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Disenchantment in Fairy Land?: A discussion of George MacDonald's Phantastes (1858)
Örebro University, School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences.ORCID iD: 0000-0003-4381-8331
2018 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Phantastes (1858), the first major prose work of George MacDonald (1824-1905), was initially greeted with little appreciation and far less understanding by puzzled Victorian critics, who described it as “a wilderness of wilderment” and warned that reading the work may result in “a verdict of ‘determination of nonsense to the brain’”. It is well possible that the story’s protagonist, Anodos, would understand the critics’ predicament: on his twenty-first birthday, a fairy manifests herself to him and promises to show him Fairy Land, where he will be able to sate his longing for a fuller life. Having been ushered into Fairy Land, however, Anodos finds himself curiously torn between belief and disbelief, both rapturing over the “chronic condition of wonder” that Fairy Land fills him with as well as worrying that it may all be a “wandering dream of a diseased imagination”. This, then, is a fairy tale hero that excels in introspection and self-doubt rather than through valiant deeds. Anodos oscillates wildly in his perception of the world: in literally the blink of an eye, Fairy Land shifts from an enchanted landscape, imbued with mystical qualities, to a barren landscape, devoid of any higher meaning, and vice versa. This paper aims to call attention to this instability of vision, and argues that it constitutes one of the key aesthetic features of the text. It is suggested that Phantastes may be read as an attempt at imagining a re-enchanted world, an undertaking that is far from harmonious, as made evident by Anodos’ repeated lapses into dejection and materialism. This discussion will use Charles Taylor’s work on secularism and the modern subject, as presented in Sources of the Self (1989) and The Secular Age (2007), as its point of departure. The disenchantment of the (Western) world, Taylor argues, is intimately linked to the emergence of a new understanding of human selfhood. Discarding an older, magical worldview, we have come to conceive ourselves as “bounded”, “inward spaces”, attributing meaning to internal psychological processes rather than to anything existing in the external world. Any attempt at “re-enchanting” the world, Taylor maintains, will have to proceed from this modern understanding of subjecthood. But of course, accepting the notion that meaning only resides “in the head” creates a fertile breeding ground for relativism and radical doubt. In attempting to apply Taylor’s terminology to a discussion of Phantastes, this paper hopes to account for what could be perceived as a seeming incoherence of the text.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2018.
National Category
General Literature Studies
Research subject
Literature
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:oru:diva-65795OAI: oai:DiVA.org:oru-65795DiVA, id: diva2:1190536
Conference
"Det moderna som parentes: Litteraturvetenskapens nya utmaningar", Linköpings universitet, Linköping, Sweden, April 11-13, 2018
Available from: 2018-03-14 Created: 2018-03-14 Last updated: 2018-03-20Bibliographically approved

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Klingberg, Per

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