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Thursday, January 6, 2011

January 13th Meeting: Phantastes

Phantastes, first published in 1858, is one of the strangest and most unpredictable books in the language. Virtually plotless, it tells the adventures of Anodos, an ordinary, even mundane character who, while ruffling through his father’s writing desk, comes upon a fairy who ushers him into an enchanted world where all of nature, from the tallest tree to the tiniest flower, is alive and where magical doorways and passages abound. After spending only a few hours in this mysterious wolrd of faerie, Anodos is nearly killed by the wicked ash tree, but then is saved by a gentle beech who gives him a garland of flowers to protect him. Sometime later, Anodos, comes upon a beautiful lady encased in marble. He sings her awake and then follows her as she runs off into a cave. Once inside the cave, the lady (who is an alder tree in disguise) seduces him and steals his beech leaves. Again, the ash attacks, only to be defeated by the blow of an axe wielded by Sir Percival, a wandering knight who has himself been seduced by the wicked alder. From here, the adventures of Anodos get (to quote the nineteenth century visitor to another magical land) “curiouser and curiouser.” In one episode, he enters the house of an ogre, and uncovers, in a hidden closet, his own shadow, a dark, relentless doppelganger that pursues him throughout the novel. In another episode, he comes upon a palace that contains a magic library with the power to allow its reader to enter directly into the world of books. In yet other episodes, he witnesses a goblin dance, enters a cottage with four doors that lead to the past, to sighs, to dismay, and to the timeless; and assists two sibling princes in slaying three dragons, a deed that wins him the status of hero and leads him to accept the role of squire to Sir Percival. In the final episode, Anodos, after being killed by a wolf, feels his soul leave the physical restraints of his body and become one with all of nature.
The book is a strange one, even to the modern reader accustomed to fantasy, and the reading of it had a profound impact on the seventeen-year-old would-be naturalist. As he turned the last page of the book, Lewis realized that something mystical, something almost inexplicable had happened within him: his imagination had been baptized (Surprised by Joy, chapter 11). For the first time, he sensed the power of holiness and caught a glimpse of a higher spiritual level toward which his early experiences of joy had been pointing him. … pgs. 11-12 Lewis Agonistes by Louis Markos.
Hero: Anodos
Encountered by the young Lewis in 1916 he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves on 7 March 1916 saying:
I have had a great literary experience this week. I have discovered yet another author to add to our circle – our very own set: never since I first read 'The well at the world's end' have I enjoyed a book so much – and indeed I think my new 'find' is quite as good as Malory or Morris himself. The book, to get to the point, is George Macdonald's 'Faerie Romance', Phantastes, which I picked up by hazard in a rather tired Everyman copy – by the way isn't it funny, they cost 1/1d. Now – on our station bookstall last Saturday …

Questions and Images:
1. The following is a list of images in about the sequence they appear in the book. Discuss the images asking what they seem to mean to Macdonald, to Anodos, perhaps to Lewis and to what extent you think Lewis may have used these images in his own books.
The Ash Tree
The Beech Tree
The Alabaster Maiden
Sir Percival the rusted knight
The Closet/the Shadow/Ogre Lady's House
The Silver Palace The Pool The Half-Invisible People The Library
His Room "Sir Anodos" Winged people who die of desire.
The Story of Cosmo's Mirror
The Well and the Underground Country
Underground Country
The Girl of the Broken Globe
2. What elements in the book do you think would have evoked in Lewis "… the power of holiness" and "… the glimpse of a higher spiritual level."?
3. Lewis said that Phantastes baptized his imagination. Did the book have any effects like that on you?
4. Lewis once said that the characteristic of a myth was that it was a story which affected you even when it was told badly. Macdonald's writing has been criticized as relatively weak even by Lewis. First do you agree that Macdonald's writing is mythic (or mythopoeic)? and secondly, what properties do you think bring out this characteristic?
5. What works of Lewis most closely approximate works of Macdonald that you are familiar with or Phantastes itself?

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