Phantastes: George MacDonald’s Classic Fantasy Novel

George MacDonald’s classic fantasy novel

as retold by: Mark Worthing

176 pages
148mm x 210mm
ISBN: 9781532616761

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Mark Worthing has retold George MacDonald’s Phantastes.

Praise for MacDonald’s original 1858 publication:

Whatever book you are reading now, you simply must get this at once.  –  C.S. Lewis to a friend after his discovery of MacDonald’s Phantastes.


George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy. – Madeleine L’Engle


George MacDonald is pre-eminently a mythopoeic writer. … In his power to project his inner life into images, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one of the more remarkable writers of the nineteenth century. – W.H. Auden


Phantastes is a haunting, provocative and disquieting novel that links the dreams of medieval romance with the new awakenings of the Victorian era and – in opening a long-lost door to the realm of Faerie – stands as a daringly challenging forerunner to the modern fantasy novel.” – Brian Sibley, author of C.S. Lewis through the Shadowlands


George MacDonald did indeed realise the apparent paradox of a St. Francis of Aberdeen, seeing the same sort of halo round every flower and bird…. It is a certain special sense of significance, which the tradition that most values it calls sacramental. – G.K. Chesterton


It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought – almost unwillingly …- the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a threshold. … What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise my imagination. – C.S. Lewis

About the author

Mark Worthing is an author, and pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, North Adelaide, Australia. He is former head of the Faculty of Humanities and Creative Writing at Tabor Adelaide.  His most recent works include Graeme Clark. The Man Who Invented the Bionic Ear (Allen & Unwin, 2015) and Phantastes: George MacDonald’s Classic Novel (Stone Table Books, 2016).


I remember vividly the morning after my twenty-first birthday. I lay on my bed looking lazily through the window of my room. A faint streak of peach-colour on the horizon announced the approach of the sun.

As my mind began to shake off the dullness of sleep, the strange events of the previous night began to flood back. I sat up with a start. It had not been a dream!

My name is Anodos. Anodos was a name insisted upon by my father. He said it was Greek and meant either upwards or pathless. Which it meant for me, he said, would depend on the decisions I would make. Perhaps he gave it to me in anticipation of the journey I would one day undertake. In any event, the day before had been my twenty-first birthday. I’d taken the day off work and decided to take a long walk in the park before returning home for cake with my mother and sister. My life to that point, I felt, had been filled with more pain than joy. I didn’t feel there was much to celebrate. But I determined to try my best to have a good time for the sake of my mother and sister.

On our birthdays Mother always baked a cake and placed lollies on it, one for each year. When I was sixteen I found it embarrassing. By twenty- one I had grown accustomed to it. My sister Anne found it amusing. She was only twelve. I couldn’t wait for her sixteenth! But that was just Mother. Since our father’s death she’s been frozen in time – even worse than when we lost my brother. Any change in routine, no matter how sensible, or even inevitable, seemed to drag her that much further into a future without him. Yet despite our family’s idiosyncrasies and tragedies, it was a perfectly ordinary birthday – in every respect but one.

My father had died after a short illness when I was fourteen. He left my sister and me each a special family heirloom. Anne’s was an elaborately decorated music box; mine, an old walnut secretary, or roll-top desk. Each came with a proviso that we were not to take possession of them until our twenty-first birthdays. His instructions to our mother were specific, and she intended to follow them to the letter. Twenty-one was the age at which one became a genuine adult. That’s when you were on your own – just you and the world. That’s the way it had been for my father, though he never spoke much about his youth. I only realised after his death just how little I knew about my father.

His life, its great secrets and mundane details, were all kept in that old roll-top desk. I’d been fascinated with it as a child. Its dark flowing wood- grains and little decorative carvings of flowering vines running up the sides drew me into another world. The attraction of the desk was only heightened by my father’s treatment of it as something secret, almost sacred. I had caught glimpses of an array of shelves and drawers inside the desk, but was never allowed to explore them. Whenever anyone entered the study my father would roll down the top of the desk, turn an old skeleton key in the middle with a loud ‘click,’ and only then turn his attention to his guest.

‘So Anodos, what can I do for you today?’ he would say. It was a strange sort of formality. He followed his rigid patterns, yet never turned me away. It was clear that when anyone came to see him, the desk and whatever business he had been conducting thereupon was his own concern. He knew I was enthralled by that old desk, and never discouraged my fascination with it. But its inner secrets and mysteries remained hidden from me.

Now, upon my achievement of that magical number of twenty-one years, my mother was to give me the key and the desk would be mine. To be honest, I feared it would be something of a disappointment. I could have easily picked that old lock any number of times, but never attempted it. A part of me wanted the mystery to remain. I relished the thought that my father had been more than just an ordinary man who had the misfortune of dying too young. I loved to let my imagination explore all the wild and exciting possibilities of who my father had really been. I was not eager for these to be replaced by the knowledge that he was just another shopkeeper, consumed by the realities of paying bills and keeping records – and nothing more.

My mother, for her part, had long since dissuaded me from any romantic notion of hidden treasures or a secret past of international intrigue. From what she could recall, I was led to expect stacks of saved receipts, tax papers, old correspondence and assorted collections of writing implements and paperweights. The child in me, nevertheless, clung to the hope of a secret compartment with a cache of valuable stock shares, or a small bag of unexplained diamonds. Far-fetched as these ideas were, they were nothing compared to what that old desk actually held, and what my father clearly expected me to find.

The evening of my birthday proceeded as expected, with my favourite meal – smoked ham with carrots and potatoes – followed by the presentation of the cake. I smiled and tried to look surprised when Mother brought it out. She always made our cakes in secret and hid them out of sight until after evening tea. Perhaps she thought we would worry that she had forgotten and would feel a heightened sense of relief and joy when the cake finally appeared. More likely it was just something her parents had done. Another tradition preserved without any real thought as to its purpose. I smiled and feigned mild surprise. I didn’t count the lollies on the top. There was no need.

‘O hurry up, Anodos,’ my sister pleaded. ‘Cut the cake and share it around.’ After we had each had a piece – two pieces in fact for my sister – I was given my gifts. Mother had bought me three pairs of cotton dress socks. Since I was my sister’s age she really hadn’t known what to get me. She finally settled on socks and underwear for birthdays, and shirts and trousers for Christmas. My sister had bought me a pocket knife with a picture of a rather attractive woman painted on the side. Mother was clearly not amused. I tried not to smile.

‘Thanks, Anne. Is this meant to be the girlfriend of my dreams?’

‘Any girlfriend would be a start,’ she retorted – then hesitated, realising she had perhaps said too much. The truth of the matter was that I had always been very awkward around members of the opposite sex, and the only girl that might have been called my girlfriend, had I not been so hesitant in taking the relationship further, was Caroline, who had died of a fever the previous winter. Her death had only added to my sense of moroseness and isolation.

‘Okay Anne, that’s enough,’ Mother chided, perceiving that I needed to be rescued from an awkward moment. ‘It’s time we left your brother in peace for the night.’ Anne looked at her somewhat baffled that the birthday fun should be so quickly brought to an end. Then Mother walked quietly over to the mantle above the fireplace and returned with something in her hand. While Anne may have been confused, I was very much aware of what was happening. ‘There is, of course, one more gift on your special birthday,’ she said as she handed me the envelope in which the key to the roll-top desk had been sealed these past seven years. Then she led my sister, who clearly would have liked to have stayed, into the lounge room and left me alone. I made my way into the adjacent study, which Mother kept dusted, but which had otherwise barely been touched since my father’s death.

Perhaps I was to find only the records of sales and acquisitions, when purchased and by whom, coming down to me. To resolve my speculations, and to dispel the awe which was fast gathering around me, I made my way quickly to the desk.


Laying on the desktop was an envelope with my name on it. Inside the envelope I found a sheet of carefully folded paper with a note in my father’s meticulous handwriting. He must have put it there before his last trip to hospital.

My dear Anodos,

Congratulations on your twenty-first birthday. I am sorry I was not able to prepare you for this day. I will have to entrust that task to your great grandmother. Godspeed and choose your path well.

Arthur Pennington

That was odd even by my father’s standards. I’d never met any of my grandparents. I was told they were dead. And no one had ever mentioned a great-grandmother. Perhaps Mother could enlighten me in the morning. At this moment, however, that could wait. I was on a treasure hunt.

I inserted the key into the lock at the bottom of the roll-top and gave it a sharp turn. The desk had not been opened in several years, so it was with some difficulty that I slid the cover up and into the top of the desk, exposing several drawers and a series of tiny little shelves in the process. I began to ruffle through them randomly. Receipts, stamps waiting to be sorted and added to my father’s collection, books, pens, unused envelopes, old Christmas cards and a few drawings from Anne and me when we were small that made me smile. But one drawer, larger than the others, remained unopened.

Of all the desk’s little drawers and compartments, this one alone had its own separate lock. I searched in vain for a key, then began to work at the lock with the pocket knife Anne had given me. I discovered at last within the keyhole a scarcely protruding point of steel on one side. I pressed this hard and repeatedly with the point of the knife until finally it yielded inwards. The little slide, flying up suddenly, disclosed a chamber that was empty – except that in one corner lay a single rose whose scent had long since departed. When I attempted to pick it up it disintegrated into a dozen small, dried flakes in my hand. I was wondering what the significance of that lone rose might have been when I was startled by a voice behind me.

‘It has been a long time since anyone has handled that rose.’ I stood and turned with a fright to find standing in the room with me a statuesque woman wearing a long white dress, girt about the middle with a golden cord, the ends of which hung nearly to the ground.

Her eyes were a shade of blue I had never seen before, and her hair, long and blonde. As soon as I deduced that she meant me no harm I put down my arms, which I realised I was holding in front of me in a defensive posture.

‘Who are you?’ I asked, ‘How did you get in here?’

‘That’s two questions,’ the woman quietly pointed out. ‘Which do you want me to answer first?’

‘Well,’ I considered, ‘a good start would be explaining how you got into my house, let alone into this room.’

‘You summoned me.’

‘I summoned you? I don’t even know who you are. How could I summon you?’

‘You picked up the rose. It is from my own garden. I gave it to your father when he was about your age.’

‘How did you know my father?’

‘Anodos (How did she know my name?), that brings us to your first question, doesn’t it? Your father was my grandson.’

I looked carefully at the attractive woman before me. She was certainly not young, but neither did she look old enough to be anyone’s grandmother, let alone my father’s.

‘You don’t believe me. Did your father never speak of me?’

‘No. He said his parents died when he was very young. He never spoke of grandparents. I assumed they were also dead. But that doesn’t matter. If you were my father’s grandmother you would have to be at least eighty years old. And that you are clearly not.’

‘You are right, at least, about that. I am far from eighty. In fact, last Midsummer’s Eve I celebrated my two hundred and thirty-seventh birthday.’

‘Now you are mocking me,’ I protested.

‘I have no cause to mock you, Anodos. Remember those stories you used to read every night to your sister from the book of fairy stories your father gave you? Do you remember how sometimes those stories seemed more real to you than the world around you?’

The woman paused for a moment and I said nothing – my silence was admission enough that there was truth in what she said.

‘The reason,’ she continued, ‘is that you, like your father, have fairy blood in you. Your restlessness in this world cannot be resolved until you have been to the land of Faerie, where part of you belongs.’

‘If what you say is true, and I don’t believe for a moment that it is,’ I added quickly, ‘must I go through my whole life feeling that I do not belong anywhere?’

‘Help for what you are feeling is certainly possible. But that help is not mine to give. That can only be granted by my Queen.’

‘Let me guess. The Queen of the Fairies!’

‘You speak in jest, but it is as you say. I brought your father into the realm of Faerie when he was your age, and he too desired to seek out the Queen of the Fairies. But he encountered obstacles that he found insurmountable and returned to his own land before he could complete his quest. I gave him a rose from my garden and wove around it a little magic. I told him that if ever he were ready to return to Faerie, he had only to take up the rose and I would come to him. As you see, your father has left it locked away in this desk. He never summoned me. He left it instead for you to discover.’

‘Do you mean to tell me that my father wanted me to take up this quest of his to find the Queen of Faerie?’

‘Yes, that is what I believe he intended.’

‘And just how am I supposed to get to this land of Faerie? I’ve not seen it marked on any map.’

‘Anodos, you are young and still very foolish, so I will forgive your unbelief and sarcasm. If you must know, the border between Faerie and your world is in places quite porous. From time to time some from both sides are able to find their way into the other. But I fear I waste my breath explaining these things to you now. Tomorrow you will enter the realm of Faerie, and then you will begin to understand.’

The woman who claimed to be my great grandmother took a step toward me. I leaned back into the desk.

‘I mean you no harm,’ she assured me. ‘After all, you are my own kin. I ask you only to look into my eyes.’

I looked deep into her eyes and felt myself becoming lost in them. At the same time I felt a strange longing, a sort of homesickness, well up inside of me. I pulled myself away from her gaze and rubbed my eyes vigorously. Everything was a blur for several long moments. When my vision cleared, there was no one else in the room. I took out my pocket watch and looked at the time. It was past midnight. If it was a dream it was the most vivid dream anyone could ever have. Suddenly I felt very tired. I closed the secretary, left the study and made my way to my own room and bed, and lay down quickly beneath the covers. I fell asleep wondering if it were possible that I could actually discover the road into Faerie – if indeed such a place existed.


  1. C.S. Lewis (to a friend after his discovery of MacDonald’s ‘Phantastes’)

    Whatever book you are reading now, you simply must get this at once.

  2. Brian Sibley (author of C.S. Lewis through the Shadowlands)

    Phantastes is a haunting, provocative and disquieting novel that links the dreams of medieval romance with the new awakenings of the Victorian era and – in opening a long-lost door on the realm of Faerie – stands as a daringly challenging forerunner to the modern fantasy novel.

  3. Madeleine L’Engle

    George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.

  4. W.H. Auden

    George MacDonald is pre-eminently a mythopoeic writer. … In his power to project his inner life into images, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one of the more remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.

  5. G.K. Chesterton

    George MacDonald did indeed realise the apparent paradox of a St. Francis of Aberdeen, seeing the same sort of halo round every flower and bird…. It is a certain special sense of significance, which the tradition that most values it calls sacramental.

  6. C.S. Lewis

    It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought – almost unwillingly …- the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a threshold. … What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise my imagination.

  7. Trevor Hampel

    Some of my readers may well ask, “George who?” Fortunately, I was aware of who George MacDonald was before I was handed a copy of this book for review. MacDonald’s works usually do not appear on any of those “Best Books of the Week/Month/Year/Century.” His works were first published in the mid-1800s, so there is no surprise to realise that they are not on everyone’s To Read list.

    Mark Worthing, the author of this retelling, gives a short introduction to George MacDonald at the beginning of the book. I will give an even shorter introduction. MacDonald’s novel Phantastes was first published in 1858 and is widely regarded as the first modern fantasy novel to be written in English. MacDonald was a Congregational minister, but he did not last long in this role because his theology was at odds with those who employed him. Although he continued in occasional preaching, his main income was derived from his many writings, though he was never really well off.

    MacDonald’s contribution to fantasy

    Readers should not be put off by MacDonald’s work, especially this title. Many great writers of fantasy have paid tribute to MacDonald for inspiring them to also write fantasy. These include J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, among others. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God, p.26)

    The full title of the novel is Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women. This retelling of the original is just called Phantastes. In order to review this reworking of the novel, I felt I should at least attempt to read a part of the original story.


    I came with a little trepidation to the original, mindful of the irony of reading it on an eReader – a work first published nearly 160 years ago. I should not have worried. I took to it easily and read right through over only several days. While I found the language somewhat stilted and archaic to my modern ears, I found it relatively easy to read and follow the plot. I had a similar experience several years ago when I read right through Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The many unfamiliar words MacDonald uses were easily located directly from the inbuilt dictionary in eReader. This made understanding the novel so much easier.

    Worthing’s modern-day retelling was next on my reading list. Already being familiar with the general gist of the story I breezed through this new work. It is a very enjoyable story which will reward the reader on many levels. At its most basic, one could regard it as a simple quest story. The protagonist, Anodos, is also the narrator of the tale. It is his search for adventure, beauty and love which drives him to explore the Land of Faerie. Many of the classic characters we come to expect in fairy tales are encountered along the journey; fairies of course, goblins, ogres, monsters, dragons, giants, witches, kings, knights, princesses and many more.

    Anodos faces many hardships, adventures, narrow escapes and puzzles in his quest to meet the Faerie Queen. Along the way he not only discovers that he has part fairy blood, he also explores what true love is, the many forms of beauty, the power of song and music, and what it takes to be truly brave and sacrificially selfless. Worthing has added a satisfying and quite romantic ending to the original tale, an ending which is implied but not stated in the MacDonald version.


    Before commencing to write this retelling of Phantastes, Worthing realised that many present-day readers struggle with reading MacDonald’s version. He says in the introduction, “When I taught a tertiary level course some years ago on the history of fantasy literature, MacDonald and his novel Phantastes featured prominently. I managed to persuade several students over successive offerings of the course to attempt to read the book. Invariably they came back to me some weeks or months later, admitting defeat.” (p.8) It was this difficulty that was the inspiration for this retelling. The author was determined to keep true to the voice and style of the original, while modernising the language used. I believe that he has been very successful in this aim. The retelling is an easy read, while still capturing the voice of MacDonald. I am familiar with Worthing’s unique style and voice, and he has managed to suppress this in a retelling which beautifully reflects the intentions of the original.


    MacDonald included many beautiful passages of poetry which are called songs in the original, some of them many pages long. Some of these can be difficult to read and follow, mainly due to the archaic language used. Worthing has incorporated many of them, many in edited form and some in a much shortened form. I think he has retained the essence of the original songs, while allowing greater enjoyment and understanding by making the language far more accessible. I should add that this is a general first impression, not as a result of a line by line analysis.
    Stories within the novel

    MacDonald included a number of short stories within the novel. Chapter 13 includes the story of Cosmo and this is the longest of them. While at first glance this appears to have little bearing on the main plot, an understanding of this tale is essential to the story arc. It is a vital turning point of the story and the concentric nature of the whole work. Worthing has retained a shortened version of Cosmo’s story, and in one of the appendices he has explained the importance of this to the structure of the novel (p. 168 – 171).


    There is ample evidence for the outstanding contribution of George MacDonald to the genre we know as fantasy today. His legacy is immense, but his works have largely been ignored by contemporary readers. This is a shame, for he evidently has much to offer, as this retelling bears testimony.

    I thoroughly recommend this new version.

  8. Morton Benning – author of Playing God (verified owner)

    Worthing has managed to combine modern language and story telling with what is often held to be the first full-length fantasy novel in the English language to create something that is both a tribute to the original writer and texts of its time, as well an eminently readable and enjoyable book for a modern audience. I love the fact that this book retains the flavour of the original text whilst also tuning up some of the pacing issues that existed in the original version. For all those folks who desire to read this text that Tolkien and Lewis (among others of their contemporaries) raved about but struggle with the older style of language and harder to read texts, this book is gold.

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