n his fantasy novel Phantastes, George MacDonald frequently paints images of nature as directly reflective of Anodos' inner state. Light and shadow very clearly mirror the struggles between the good and evil aspects of Anodos' character throughout his journey, but a more fluid reflection of his struggles lies in MacDonald's descriptions of the sea. A vision of the sea initially stirs Anodos' longings when he meets the fairy in Chapter 1:
Below lay a sea, still as death and hoary in the moon, sweeping into bays and around capes and islands, away, away, I knew not whither. Alas! it was no sea, but a low bog burnished by the moon. "Surely there is such a sea somewhere!" said I to myself. A low sweet voice beside me replied —
"In Fairy Land, Anodos."
In this instance, the moon illuminates a bog to resemble a sea "sweeping" away as Anodos longs to do. Later on in the novel, the sea and other bodies of water continue to play a significant role in his journey, buoying him from one encounter to the next. The sea acts as a guide, a mirror, and, at times, an embodiment of Anodos' turmoil, as in this passage from Chapter 18:
I stood on the shore of a wintry sea, with a wintry sun just a few feet above its horizon-edge. It was bare, and waste, and gray. Hundreds of hopeless waves rushed constantly shorewards, falling exhausted upon a beach of great loose stones, that seemed to stretch miles and miles in both directions. There was nothing for the eye but mingling shades of gray; nothing for the ear but the rush of the coming, the roar of the breaking, and the moan of the retreating wave. No rock lifted up a sheltering severity above the dreariness around; even that from which I had myself emerged rose scarcely a foot above the opening by which I had reached the dismal day, more dismal even than the tomb I had left. A cold, death-like wind swept across the shore, seeming to issue from a pale mouth of cloud upon the horizon. Sign of life was nowhere visible. I wandered over the stones, up and down the beach, a human imbodiment of the nature around me. The wind increased; its keen waves flowed through my soul; the foam rushed higher up the stones; a few dead stars began to gleam in the east; the sound of the waves grew louder and yet more despairing. A dark curtain of cloud was lifted up, and a pale blue rent shone between its foot and the edge of the sea, out from which rushed an icy storm of frozen wind, that tore the waters into spray as it passed, and flung the billows in raving heaps upon the desolate shore. I could bear it no longer.
"I will not be tortured to death," I cried; "I will meet it half-way. The life within me is yet enough to bear me up to the face of Death, and then I die unconquered."
At this point in the novel, Anodos had lost his white lady and was wandering aimlessly through the land beyond the fairy queen's door. All his anguish becomes palpable in the barren beach and crashing waves. However, the intensity of this situation stirs Anodos to make a decisive action, and not be "tortured to death." He flings himself into the sea and finds it to be comforting, and eventually ends up on the island with the old woman with the young eyes. Thus, a sort of salvation is found in the struggle.
1. The above passage employs liberal use of adjectives such as "wintry," "barren," "waste," "gray," "hopeless," "exhausted," "dismal," "deathlike," etc. Why is this an effective technique in informing the reader of Anodos' emotional state?
2. In Phantastes, visual attributes can often be equated with corresponding moral attributes Ð for example, the fairies seemed to have souls that reflected the flowers they inhabited. However, this does not always hold true, as in the case of the alder maiden. How does the sea fit into this? Does the sea generally provide an accurate reflection?
3. How does nature's role in Phantastes compare to its role in Jane Eyre? In Jane Eyre, nature frequently has the supernatural power of reflecting ongoing events or foreshadowing future ones, but does Phantastes' designation as a fantasy novel have any implications in consideration of much of the realism of Jane Eyre?
4. How might MacDonald's background as a clergyman have inclined him to include images of the sea that may be considered biblical allusions? Consider baptism, the roaring sea as a symbol of the wicked, Noah's arc, etc.
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Last modified 10 February 2004