The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

On the night of his twenty-first birthday, Anodos (“the way up”) is shown the way into Fairy Land. He confesses to an early interest in such places and is clearly in search of the spiritual essence behind reality, longing for a sense of completion and an acceptance of self.

Anodos is aided on his way by kind and wise cottagers, who provide safe havens on his journey to wisdom. The woods are sometimes his helper, sometimes his foe; he must learn discernment within them. Like many others on such a quest, he is often a slow learner.

It slowly becomes clear to Anodos that the world offers him a place of importance and honor if he can only learn to be ready to accept it. It is his concern with self that stands in the way.

Anodos arrives at a palace reserved for him only, and there he learns to rest and be taught by quiet, exterior events. He encounters a library with books that are so powerful that they almost take him into themselves. He becomes their virtual hero, fully engaged in their action. One book in particular initiates him into new and vital knowledge. In it, Anodos reads of a young man who obtains a mirror with a beautifully carved frame and, it soon becomes apparent, magical powers. In the young man’s yearning and his attempts to attain the Ideal, Anodos finds his spiritual counterpart. He learns for the first time the high price that must be paid for the Ideal: denial of the self.

The rest of Anodos’ journey takes him further into this wisdom. He is called on to witness others in self-sacrifice, is invited to be an advocate on behalf of hostages held captive by giants, must slay a ferocious wolf that represents all evils, and ultimately must himself die to preserve the lives of others. In every case, he is called upon to enter fully into fear, loss, or sadness before he can understand it and learn from it. When the quest is complete, Anodos awakens in his well-known home environment. He lives once again in the real world, but it is now imbued with the Ideal. The real and the ideal are one because of the risks he has taken and the wisdom he has won.


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Sources for Further Study

Gaarden, Bonnie. “Cosmic and Psychological Redemption in George MacDonald’s Lilith.” Studies in the Novel 37, no. 1 (Spring, 2005): 20-36. Gaarden applies Jungian psychology to Phantastes’ sister volume, Lilith (1895), examining Christian redemption in that novel.

Gray, William N. “George MacDonald, Julia Kristeva, and the Black Sun.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 36, no. 4 (Autumn, 1996): 877. Gray reads Phantastes through the lens of critic Julia Kristeva, focusing on the opening of the novel and Anodos’s journey into Fairy-land.

MacDonald, Greville. George MacDonald and His Wife. 1924. Reprint. Whitehorn, Calif.: Johannesen, 1998. The essential biography by MacDonald’s son. Besides giving invaluable historical background, it traces the development and relationship of both MacDonald’s faith and his fiction.