The mythological basis and the concept of death in the novel ‘Phantastes’ by George MacDonald

By the end of the nineteenth century, in connection with the crisis of positivism, interest in myth has returned to the romantic tradition (Neo-Romanticism). On the basis of Nietzsche’s philosophy and Wagner’s theories, a new concept of myth and myth-making arises, based on the ideas of irrationalism, intuitionism, pantheism, and the synthesis of art. The literature of modernism is characterized by high intellectuality, the synthesis of art and philosophy, and the rethinking of mythological subjects and images (Joyce, Kafka, Mann). The art abandons the attempt to create a value mythopoetic mode of the world; the only value is the freedom of self- expression of the artist. The literature of postmodernism views myth as a text, uses mythological motifs and images as receptions (allusion, reminiscence), accentuating the thought of the author in the framework of intellectual games with the reader (Updike, Eco). However, the trend continues from the nineteenth century onwards – the creation of fantasy literature, in which the author’s mythopoetic model of the world is embodied. The appeal of the writer and reader to fantasy becomes a peculiar way of escaping from chaos, the relativism of modernity into a harmonious, axiologically ordered world of myth.

The modern myth (neo-myth), in terms of semiotics, is a secondary sign system; it unlike the archaic, is not perceived as the only and true reality. The modern myth offers alternative versions of the world, appeals not only to collective, but also to individual experience. The modern myth, according to Barthes can be built on the basis of any meaning; not only cultural universals are mythologized, but also the realities of everyday life, historical personalities and events. MacDonald’s novels express the idea of desacralization, deneutralization and deheroization of the mythological content. The aim of this essay is to determine why Macdonald incorporates in his narrative the myth of the eternal return and by which means he does that. It will also focus on how the concept of death is perceived by Macdonald, who was strongly influenced by Novalis’s philosophy.

The myth of the eternal return in the novel Phantastes by George MacDonald

The term ‘eternal return’ reflects the mythological perception of the world as a cycle of recurring events. Mircea Eliade in the monograph The Myth of the Eternal Return writes that the life of primitive society is determined by natural cycles, in particular, by the change of the time of the year. Accordingly, time in the mythological consciousness of archaic man is divided into closed cycles, which is reflected in calendar myths7 and ritual practice. The function of the ritual consists in eliminating the flow of specifically historical (‘profane’) time and replacing it with the time of tradition (‘sacred time’). Perception of time as a cyclical phenomenon avoids the ‘terror of history’ (all events are justified, and the existence of people acquires ‘metaphysical significance’).

The mythological idea of eternal return had a significant impact on the development of philosophical and religious thought. The Stoics created the doctrine of an endless and precise repetition of the same world, with the same people and events; Plato interpreted history as a circular movement, similar to the motion of celestial bodies and the rotation of the whole cosmos. In Christianity, there is a perception of the finiteness of history, the linear course of time, associated with the interpretation of the myth of the death and resurrection of Christ as a unique event.10 Gurevich notes that time in Christianity has not got rid of cyclism, only its understanding has changed radically. Earth history, taken as a whole, in the framework formed by the creation of the world and its end, is a complete cycle: man and the world return to the Creator, time returns to eternity’.

The eternal return is one of the key ideas of Nietzsche’s philosophy of life, which means the highest form of being of all that exists. All events are repeated periodically: ‘all things return forever and we ourselves together with them […] we already existed an infinite number of times and all things together with us’ (Nietzsche and Metcalf p. 210-211) . On the one, this idea condemns man to exist without a final goal. On the other hand, this idea gives an enduring character and value to every moment of life due to its eternal return.

The ancient myth is rethought in art and turns into a detailed metaphor. MacDonald used in the creation of his works Greek, Egyptian, Biblical myths, which served as a basis for his own myth-making. MacDonald’s Phantastes, tells how a young man named Anodos unexpectedly wakes up in the Fairy Land and travels around it. On the road, the hero meets various people and magical beings; has lots of adventures which have a definite effect on his personality. In the finale, Anodos dies and wakes up in the earthly world, draws conclusions about the experience gained. The novel is saturated with mythological images. Soto writes about this novel that ‘it is an imaginative yet thorough, literary mythic-religious underground adventure into the very heart of ancient rituals and beliefs’ (Soto, 24).

MacDonald was well acquainted with the ancient Greek culture and mythology. The name of the novel Phantastes is borrowed from the epic poem of Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene. Soto points out that the ancient Greek word ‘phantastes’ is translated as ‘one who makes a parade, a boaster’. The meanings of the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘phantastes’ are reflected in the plot: once in the Fairy Land, the protagonist undergoes a series of tests and gets rid of pride and vanity. The name of the protagonist Anodos is also Greek in origin (ἄνοδος), it has several meanings: ‘roadless’, ‘climbing’, ‘ascension’ etc. All these meanings are realized in the plot (Anodos wanders around the Fairy Land and returns home, enriched with an important spiritual experience). The ancient Greek word ἄνοδος in the sense of ‘ascension’ is used to denote a cyclical resurrection or return of the goddesses of earth, a process parallel to the annual awakening of nature from winter sleep. The natural forces in the myth have an anthropomorphic character – there are narratives about goddesses, gods and mortals descending into the realm of the dead and returning from there (the myths about Persephone, Demeter, Dionysus etc.). The name of Anodos is consonant with the name of Adonis – according to the Greek mythology, was the name of the beautiful youth in whom the goddess Aphrodite was in love. When Adonis died prematurely, Zeus, taking pity on the grief of Aphrodite, ordered Hades to let him out annually from the realm of the dead. The connection between Anodos and Adonis is also emphasized on a figurative level: both heroes have a symbol – a flower that withers in early spring. The symbol of Adonis is an anemone (accordingly, Adonis is one of the gods of the vegetative cycle) and the symbol of Anodos is a primrose: ‘I could manifest myself in the primrose’ (Phantastes). Anodos witnesses the solemn ‘funeral’ of primrose, on which the fairies sing a ritual song about ‘sleep death’ until spring. Therefore, can be discussed about the mytheme ‘Anodos’ in the system of the mythopoetic work, i.e. about the mythological name of the hero, which contains both a mythological image and a mythological plot.

In the novel Phantastes everything indicates that Anodos falls into the realm of death: the creek that needs to be crossed, the twilight, the mysterious forest, the constant sense of someone else’s presence (ghosts and shadows). Soon Anodos tries the food of the Fairy Land and begins to feel ‘attached’ to this world, to discern distinctly human figures, and to understand birds singing: ‘I found plenty of food in the forest […] for it not only satisfied my hunger, but operated in such a way upon my senses that I was brought into far more complete relationship with the things around me’ (Phantastes). The idea of joining the afterlife through the eating of the food is found in myths. For example, in the ancient Greek myth of the abduction of Persephone by Hades: ‘But he [Hades] gave her to eat a honey-sweet pomegranate seed, stealthily passing it around her, lest she once more stay forever by the side of revered Demeter of the dark robe’ (Agga-Jaffar, 48). Anodos repeatedly speaks of his love for nature, for the earth: ‘Earth drew me towards her bosom; I felt as if I could fall down and kiss her’ (Phantastes). According to Soto, the role of Anodos is to bring to light the goddesses of the annual spring renewal of the earth, embodied in various female characters. The scholar identifies several ‘ascensions’ (ἄνοδος), of the goddesses in the novel. Firstly, it is the ‘ascension’ of Cybele – the Greek statuette comes to life, it seems to be the grandmother of the protagonist and forbids him to touch her (reference to the myth about Cybele and Attis). Secondly, the ‘ascension’ of Persephone – a girl with a bouquet of wild flowers who wanders in the forest, and then returns to her mother, who she was looking for (reference to the myth of Persephone and Demeter). Thirdly, the ‘ascension’ of Eurydice – the song of the protagonist awakens the lady of the marble from dead sleep (reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice). Fourthly, the ‘ascension’ of Isis – the protagonist revives the lady of the marble again with the help of a song that removes from the statue the ‘invisible veil’ (reference to the myth of the veil of Isis). In addition, the protagonist during his journey also experiences a number of deaths and revivals.

The storyline of Anodos and the marble lady is one of the central themes in the novel. He revives the beautiful statue with his song, but the girl immediately leaves the hero, and his future path through the Fairy Land is determined by the search for the beloved. Without her, for Anodos ‘life hath forsook the upper sky, and all the outer world hath died’ (Phantastes). The plot of the vegetation myth, as Soto writes, has the following composition: the beginning is the episode of disappearance and separation, the middle – the search and the end – the finding. Anodos twice finds, animates and loses the marble lady which is due to the mirror structure of the novel. The reader notes that in the storyline of Anodos and the marble lady, MacDonald creatively joins the myth of Pygmalion and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

One of the epigraphs to the fifth chapter, in which Anodos brings the marble lady back to life, is a quote from Thomas Lovell Beddoes’s Pygmalion. Once inside the cave, Anodos sees a bas-relief depicting ‘Pygmalion, as he awaited the quickening of his statue’ (Phantastes). If in the myth of Pygmalion, the statue is made of white ivory, in the novel Phantastes the statue is made of white marble. As in the myth, the novel emphasizes the extraordinary similarity of the statue with the living girl, its extraordinary beauty. Anodos sees in her an ideal that, from birth, lurked in his soul. Like Pygmalion, Anodos kisses the beautiful statue, but the statue remains motionless. Then the protagonist remembers the myth of Orpheus ‘and the following stones […] sweet sounds can go where kisses may not enter’ (Phantastes). In the ancient Greek myth, Orpheus tries to rescue Eurydice from the realm of death with the help of music. In Phantastes, the marble lady is also in a state of dead sleep, and Anodos suggests that the girl can be revived by a song. Despite the fact that the hero, by his own admission, cannot sing, having tasted food and water of the Fairy Land, he receives a musical gift. Words and melody themselves come to Anodos’s mind, and he brings to life the girl. Thus, Anodos takes on the role of a mythological poet-singer (another character, Knight, calls him ‘singer’). The poet in mythology is the mediator between the earthly and the spiritual world, whereas the ‘poeticness’ arises only in a certain space determined by such extreme state as creation and destruction. Anodos’s song frees the marble lady and gives her life. It should be noted that in the protagonist, the blood of fairies flows, which, along with the food of the Fairy Land, determines his magical abilities. Later Anodos finds the marble lady in the form of an invisible statue and again with the help of the song frees her. This time he plays the harp and sings about the heavenly soul in a beautiful body and the song removes from the statue the ‘invisible veil’. The chapter begins with the phrase ‘what song should I sing to unveil my Isis, if indeed she was present unseen?’ (Phantastes). In ancient Egyptian mythology, the veil of Isis symbolizes the innermost secrets of nature, of life itself. However, Anodos interrupts singing and firmly embraces the girl, consciously violating the prohibition to touch the statue. As in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the violation leads to the loss of the lover (the marble lady leaves Anodos forever).

The myth of eternal return in the structure of the novel is realized not only at the level of the plot about the ‘ascension’ of the goddesses of the vegetative cycle. Even at the beginning of the journey the inhabitants of the Fairy Land shouts to Anodos: ‘Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end’ (Phantastes). When the lady of the beech- tree gives the main character a song-spell, he sees his life in the symbolic image of the seasons. After wandering around for a while in the Fairy Land, enriched by a new experience, Anodos falls asleep deeply, and his awakening is described as a ‘return to life’: ‘I rose as from the death that wipes out the sadness of life, and then dies itself in the new morrow’ (Phantastes). Further, Anodos is in a deserted palace, in a room exactly like the one from which he entered the Fairy Land. In the palace, Anodos reads books and feels like a literary hero:

New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me […] Was it a history? I was the chief actor therein […] With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume (Phantastes).

For Anodos, every book is a small life with its own death, new knowledge and experience. At the same time, his own life is an interpretation of the knightly novel that he reads in the Fairy Land. He identifies himself with the knight and after completing the feat wears a knight’s armour. Lotman writes that the mythological consciousness is characterized by the idea of the world as a book, when cognition is equated with reading based precisely on the mechanism of transcripts and identifications. The novel Phantastes is filled with intertext: numerous epigraphs, mythological, folklore and literary images that set the vector of reader interpretation.

In the compositional centre of the novel there are two ‘plug-in’ stories – the retelling of the books read by Anodos in the Fairy Land. The first book tells of a world ‘that is not like ours’ (Phantastes). In this world, the feeling of love dooms young men and women to death: love is ‘an indescribable longing for something, they know not what’ (Phantastes). But then, according to Anodos, those who truly love, are born again in the earthly world and if they manage to find each other, they find happiness. In the same book it is told about the girl who went in search of spring and after long wanderings, having found the first snowdrop in the forest, she died. Anodos is sure that soon a girl, similar to a snowdrop, will be born in the earthly world. The same myth of eternal return is used in the prophecy, about which says the lady of the beech-tree: ‘for there is an old prophecy in our woods that one day we shall all be men and women like you’ (Phantastes). The second book is devoted to the mystical history of a Prague student named Cosmo. Anodos speaks of this book: ‘while I read it, I was Cosmo, and his history was mine. Yet, all the time, I seemed to have a kind of double consciousness, and the story a double meaning’ (Phantastes). The parallel between Anodos and Cosmo can be traced on the plot and imaginative levels: both heroes are young men in love with the enchanted beautiful girl, similar to a marble statue that cannot be touched. The feeling of heroes evolves from the proprietary desire for possession to disinterested love. Both heroes release the beloved from the spell and die in battle. Despite various external circumstances, the life experience of Anodos and Cosmo is surprisingly similar, which emphasizes the mythological theme of eternal return.

Having lost the marble lady, Anodos tries to commit suicide. Failing in his attempt, he finds a boat that takes him to a new heaven – an island with a hut. The mistress of the house is a kind old woman, who mysteriously speaks of herself: ‘I have not been buried for a hundred years now’ (Phantastes). She takes care of Anodos, and he dreams that it will last forever: ‘I felt as if she could give me everything I wanted; as if I should never wish to leave her, but would be content to be sung to and fed by her, day after day, as years rolled by’ (Phantastes). Here, the woman who feeds Anodos is an archetypal image of the Great Mother.

In the hut, Anodos goes through portal doors, each time returning to the significant events of his life. The first return occurs through the ‘door of tears’ where he re-experiences the death of his brother. The hero notices: ‘Amidst the horror of the moment, a strange conviction flashed across my mind, that I had gone through the very same once before’ (Phantastes). The second return occurs though the ‘door of sighs’: Anodos finds out that the Knight (he met before) becomes the lover of the marble lady. The third return occurs through the ‘door of confusion’. Anodos enters the house of the former lover, then appears in the temple and in the family crypt. He returns to the hostess of the hut and, despite her prohibition, passes through the ‘door of timelessness’. What was behind this door remains a mystery for both the hero and the reader. These four episodes have an important influence on Anodos (having experienced suffering and despair, he returns spiritually renewed). The landlady commits a rite over Anodos, similar to the washing of the deceased, and sends the hero on the road, noticing that he will return to her.

Further, Anodos, along with the two named brothers, heroically deals with the giants. The battle, as well as a long and careful preparation for it, has an explicit reference to the initiation rite. It is known that the calendar myths are often associated with initiation rites. Being proud of the victory, Anodos is literally imprisoned in the prison of his vanity. He is rescued by a resident of the Fairy Land – a woman releases him from the tower with the help of a song in which there is a reference to the theme of eternal return: the call to ‘come into the house, so high and wide’ (Phantastes) from ‘the narrow desert, O man of pride’ (Phantastes). This episode mirrors the liberation of Anodos of the marble lady from the stone captivity. In addition, Anodos is rescued by a woman whom he once badly offended, and now his spiritually matured character has a feeling of deep repentance and sincere gratitude and for her part, the woman-saviour experienced a spiritual evolution; the suffering helped her to find happiness in serving people.

Later, Anodos witnesses the ritual of sacrifice. Trying to thwart the course of the ceremony, Anodos kills the wolf and dies himself. The violent death of the hero and his revival in the image of a flower again refers to the myth of Adonis. The whole chapter is devoted to the description of the feelings and thoughts of the deceased hero. In Anodos’s reflections of death, the reader can single out a direct reference to the myth of eternal return:

The very fact that anything can die, implies the existence of something that cannot die; which must either take to itself another form, as when the seed that is sown dies, and arises again; or, in conscious existence, may, perhaps, continue to lead a purely spiritual life. If my passions were dead, the souls of the passions, those essential mysteries of the spirit which had imbodied themselves in the passions, and had given to them all their glory and wonderment, yet lived, yet glowed, with a pure, undying fire (Phantastes).

The myth and ritual of the calendar type are transformed into a kind of eschatology expressing the hope for the immortality of the soul. Anodos feels himself part of the natural world, a child in the womb of the Mother Earth:

Now that I lay in her bosom, the whole earth, and each of her many births, was as a body to me, at my will. I seemed to feel the great heart of the mother beating into mine, and feeding me with her own life, her own essential being and naturen(Phantastes).

Death in the mythological consciousness is ‘the beginning’; a temporary stage on the way home (Anodos wakes up in the terrestrial world). The idea of death as returning home repeatedly arises in the novel, for example: when the wise old woman talks about meeting with relatives after death or in one of the books read by the protagonist where people before death are looking for a place, similar to where they were born. Anodos reunites with the family, but in the final episode of the novel again there is the theme of eternal return. Anodos is in a field with reapers, resting in the shade of the lady of the beech-tree and hears the voice of a wise old woman about the coming good. The image of harvest is connected with the myth of the dying and resurrecting god – the departure and return of the hero or his death and resurrection guarantee cosmic order and harvest. In particular, the cult of Adonis, as James George Frazer points out, was associated with cereals. The death of Adonis does not symbolize the natural withering of vegetation in summer heat and winter cold, but the violent death of cereals by the hand of man.

The myth of eternal return in the novel does not only send the reader to the ancient myths about the cyclical awakening and ascension of the vegetative goddesses and gods from the underworld. It shows that the journey of Anodos to the Fairy Land is a path of self- improvement, determined by the cycle of spiritual deaths and revivals of the hero. In the course of the whole journey, Anodos pursues his own shadow, personifying pride, vanity and utilitarianism. Disposal from the shadow becomes possible only after eating the ‘sweetness of humility’:

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. (Phantastes).

Returning home, Anodos realizes his adventures in the Fairy Land as an important spiritual experience:

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. (Phantastes).

The concept of death in MacDonald and Novalis’s perception

In the novel Phantastes a deep philosophical understanding receives the theme of death. Significant influence on the world outlook and the artistic world of the writer was provided by the works of early German romantics, especially Novalis who was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Fichte, Böhme and the Christian doctrine of pietism. Under the influence of the philosophy of Novalis, MacDonald develops a special conception of death, which is most vividly realized in the novel Phantastes. Death in the concept of MacDonald can be conditionally divided into ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’. In the novel appears the image of the shadow as the absolutization of death in the meaning of existence without life:

The flowers on the spot where I had lain were crushed to the earth: but I saw that they would soon lift their heads and rejoice again in the sun and air. Not so those on which my shadow had lain. The very outline of it could be traced in the withered lifeless grass, and the scorched and shrivelled flowers which stood there, dead, and hopeless of any resurrection. (Phantastes).

‘Relative’ death is conceptualized ethically (this is the stage of spiritual metamorphosis, self- improvement). Anodos undergoes several spiritual deaths:

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. (Phantastes).

‘Relative’ death is perceived as a joyful event. It is known that both Novalis and MacDonald have repeatedly spoken about the desire of their own death. In Phantastes, the protagonist gradually comes to the festive perception of death: ‘The hot fever of life had gone by, and I breathed the clear mountain-air of the land of Death. I had never dreamed of such blessedness’ (Phantastes).

In pietism, death is conceptualized as a mystical union of the bride with the bridegroom, that is, the human soul with Christ. Instead of fear of death, the pietist feels joy, anticipates the bliss of the wedding night. Novalis transforms the idea of a mystical wedding in the following way: for him, death is a long-awaited reunion with a beloved lover. This idea can be found in MacDonald’s novel:

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.” (Phantastes).

In the poetic cycle Hymns to the Night, Novalis interprets death as the end of the earthly journey, returning home to the ‘father’, that is, to God:

Blessed be the everlasting Night, / And blessed the endless slumber. / We are heated by the day too bright, / And withered up with care. / We’re weary of a life abroad, / And we now want our Father’s home.’ (Novalis).

For MacDonald, death is also a return home, to God. In Phantastes, the old woman goes to Anodos:

So wilt thou sink, all pale and dumb, / Into the fainting gloom; / But ere the coming terrors come, / Thou wak’st—where is the tomb? / Thou wak’st—the dead ones smile above, / With hovering arms of sleepless love.’ (Phantastes).

The Scottish writer creatively develops the idea of death as a transcendence, a mysterious transition from one stage of spiritual development to another, from earthly existence to a new, true life. According to Novalis and MacDonald, death is a long-awaited reunion with loved ones and a joyful return home, to God, where the eternal true being of man as a whole person and the world as an ideal reality begins.


In summary, the myth of the eternal return in MacDonald’s novel is realized at the level of the plot and images of vegetative mythology, in the episodes of the hero’s return to the past, the re-experience of suffering and in the motive of characters’ mutual influence on personal development. MacDonald refers to the myth for the translation of fundamentally important ethical aesthetic, philosophical and religious ideas. The reader can single out a complex of ethical ideas: the need to overcome selfishness and get rid of vices, self-improvement throughout life and mutual assistance in moral formation. Aesthetic ideas are associated with the understanding of art as a means of knowing the world and oneself, the importance of the role of imagination, fantasy in the spiritual development of man. The author also includes a number of philosophical ideas: death as a transitional stage to a new life, the essential unity of man and nature, the interconnection of parallel worlds through reincarnation. The novel embodies the religious ideas of spiritual development through suffering, the immortality of the soul, the visionary experience of revelation.


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