On hearing about the impact Phantastes had on CS Lewis, I knew I would have to read it someday. My husband had tried to read it to me, but the “fantastical” side of the myth had me struggling to stay focused (I am one of those who was not raised on fairy tales, and had a practical inclination to the thought that fairy tales had no value or use, especially to a grown up.) But GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and other authors began to slowly introduce new and niggling ideas into my mind… Especially dear practical, logical and commonsensical GK Chesterton:
“Of all forms of literature, it seems to me, fairy tales give the truest picture of life… We learn first and foremost that all doors fly open to courage and hope. We learned that the world is bound together in mysterious bonds of trust and compact and precision, and that even Dragon’s keep their promises.”
A second time, I tried listening to Phantastes, and again the “magic” of the fairies, “magical trees” & the cottage on the edge of Fairy Land continued to elude me. Finally, having passed my 40th birthday and earned my first silver hair, I decided to try again… Surely I was now old enough to read fairy tales? I will not say I was magically enchanted, or that my soul danced along to the tune of Phantastes’ Fairy Land. But I did find I could stay, listen a while longer, and wait for the story unravel and the arrival of the “good stuff” I had been promised. Little by little I began to “see the light” in small glimpses, but then more and more bits, scattered and glowing softly here and there. And soon enough I “got it.” I would not be lying if I said that then my soul did dance, just a little… (and perhaps that last would be the lie). I was so thankful I had waited the story out to the end. Speaking of, I will get to the end of the story (*spoiler alert*), so if you have not yet, I hope you will give yourself the gift of reading Phantastes. Or listen to Phantastes (download the Audiobooks app by Librivox).
Here are some of the pieces that I found beautiful (that are not too long to share), and made me think; not on Fairy Land, but on real life.
“The Soul never speaks until it speaks in poetry… In our daily conversation we do not speak; we only talk.” GK Chesterton
Ere long, I learned that it was not myself, but only my shadow, that I had lost. I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal. Now, however, I took, at first, what perhaps was a mistaken pleasure, in despising and degrading myself. Another self seemed to arise, like a white spirit from a dead man, from the dumb and trampled self of the past. Doubtless, this self must again die and be buried, and again, from its tomb, spring a winged child; but of this my history as yet bears not the record.
Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?
It was evening. The sun was below the horizon; but his rosy beams yet illuminated a feathery cloud, that floated high above the world. I arose, I reached the cloud; and, throwing myself upon it, floated with it in sight of the sinking sun. He sank, and the cloud grew gray; but the grayness touched not my heart. It carried its rose-hue within; for now I could love without needing to be loved again. The moon came gliding up with all the past in her wan face. She changed my couch into a ghostly pallor, and threw all the earth below as to the bottom of a pale sea of dreams. But she could not make me sad. I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being loved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness. I knew that love gives to him that loveth, power over any soul beloved, even if that soul know him not, bringing him inwardly close to that spirit; a power that cannot be but for good; for in proportion as selfishness intrudes, the love ceases, and the power which springs therefrom dies. Yet all love will, one day, meet with its return. All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad. This is possible in the realms of lofty Death. “Ah! my friends,” thought I, “how I will tend you, and wait upon you, and haunt you with my love.”
“O pale-faced women, and gloomy-browed men, and forgotten children, how I will wait on you, and minister to you, and, putting my arms about you in the dark, think hope into your hearts, when you fancy no one is near! Soon as my senses have all come back, and have grown accustomed to this new blessed life, I will be among you with the love that healeth.”
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.
Even yet, I find myself looking round sometimes with anxiety, to see whether my shadow falls right away from the sun or no. I have never yet discovered any inclination to either side. And if I am not unfrequently sad, I yet cast no more of a shade on the earth, than most men who have lived in it as long as I. I have a strange feeling sometimes, that I am a ghost, sent into the world to minister to my fellow men, or, rather, to repair the wrongs I have already done.
May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portions of it, where my darkness falls not.
Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.
When the thought of the blessedness I experienced, after my death in Fairy Land, is too high for me to lay hold upon it and hope in it, I often think of the wise woman in the cottage, and of her solemn assurance that she knew something too good to be told. When I am oppressed by any sorrow or real perplexity, I often feel as if I had only left her cottage for a time, and would soon return out of the vision, into it again. Sometimes, on such occasions, I find myself, unconsciously almost, looking about for the mystic mark of red, with the vague hope of entering her door, and being comforted by her wise tenderness. I then console myself by saying: “I have come through the door of Dismay; and the way back from the world into which that has led me, is through my tomb. Upon that the red sign lies, and I shall find it one day, and be glad.”
I will end my story with the relation of an incident which befell me a few days ago. I had been with my reapers, and, when they ceased their work at noon, I had lain down under the shadow of a great, ancient beech-tree, that stood on the edge of the field. As I lay, with my eyes closed, I began to listen to the sound of the leaves overhead. At first, they made sweet inarticulate music alone; but, by-and-by, the sound seemed to begin to take shape, and to be gradually moulding itself into words; till, at last, I seemed able to distinguish these, half-dissolved in a little ocean of circumfluent tones: “A great good is coming—is coming—is coming to thee, Anodos;” and so over and over again. I fancied that the sound reminded me of the voice of the ancient woman, in the cottage that was four-square. I opened my eyes, and, for a moment, almost believed that I saw her face, with its many wrinkles and its young eyes, looking at me from between two hoary branches of the beech overhead. But when I looked more keenly, I saw only twigs and leaves, and the infinite sky, in tiny spots, gazing through between. Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.
– And so, FAREWELL.
(George MacDonald, Phantastes)