n MacDonald's Phantastes, myth and reality combine to create a surprisingly familiar fantasy world. MacDonald describes Fairy land as a place very much like ours but with small exceptions. The fairies and trees behave like humans and even have hierarchies similar to those found in human society. The landscapes resemble those of Earth in most respects. Everything in Fairy land seems to be created from elements of reality. MacDonald illustrates this at the beginning of chapter 5:
I walked on, in the fresh morning air, as if new-born. The only thing that damped my pleasure was a cloud of something between sorrow and delight that crossed my mind with the frequently returning thought of my last night's hostess. "But then," thought I, "if she is sorry, I could not help it; and she has all the pleasures she ever had. Such a day as this is surely a joy to her, as much at least as to me. And her life will perhaps be the richer, for holding now within it the memory of what came, but could not stay. And if ever she is a woman, who knows but we may meet somewhere? there is plenty of room for meeting in the universe." Comforting myself thus, yet with a vague compunction, as if I ought not to have left her, I went on. There was little to distinguish the woods to-day from those of my own land; except that all the wild things, rabbits, birds, squirrels, mice, and the numberless other inhabitants, were very tame; that is, they did not run away from me, but gazed at me as I passed, frequently coming nearer, as if to examine me more closely. Whether this came from utter ignorance, or from familiarity with the human appearance of beings who never hurt them, I could not tell. [61-62]
This description of the woods suggests that one cannot tell if Anodos is in Fairyland or on Earth unless one were to approach the animal Even then, the animals only act bizarrely insofar as they do not run away. MacDonald brings reality and fantasy closer together in order to make the Fairy land easier to envision for the reader. Reality and fantasy, however, are usually seen as opposites. MacDonald uses quite a few opposites in this passage. Anados says the animals' behaviour could be explained by "ignorance" or "familiarity" and described the creatures as "wild things" that "were very tame". At the beginning of the passage, he also says he feels "something between sorrow and delight", which seems at once obvious, since all feeling is between those two extremes, and confusing, since it should be clear which of the two emotions he feels.
Anodos' relationship with the Birch is very similar to any earthly one-night stand, as seen by his vague hope that they might meet again and his apparent feeling of guilt at leaving her. The passage doesn't even mention that the being is a tree and makes her seem more like a woman than a plant. The odd little repeated phrase from the preceding chapter also expresses this representation of her as both a tree and a human being —
"I may love him, I may love him; for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree."
The phrase would have been more logical if it had read "I may not love him", since the use of the word "only" makes it seem like she is not worthy of loving him, but in Phantastes established opposites are no longer contradictory.
1. Note that at the beginning of the passage the reader is told that it is a fresh morning, and Anodos says, "Such a day as this is surely a joy to her, as much at least as to me". The birch, however, said that she feels most like a woman when it's raining. What does this say about the relationship between the tree and the woman?
2. The reader learns from the description of the flower garden in chapter 3 that there is a clear hierarchy in the fairy world. In the dryadic being's repeated words, what does "I am only a beech-tree" imply about the status of both trees and men in Fairy land?
3. In "The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap", Mr. Shap also closes the gap between reality and fantasy, such as when he says, "the fancy is as real as the body". However, we are led to believe that MacDonald's fantasy world is real and Mr. Shap's is all in his head. What does this say about madness and the theme of the combination of opposites?
4. After leaving his verdant hostess, Anodos almost immediately falls for the marble beauty in alabaster. Could this be seen as misogynist, or a commentary on misogyny? What does it say about a man's view of love compared to that of a woman?
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Last modified 10 February 2004