I've been reading George MacDonald's Phantastes, and I just finished it today. For a long time I've wanted to read MacDonald, based on what I had heard in snippets of C.S.Lewis' writings. I believe he mentions the man in his autobiographical Surprised By Joy. I am left with mixed feelings about the work. For one thing, it was very disjointed. The main character enters Fairy Land, a place of strange, ridiculous events and creatures, and he stumbles around from one adventure to the next, barely even understanding himself anything that's happening. Every other chapter, Anados seems to be "breaking the rules" somehow and landing himself in trouble. But it's this strange thing, because he could hardly know beforehand what those rules are. For instance, at one point, there is a statue of a woman, whom he is trying to bring to life with his singing. And first his songs merely uncover her from some invisible shroud, but when she doesn't come to life, he flings himself on the statue. Instantly, the woman comes to life and says, "You should not have touched me," and she runs away. So I'm left wondering, what the hell?
This kind of thing seems to happen a lot. Some troll woman tells him not to open a closet, but he does anyway, and that's how a grave shadow enters his life and begins following him around. Every which way, people are telling him to do this or not do that, but no one ever says why, and sometimes if he listens he gets in trouble, and sometimes if he doesn't listen, he gets in trouble, and so on and on. It makes it difficult to read.
On the other hand, each of the stories in and of themselves were in many ways captivating. There was a certain spirit in the writing that made me feel like maybe I had something invested in the stories. It was a nameless quality, which I cannot describe, but nonetheless remains compelling.
So, I was thinking, as I was getting on in the story, it is quite interesting that this type of Fairy Story seems to be more and more what real life is like. I don't mean all the Fairy elements, with sprites and goblins and giants and enchantments. But when we read stories nowadays, there are certain rules which good literature tends to follow. It has a certain set-up, character development, plot intricacies, climax and resolution - all the important elements of a well-rounded novel that one would want to read again and again and again. But the Fairy story, or the Myth, seems to have a different set of rules, or is, perhaps, disinterested with rules in general. Most of us seem to want our lives to be like the former. The story starts out with a deal of set-up and character development, then our lives get messed up in an intricate web of action, and finally we come to an incredible climax, followed by a grand resolution. And the resolution justifies all that has happened before or in some way redeems it, so then we can look back down the road and say to ourselves, "Yes, it was worth it."
But what if life is more like the fairy story. We're thrown suddenly into a world that doesn't make sense, whose rules we might intuit on some level but are never fully explained nor comprehended. We go from one adventure to the next, all the while hoping that we're making our way to somewhere important, and we pick out people and events that seem to us significant and try to piece together some kind of portrait, but it just keeps going on, sometimes weaving in and out of different places and sometimes coming to very important places in life. But perhaps in life there is no climax, no resolution. Maybe we look back and we can see how some things may have led to where we are now and who we've become, but we still don't understand the rules of how we're to make our choices, but we have to live with the consequences. It's just a strange thing to me.
I especially liked the ending of the book, which seemed to give it some purpose and depth. Anados talks of all that he wanted for himself, how he went out hoping to be somebody, hoping to find and become his "Ideal." And in his adventures he learned that it is better by far to love. He says many things near the end which I find profound, but which are made more so with a full reading of his adventures:
"...for now I could love without needing to be loved again."
"I knew now that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another, yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being beloved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness. I knew that love gives to him that loveth, power over any soul beloved, even if that soul know him not, bringing him inwardly close to that spirit, a power that cannot be but for good, for in proportion as selfishness intrudes, the love ceases, and the power which springs therefrom dies."
And finally, in the last chapter, he states, "I have a strange feeling sometimes that I am a ghost, sent into the world to minister to my fellowmen, or, rather, to repair the wrongs I have already done. May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portiions of it, where my darkness falls not.
Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow."
The book is utterly strange, and I don't know if I recommend it to just anyone. But there are gems in it worth carrying. Several times I considered just putting it down, but in the end I really enjoyed it, and I'm glad I finished it.