Thursday, June 30, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 22

Yet again, another amazing chapter. They seem to never stop. This time the protagonist, now on his sad pilgrimage, meets himself in a forest. Certainly MacDonald has a point here, and it is not immediately clear to me exactly what it is. Prior to meeting the knight, he feels a burst of pride in his accomplishments, and then he meets a figure of himself, except stronger and fiercer who overcomes his courage. So I sense a couple things here. The obvious: this represents a personal struggle in his own mind and heart.

But what exactly he is struggling against is not entirely clear. At first, I thought it was pride, because that was the emotion he felt right before meeting his shadow traveling in a new form. And yet, the human reaction to pride is not fear and depression like the protagonist subsequently faces. The way pride attacks people is silently and with subtlety. The fact that he feels depressed over this is almost a sign that he is not actually facing pride.

I'm going to quote MacDonald again because this passage just struck me so powerfully when I was reading it now.

I think I must have fallen asleep, and have slept for hours; for I suddenly became aware of existence, in observing that the moon was shining through the hole in the roof. As she rose higher and higher, her light crept down the wall over me, till at last it shone right upon my head. Instantaneously the walls of the tower seemed to vanish away like a mist. I sat beneath a beech, on the edge of a forest, and the open country lay, in the moonlight, for miles and miles around me, spotted with glimmering houses and spires and towers. I thought with myself, "Oh, joy! it was only a dream; the horrible narrow waste is gone, and I wake beneath a beech-tree, perhaps one that loves me, and I can go where I will.

... But as soon as the first faint light of the dawn appeared, instead of shining upon me from the eye of the morning, it stole like a fainting ghost through the little square hole above my head; and the walls came out as the light grew, and the glorious night was swallowed up of the hateful day.
So among other reasons why I love this is the reference to the beech tree. And then there's the way that he talks about the grim depression of the tower of imprisonment, how it is a horrible narrow waste. It is both small, constrained, and empty, barren and void of life or meaning. It strongly reminds me of how I felt about my "desert experience" back in 2007-2008. And yet, at night is when he is given a vision of freedom and his heart soars. The beech tree was his protector against the darkness of a prior assault, the Ash Tree, much like I had ministering angels protect me, and he feels most alive at night, when the angel of the moon rides through the sky, much like the nighttime was my window to experience God and soar in spirit. To this day, those experiences at night with God stand as some of the strongest and most powerful experiences I've ever had, and yet they truly were these brief 15-30 minute windows of life in an otherwise dry and barren experience. Yet they sustained me through the grace of God.

So that's why I love this chapter. And here is another glorious passage that is so rich I feel I must quote it out of reverence, even though I am assuming that my readers have already read the chapter.

About noon, I started as if something foreign to all my senses and all my experience, had suddenly invaded me; yet it was only the voice of a woman singing. My whole frame quivered with joy, surprise, and the sensation of the unforeseen. Like a living soul, like an incarnation of Nature, the song entered my prison-house. Each tone folded its wings, and laid itself, like a caressing bird, upon my heart. It bathed me like a sea; inwrapt me like an odorous vapour; entered my soul like a long draught of clear spring-water; shone upon me like essential sunlight; soothed me like a mother's voice and hand. Yet, as the clearest forest-well tastes sometimes of the bitterness of decayed leaves, so to my weary, prisoned heart, its cheerfulness had a sting of cold, and its tenderness unmanned me with the faintness of long-departed joys. I wept half-bitterly, half-luxuriously; but not long. I dashed away the tears, ashamed of a weakness which I thought I had abandoned. Ere I knew, I had walked to the door, and seated myself with my ears against it, in order to catch every syllable of the revelation from the unseen outer world.

I am simply quoting this because of the glorious richness and quality of the description. Like the song that he describes, this passage itself conveys life. The song itself speaks of pride again, which is what MacDonald was focusing on before. So this appears to have been his point in the conflict-with-self even though it doesn't entirely seem consistent to me. And then the soliloquy at the end confirms that MacDonald is talking about a battle against pride, that he must give up his claim to knighthood to find humility. He felt the need to give up his claim to knighthood to properly walk in the deeds of righteousness, and from thence to achieve manhood. Or as he puts it, one who desires of himself a hero, will be barely a man, but of him who is satisfied to simply do good works, he shall be assured of manhood.

But he rightly points out that in the death of pride it is possible to raise a new, subtler pride that glories in the death of pride, and thus pride is reborn. In truth and in spirit must your pride die, with rejoicing for sure, but not with satisfaction and self-congratulation. As MacDonald says:

Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 21

First, the reference to Sir Gawain is a paraphrase from Le Mort D'Arthur, when Sir Gawain is unhorsed in a joust and proceeds to fight on foot.

In the combat, we discover that both of the brothers' fears proved true. They both died in combat, yet victorious. There isn't any way that I can read this and but wish that the brothers had lived. After reading their stories, you feel a passion for the things of their love: the younger, for his father; the older, for his paramour (umm... not in an adulterous sense).

Reading this chapter makes me feel like the protagonist's depression is returning, and I feel it with him. His brothers dead, his shadow returns (after a long absence), the tower now vacant, and his task to return as the sole survivor to share the glorious deeds of his dead brothers.

The joy and sorrow of the people, the joy and sorrow of the king. They lived the lives of true royalty, and at last the protagonist is dubbed a knight in truth, after he had played the part in battle.

After spending time with many people, widely loved and sought after by "everyone who is anyone", I almost feel like the protagonist is getting a bit overstimulated and is seeking solitude when he goes to travel alone to visit the elder brother's paramour. The story continues in chapter 22.

Phantastes - Chapter 20

This chapter is fascinating. For one thing, you see yet another rapid and generally unexplained transition to a whole new section of the book. There are interconnecting lines with prior sections so it is still part of the whole, but so different in character and tone and so steeply transitioned that it is clearly distinct. I hesitate to call it unexplained because the truth is that the book has no *intention* of explaining, and in fact seems to preclude even the notion of asking for an explanation. It simply "is" and any attempt to build a coherent story is besides the point altogether.

For instance, why did the protagonist wish to enter the tower? A modern mind might ask, but this is not a modern story. It is simply to be taken for granted and the adventure that follows shall come.

One of the many reasons I love this chapter is that we begin to see the protagonist take on the identity of a knight, through his brotherhood with the other two figures and through his battle with the giants. Also being the son of a king adds a royalty dimension.

The old lady says that the protagonist will share with them "in present song and in future deeds", so like I was talking about nobleness of mind/deeds in the last chapter, the old lady now confirms that the protagonist will grow into a nobleness of deeds, much like the knight.

Again there is this bittersweetness, that they felt they would be victorious in battle but die in the process, that permeates the entire book. The songs reinforce this theme.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 19

This chapter is quite interesting. I consider the description of the island to be somewhat mundane (though it is clearly described as being very peaceful and quiet, so it gives me the sense of unchanging stability -timelessness - much like some descriptions of heaven). The woman is certainly a very interesting character. She is described with traits both young and old. The face is unmeasurably old, yet the voice and the eyes are young and pure, and her back is unbent (again, young). Yet her treatment of the protagonist is very motherly, which again emphasizes old over young. This makes me think the woman is meant to be representative of God, who is also very young and old at the same time, as well as very protective and nurturing towards his children.

I don't have much to say about the song of the knight and the ghostly wife. I don't think it relates with the book much (except perhaps thematically, as much of the book contains similar bittersweet strains).

Spinning wheels are reminiscent of the Greek Fates, reinforcing the God theme.

Note that the actions of the woman when she looks at the four doors dictates what the protagonist finds when he wants through them. The first is the door of tears, which is his strife with his brother and then his death, the second is the door of sighs, the third is the door of fear/pain, and the fourth is the door of ....... something indescribable.

The next section, the door of sighs, seems so significant to me. First of all, it still maintains the general pattern of bittersweetness that you find throughout the book. Second, we discover that the evil kobolds in the underground cavern were correct: it turns out that the Marble Lady is for a better man, and the knight is the better man.

The knight draws a juxtaposition of nobleness of thought vs. nobleness of deeds. Obviously this is what the two characters (the singer and the knight) represent in their turn. Yet the protagonist (the singer) sees a dim reflection of himself in the knight, which makes me feel like the singer could somehow, someday grow into the knight. As such, I feel like these two characters are not so much different people as you might view them as two different stages of the same person. Though this isn't how the story turns out, yet as a metaphor it could be. The lady is destined for a better man, but perhaps through dying to oneself he could become that man. It's like what Jesus says in the bible, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." He has to die to his ambition and desire for the lady, live in love and service to her, and yet (with respect to the metaphor) could then finally earn her as the knight who he would become.

Again, this isn't how the story turns out as it's told, but I feel like this is one of the undercurrents of the story. Naturally, any death that you suffer with the object of attaining the Marble Lady is self-defeating, which is why it is such a strange paradox. You have to genuinely be willing to give her up to attain the goal of sacrifice and love. And that is the man that she deserves, she who is herself a symbol of creative perfection and idealism. To attain that, you need the characteristics of the knight, who represents masculine perfection (you see these represented in the knight's fight against the ash tree and his physical descriptions): strength of will, nobleness of purpose and deeds, a genuine consideration for others, the hardened shell of steel which is strength, yet the softness of flesh underneath which is mercy and love. The knight loves and respects the singer, which is meaningful given his relationship with the Lady.

The part of this story that resonates with me the most is the concept of the singer's sacrifice, that he must freely give up the Marble Lady to this "better man", when the old lady sings her next song which I will quote below because I think it's so powerful:

O light of dead and of dying days!
O Love! in thy glory go,
In a rosy mist and a moony maze,
O'er the pathless peaks of snow.
But what is left for the cold gray soul,
That moans like a wounded dove?
One wine is left in the broken bowl!—

Better to sit at the waters' birth, 
Than a sea of waves to win;
To live in the love that floweth forth,
Than the love that cometh in.
Be thy heart a well of love, my child,
Flowing, and free, and sure;
For a cistern of love, though undefiled,
Keeps not the spirit pure.

This asserts, rightly, that it is *loving others* that brings purity to your soul, and not *receiving love*. That one must be a source of love, and not a recipient, to attain to this purity. Receiving love is good and pure in itself, but it must be giving love to others that will maintain who you are. His escape from this scene, the red mark, guides him into the place of self-sacrifice by leading him into the place of greatest difficulty, accepting the love between the Lady and the "better man".

Things start moving quicker in the next story, the door of dismay, so I would understand if some people get lost in the rapid transitions. Firstly, the well-known form: I'm not 100% sure who this is. Perhaps the protagonist's wife? Maybe mother since I don't remember him mentioning being married at all earlier in the story. Either way, it is obviously some very strongly loved female figure in his life who had recently died. He rapidly transitions through 3 scenes where he is following this figure. First he sees her in the streets, then he finds himself in her house, and he goes to see her room again, and then he finds himself in a church at midnight and he follows her to a tomb.

When he reaches it, the lady was no longer moving but was now a marble effigy. This is obviously a double-reference to the Marble Lady and it adds a whole new dimension to what the Marble Lady means. For up until now in the story, the Marble Lady was the marble of a sculptor, representing creation. In the White Hall of Phantasy, the statues were alive and active, this being the manifestation of creativity incarnate: the chaos and harmony of creative thought itself in a manifest form of dance.

And here, there is a new dimension added. It is the marble statue that is sculpted on the coverstone of a tomb. This is the marble of death, of stillness. Having been to the chapel of Duke University, I have seen marble statues like these before so the symbolism is familiar to me. It is also reminiscent of very early in the book when the singer finds the Marble Lady entombed in alabaster. He freed her from this "death-sleep" and brought her to life, yet now he finds this other, dear female figure entombed and he cannot free her for he has no song this time. Instead, it grows darker and he moves on to the chapel above his burial vault.

Then he finds a knight of marble, one of his ancestors. So it is clear that even though he is not living as a knight (embodiment of masculine perfection), yet he is a descendant of knights and this is his heritage.

At the last, he finds that the red mark which guides him is leading him into the burial vault itself. So once again, he must choose death to self, just like I described above and like Jesus says. This is in many ways the summation of everything in this chapter. Death to self, dying to his selfishness (door #1) and his desires (door #2) and finally death itself, is his only path forward.

The old lady's song reinforces the concept of dying, yet through the process of dying finding life. This is a very Christian concept and reminiscent of the afterlife: that passing through death (the night) one finds true life (the morning).

The next song is again very powerful, and it provides a summary of the 3 doors that he had been through; I quote it below.

We weep for gladness, weep for grief;
The tears they are the same;
We sigh for longing, and relief;
The sighs have but one name,

And mingled in the dying strife,
Are moans that are not sad
The pangs of death are throbs of life,
Its sighs are sometimes glad.

The face is very strange and white:
It is Earth's only spot
That feebly flickers back the light
The living seeth not.

What this song speaks of is a redefinition of what the protagonist had experienced in the three doors: that tears are shed in moments of grief, but also joy; that sighs come from sorrow, but also relief; that in the pangs of death, you find the throbs of new life, whether that be life in this age or in the age to come.

For the fourth door, I don't have anything clever to say because it confuses me. I don't really know what this one signifies. I do have some thoughts, but, like the author, I will leave it a mystery to invite the readers to meditation.

And perhaps given the length of this chapter and the length of my response, my reader(s) will forgive the delay in me publishing this post. :)