Thursday, March 31, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 13

I'm not sure what to say about this chapter. It is yet another story-within-a-story in this book, and as far as I can tell it has no direct or implied connections to the larger story of Anodos's journey through Fairy Land. I suppose one could draw connections between Cosmo and Anodos (indeed, this is somewhat implied when the author states that Anodos "was Cosmo"), principally because Anodos is described as a singer, while Cosmo is described as a poet. They both fall in love with a distant, almost abstract woman, who becomes a figurative muse for both characters. The Princess is described as being "a form more like marble than a living woman".

But in my opinion this connection is very strenuous, because this character arc, falling in love with a distant woman and through sacrifice earning her love, is pretty much repeated by nearly every author who has ever written a book. It's the story of human life, especially when you interpret it figuratively and let the woman represent an abstraction, such as artistic perfection, as is the case with the Marble Lady.

Cosmo's description of the mirror parallels Anodos's description of how "all mirrors are magic mirrors", that you can behold something plain with your eyes, yet if you look at the same thing in a mirror it has a grace and beauty about it.

Other than that, I must regard this as almost a separate story altogether. Perhaps that is how it is meant to be regarded. It is certainly a very creative story, with great character descriptions. There is Cosmo, this poor yet proud philosopher-poet, who one day accidentally discovers his muse, the nameless woman who enters his room and his life without choice.

He, of course, falls in love with her (as every man is wont to do), and what I love about the story is how MacDonald presents the decision between possessiveness (using the mirror as power over the lady, to compel her) vs. sacrifice (destroying it, which ultimately costs him his life). I think this is the core of the story, and it's what the mirror is about and Cosmo's sacrifice.

I love how MacDonald describes Cosmo as "falling in love with a shadow", because that's really what it is and that is what so many people do. We fall in love with the impressions and first appearances (and indeed, a shadow is just the impression that our body casts on the ground by blocking out some light). We, humanity, have such a strong tendency to falling in love with the very tiny fraction of a person we get to know, like their appearance or their taste in movies, without ever having the opportunity or the ability to fall in love with their substance, the deeper things of the heart.

Yet while most people will not make any sacrifices for a shadow (as they love too little), in the end Cosmo proves himself by giving up his life to destroy the mirror, to destroy his power. He gave up his ability to manipulate her and laid down his life to buy her freedom.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 12

This is probably my favorite chapter of the entire book, but nevertheless I'm going to try to restrain myself from expostulating too long upon it.

First, as a preface, note that this chapter is split between excerpts from the fictional book that the protagonist Anodos is reading and sections written by Anodos in first person.

The opening paragraph is fascinating to me. Essentially what the author (of the fictional book) is writing is that there is an interconnectedness in the world and in the universe at large that is beyond the physical, scientific or natural. While the most concrete example is certainly natural, that the matter of the earth (iron, copper, gold, carbon, etc) is actually the result of ancient fusion and supernovae in various stars, yet the author insists that this is merely an example of some greater principle. He says that there must be more than "a common obedience to an external law", that "the blank" (in the past) and the "misty spendour" (in the future) may reveal even more relations to creation at large (other planets and stars) than science or poetry can tell us.

What these deeper connections might be, he does not say and I cannot fathom. But he is arguing from an almost inductive stance, that humanity has learned tremendously about the interconnection of life on earth (the so called "web of life"), interconnection to the environment and even to other planets in the solar system (indeed, we would not have tidal forces without the moon), that by induction one can assume these interconnections must continue into the deeper and more exotic places in creations.

I can't agree or disagree, I just think it's an interesting thought, and it's one that is implicitly referenced in the story when the author suggests that children are born in our world (the Earth) when people die in this other, unnamed world.

I'm also fascinated how the world has seasons that change so much more slowly. It seems almost prophetic in the story to think about a woman who might be born in fall or winter and grow up, yet never live to see the spring. How that must burden the heart, to never experience warmth and growth and new life!

I absolutely adore the narrator talking about how he tried to describe sex to the men and women there, how he tried to avoid the topic as much as possible and was eventually forced to describe sex in the "vaguest manner I could invent".

The rest of the story is amazing, but MacDonald tells it better than I do, so I will leave it to him.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 11

I am fascinated by the description of the pool in the room of stars. I think it's really interesting how there is this pool, it is relatively small and simple (though certainly beautiful), and yet in the reflection of this pool there is "a second deeper sea", the reflection of the stars and the blue painted ceiling. And even more mysterious, when the protagonist dives into the water, he discovers that he is in a third, even larger and deeper sea with rocks and weeds and other inhabitants. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's description of Narnia in The Last Battle, where Narnia gets larger and larger the deeper in you go.

The biggest part of this chapter though is his discovery of the library, which fills much of the next couple chapters. If discovering the Fairy Palace is the apex of the story, then the books in this library are the heart and soul. Reading these chapters had an effect on me that I could not describe or reproduce with words. Thoughts and emotions alone suffice, yet those cannot be shared in our world here. At least not easily. "... to bathe, with an airy invigorating bath, the limbs which the glow of the burning spirit within had withered no less than the glow of the blazing sun without."

Reading books and experiencing what is described... that makes me think of modern entertainment technology. Movies, and now 3D movies, and Imax, and all of these interactive technologies seem to be trying to recreate what MacDonald has described 150 years ago, a genuinely and deeply interactive experience. It must strike some chord in the human heart that society would spend billions of dollars trying to achieve this.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 10

Well this one is greatly delayed due to real life stuff. I ended up quitting my job and taking on a new job at a great company, and while I'm happy with the transition it didn't leave me a lot of free time or energy for literary analysis.

Fortunately, things are settling down and now I will move on to Chapter 10 of this fantastic book!

This is a long chapter so it's hard for me to speak of it as a single thing. It is a single story, but it has several different phases. The beginning is the desert. MacDonald writes, "The shadow was in my heart as well as at my heels." In my opinion, this is emblematic of both the desert and the shadow. The hopelessness, the barrenness of life itself. I have been through a desert very like it, although I don't remember seeing the gremlins. Mine was a solitary desert.

Then the next phase is when he sees the stream. It is small, but it is not affected by the desert. It is cheerful even though it travels through a barren land, and the place where the stream goes, it brings life. A couple things I see here. First, he emphasizes the sound of the stream, that it bubbles and "sings", which is interesting because the protagonist himself is described as a singer. Singing is much of his identity. Second, the stream reminds me of the stream referenced in Ezekiel 47, where it flows from the throne of God through the Israeli desert and down to the Dead Sea (AKA the Salt Sea). Everywhere that stream goes, it brings life. It turns the salt water into fresh water.

This interplay between the protagonist and the stream continues with, "A gush of joy sprang forth in my heart, and over flowed at my eyes." Thus while the spring shared Anodos's singing, Anodos shares the spring's "gushing". Also remember that it was a spring of water, flowing from Anodos's basin, that led him into Fairy Land in the first place. This is the second time that he is guided by a stream to his destination.

When he awakes, it's like he awakes from the grief of his shadow. He is in Fairy Land "for the first time" and it's like the story resets. He is still seeking the Marble Lady, but all of the joy and sorrow of the prior events is wiped out.

The "torrent eddies of pain have hollowed a great gulf". Again I believe that MacDonald is comparing the river to Anodos, because Anodos himself finds himself entering a place of tranquility, much like the tranquility of the water in that gulf.

The third major phase of this chapter begins when Anodos rides in the boat; he identifies with the river even more, because now he moves along in the timeless flow of the river, losing himself in "the great flow of sky above... unbroken in its infinitude." He is part of the river and the river is part of him.

MacDonald similarly gives away the purpose of the entire book in this chapter, when he says "But how have I wandered into the deeper fairyland of the soul...!" So it's clear that MacDonald thinks of Fairy Land as an analogy or metaphor of soulish life. Of course, this life that we now live is but an analogy or metaphor for the true life, and how I wish I could awake into that life! That I might die in a dream, and awake into the real life, the true life, of communion with God.

The fourth phase begins when Anodos leaves the river and enters the Fairy Palace. The Fairy Palace is definitely one of the loci of this story, a focus point around which other elements revolve. I feel like the story is structured so that half of it is Anodos's journey to the Palace, and the other half is Anodos's departure from the Palace back to "normal" life. In that sense, being in the Palace is the apex of the story (but not the climax - that comes towards the end).

I find it interesting how the stream flows from the fountain into the palace. Again this reminds me of Ezekiel 47 and the river that flows from the throne of God (well, from the threshold of the temple, but in Revelation 22:1 it flows from the throne of God).

I find it very interesting that Anodos is now marked as Sir Anodos. He is both a knight and a singer, where before in this book it was treated as a juxtaposition: the knight OR the singer. Back in Chapter 6, MacDonald writes:
"I am ashamed," he said, "to appear a knight, and in such a guise; but it behoves me to tell you to take warning from me, lest the same evil, in his kind, overtake the singer that has befallen the knight."
Now Anodos is both. As he falls asleep, this long and powerful chapter ends.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 9

This chapter is an elaboration on the shadow which to which we were introduced in the prior chapter. It explains the baleful effect of the shadow, which appears to be two-fold: first, it brings about death (by killing the flowers on which the shadow lay) and second and similar to the first, it kills the magic of other people or things. You see that when the shadow destroys Anodos's joy in the vista and destroyed the magic of the boy with the kaleidoscope. It reminds me of the effect of the father in the house that Anodos stayed in, where the father disbelieved in Fairy Land and his skepticism and very laugh had the effect of making Anodos doubt in Fairy Land. In this case, though he did not doubt, the shadow has the effect of taking anything he sees and removing from it the power of Fairy Land, leaving only the "commonplace".

The shadow seems to have the power of disenchantment, removing the glory and beauty of life and leaving only the material, the mundane. I can't help but think of it as a subtle jab at scientific naturalism.

I don't have a clear idea what kind of symbol the maiden with the globe is. I believe this character is referenced later in the book so perhaps that will shed some additional light on it.

The last part of the chapter (the village where appearances change when you get close to someone) defies any attempt at my analysis. I think it makes for a cool story though. :)