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Two books at the heart of the modern fantasy tradition

I was reminded of George MacDonald’s writing by a friend on Google+, and he has been a great find. I already knew that CS Lewis acknowledged him as a major inspiration, but had not expected to find out just how large an influence he has been on modern fantasy as an entire genre.


I devoured two of his works in rapid succession – Phantastes and Lilith – and found them to have substantial differences as well as similarities. In both cases, MacDonald felt the need to devise a means for his protagonist to make the transition from the world we live in, into the particular fantasy world of the title in question. This is definitely a feature of the era, also seen in some equally inventive traveller’s tales stories of the 19th century which never aspire to magic or the land of Faerie. Many modern authors would probably begin his or her story directly in the other realm, but Lewis used various devices such as the well-known Wardrobe, or the ‘Wood between the Worlds’ to this end. For MacDonald and his contemporaries, the transition, and the relationship between the worlds, was an important ingredient.


Some of MacDonald’s ideas have become so commonplace that some readers may think there is little originality in the books. Tolkien’s ents are here, along with Lewis’s courtly culture and virtues, and just about everyone’s goblins and elves. In common with a great many other writers, the societies are basically medieval in outlook. People ride horses, fight with bladed weapons, and communicate face to face. Limited magical abilities are present, but not as learned talents for just anyone – they are an innate faculty of some beings and inaccessible to others.


Of the two books, Lilith is much more overtly concerned with Christian themes, building on the tradition that the woman of that name was Adam’s first wife. Some familiarity with Christian elaboration of this idea helps, but is not essential, since the tradition MacDonald is using comes from outside the written text of the Bible. His profound commitment to principles of eternal hope and redemption drives the conflicts and resolutions of the book’s characters. Themes of life and death fill the book, together with the Christian duty to lay aside the everyday life in order to put on a new kind of life. It is a duty which comes no more easily to the book’s main character than to any of the rest of us.


Phantastes, subtitled ‘A Faerie Romance for Men and Women‘, is, perhaps, a more conventional fantasy tale. It describes a quest and trial of passage in which the central character has to identify and master his shadow side – just as Ged has to in Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea books. There are mysterious beings, often women, locked inside wood or stone and waiting to be released by the right individual. There are warnings about particular actions or pathways, most of which are ignored by the protagonist who has a rather exaggerated sense not only of his own safety, but also the ability of the wider world to survive his rash deeds unscathed. The theme reaches back to Greek mythology (if not earlier), and forward to our own ecological travails. And finally there is the necessary noble deed which cannot be accomplished except through the gates of death.


The books, especially Phantastes, will not just appeal to fantasy fans, but are also of interest to students of psychology. Some passages anticipate the later formal development of psychotherapeutic understanding. Students of the life and work of, say, Freud and Jung will already know just how much of their thinking rested on earlier foundations laid by artists, philosophers, and authors. Here in 1858 we already have MacDonald writing about the “forgotten life, which lies behind the consciousness”, and the mutual dependence of external objects with the “hidden things of a man’s soul”.

Having said all that, some people will, no doubt, be impatient with these works. For me they were definitely both five star books, not least because many of my favourite authors have so obviously been influenced by them. They have survived over 150 years of literary development remarkably well, but inevitably use some constructions and habits of thought which will seem dated to the modern reader. If you are keen on exploring one of the foundational authors of modern fantasy, and willing to work with the conventions of the 19th century, these books are for you.