Friday, June 03, 2005

MacDonald: Phantastes

C.S. Lewis writes that MacDonald had a perfect, which must mean untroubled, relationship with his father when his father lived. That may be why in Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895) the crisis-moment begins soon after the orphaned narrator's investiture in his new estate. Both tales begin with a passing through a state of half dream, half waking: whether hypnagogia ("I awoke one morning with the usual perpexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness") or fictions (the comings and goings of the ghost-librarian). Both adventures are spurred by the discovery in an ancient secretary of a lost father's papers. But the discovery and recapitulation of the father's voyage is the hook. Both stories, again, are stories of big and little people, whether the forest babes of Lilith or the fairy grandmother from the desk chamber. Romantic parity--at least--of childhood and adulthood: "Form is much, but size is nothing," says the wish-granting fairy of Phantastes. We are more like our fathers than we know.

Both stories, again, are located in a wood--the overriding influence may be A Midsummer Night's Dream (from references to a "Midsummer-eve"). And both have strong ambivalences toward women, best symbolized in the white and black leopards, Eve and Lilith.

Phantastes has beautiful metaphors: "as if the darkness had been too long an inmate to be easily expelled..." In the wood Anodos the narrator meets beech-tree who longs to become a woman. Not a child, she nonetheless has a childlike naivete: "For there is an old prophecy in our woods that one day we shall all be men and women like you. Do you know anything about it in your region? Shall I be very happy when I am a woman?" It is a maturation from vegetable nature to spiritual nature: vegetable has something of the meaning it has in Blake. MacDonald's "old prophecy" is the mirror of the dim childhood awareness of the truths of evolution, of manifest society: the child knows she will become a woman; that it will be hoped she marries; soon enough a little, too, of sex as a natural thing. But to the child (for MacDonald) this has the mystery of prophecy. It is perhaps true, but to be true it would require a metamorphosis from beech-tree to human. So perhaps that is the meaning of metamorphosis in the child's fairy-tale, or at least here: It represents the child becoming an adult. Initiation by transmogrification.

That is a protective female: she guards him against ash-trees who are also ogres and spectres. She teaches him better what to desire: "I had often longed for Fairy Land, as she now longed for the world of men. But then neither of us had lived long, and perhaps people grew happier as they grew older. Only I doubted it." The verse-face of the female is the marble lady: vivified from rock, she is less part of nature than the woman within the tree. "Sweet sounds can go where kisses may not enter," Anodos says, and his voice is the charm that reanimates her. Percival's story warns him against the Maiden of the Alder-tree: soon he realizes that like Duessa, like Lilith, the two are one: "It was the Ash-tree. My beauty was the Maid of the Alder!" Later he knows he must leave her but leaves with the paradox of manhood: "I felt, notwithstanding all this, that she was beautiful."

It is the mother-like figure in the cottage to which he returns for rest and reorientation. From which he sallies. Ah childhood. Makes him almost hard to read solemnly. C.S. Lewis tried to, but took away the dubious wisdom that "He who loves, sees" (from his Introduction). That is from a child's tale a child's sagacity. A too easy formula. And a too easy reading of MacDonald. Lewis's wardrobe is MacDonald's closet. The woman warns Anodos: "Everybody's shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you, as every person's is almost certain to do who looks into that closet, especially after meeting one in the forest, whom I dare say you have met." That shadow is the Jacob's angel that Anodos must strive with to overcome; by overcoming it he also throws over the dark half of his love, takes Rachel for Leah; and wins a cupie-doll new identity, Israel. That is the logic of romance. The best passage in the book:
In a few days, I had reason to dread an extension of its baleful influences from the fact, that it was no longer confined to one position in regard to myself. Hitherto, when seized with an irresistable desire to look on my evil demon (which longing would unaccountably seize me at any moment, returning at longer or shorter intervals, sometimes every minute), I had to turn my head backwards, and look over my shoulder; in which position, as long as I could retain it, I was fascinated. But one day, having come out on a clear grassy hill, which commanded a glorious prospect, though of what I cannot now tell, my shadow moved round, and came in front of me. And, presently, a new manifestation increased my distress. For it began to coruscate, and shoot out on all sides a radiation of dim shadow. These rays of gloom issued from the dark central shadow as from a black sun, lengthening and shortening with continual change. But wherever a ray struck, that part of earth, or sea, or sky, became void, and desert, and sad to my heart. On this, the first development of its new power, one ray shot out beyond the rest, seeming to lengthen infinitely until it smote the great sun on the face, which withered and darkened beneath the blow. I turned away and went on. The shadow retreated to its former position; and when I looked again, it had drawn in all its spears of darkness, and followed like a dog at my heels.
That shadow-self is Anodos's imagination. Consider the tale, read by him in an antique volume, of one Cosmo. A passage: "Most men have a secret treasure somewhere. The miser has his golden hoard; the virtuoso his pet ring; the student his rare book; the poet his favourite haunt; the lover his secret drawer; but Cosmo had a mirror with a lovely lady in it. And now that he knew by the skeleton, that she was affected by the things around her, he had a new object in life: he would turn the bare chamber in the mirror into a room such as no lady need disdain to call her own." That mirror is a metaphor for the imagination (MacDonald tells us as much), and later we learn: "But, alas! he loved a shadow." Yet "He never doubted, all the time, that she was a real earthly woman; or, rather, that there was a woman, who, somehow or other, threw this reflection of her form into the magic mirror." She is double. To free her (and himself, since "she--alone and altogether--was his universe") he must revolt, cast a spell, use an "unlawful" power. She is a slave to the mirror, it is revealed after she corporealizes, and when he tries to destroy the mirror they, she and the mirror, both vanish. Cosmo becomes as a ghost. Arching over the rest of the tale is the lore of Sleeping Beauty. Except that in exchange for her freedom in the end he sacrifices his life.

Anodos releases the lady inscribed in the block of marble, except that once out of her bas-relief prison she cries "You should not have touched me!" (It is often hard not to wonder what MacDonald's sexual relations were like.) Such is the terror of virginity. Her immobility, her ability to be imaginatively apprehended, gave him a sense of possession of her. After setting her free he says: "I no longer called her to myself my white lady." When Anodos is knighted his shadow vanishes. So that in the end, "I was dead, and right content." Immortality is the promise of death: "It was not that I had in any way ceased to be what I had been." "'Ah! my friends,' thought I, 'how I will tend you, and wait upon you, and haunt you with my love.'"

These books are a compendium of fairy devices. MacDonald makes use of the fairy-tale relic enchanted after a condition: Percival's armor, for instance. Revivifying water. The doppelgaenger of his own real room in fairyland. The tower that cages the hero.

MacDonald writes here covertly of God: "They who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men, are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law. All that man sees has to do with man. Worlds cannot be without an intermundane relationship...Else a grander idea is conceivable than that which is already imbodied." (So much this sounds like Blake!--his logic by which man is the highest conceivable by man, man both the cup and its capaciousness.) Also in the sci-fi of H.G. Wells, there is the sense of man as measure of all things. That is the condition and meaning of good fantasy.

The danger of fantasy is that it may approach too close to allegory: a mere retelling of a doctrine, Gnosticism told in other names. Phantastes fails because it is too strictly a translation of timeworn truths. Reading it is in this like reading Frye. Frye's thesis that literature is the record of identity lost and gathered again is also MacDonald's: "Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?" Criticism exists to find these cached doubloons, to pull them out and burnish them new.

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