decorated initial 'A' lthough, traditionally, mirrors in fantasy literature have the symbolic function of highlighting the expression of fantasy as a valid reflection of reality, they do not always present themselves so literally. Sometimes, the authors of fantasy will subtly assume the voice of a character to present a moment of self-reflection. Other times magic holds enough metaphoric value for such observations. The presence of any type of figurative or physical reflection will usually serve the function of underscoring contained themes of the story or reflecting either the author's ideas of his own fantasy or the general nature of fantasy.

George MacDonald's Phantastes traces the journey of the narrator and protagonist Anodos, who is swallowed by (or into) the world of Fairyland the morning after his twenty-first birthday. The day before his entrance into the fantastic world, he encounters a miniature apparition of his grandmother who suggests that Anodos will soon have an adventure in which he shall learn the mistake of assuming a correspondence between appearance and reality. She tells him, "Form is much, but size is nothing. It is a mere matter of relation [7]." Persistently following Anodos throughout his journey in Fairyland is a shadow that the narrator unwittingly unleashes by opening a magical door within the house of an ogre that Anodos comes across during one of his stops. After several other supernatural encounters, Anodos traverses a stream by boat while admiring the magnificence of his environment.

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?--not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. [66]

Anodos's commentary may seem a general statement about reflections; however, it seems to also be the author's statement essentially making a case for the aesthetic appeal of fantasy when presumably compared to works of realistic fiction. Evidence of this interpretation appears in the statement that "not so grand or so strong [as fiction], it [fantasy] may be, but always lovelier." MacDonald implicitly compares fictional works to real images and fantastic works to reflected ones; he affirms, in the words of Anodos, that "the commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass."

After generally admiring reflections, Anodos takes a moment to stand up in his boat and gaze at the water reflecting the moon. As Anodos shifts in his boats, the waters "heave[s] and [falls] with a plash as of molten silver, breaking the image of the moon into a thousand morsels, fusing again into one, as the ripples of laughter die into the still face of joy [67]." One might interpret this remark as yet another one of MacDonald's observations about fantasy. While maintaining his idea of reflections as visually pleasing through figurative language and techniques (as when comparing the moon to "molten silver" and the curious phrase "ripples of laughter"), MacDonald also seems to want to claim the durability of fantasy despite its cult following, for historically fantasy has not always has much prestige as literature. Yet, although people have tried to break up the image of fantasy (analogous to the reflected moon), the "thousand morsels" always fit firmly back together.

The previous statements about reflection are not meant solely for the praise of fantasy, for they also work within the story of Phantastes as a motif that brings to light the central idea that something's appearance does not correlate with its real essence. Anodos makes several mistakes along his journey in which he trusts appearances until he finally begins to understand the pronounced distinction between appearance and reality. At one moment, the outwardly beautiful Maid of the Alder-tree gains Anodos's confidence until he discovers that she in fact wishes to kill him. "How can beauty and ugliness dwell so near?" [48] Anodos wonders. In another moment it seems that Anodos cannot escape from a tower, which in fact is not locked at all. These examples illustrate Anodos's difficulty distinguishing between appearance and reality.

Unlike other more mainstream fantasy literature, Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer immediately immerses the reader in a coherent, fantastic setting with very little exposition. One eventually learns that Severian, the narrator and protagonist, holds an apprenticeship in the guild of torturers. He does not know his parents and has little knowledge of the outside world. All he knows is life within the slum of the Citadel.

After unsuccessfully defending Vodalus, a threat to the order of the Citadel, Severian receives a coin which holds significance in the plot, but which also allows Wolfe's character, like MacDonald's Anodos, to reflect upon the nature of fantasy.

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hand, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life — they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. [14]

The preceding passage seems to reflect on the inherent order of the world despite one's incomplete knowledge of how it works, for "rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all." The idea seems analogous to the way people use machines without any idea of how they work. From a philosophical standpoint, Wolfe may be implicitly making a case for the coherence of his fantasy. In one's daily life, people except certain facts about the world without knowing the intricacies of its mechanisms. So, why not accept his fabricated fantastic world even if one will never be able to understand his futuristic universe fully?

In an ingenious move, Shepen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane makes use of the ambiguity of the reality and dreamlike-ness of a fantastic world as a plot-device that substantially carries the work until the conclusion of the story. Like Phantastes, Lord Foul's Bane introduces the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, in the "real" world before he irreversibly finds his way into a fantastic one where the inhabitants believe him a messiah given the task of ridding the Land of an evil being known as Lord Foul. From the start of the story, Donaldson emphasizes the debilitating effects that leprosy plays in Thomas Covenant's life. Covenant's doctor warns him that the mental effects of the disease could ultimately lead to his demise among other physical, mental and emotional difficulties. Therefore, in order to keep himself sane, Covenant constantly tries to convince himself that his experience in the fantastic world is a dream. In the end, Covenant survives, and a doctor watching over him takes a moment to reflect on what it must be like to have leprosy.

Being a leper reminds me of statues of the Crucifixion made during the Middle Ages. There is Christ on the Cross, and his features--his body, even his face--are portrayed so blandly that the figure is unrecognizable. It could be anyone, man or woman. But in the side, the crown of thorns--are carved and even painted in incredibly vivid detail. You would think the artist crucified his model to get that kind of realism.

Given the fact that Covenant has the title of "Unbeliever" in the fantastic realm of the Land, ironically, the doctor compares Covenant's status as a leper to the medieveal imagery of Jesus Christ, who exemplifies belief in his role as a messiah for mankind in saving their souls. Yet, despite the incompatibility of the two figures, Covenant and Jesus, describing them as vaguely identifiable entities with tangible scars suggests that Covenant in some way parrallels Christ.

C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote the series with the main objective of creating a story that conveys the complex ideas in the Christian religion. In the last book of the series entitled The Last Battle, Lewis re-envisions the epic events leading to the end of the fantastic world of Narnia so as to make the subject suitable for children. After some of the animals and creatures who wish for continued existence pass through the threshold into a new world not unlike Narnia, yet different and infinite, a major character explains the essence of what it means to be in this seemingly new Narnia.

When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream. [211-212]

This passage has the obvious purpose of explaining the finite domain of our Earth ("a shadow;" "the old Narnia"), when compared to the heaven-like realm which has always existed ("the real Narnia has always been here and always will be here"). Yet, another parallel can be drawn from the explanation of the old and real Narnia as an explanation of the nature of fantastic literature, or maybe even any genre of fictional literature, for stories in general have "a beginning and an end." "The Door" by which one reaches the realm of these stories is through the medium of books. Engaging stories have the tendency of absorbing the reader into the book's setting, which explains why one might, in the extreme case, "mourn over" the ending of a book.

One can also find the idea of a threshold by which one can enter a fantastic setting reflective of the real world in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. What begins as a day of cat-scolding and pretense leads to Alice's transition into a fantastic world where the rules of logic just don't apply. Here, children's storybook characters assume uncharacteristic personalities, the words of certain children's songs have been rewritten, and her episodic encounters with different characters don't seem to add up to a consistent story. Before entering the looking-glass, Alice talks to one of her kittens about her theory of the Looking-Glass House.

Now, if you'll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-Glass House. First, there's the room you can see through the glass--that's just the same as our drawing-room, only the things go the other way. I can see of it when I get upon a chair--all but the bit just behind the firplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know unless our fire smokes, and then smokes comes up in that room too--but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way: I know that, because I've held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room. [131]

Throughout the story, the main idea of children having trouble understanding concepts pervades the book, which is made the more intense with an extremely illogical place like Wonderland. The passage above demonstrates that children (in this case Alice) do have some knowledge of how the world works. Specifically, she seems to have some notion of the concept of reflections as evidenced from statements like "that's just the same as our drawing-room, only things go the other way around," and "the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way." Nonetheless, her calling the reflected room the Looking-Glass House suggests that she actually believes it to be another room rather than just an image.

Once again, this passage could also serves as a reflection on fantasy, this time, however, with respect to children who usually have relatively wilder imaginations due to their incomplete knowledge of how the world functions. Both The Looking Glass and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland deal with the same presumptuous lead character who takes on a claim to knowledge while bits of her monologues suggest otherwise, such as the following: "smokes comes up in that room too--but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire." Carroll may be making a between-the-lines statement as to how one should approach the world. In casting Alice in such an annoying and haughty light, Carrol may be suggesting that basic knowledge is essential. Knowing the minutiae of the world's workings seems only to lead to disorder, a disorder portrayed fanatically in Wonderland.

Although set in the real world, Lord Dunsany sets up fantastical hints early on in his narration of "The Wonderful Window," for a curiously dressed man arrives at a marketplace to sell, of all things, a window that in turn catches the attention of Mr. Sladden. Mr. Sladden is unlike other people. He has "the reputation of being the silliest young man in Business; a touch of romance. . . would send his eyes gazing away." In a conversation between the two characters the old man confirms the presence of fantasy in this world by revealing that the parcel that he carries "is a magical window." After agreeing to purchase the window with all of his money, Mr. Sladden questions his purchase. Yet, upon looking through the window, the realistic and magical medieval world of Golden Dragon City mesmerizes him. He keeps the window for months and months watching the society exist until one day the he notices that his city has been rampaged and the golden dragon flagged city by people bearing red bear flags. In an effort to save the original inhabitants Mr. Sladden attempts to go through the window.

Mr. Sladden broke the panes of the wonderful window and wrenched away with a poker the lead that held them. Just as the glass broke he saw a banner covered with golden dragons fluttering still, and then as he drew back to hurl the poker there came to him the scent of mysterious spices, and there was nothing there, not even the daylight, for behind the fragments of the wonderful window was nothing but that small cupboard in which he kept his tea-things.

And though Mr. Sladden is older now and knows more of the world, and even has a Business of his own, he has never been able to buy such another window, and has not ever since, either from books or men, heard any rumour at all of Golden Dragon City.

Lord Dunsany's deliberately writes most of his short stories in God, Men and Ghosts with a subtext of tongue-in-cheek commentary on fantasy. The tone of the conclusion for "The Wonderful Window" seems to hold a slight disappointment and sadness (through the use of absolute words like "never," "not ever since," "nothing," and "not even") over Mr. Sladden's inability to penetrate the fantastic world through the window and the consequential destruction of the window and the world. The implications of the ending seem two-fold. For one, such an ending invokes the frustration of one not ever having the ability to exist in such amazing settings, even a place like the Golden Dragon City which Dunsany describes as a realistic place. When one reads fantasy one can almost sense and imagine oneself in the fantastic world, unfortunately one can never actually be a part of the world ("there came to him mysterious spices, [but] there was nothing there. . . but that small cupboard in which he kept his tea-things"). Lord Dunsany's other purpose pushes to the forefront the virtually universal theme of fantasy books in which one's maturity makes it the more difficult to revert back to a fanatastic and romantic mindset ("And though Mr. Sladden is older now and knows more of the world. . . he has never been able to buy such another window").

Mirrors also appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which traces the path of a powerfully insidious ring and its new inheritor, a hobbit, Frodo Baggins. The ring has once been the source of tremendous power for the evil Lord Sauron whose recent pervasive presence prompts the removal of the ring from the Shire to the less vulnerable Rivendell. Never losing possession of the ring, Frodo and the fellowship reach the haven of Lothlorien barely alive but only after many months, many perils, and with the aid of some friends. Before long, Galadriel the queen of Lorien invites Frodo and Sam to look upon the "magic" of her mirror.

"Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal," she answered, "and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold. What you will see, if you leave the Mirror free to work I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell. Do you wish to look?

Frodo did not answer.

"And you?" she said, turning to Sam. "For this is what your fold would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?"

The passage above serves the immediate purpose of explaining the nature of magic in The Lord of the Rings. The races of Middle Earth who have been brought up with magic do not have any reason to generalize the supernatural phenomena using the term "magic" because of its presence in their lives. Meanwhile, the ordinary races of men and hobbits do not experience magic as elves who experience it as a natural observable fact of the universe. This explains why Galadriel says she does "not understand clearly what they mean" when the hobbits use the word "magic."

The explanation of the mirror also holds the purpose of explaining to us non-knowledgeable readers (and Hobbits) the basic functions of her mirror. Yet, upon closer inspection the passage may also hint at Tolkien's reflection on his role as a writer of fantasy. According to the passage, he generally controls what information he wants his readers to know and the fantastic elements that they want to read about ("Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal and to some I can show what they desire to see"). On the other hand, Tolkien has the power to demonstrate the surprising capability of fantasy to explore realistic themes which turn out "often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold," for they give fantasy value.

In Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea magic of a different form pervades the storyline. The main character, Ged, seems to have a natural knack for the art of magic at an early age. His father therefore pushes him to study the art at a school for wizards on the island of Roke. Within a month, Ged rapidly masters the magic of illusion which a professor known as the Master Hand teaches to him. In a hurry to learn more, Ged inquires about the magic in which the form of something actually changes into something else.

Illusion fools the beholder's senses; it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing. To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.

This passage, like that from The Lord of the Rings, serves to explain the nature of magic within the realm of Earthsea. Magic is less subtle in this world, and it takes many forms. The emphasis upon balance works as a parallel to the main plot, which consists of Ged conquering a shadow that he unwittingly unleashes when showing off his growing power by his attempt to summon the dead — a very advanced form of magic. Meanwhile, the preceding passage seems also to reflect subtly on what it takes for an author to maintain the coherence of fantastic literature. One can draw a parallel between the delicacy which the Master Hand emphasizes when explaining the nature of the magic of change and the creation of a fantastic world in which the laws of magic, language, etc. can never contradict each other — "A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world."

Creating a fantastic world from one's imagination is probably not an easy process, but nonetheless worth it, for Cosmo, a character in a story within the story of Phantastes who falls in love with a woman trapped in a magical mirror, puts it best when he says, "What a strange thing a mirror is! and what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man's imagination!" [89]


Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Norton Critical (ed. Gray).

Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Foul's Bane.

Dunsany, Lord. Gods, Men and Ghosts. Dover.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York, NY: Simon Pulse, 2001.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Tombs of Atuan. New York, NY: Simon Pulse, 2001.

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1989.

MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Wolfe, Gene. Shadow and Claw. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1980.

Victorian Web Overview George MacDonald's Phantastes Lord Dunsany Lewis Carroll

Last modified 19 May 2004