the buffered self in Fairy Land

A number of years ago I wrote an essay called “Fantasy and the Buffered Self” in which I applied Charles Taylor’s distinction between “porous” and “buffered selves” to the question of why fantasy is such a popular genre in our putatively disenchanted age. There’s a wonderful illustration of this distinction in Chapter VIII of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. Wandering in the woods of what he believes to be Fairy Land, our protagonist Anodos comes across a farmhouse into which he is welcomed by a kindly woman. Anodos tells her is his frightening experiences in the mysterious forest, and she replies, 

“It is just as I feared, … but you are now for the night beyond the reach of any of these dreadful creatures. It is no wonder they could delude a child like you. But I must beg you, when my husband comes in, not to say a word about these things; for he thinks me even half crazy for believing anything of the sort. But I must believe my senses, as he cannot believe beyond his, which give him no intimations of this kind. I think he could spend the whole of Midsummer-eve in the wood and come back with the report that he saw nothing worse than himself. Indeed, good man, he would hardly find anything better than himself, if he had seven more senses given him.” 

Anodos meets this (as it were) well-buffered farmer, who is openly skeptical of any hint that there are strange creatures in the forest — “It is only trees and trees, till one is sick of them” — and then is put to bed in a room that looks not into the forest but across a plain open field. 

I was somewhat sorry not to gather any experience that I might have, of the inhabitants of Fairy Land; but the effect of the farmer’s company, and of my own later adventures, was such, that I chose rather an undisturbed night in my more human quarters; which, with their clean white curtains and white linen, were very inviting to my weariness.

In the morning I awoke refreshed, after a profound and dreamless sleep. The sun was high, when I looked out of the window, shining over a wide, undulating, cultivated country. Various garden-vegetables were growing beneath my window. Everything was radiant with clear sunlight. The dew-drops were sparkling their busiest; the cows in a near-by field were eating as if they had not been at it all day yesterday; the maids were singing at their work as they passed to and fro between the out-houses: I did not believe in Fairy Land. 

Exhausted by his own porosity, Anodos seeks some protective buffers, some “more human quarters,” to shield him from his “own later [i.e. recent] adventures.” Seek and you shall find — even deep in the heart of Fairy Land.