George MacDonald supplements his book, Phantastes, with several moral concerns meant to stimulate the mind of the reader. One such lesson lies within the tale of Cosmo and the enchanted mirror. The mirror enthralls Cosmo upon his very first encounter with it, even prior to the lady's appearance. His infatuation with the looking glass suggests a certain degree of vanity and self-absorption. Mirrors allow people to indulge their own self-love:
What a strange thing a mirror is! and what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man's imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same, and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realm of art; and the very representing of it to me has clothed with interest that which was otherwise hard and bare; just as one sees with delight upon the stage the representation of a character from which one would escape in life as from something unendurably wearisome. . . I should like to live in that room if I could only get into it. [Pp. 98-99]
The mirror also provides Cosmo with a convenient sanctuary into which he can escape every night. Inside the mirror lies a fantastical world that contains what he lacks in reality (true love). The looking glass also reflects those things he does own in such a way that they appear unique and novel. Cosmo consequently forsakes his true existence in favor of a life of indulgence and escapism. His love for the potentially imaginary woman trapped in the mirror ultimately leads to his own demise. The dangers of narcissism and of losing oneself in a dream intertwine in this tale of selfless love and selfish escapism, combining to make it a cautionary tale for those fantasizing about far off lands.
1.How do the quests of Anodos and Cosmo compare with one another?
2.Why do you think MacDonald thought it necessary to include the story of Cosmo and the mirror?
3.How does the portrayal of the hero differ in Phantastes and Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur"?
4.The language that Cosmo and the Princess use when addressing one another is more reminiscent of old English than when Cosmo converses with the shopkeeper. Why do you think MacDonald felt the need to distinguish their conversations?
5.The genre of fantasy is often thought of as pure escapism. What historical events do you think prompted MacDonald to write this book?
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Last modified 10 February 2004