In the first two chapters of George MacDonald's Phantastes, we get the impression that through Anodos' elaborate descriptions, vivid imagery and the death of his parents, (not to forget the absence of any other background information on his personal life), that he lives largely in his head and dreams of being somewhere else. Fairy Land serves as an alternative to Anodos' reality as well as a place for spiritual growth. Despite all of the initial comforts Anodos finds in Fairy Land, darkness, shadows, and fear continually confront him —all of which are allegedly associated with the ash tree. The shadow of a "large distorted hand" with knobs and humps on its fingers recurs as a haunting image, equivocal in its origin:
"from around which at this spot the trees receded, leaving a small space of green sward — the shadow of a large hand, with knotty joints and protuberances here and there. Especially I remarked, even in the midst of my fear, the bulbous points of the fingers. I looked hurriedly all around, but could see nothing from which such a shadow should fall. Now, however, that I had a direction, however undetermined, in which to project my apprehension, the very sense of danger and need of action overcame that stifling which is the worst property of fear. I reflected in a moment, that if this were indeed a shadow, it was useless to look for the object that cast it in any other direction than between the shadow and the moon. I looked, and peered, and intensified my vision, all to no purpose. I could see nothing of that kind, not even an ash-tree in the neighbourhood. Still the shadow remained; not steady, but moving to and fro, and once I saw the fingers close, and grind themselves close, like the claws of a wild animal, as if in uncontrollable longing for some anticipated prey." [MacDonald, 26]
The ambiguity of the shadow's origin parallels the ambiguity of its meaning. The shadows and darkness have a close connection to death; the word darkness first appears in a description of the room that had been undisturbed since Anodos' father's death, and the ash tree, who physically embodies fear and darkness, tries to kill his victims through fear and by burying them under his tree. Darkness, in relation to the ash tree, also symbolizes the wickedness in humankind:
""Oh, no. They are all disagreeable selfish creatures — (what horrid men they will make, if be true!) —but this one has a hole in his heart that nobody knows of but one or two; and he is always trying to fill it up, but he cannot. That must be what he wanted you for. I wonder if he will ever be a man. If he is, I hope they will kill him."" [MacDonald, 30]
This comparison of the ash tree to a man extends the symbolism of the tree to be inclusive of wicked qualities in humankind; selfishness, greed, and malevolence. Christian morality also has its undertones here, as the recurring presence of darkness begins to illustrate the struggle between the moral and immoral.
1. Anodos draws the shadowy figure he sees parallel to a vampire. Why does a vampire best epitomize the darkness and terror?
2. Fairy Land has a very spiritual atmosphere, as everything possesses life-like qualities and a soul. How does this animistic environment compare to Christian dogma? In a religious sense, what could darkness then represent?
3. Chapter four mentions a prophecy that one day all inhabitants of Fairy Land shall become human. Additionally, both the beech tree and the ash tree desire to be human. What does this prophecy say about the fate of Fairy Land's animistic culture? Why might inhabitants of Fairy Land long for the world of men when Anodos "often longed for Fairy Land"?