God, who is ever present in George MacDonald's Phantastes, often manifests her power in song. Anodos remembers that his first song to the white lady was borne of an irresistible "impulse to sing," and that "the words really employed were as far above these, as that state transcended this wherein I recall it." This empowerment in his song causes the White Lady to burst forth into a form of life that is incomplete until he sings once more to her in the Fairy Palace. Again he finds this life-giving ability inexplicable, and the perseverance to complete it "solely from the state of mental elevation" of being "uplifted in song." He seems to be able to do no wrong while in song; once he stops he is again fallible and succumbing to the desire to touch her, she is lost to him.
Anodos offers another gift in his songs to the two brothers. These songs have the purpose of dispelling their fear of death and giving them the courage that is necessary to face the giants. Through songs about their honorable deaths, he succeeds in transforming the brothers' "past tears" into "present strength." Only then were they ready to let go of their grief and enter into battle with any chance of defeating their opponents.
This power of song is not unique to Anodos, and several other characters in the book also use it to provide an otherworldly comfort, strength and encouragement. In the old woman's cottage on the island, her songs rescue Anodos several times from the brink of despair and exhaustion and restore to him what he had lost.
While she sung, I was in Elysium, with the sense of a rich soul upholding, embracing, and overhanging mine, full of all plenty and bounty. I felt as if she could give me everything I wanted; as if I should never wish to leave her, but would be content to be sung to and fed by her, day after day, as years rolled by.
MacDonald also uses the song of the girl with the globe to free Anodos from his prison in the woods. Her song that reaches him in the tower enlightens him and "hardly knowing what [he] did," he now realizes that he is able to leave.
The songs in Phantastes are the instruments through which people are changed, no matter the singer. From a Christian perspective, they can act as a channel for the words of God, which imparts its power and shapes the receiver in many ways, for different purposes. MacDonald uses them to enhance the fantasy; in the same way he uses doors to allow Anodos to enter a different world, experiencing song allows characters to emerge a different person.
1. How does MacDonald use words like "Elysium," "upholding," "embracing," "overhanging," "plenty" and "bounty" to describe his transcendent state?
2. Why does MacDonald use song instead of encouraging words or speeches? How is this choice more appropriate in the act of transforming his characters?
3. We see an embodiment of emotion and religious hope in nature in Tennyson's In Memoriam. Looking at the following song, does MacDonald use nature similarly?
And through the pavilion the rich winds blow,
And through the pavilion the waters go.
And the birds for joy, and the trees for prayer,
Bowing their heads in the sunny air,
And for thoughts, the gently talking springs,
That come from the centre with secret things —
All make a music, gentle and strong,
Bound by the heart into one sweet song.
4. We see the song overcoming and controlling Anodos to reach his transcendent state as a singer, and we also see the transformative effects of him receiving a song. How much of a person's transformation (into a stronger, braver person) did the Victorians attribute to God? Would they have related these songs in Phantastes to God's power?
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Last modified 13 February 2004