Phantastes By George MacDonald The Literary Art of Myth-Making

Synopsis Excerpt: At times almost forthrightly allegorical, at other times richly dreamlike (and indeed having a close connection to the symbolic world of dreams), this story of a young man who finds himself on a long journey through a land of fantasy is more truly the story of the spiritual quest that is at the core of his life’s work, a quest that must end with the ultimate surrender of the self.


For the Writer: In his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, C.S. Lewis makes a distinction between word craft and myth making. Lewis grades George MacDonald ‘word smith’ as having “no place in its first rank – perhaps not even in its second,” though elevates the author as being “better than any man” at myth-making; I presume he also meant any woman. Sorry female wordsmiths.  Lewis wrote that in the nineteen forties.


“The critical problem,” Lewis elaborates, “with which we are confronted is whether this art – the art of myth-making – is a species of the literary art.”


With some irony, Lewis writes on defending myth-making as possibly an overlooked and elevated art form in and of itself, a genre, if you like, akin to poetry or more comparable to music.


I say irony, because Lewis proposes that with ‘myth’ its reader does not essentially need words at all. It is the unfolding of events that is paramount. Once the myth, couched or woven through a series of events has been ingested, the words perhaps, can be tossed. But when is a story not in essence a myth?


town-musicians-of-bremen-41647_1280Perhaps when it is short like Animal Farm or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or when it is comical like The Bremen Town Musicians; or more modern, such as Lewis’s own work or that of Madeleine L’Engle; or perhaps when it is a children’s picture book, only then are the works not mythic literary art. Chicken Little, anyone?


I propose the wresting of myth out of the embrace of writing prowess in answer to ‘is it art?’ is impossible; and second, the attempt creates somewhat of a false dichotomy. Impossible as is its distinction in paintings when we ask, ‘Is it art?’ We all know where that debate ends; there is great art or bad art or anything-in-between art, but it’s all art. The same can be said for works of literary art.  And false because the two components are inextricably mingled. It really is revisiting the old debate of form and content.


Take Aesop as an example: Aesop as form and Aesop as content. Renditions of his fables have been told for ages and some better written than Aesop originals. How can one say that Aesop is somewhat lighter on the literary scale compared to some of the heavy weights of his time, such as Sophocles and what is regarded as his masterpiece Oedipus the King? Is it because Aesop’s language is too simple, or because Aesop’s fables are really, really short? As a genre, Aesop’s fables are not myth, they are fables, but they are mythic.


If one were to use a definition of myth that meets a number of specific criteria: It must be traditional or legendary; It must concern some being or hero; the hero must engage obstacles and beings (gods or demigods) through a series of events; and it must explain some practice, rite or phenomenon of nature; then the discussion becomes one of genre and not of ‘literary art’. One might ask what is of more value, the telling, or the content and the wisdom within it?


What George MacDonald needed in Lilith and Phantastes was not a debate over the merits of his work as literary art, so much as a ruthless and disciplined editor. Lewis alludes to that when he writes about outstanding passages in MacDonald’s work, noting “the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long.” Many if not all of Lewis criticisms of MacDonald’s work immediately following, which were very accurate from my reading, would, with the help of an adroit editor, have been expunged.


If ever a cliché metaphor can be applied, Lilith and Phantastes are diamonds in the rough, in need of cleaving, bruiting and polishing certainly, but bona fide, timeless and quintessential works of art nevertheless.


For more discussion on this topic, see Lilith: The Art of Myth

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