20 November 2011

Phantastes: Love and the "Good Death"

In his introduction to "George MacDonald: An Anthology," C.S. Lewis wrote, “The texture of [MacDonald’s] writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it, there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament…. But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”

As Anodos encounters the danger and wonder of Faerie land and struggles with himself, the reader alternately and sometimes simultaneously experiences his joys, shame, sorrows, and hopes. Despite the weaknesses Lewis describes, or perhaps partially because of them, MacDonald’s work has a certain…Faerie…quality to it. In some ways, it’s not unlike what the protagonist, Anodos, experiences as he reads in the Faerie Queen’s library.

If, for instance, it was a book of metaphysics I opened, I had scarcely read two pages before I seemed to myself to be pondering over discovered truth, and constructing the intellectual machine whereby to communicate the discovery to my fellow men…. Or if the book was one of travels, I found myself the traveller. New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me. I walked, I discovered, I fought, I suffered, I rejoiced in my success…. With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume, I would awake, with a sudden bewilderment, to the consciousness of my present life, recognizing the walls and roof around me, and finding I joyed or sorrowed only in a book.

When first Anodos arrives in Faerie land he only partly sees and vaguely understands its residents. He is cared for, threatened, rescued; he loves at first in a halting, possessive way; and he squanders the benefits others give him. Gradually others become visible to him not for who they are to him but for who they are in themselves; he experiences brotherhood and then humility.

…I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero will barely be a man, that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed my ideal soon became my life, whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal….

Writing of the first time he read Phantastes, C.S. Lewis said,
A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination….

MacDonald does acknowledge the incident of death—the cessation of life—but “good Death” as Anodos comes to long for it embodies the death to self that allows a person to truly and sincerely love. For MacDonald, this love is the preeminent reality of the universe. Thus, Anodos can say, “…I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. 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….”

Anodos’ struggle with himself concerns not survival and achievement but renouncing survival and achievement in order to see himself and his achievements in the context of others, and to measure his actions based on others' good. But MacDonald does something more for the reader. One comes not just to understand Anodos as a character in a story, but in Anodos' heart-wrenching regret and desire to love truly, one sees one's own heart exposed.

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