Fairy land meets real life

"Grave" | Art by sandara. Used with permission.
Let’s face it: life is complicated. It is full of everything from screw ups, bad luck, failures, and never ending wrong turns. But the biggest part of life is learning how strange it is to be human.

I consider Anodos from George MacDonald’s Phantastes to be a friend of mine (yes, when I read books, I often make friends). Maybe it’s because his wandering through fairy land is a journey much like my own, or maybe I just think we’d get along. After all, he’s good at slaying giants, and I like attacking Titans in the Frontier. Okay, maybe it’s more the journey thing.

Anodos doesn’t mean to go to fairy land; he simply wakes up to the morning sun and there he is. Like him, I open my eyes every morning to a world that might as well be fairy land, for despite my years at living in it, I still don’t know my way around completely.

The journey is the most important part, and it ought to be remembered.

There is no map to life in these strange lands, not for me, not for Anodos. He doesn’t know where he is going; he journeys vaguely east and follows a river. Somewhere along the way a seed of wondering is planted in his mind. It doesn’t take long for him to start striving for a life worth living, even in the world of fairy. I can almost hear him ask, “but how?” How in this crazy world of accidents and mistakes do you find something worth doing?

How often I have I wished I could meet one of the wise old women of fairy who would tell me exactly what I need to do that is worth my time. How often have I thought I would purse a worthy thing, if only I could find it.

Anodos does find it though.  He ends up meeting two brothers, who take him in. Together they go to slay giants that are terrorizing some townsfolk. Perhaps this is it, Anodos’ moment; the mission his life was building up to. This is the deed that will somehow make his life worthwhile.

Somehow I thought slaying giants would usher in some happy ending for him, and everything would work out well. But no. The brothers die and Anodos lives, becoming a hero of the kingdom. But there isn’t a happy ever after. He wanders on.

I think this is why I love Anodos’ story so much. He meets more successes and failures along his journey, just like I do.

Past failures creep back into his life, just like they have mine. At a low moment for him, a shadow that had stalked him since his first steps in fairy land returns. It is stronger than ever now, and it imprisons him.

While jailed, Anodos suffers much. He finds himself tired, alone and without hope. Eventually he is freed, saved by a beautiful song sung by a woman he had wronged ages ago. He is free but he is a broken man; in that moment he asks for and is granted forgiveness and reconciliation.

Somehow I thought slaying giants would usher in some happy ending for him.

Leaving those woods, he reflects on all his wandering thus far, how he has changed and how he has not. “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” (Phantastes 169).

Is this life? A constant losing and finding of self, till somehow the idea of a true self emerges through the ashes, purified by the fires of success and failure? Will it be the same for me? That somehow, after all this is over I will see how it makes sense, though it all seems like nonsense right now?

Anodos reminds me of myself. There is that fumbling uncertainty, that trying to do something worth doing, that repetition of mistakes. Yet somehow the fires of success and failure act as a purifying agent so that the unknown abysses of the soul can come forth.

The last chapters of Phantastes record Anodos’ death. The introductory quote to this chapter, written by Novalis, leaves me wondering. “Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one and perhaps will.” When I die, will this life feel like a dream? I hope not, because as confusing as it is, the journey is the most important part, and it ought to be remembered.

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Chris and his wife survive the Montreal winters with help from Harry Potter audio books and summer dreams. Chris enjoys many different books and his current reading obsession is split between G. K. Chesterton and Guy Gavriel Kay.
Christopher Johnson

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