A retelling of MacDonald’s Phantastes
George MacDonald’s classic fantasy novel as retold by Mark Worthing.
Stone Table Books, 2016.
Some of my readers may well ask, “George who?” Fortunately, I was aware of who George MacDonald was before I was handed a copy of this book for review. MacDonald’s works usually do not appear on any of those “Best Books of the Week/Month/Year/Century.” His works were first published in the mid-1800s, so there is no surprise to realise that they are not on everyone’s To Read list.
Mark Worthing, the author of this retelling, gives a short introduction to George MacDonald at the beginning of the book. I will give an even shorter introduction. MacDonald’s novel Phantastes was first published in 1858 and is widely regarded as the first modern fantasy novel to be written in English. MacDonald was a Congregational minister, but he did not last long in this role because his theology was at odds with those who employed him. Although he continued in occasional preaching, his main income was derived from his many writings, though he was never really well off.
MacDonald’s contribution to fantasy
Readers should not be put off by MacDonald’s work, especially this title. Many great writers of fantasy have paid tribute to MacDonald for inspiring them to also write fantasy. These include J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, among others. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God, p.26)
The full title of the novel is Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women. This retelling of the original is just called Phantastes. In order to review this reworking of the novel, I felt I should at least attempt to read a part of the original story.
I came with a little trepidation to the original, mindful of the irony of reading it on an eReader – a work first published nearly 160 years ago. I should not have worried. I took to it easily and read right through over only several days. While I found the language somewhat stilted and archaic to my modern ears, I found it relatively easy to read and follow the plot. I had a similar experience several years ago when I read right through Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The many unfamiliar words MacDonald uses were easily located directly from the inbuilt dictionary in eReader. This made understanding the novel so much easier.
Worthing’s modern-day retelling was next on my reading list. Already being familiar with the general gist of the story I breezed through this new work. It is a very enjoyable story which will reward the reader on many levels. At its most basic, one could regard it as a simple quest story. The protagonist, Anodos, is also the narrator of the tale. It is his search for adventure, beauty and love which drives him to explore the Land of Faerie. Many of the classic characters we come to expect in fairy tales are encountered along the journey; fairies of course, goblins, ogres, monsters, dragons, giants, witches, kings, knights, princesses and many more.
Anodos faces many hardships, adventures, narrow escapes and puzzles in his quest to meet the Faerie Queen. Along the way he not only discovers that he has part fairy blood, he also explores what true love is, the many forms of beauty, the power of song and music, and what it takes to be truly brave and sacrificially selfless. Worthing has added a satisfying and romantic ending to the original tale, an ending which is implied but not stated in the MacDonald version.
Before commencing to write this retelling of Phantastes, Worthing realised that many present-day readers struggle with reading MacDonald’s version. He says in the introduction, “When I taught a tertiary level course some years ago on the history of fantasy literature, MacDonald and his novel Phantastes featured prominently. I managed to persuade several students over successive offerings of the course to attempt to read the book. Invariably they came back to me some weeks or months later, admitting defeat.” (p.8) It was this difficulty that was the inspiration for this retelling. The author was determined to keep true to the voice and style of the original, while modernising the language used. I believe that he has been very successful in this aim. The retelling is an easy read, while still capturing the voice of MacDonald. I am familiar with Worthing’s unique style and voice, and he has managed to suppress this in a retelling which beautifully reflects the intentions of the original.
MacDonald included many beautiful passages of poetry which are called songs in the original, some of them many pages long. Some of these can be difficult to read and follow, mainly due to the archaic language used. Worthing has incorporated many of them, many in edited form and some in a much-shortened form. I think he has retained the essence of the original songs, while allowing greater enjoyment and understanding by making the language far more accessible. I should add that this is a general first impression, not as a result of a line by line analysis.
Stories within the novel
MacDonald included a number of short stories within the novel. Chapter 13 includes the story of Cosmo and this is the longest of them. While at first glance this appears to have little bearing on the main plot, an understanding of this tale is essential to the story arc. It is a vital turning point of the story and the concentric nature of the whole work. Worthing has retained a shortened version of Cosmo’s story, and in one of the appendices he has explained the importance of this to the structure of the novel (p. 168 – 171).
There is ample evidence for the outstanding contribution of George MacDonald to the genre we know as fantasy today. His legacy is immense, but his works have largely been ignored by contemporary readers. This is a shame, for he evidently has much to offer, as this retelling bears testimony.
I thoroughly recommend this new version.
Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.
Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.