This book, first published in 1858, is supposed to have inspired the genre of modern fantasy, through its impact on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (who both brought fantasy back into vogue); C.S. Lewis described it as baptising his imagination. Therefore, when I saw it among Amazon Kindle’s free books I immediately bought it!
I’ve just finished reading it and, honestly, was rather disappointed. I was hoping for something that combined the appeal of Narnian magic with the style of nineteenth-century novels. However, Phantastes is almost structure-less, often rather rambling, and the world is not explained in much depth. There are some interesting ideas and moments, akin to Grimm or Andersen’s fairy tales, or the legends of King Arthur: the bedroom that grows into a wood; the malevolent shadow that accompanies the protagonist; the Bodleian-esque library of the fairy palace; the coldly seductive beauty of the evil lady who will not be touched. But these are buried in a misshapen narrative. And I found MacDonald’s frequent, lengthy, rather twee poems sufficiently unappealing that my heart sunk a bit every time another one appeared! On the level merely of a fantasy novel, I wouldn’t particularly recommend this one. His The Princess and the Goblin (though for children) has greater charm and a more gripping storyline.
There is a possibility, though, that Phantastes has a deeper, coherent theological message that I’m missing. MacDonald was a believer in universal salvation, and perhaps this work could be read as explaining his soteriology (like an alter Pilgrim’s Progress). There are certainly moments of thought-provoking theological reflection, such as the last line: ‘What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.’ Is all evil merely permitted to function for the purpose of human good? Or, conversely, does some evil exist not for our good, but to permit the exercise of free-will by fallen angels? I’m not sure; but at points MacDonald’s comments prompt some deep musings.