Phantastes is all about doubling: reflections in mirrors, a cave of making juxtaposed to a grotto of destruction, a loving womanly beech-tree versus a malicious Maiden of the Ash, a bedroom in an ordinary Victorian home and the twin of that bedroom in Fairy Castle. All of these doublings are most fully embodied in the contrast between our world — where the waters reflect but the sky does not — and Fairy Land — where just the opposite is true.

On the day after his 21st birthday, a man named Anodos enters Fairy Land, undergoes many adventures and trials, and returns to his home twenty-one days later — though the period feels to him like twenty-one years, that is, the equivalent of the time he had previously spent in our world. (The one life mirrors the other.) His parents both being dead, he has now, at reaching his majority, become the head of his household:

My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.

These concerns about the effects of such doubling (such “parallel” experiences) are, it seems clear, George MacDonald’s own concerns about the writing of fantasy. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination” MacDonald confesses quite directly a complication in the writing of what we would now call fantasy but when he called (as he himself said, for lack of a better term) fairy tale:

  1. On the one hand, among the literary genres the fairy tale has a unique power to “wake a meaning” in its readers — and this is a great thing. “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” In seeking this effect the writer of a fairy tale is imitating Nature: “The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise.”
  2. On the other hand, there is nothing the writer of the fairy tale could or should do to determine what meaning is awakened in its readers. He says this repeatedly. “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.” To determine that a single meaning be extracted from the tale is to write an allegory, and “a fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.” No, “the greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended,” and therefore the fairy-tale writer must be willing to accept, and indeed must (by opening his mind and spirit) court the uncomprehended. Otherwise, why bother writing a fairy tale?

MacDonald knows that this will not be pleasant news to the didactically inclined. But the didactically inclined are free to work in (and to read) genres other than the fairy tale.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

A work of fantasy, then — in addition to being a firefly, and a wind —, may be described as a mirror, but as with the Mirror of Galadriel, what one sees in it is largely determined by who one is. (And anyway, if G. C. Lichtenberg was right, that’s true of all books without exception: “A book is like a mirror,” he said; “If a jackass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”)

But if this mirror will provide any kind of reflection at all in what Lord Dunsany liked to call “the fields we know,” what’s necessary, MacDonald believes, is a kind of consistency in the imagined world one offers to the reader.

Man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms — which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. […] His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it.

This is obviously an adumbration of Tolkien’s more famous concept of “secondary worlds” — but it is clear (see my previous post on mythopoeic promiscuity) that when MacDonald talks about the “laws” of an imagined world he cannot possibly mean the kind of consistency in world-building that Tolkien so prized, and so lamented the absence of in Lewis’s fiction.

I think the laws that MacDonald refers to are mystical and spiritual, and unconnected altogether to the material furniture of the fictional environment. But I need to think about that further — and about the specific ways that MacDonald’s crazy-quilt fictional world just might possess a consistency that allows it to serve as a useful mirror of our own.