Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Where to begin? That’s a difficult question to answer, since aside from the character arc, there is almost no plot to George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It is billed as a “faerie romance,” whatever that means, but it was recommended to me by a colleague who compared it favorably to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it is from a time period whose writing I tend to enjoy. That, and the idea of a light, whimsical adventure in Fairy Land, were enough to bump this up in my reading list when I was looking for something refreshing after Plato’s Dialogues.

I can see where there would be a certain resonance perceived with Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, since the road to the land of the fairies in Phantastes also passes through a piece of old furniture, in this case a desk. But it is not a child who discovers it, but a young man inheriting his father’s possessions, and he is then pulled into a wild and disorganized adventure in Fairy Land, which he can apparently reach because he has fairy blood. I thought that his fairy blood would become a major plot point, but it hardly appears again in the story.

In any other book, I would have found the protagonist (the book is written in first person, by the way) extremely frustrating. As you long-time readers know, I tend to prefer books with highly competent characters who are placed in situations that stretch their competencies or force them to work outside of those areas of expertise. Phantastes‘ protagonist seems competent at nothing, not even learning. He seems content to wander around aimlessly, ignoring each and every piece of advice and warning that he receives, blundering from place to place and from problem to problem and from mistake to mistake. Yet, for some reason, it worked here, or at least it worked well enough that I didn’t find myself horribly frustrated.

I suspect it is because the very nature of this book, the way the descriptions are crafted, the way the language flows, the scenes and events to which we as readers are privy, is so thoroughly whimsical, so thoroughly disjointed, that while as a reader I might think that a better decision could be made at any single inflection point, I can no more see a larger plan, and have no more insight into the mysterious workings of Fairy Land, than does our protagonist. Fairy Land is perhaps the very definition of soft magic, for there appear to be no rules whatsoever, or at least, if there are rules, they are completely inscrutable to reader and characters alike.

For a book that has only the barest hints of an overall plot, it manages to evoke incredibly vivid imagery and an astonishing amount of tension. The juxtaposition of the familiar with the alien, and the utter lack of knowledge about the rules shared between the characters and the reader, combine with the masterful prose descriptions to make, for instance, a scene of walking around some rooms with marble statues feel like the tensest moments of action or anticipation in any other novel. This was what propelled me through the book, the way the unplumbable mysteries of Fairy Land contrived with the gorgeous writing to pull me back into the story just when I was beginning to feel that nothing was ever going to happen.

There is some plot, to be fair, though not in a sense to which a reader is likely to be accustomed. If I had to describe the plot, I would say it is the process of the protagonist maturing. Not in the classic, coming-of-age sense, but in a sense that is both deeper and harder to perceive, perhaps most fully embodied by the ending, which I will not spoil here but which straddled the border of whether or not you can get away, in a story like this, with an ending that evokes a sense of “it was only a dream.”

I really don’t know whether to recommend Phantastes or not. It lacks much of what I usually look for in a book, and yet I am glad that I read it. It’s one of those books that stretches your mind by virtue of being so noncompliant. It defies categorization, it is full of tropes and common cultural elements, like the knights of Arthur’s round table, and yet is not tropey at all, and is utterly unpredictable. It reminds me a little, actually, of The Princess Bride, though this is much more cerebral, much more mature. Not in the sense of any vulgarity or other themes that are typically rated as “mature,” but because of how introspective it is. Exploring the depths of Fairy Land is an act more of exploring our own depths as readers than it is anything else. I may not know if I would recommend it, but I can already tell that this is the sort of book that I’ll come back to every decade or so, and I’ll get something completely different out of it each time.

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