n Phantastes, George MacDonald uses the fantastic as a lens through which to better understand the human condition. Anodos's encounters in Fairy Land are laced with magic but the emotional response they elicit is decidedly human. They push him outside his comfort zone, forcing him to mature psychologically. As Anodos travels through Fairy Land, his thinks not only of the physical but of the metaphysical. Such is the case when he encounters the knight after falling victim to the Alder-maiden. He notes that:
Many a blow of mighty sword and axe, turned aside by the strength of his mail, and glancing adown the surface, had swept from its path the fretted rust, and the glorious steel had answered the kindly blow with the thanks of returning light. These streaks and spots made his armour look like the floor of a forest in the sunlight. His forehead was higher than before, for the contracting wrinkles were nearly gone; and the sadness that remained on his face was the sadness of a dewy summer twilight, not that of a frosty autumn morn. He, too, had met the Alder-maiden as I, but he had plunged into the torrent of mighty deeds, and the stain was nearly washed away. No shadow followed him. He had not entered the dark house; he had not had time to open the closet door. "Will he ever look in?" I said to myself. "Must his shadow find him some day?" But I could not answer my own questions. [pp.110-11]
Seeing the knight forces Anodos to reflect upon his actions. Both he and the knight have fallen victim to the Alder-maiden, but the knight, it seems, has nearly recovered while Anodos has been plagued by misfortune. Anodos wonders why this is the case. He decides that the knight has been redeemed somehow by his "mighty deeds". Meanwhile, he blames his own failure to recover on idleness. Unlike the busy knight, he has had enough time to open the closet door and unleash the shadow within. By interpreting events in this way, Anodos implicitly introduces issues the idea of morality. The knight's experience suggests that hard work and public service are quick paths to happiness. Meanwhile, Anodos's own experience seems to demonstrate that self absorption and idleness inhibit happiness. Is Anodos's misfortune the product of his own moral shortcomings? Is it too late for him to change his actions? The questions Anodos poses suggest that he may be wondering the same thing himself.
1. Is Anodos being honest with himself? If the knight found the time to open the closet door, would he? Does Anodos seem to think that he would?
2. Does MacDonald provide answers to the questions posed by Anodos. Must we all one day find our shadows?
3. Anodos wants to tell the knight about his troubles, but at the last moment his shadow intercedes, causing him to lose faith in his companion.
I was at the point of falling on his neck, and telling him the whole story; seeking, if not for helpful advice, for of that I was hopeless, yet for the comfort of sympathy — when round slid the shadow and inwrapt my friend; and I could not trust him.
What does this tell us about Anodos? What does this tell us about shadows?
4. The cottages that Anodos stumbles upon in Fairy Land are strikingly quaint. Similarly, the expansive natural beauty of Fairy Land seems characteristic of a pre-industrialized era. Phantastes was also published in a time of rapid technological innovation and urbanization. Is this a coincidence?
5. Although fantasy can function as a lens through which to better understand the human condition, it can serve as a distraction from life. Are the "mighty deeds" of the knight merely a distraction from sorrow? Can we recast Anodos's self absorption as something positive? Can Phantastes be characterized as escapist?
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Last modified 10 February 2004