Friday, January 6, 2017
Which Classic should be Required School Reading?
This year I'll participate in Classic Remarks from time to time, a weekly meme hosted by the ladies at Pages Unbound.
I like it when others come up with good questions I can sink my teeth into, and this is the first of the year.
A couple of weeks ago I'd never even heard of this story, but it was one of the books being launched at an event I attended just before Christmas. The version I bought is the re-telling of an old fantasy classic, Phantastes, by George MacDonald. I wasn't necessarily going to buy this book, but the things said about it during the presentation sparked my curiosity. It's about the quest of a young man named Anodos to track down the Faerie Queen, since he's transported to her realm after opening an antique desk bequeathed to him on his 21st birthday. I thought, 'Why not give it a try?' Now having read it, here's why I think it fits the bill for this topic.
1) The original publication had a huge influence on many beloved 20th century authors, including C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Madeleine L'Engle, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and Ursula LeGuin. Wow, that's a pretty impressive list to be singing the praises of one book. Over the years, they each mentioned how they drew from elements of Phantastes for their own famous works of literature. Lewis in particular, turns out to have been a real MacDonald fanboy. Trying to figure out why their opinions about the quality of this story are so unanimous makes a good study, especially for students who are familiar with their writing.
2) Published in 1858, Phantastes is now viewed by many as the first genuine fantasy novel, in the way we now define the genre. It's an interesting read from the perspective of knowing that it was the pioneer in a field many of us enjoy. Worthy of study for that reason alone.
3) Getting stuck into the book got me thinking about different layers within a story. You could simply take the narrative on face value as a whole lot of weird things that happen to the hero, Anodos, as he makes his way through the strange new world of Faerie. Or you could regard him as the guy who represents each one of us. The physical features of the land and episodes that take place represent what's going on deep within his psyche as he lives his life. Vivid events, such as acquiring a dark shadow, or being imprisoned in the high tower of his pride symbolise similar experiences we all go through. Or you could delve still deeper, and search for traditional spiritual themes, including the Christian drama of sacrifice and redemption which was so close to Reverend MacDonald's heart. With such different ways of looking at one story, you'd never run out of possible essay or discussion topics.
4) We probably won't plumb the depths in a first reading (if ever). I couldn't help feeling there was lots going on over my head, despite the straightforward presentation of events. For example, the characteristics displayed by the different types of trees might have more significance to somebody who knows more about horticulture than I do. (It definitely contains lot of tree characters.) Comparing notes would make it possible to learn from others, and everyone's interpretation may be original and different from others.
5) Since a translation/retelling like this one has been made available, we might as well make the most of it. I like how Dr Mark Worthing writes in the foreword that almost all his students who begin the original on his recommendation end up admitting defeat. If a wordy, arcane, ponderous old classic has been made more accessible, it makes sense to give it a try. Comparing a fresh translation to an old original is always an interesting exercise for students.
Overall, I wouldn't have minded having this book on my curriculum back when I was a student, or at least this version. Anodos seems to fail many tests, get easily distracted from his main goal, and barge into places without checking if it's wise, but hey, he represents us, and don't we all do that at times? It's an interesting read which I'm glad I decided to purchase. The words of a noble knight within the story stick in my head.
'It is something to be wondered at, despite all the beauty of Faerie, that there is also much in it that is amiss. Great splendors but corresponding horrors. Heights but also depths. Beautiful women but also evil enchantresses. Seems to me all a person can do is make things better whenever possible, in one hundred little ways, and to show courage and strength in whatever situation is encountered. In this way good will be accomplished, and we will all fare better for it in the end.'