A central Christian theme in Phantastes derives from the biblical idea of being strangers and pilgrims in the earth. MacDonald explores what it means to be a stranger as Anodos fluctuates in his pilgrimage between awe and dread throughout Fairy-land, the peculiar land that constitutes the setting of Phantastes. MacDonald conveys Anodos’s ambivalence by the complexity of his response to Fairy-land. Anodos does not seem intimidated either by the strangeness of the place or by his own sometimes blundering efforts to navigate through it. Though some of the forest trees seek his destruction, though the white lady is ever elusive, and though he is trailed by his ominous Shadow self, Anodos continues his pilgrimage in faith and hope.
MacDonald conveys the Christian idea of displacement by showing Anodos’s constant yearning to understand the laws that govern Fairy-land. Though the protagonist is ever the foreigner, often breaking the rules of common sense and even conscience, his quest is unified by his dogged searching, primarily for moral strength within himself. Though he wanders interminably through episode and topography, Anodos’s pursuit is unified by the quest for a better self. Being lost in Fairy-land becomes a metaphor for his being at odds with himself. His quest then for the integrated self is essentially a longing for moral improvement through noble suffering and service.
Phantastes thus illustrates the Christian longing for an integrated self in a state of communion with the deity. Although Anodos struggles throughout against the natural aversion to pain and death, when he finally encounters death it turns out to be a realm of blessed hope. Perhaps because he gives his life fighting for right, he is rewarded with continuing hope. At the end of the novel, as Anodos reflects on his Fairy-land experiences, his recollections of his anguish there are attractive, and Fairy-land’s past delights, remembered inconclusively and in terms of present sadness, are divine. Redemption is thus a central impulse of the novel. Anodos does not finally arrive at unity with God in a beatific sense, but he is no longer a stranger to himself. He concludes that he has found the deeper Fairy-land of the soul and is convinced that a great good awaits him yet.