments thou hast thrown;
But thyself, in silence winding,
Thou hast kept eternally;
Thee they found not, many finding--
I have found thee: wake for me."

The Marble Lady is the embodiment of the creative ideal. To those who are not artists, this creative ideal is perhaps impossible to explain. But to those who are artists, I don't think any more explanation is necessary as I believe we all understand that subconscious voice or urging drawing us forward to some obscure yet understood end.

That she runs off after being freed is perhaps fitting. Creative exercises (whether that be music, painting, poetry, writing, sculpting, drawing, etc) are so often this pursuit of the ideal that it is almost hard for me to think of what it would mean to actually find, capture and encapsulate that ideal. In fact now that I think about it, it reminds me of God a lot. The pursuit of this ideal is like pursuing the presence of God. It fills the space in your soul with something deeper and inexplicable yet tangible. In some ways I almost think the artistic ideal literally is God (the true embodiment of perfection), but in other ways I think the artistic ideal is just a metaphor or pointer towards God, a sign that guides us to him. To quote from Phantastes again,

"I gazed after her in a kind of despair; found, freed, lost! It seemed useless to follow, yet follow I must."

One other point I might emphasize is that (as you will read later) a lot of this story focuses on the protagonist as a singer in particular, not an artist in general. That's why song plays such an important role, and yet I think it is fully within the author's intention that this creative ideal should be considered a general phenomena, because that is indeed what it is. Song is just one expression of the arts, but the spirit that guides them all is the same (1 Corinthians 12 anyone? Many gifts, but the same spirit).

Phantastes - Chapter 4

So much to talk about.

One thing that fascinates me about these descriptions is the whole notion of a world that comes alive at night. It forms such a strong juxtaposition, in his writing, describing how the darkness of sleep flows over men, but this world of fairy lights awakens then. From chapter 3:

Everything sleeps and dreams now: when the night comes, it will be different. At the same time I, being a man and a child of the day, felt some anxiety as to how I should fare among the elves and other children of the night who wake when mortals dream, and find their common life in those wondrous hours that flow noiselessly over the moveless death-like forms of men and women and children, lying strewn and parted beneath the weight of the heavy waves of night, which flow on and beat them down, and hold them drowned and senseless, until the ebbtide comes, and the waves sink away, back into the ocean of the dark.

It makes me think of a bunch of things. One parallel is in dreamlife vs. waking life. Dreams are in some senses parallel to this fairy world, and indeed I believe dreams are an inspiration for his whimsical and non-linear story format.

Another parallel I believe is the spirit world vs. the physical world. Men sleep (and are unable to access the spirit realm), but while men sleep there is an entirely different world of life that is awake and active.

Our hero, Anodos, rencounters the Ash and it is a fascinating encounter. Perhaps the most fascinating part to me is how the author compares the Ash to a vampire. This is fascinating to me for several reasons. One is that vampires are a common trope in my dreams. I think there is a lot of depth to this, but at the very simplest level, I see a vampire as this: a symbol of lust. Vampires by their nature only survive by consuming others. They have nothing of their own and everything they do is to leech and suck life out of others to fill themselves. How ironic that they can create other vampires out of their victims. How often does that happen in real life, that it is through the injuries and destruction that one suffers that new monsters (for lack of a better word) are created.

That said, I think Macdonald's description is completely accurate. He describes an inner gnawing that devours the devourer. That is absolutely what it is. It is an infinite greed.

The other aspect that I see in the Ash (not specific to vampires) is the aspect of the terror that he spreads and the aspect of hatred and anger. I see him as being a figure of anger and hatred, which is partly what drives the lust/greed.

Another aspect of this story that I find interesting is the defenselessness of the narrator. He seems to have nothing that he can do to protect himself from this vague threat. He is dominated by fear and the inability to protect himself. And yet he is threatened.

Then there's the beech tree. Just as before we met a vague and unspecified threat, now we meet a vague and unspecified protector. I hesitate to draw any allegory into this part of the narrative, but I do find it interesting that the soft and protective Beech (wrapping her soft arms around the narrator) is able to ward off the angry and hateful Ash. I also find it interesting how the Beech is presented almost as a love interest, but one that cannot be for reasons outside of their control. Just a man and a Beech tree, from two different worlds, though intertwined by fate for a single day. Once again, I don't see much room for allegory here but the structure is very mournful yet relatable (think: Romeo and Juliet for another example).

I also really loved the song:
"I saw thee ne'er before;
I see thee never more;
But love, and help, and pain, beautiful one,
Have made thee mine, till all my years are done."

This is really meaningful to me because it emphasizes the connection that is formed by love and sacrifice towards the person you love and give you. I discuss this theme in my prior blog post, Love and Power. Ironically my inspiration for that post was a later passage in this exact same book.

In this passage, it is such a stark reinforcement of that theme. The narrator literally cuts off part of the Beech tree's hair ("she shuddered and breathed deep, as one does when an acute pain, steadfastly endured without sign of suffering, is at length relaxed"), and that forms a girdle to protect him from the Ash tree. Her sacrifice literally forms a belt that he wraps around him and takes with him as a force of protection. It is an incredibly stirring image of the spiritual reality, that one's sacrifice for another forms a girdle that both protects that person and binds you together with him or he, that gives you a power to serve them (like I describe in my other post).

At the end, their parting is bittersweet like so many partings are. And yet they have the hope of one day meeting again, when the Beech tree becomes a woman (enters the narrator's world) and they can be together. Not necessarily sexual, because it doesn't have to be sexual to be emotive.

Thus ends a very potent chapter. On to chapter 5!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 3

This chapter is where stuff starts to get dense, so I'm going to be slowing down right about now.

Starting from the beginning, you see the chapter preface (a quote from Henry Sutton) is setting the tenor for this whole chapter. Namely, since the trees and sea are "but a disguised humanity", he is implying that the forest itself is a parable for human beings. This is a common literary trope (often used in the bible as well, in particular using the sea as a metaphor for humanity but also occasionally trees), though even then the author's particular intended usage is not immediately clear.

There are a variety of trees mentioned by the author: the oak, the elm, the beech, the birch, the ash and the alder. Some of them are given defined characteristics, in particular the ash and the alder.

Also note that the story of Sir Percivale is foreshadowing, so pay attention to it.

The two trees described the most are the Ash and the Alder, but they appear in the story later, so I will discuss them in greater depth then.

Most of the rest of the chapter is consumed with the hijinks of the fairies. Once again, I think there is some room here for interpreting the fairies as symbols for people, but if so I don't know what sort of people they would represent. I find this line of thinking reinforced when I read the description of the city-country split in the fairy population. But if there is a deeper meaning here, it is one that I am not able to grasp.

It's possible that there is no symbolism here at all, and it's just a story told for entertainment's sake (not a bad reason). That was how I read it the last time through, but someone with a deeper literary pedigree than myself might have some other thoughts.

End of chapter 3!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 2

This chapter is short and simple, which is good because the following chapters are long and complex so I will take this as a good break before diving into the heavy stuff.


This chapter is a short description of the transformation of Anodos's room from one of the "regular world" into the Fairy Land. Just imagine this chapter as someone (like yourself, the reader) falling asleep and gently entering a dream.

Next chapter the real adventure begins!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 1

Edit: I almost forgot, the book is available for free on because it is out of copyright in the US (i.e. public domain), so it is free and legal to share with anyone and everyone without limitation. The link to the book is right here!

/End edit

Chapter 1 is pretty simple. As far as I can tell, this chapter is just providing the literary setting for the story.

Once you strip out the wonderful descriptions, the story is thus: a first-person narrator awakes the day after his 21st birthday, having received all the possessions of his long-dead father (whose death is not described), and he goes to explore some long-unused secretary (a sort of antique desk). As he pokes around, he discovers a miniature-sized living woman and the "Adventures in Wonderland"-esque aspects of the novel abruptly break in. It took me a while to understand what's going on because the narrator takes the experience with a lot more credulity than I had.

How did this woman get here? How had she survived all these years? How is she so small? All of these questions are completely ignored by the story, setting the tenor of much of the rest of the book. This is not a book of logic, facts or "science" (in the modern sense). It is, in fact, fantasies in the traditional sense (wonders, dreams, etc). So the first thing you (my anonymous reader) should do when reading this book is discard any modern set of rules or rationality regarding story development because the author is not behaving very modern (the book is itself about 152 year olds, so it was much less common to be dominated by the modern paradigm at that time).

With that said, if one stays immersed in the descriptions, almost raw sensationalism, of the book, I think the scene is painted wonderfully and proves its worth in that fashion.

We are also given a name for the narrator; Anodos. The woman remains nameless, but after some discussion she increases her size to full human proportions and they continue talking about things past and present. At the end of the discussion (the payload of this whole chapter, really) the woman promises Anodos that he will travel to Fairy Land the next day.

I think the topic of Fairy Land deserves more discussion, because it is a very common trope of 19th and early 20th century literature (and probably earlier as well, but I'm not a literary scholar so I don't really know), but I will forbear on that discussion for now, so that I have enough things to talk about in later chapters.

On to chapter 2!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A new idea - Bookclub!

I just had this new idea today while walking home. I am going (to try) to start my own personal book club! Everyone is starting a book club these days....... Oprah........ other people.......... and so I figured I would start one too. Now my book club will perhaps work differently, because I've never been in a book club and I don't actually know what a book club is or does. But here was my idea: I will pick a book that I'm going to read through, post it here, and then periodically (perhaps on a chapter by chapter basis) I will post my thoughts and analysis of what I'm reading.

That way I can get my thoughts written down for my own records, and I might also inspire others to read these amazing, amazing books. A lot of what I read is actually re-reading stuff I've already been through, but just enjoyed so much the first time around that I had to read it again.

So! The first book shall be.................................................... Phantastes by George Macdonald! I've already started reading it so I will have to skim the first couple chapters again to post my thoughts, which I will do in the days to come assuming I remember that I'm doing this. I hope I don't forget and have nothing but an intro lying around here for the next year(s)....

Edit: I post this later in the series, but for posterity I should include a link to the FREE E-BOOK for Phantastes right here, just so that nobody has the misconception they have to actually buy the book to follow along. It's available on the internet thanks to the special magic known as the Public Domain (i.e. out of Copyright materials). So here, dear friend and reader, find the e-book at your convenience in a variety of formats: