The Art of Manliness: Ekphrasis And/as Masculinity in George MacDonald's Phantastes

By Pionke, Albert D. | Studies in the Novel, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Art of Manliness: Ekphrasis And/as Masculinity in George MacDonald's Phantastes


Pionke, Albert D., Studies in the Novel


As announced by its subtitle, "A Faerie Romance for Men and Women," George MacDonald's Phantastes (1858) occupies the noteworthy place of the first English fantasy novel written for adults. As such, it significantly influenced numerous future writers, among them C. S. Lewis, who in his Preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology credits the novel with Lewis's own turn to mythopoetic Christian fantasy. (1) Unfortunately for MacDonald, who was seeking to earn a living and to continue in a pastoral vocation, both denied to him by his dismissal for doctrinal irregularity from the Congregationalist Church in Arundel in 1853, Phantastes was a commercial failure in its own time. Generic novelty doubtless played a role in the text's unpopularity, although the rather severe judgments offered by reviewers for The Athenaeum and other periodicals suggest that further causes were not wanting (See Rev. of Phantastes). Briefly, Phantastes chronicles the episodic three-week visit to Fairy Land of the suggestively named Anodos, who has just turned twenty-one and inherited the family estate. While in Fairy Land, he receives much unheeded advice from a range of female figures, acquires and eventually loses his own shadowy double, travels to the fairy palace, and ultimately returns to his conventional life after dying a heroic death. Densely symbolic, sometimes unproductively so, the novel deserves another look, not just for its effect on Lewis and others but also for its ecumenical engagement with issues and motifs of central concern to MacDonald's Victorian contemporaries, including medievalism, Romanticism, and aestheticism, all of which inflect the wayward development of the protagonist's masculinity through his encounters with art. (2)

This essay traces MacDonald's productive imbrication of gender and aesthetics through several narratively significant ekphrastic episodes. After providing a short overview of the criticism surrounding the novel, and offering a brief background on ekphrasis--from its Classical roots to its eighteenth-and nineteenth-century interpellations to its increasingly prominent place in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary and cultural criticism--I perform a series of close readings of individual ekphrastic scenes from Phantastes. The first three examples occur during Anodos's early wandering in Fairy Land, and they reveal the troubling relationship between a consistently feminine art and possession that characterizes his early pathlessness. I then focus at length upon the pivotal example of Cosmo's story, which Anodos reads during his residence in the Fairy Queen's palace. This story within a story offers MacDonald's protagonist an imaginative experience of an approach to art that promises to lead him upward from his former acquisitiveness towards a more ethical aesthetic. Finally, I follow Anodos's departure from the palace and his fitful but ultimately successful effort to adapt Cosmo's textual example to his own actions, through three scenes that require him to reenact his earlier ekphrastic encounters, and to discover a less conventionally gendered response to art. This didactic trajectory of bildung-through-ekphrasis, I argue, suggestively relocates Phantastes in the intellectual context of some of MacDonald's much-better-known contemporaries, including Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Mathew Arnold. (3)

There is relatively little modern criticism devoted to Phantastes, although much of what has been written can be subdivided into three dominant approaches; fundamentally ignorant of or in disagreement with one another, these hermeneutics nevertheless usefully help to focus critical attention around certain key themes and pivotal moments. First, MacDonald's overt investment in the sometimes-pathless, sometimes-upward-tending trajectory of his protagonist's manliness has invited numerous psychoanalytic readings of the novel, from Robert Lee Wolff's Freudian psycho-biographical speculations to Jungian reappraisals by Richard Reis, Colin Manlove, Joseph Sigman, and others; to the more recent Kristevan interpretation offered by William Gray.

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