When we approach any work of literature for the first time, we look for clues to that tell us how to read it. Part of the pleasure of reading, even for works that are technically innovative, lies in recognizing the fulfillment of a certain set of expectations. Many of these expectations are set by what we call genre.

Think, for instance, of the layout of any bookstore: the books there aren’t just organized alphabetically, but are segregated according to genres like mystery, romance, fantasy, and science fiction. These genres all operate according to a specific set of rules: individual works can vary in the particulars, but they must satisfy certain expectations. For example, in a typical mystery novel, a crime must be committed, a variety of suspects and motives must be entertained, and at the end, the detective has to figure out who “did it” and why. Anything less will leave us feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and perhaps skeptical of the author’s skill.

This is all just to point out two qualities of genre:

One of the most striking features of George Macdonald’s Phantastes is the way in which it calls attention to genre so explicitly. You don’t need to guess about what kind of book this is, or claims to be—the subtitle tells you: “A Faerie Romance.” The word “Phantastes” itself is also contextualized, with an epigraph taken Phineas Fletcher’s Purple Island:

Phantastes from ‘their fount’ all shapes deriving,
In new habilements can quickly dight.

The Purple Island is a sixteenth-century allegorical long poem that personifies faculties of the intellect and turns the physical body into a landscape. But you don’t need to know this to realize that Macdonald is calling attention to the fantastic as a means of giving “new habilements” — new clothing, new appearances — to broader underlying ideas.

So, when you open the book, before you even get to the narrative itself, you already know that Macdonald is engaging two genres:

  1. Romance
  2. Allegory

As we get further into the novel, the genres and forms at play only proliferate. Can you think of any? Where do you see these in the text? Possible answers:

Why might Macdonald choose to use all of these devices? Is he just showing off? What’s he trying to communicate to the reader? Etienne Ma suggests one possible answer in his contribution this week. He notes that the first-person narration has the effect of: “ ‘removing’ the narrator from the attention of the reader” so that “one almost adopts Anodos's quest to find the ‘marble lady’ — the journey becomes one's own.” Etienne also tells us: “In fact, MacDonald instructs us on how we should read his book when Anodos begins to tell us about Cosmo: “‘Of course, while I read it, I was Cosmo, and his history was mine. Yet, all the time, I seemed to have a kind of double consciousness&sdquo;” (84). We should adopt Anodos's story, his ‘history’ as our own while we are reading — to immerse ourselves in it, even while maintaining a ‘double consciousness.’”

This observation is an important one. Anodos’ accounts of the tales he reads in the Fairy Palace mimic our own reading of Anodos’ tale. It’s easy to lose track of the distance we’re supposed to have; for instance, the passage we discussed on Wednesday about the world of winged fairies is actually one of the tales that Anodos reads, not something that he experiences firsthand. Here is his preface to the story:

In one [tale], with a mystical title, which I cannot recall, I read of a world that is not like ours. The wondrous account, in such a feeble, fragmentary way as is possible to me, I would willingly impart. Whether or not it was all a poem, I cannot tell; but, from the impulse I felt, when I first contemplated writing it, to break into rime, to which impulse I shall give way if it comes upon me again, I think it must have been, partly at least, in verse. (p. 84)

If Macdonald’s references to form and genre create the illusion of merging our perspective with that of Anodos, and via Anados with that of the narratives he reads, it also tends to have the opposite effect. With every chapter break, the epigraphs call our attention to other works that Macdonald is commenting on through this book. With every transition from lyric to prose and back again, the text calls attention to its form.

In Phantastes, then, references to genre give us a set of rules, things we can expect, and this allows us to let down our guard a bit, as readers; we become Anados, and accept the universe constituted for us in Fairy Land. But Macdonald also calls attention to the artifice of the genres he engages: he makes us question his choices throughout our reading experience, and makes us remember, always, our position as readers of the text.


Victorian Web Overview George MacDonald Literature

Last modified 18 February 2010