In the following paragraph from Phantastes, George Macdonald reveals one of the great contrasts between the human world and his invented Fairy Land. When Anodos tells the men and women of Fairy Land how “children are not born in the Earth as with them,” he comments on desire, self-restraint, and purity::
Immediately a dim notion of what I meant, seemed to dawn in the minds of most of the women. Some of them folded their great wings all around them, as they generally do when in the least offended, and stood erect and motionless. One spread out her rosy pinions, and flashed from the promontory into the gulf at its foot. A great light shone in the eyes of one maiden, who turned and walked slowly away, with her purple and white wings half dispread behind her. She was found, the next morning, dead beneath a withered tree on a bare hill-side, some miles inland. They buried her where she lay, as is their custom; for, before they die, they instinctively search for a spot like the place of their birth, and having found one that satisfies them, they lie down, fold their wings around them, if they be women, or cross their arms over their breasts, if they are men, just as if they were going to sleep; and so sleep indeed.
The pain and sadness that Anodos’ words inflict upon the men and women of Fairy Land indicate the nature of their world. In Fairy Land, although both good and evil exist, life and nature remain in ideal harmony, and therefore the Fairy world reflects the human world in a clearer light. The negative reaction of the Fairy Land inhabitants to Anodos’ implication that human children do not have virgin births serves as a commentary on the impurity of the human world. Anodos next tells us that
The sign or cause of coming death is an indescribable longing for something, they know not what, which seizes them, and drives them into solitude, consuming them within, till the body fails. When a youth and a maiden look too deep into each other's eyes, this [149/150] longing seizes and possesses them; but instead of drawing nearer to each other, they wander away, each alone, into solitary places, and die of their desire.
In other words, when a young man and woman in Fairy Land have a longing for one another (presumably one driven by carnal desires), instead of succumbing to this desire, they take it upon themselves to part and lay down to die. They make this sacrifice in order to not perpetuate their impurity, and the inhabitants of Fairy Land consider this action better than indulging their longing. Anodos finally adds the following commentary:
But it seems to me, that thereafter they are born babes upon our earth: where, if, when grown, they find each other, it goes well with them; if not, it will seem to go ill. But of this I know nothing. When I told them that the women on the Earth had not wings like them, but arms, they stared, and said how bold and masculine they must look; not knowing that their wings, glorious as they are, are but undeveloped arms.
Here, Anodos makes an interesting observation when he says that he believes “thereafter they are born babes upon our earth.” This statement to implies that when someone from Fairy Land is possessed by human (and therefore impure) desires, they are sent to the human world in order to live out this desire. Anodos continues with, “if, when grown, they find each other, it goes well with them; if not, it will seem to go ill.” Here, he implies that these desires must be fulfilled in order for them to be happy. Until the desires are fulfilled, their purity cannot be restored because that desire will always linger.
1. Anodos says that when he implied how humans were born, “A great light shone in the eyes of one maiden, who turned and walked slowly away… She was found, the next morning, dead.” In light of the fact that “The sign or cause of coming death is an indescribable longing for something,” what did this maiden long for? Why did Anodos’ words spark this longing in her?
2. At the end of this paragraph, Anodos says, “their wings, glorious as they are, are but undeveloped arms.” This statement contrasts the rest of the paragraph that implies that the inhabitants of Fairy Land are more sophisticated spiritually (concerning purity) and other parts of the story in which the inhabitants of Fairy Land are seen to have a great connection with nature and their world. Why does Anodos conclude that wings are simply undeveloped arms, and not the other way around?
3. What is Macdonald implying in saying that the human world is impure and driven by desire? What, if anything, is he telling us we should do?
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
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Last modified 22 February 2010