The Man Who Inspired A Legend: Or, The Actual First Fantasy Novel

Did you know there was a fantasy author before J.R.R Tolkien? Let’s go on a journey together to discover the father of a genre that millions devour every year.

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A portrait of George MacDonald side by side with the book cover for his book "Phantastes."

If someone asked you to think of a fantasy author, there is one name most likely to come to mind: J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and creator of what would become one of the biggest franchises in the world. Tolkien is revered across multiple circles for his prose, his worldbuilding, and the scholarship he contributed to early discussions of the fantasy genre.

But even legends have to start somewhere, and Tolkien’s origin story reveals that his works in The Lord of the Rings universe were not the first works in modern fantasy. The real founder of the genre is an author named George MacDonald. Although his name is hardly mentioned when we discuss fantasy, his work inspired authors ingrained in our literary canon, specifically Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the famed author of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Given the influence he had on notorious authors, George MacDonald’s name should be etched in history. However, scholars rarely acknowledge MacDonald when discussing modern fantasy, instead focusing on the hand Tolkien had in shaping high fantasy. 

Why has George MacDonald faded into a footnote in fantasy’s history? To get to the bottom of this mystery, we need to learn more about the man himself.

Tales as Old as Time

Before I dive into how George MacDonald is responsible for several of the fantasy traits we see today, we should first pay tribute to the oldest origins of fantasy. Fantasy is a genre as old as literature itself, present in the myths, legends, and fairytales that have been passed down through hundreds of cultures since the beginning of civilization. 

One of the first literary genres to emerge, romance, often featured fantastical elements that enhanced romance’s traditional themes. When romance gained popularity during the Renaissance, the published stories leaned more into the fantastical. Two works in particular from this era, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas and Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, became sources of inspiration for fantasy adventures.

Book cover for "Orlando Furioso" by Ludovico Ariosto.

It wasn’t until centuries later that fantasy began to diverge into a separate genre. Although the early years of the Age of Enlightenment saw an increase in fairytales, a wave of new fiction authors denounced many fairytale-esque stories and fantastical story elements, resulting in little fantasy coming out during that time. Fantasy wouldn’t return to popularity until the re-emergence of literary fairytales in the Romantic and Victorian eras. 

From the 18th century to the early 20th century, fairytales started gaining more prominence as actual literature instead of cultural short stories, which increased the analysis and critique of them from a writer’s perspective. In the late 19th century, George MacDonald contributed several essays discussing his views on fantasy, specifically on how he viewed fairytales and how that view influenced his writing:

Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.

The fantasy genre is more than elaborate fairytales, just as fairytales are not just fantasy stories. But the interconnectedness of the two can’t be downplayed. Besides MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien also wrote an essay about the importance of fairytales on child and adult audiences; whether he meant to or not, Tolkien essentially laid out the blueprint of how the world of The Hobbit came to be, showing how the foundational stories of the fantasy genre trace the footsteps of fairytales. But before I dive too deeply into Tolkien, we need to learn more about his muse, George MacDonald.

A Brief History of George MacDonald

George MacDonald was born in 19th-century Scotland to a bookish family. His uncle was a Celtic scholar, dictionary editor, and collector of fairy tales; his paternal grandfather supported the publication of the controversial work Ossian, an epic poem; another of his uncles was a scholar of Shakespeare.

Despite MacDonald’s parents being avid readers and his extended family’s vast literary interests, MacDonald earned a degree in chemistry and physics in 1845. In 1848, he began theological training for the Congregational ministry, and he would eventually become a minister whose sermons were met with little enthusiasm.

A portrait of Scottish writer George MacDonald.

MacDonald’s writing career didn’t officially begin until 1851 with the poetry collection Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis. He wrote over fifty books in over five decades, yet always struggled to support his large family. His financial struggles contrasted with his career; MacDonald gained literary success after he published Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women in 1858. The novel became one of the founding stories of his career, marking MacDonald’s beginning with fantasy. In his time, he would write several fantasy stories for both children and adults, saying of his work:

For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

Phantastes, his first work of prose, set the precedent for how MacDonald treated his audience. As stated by BBC, Phantastes is a “fairytale for adults” in a time when fairytales were only meant for children.

The Plot of Phantastes (1858)

Phantastes follows a young man named Anodos who, on his 21st birthday, inherits a desk from his father. The day after his birthday, he discovers an ancient fairy inside the desk, who shows him a magical place called Fairy Land in a vision. After seeing the vision, Anodos awakes to find his room turned into a forest that is a part of Fairy Land. It is after this sudden journey to Fairy Land that Anodos’s real journey begins.

Book cover for "Phantastes" by George MacDonald.

Anodos finds a woman and her daughter and listens as they tell him about Fairy Land. In Fairy Land, trees host spirits, some good and some bad. They warn Anodos to stay away from the Ash Tree, the host of an evil spirit. While exploring the world of fairies, beings who in live flowers, the spirit of the Ash Tree attacks him, and Anodos escapes and finds a safe place to rest with the warm spirit of the Beech Tree. Anodos leaves the Beech Tree spirit the next morning and continues on his way. In a cave, he comes across a beautiful marble statue of a woman. Moved by her beauty, Anodos sings to her, bringing her to life. The marble woman flees from Anodos into the woods, where a knight stops Anodos and warns him about the Alder Tree, the host to another evil spirit.

Anodos keeps looking for the beautiful marble woman, whom he calls the Marble Lady. He thinks he’s finally found her, but he’s actually run into the wicked Alder Tree spirit, who puts him to sleep and betrays him to the Ash spirit. Anodos just barely escapes them with the help of the knight Sir Percivale and flees.

In another cottage, Anodos meets a woman and her daughter, both of whom believe in fairytales like Fairy Land. The woman’s husband is skeptical, and his disbelief is so strong that Anodos begins to doubt the things he’s seen and experienced, but the daughter helps him keep believing.

Illustration by John Bell of a female character from "Phantastes" by George MacDonald.

Moving on, Anodos comes to another cottage, this one belonging to an ogress who warns him not to open a certain closet door. He ignores her warning, opening the closet to see his own shadow. Anodos’s shadow follows him on his journey and snuffs out Fairy Land magic wherever it falls. Anodos also meets a maiden in the woods carrying a crystal globe that she deeply treasures. Overcome with the urge to hold the globe, Anodos grabs it, only for it to shatter, and the maiden runs away heartbroken.

On the next leg of his journey, Anodos discovers a palace with many rooms and a bedroom bearing his name. In the palace library, he reads the story of a knight, Cosmo of Prague, who sacrifices his life to save the soul of his lover from an enchanted mirror. Also, in the palace, Anodos finds hallways filled with statues, amongst which is an empty pedestal. He sings to the pedestal, thinking of the Marble Lady. She materializes as he sings but once again runs from him, and Anodos chases after her, only to lose her and end up in a subterranean world with gnome-like creatures that mock him.

Illustration by John Bell of the Marble Lady and Sir Percivale in "Phantastes" by George MacDonald.

Anodos escapes the creatures and stumbles onto a beach. He takes a boat to a strange island with a mysterious cottage with four doors where an ancient lady lives. Each door contains its own world. In the first, Anodos is a child again as he relives the death of his brother; in the next, he sees the Marble Lady and Sir Percivale in love, which prompts an outburst of love from Anodos; the next door recalls the death of one of Anodos’s loved ones and Anodos’s family mausoleum; Anodos goes through the fourth and final door but is saved from the ancient lady without remembering anything. She tells him the cost of saving his life is to leave before the island sinks underwater.

Next, Anodos finds two brothers forging armor and swords to take on three giants. Anodos joins their fight, but the giants ambush them before they can prepare. The brothers die but Anodos lives, killing the giants and becoming the ruler of the kingdom. He goes to find a woman one of the brothers loved and tells her of his death, but his own shadow captures and imprisons him before Anodos reaches her. The song of a woman whom Anodos met in his previous journeys in Fairy Land saves him, and he never sees his shadow again.

Illustration by John Bell of Sir Percivale knighting Anodos in "Phantastes" by George MacDonald.

Anodos meets Sir Percivale again and becomes his squire. Together they discover a cult of worshippers completing an evil ritual. Anodos tries to stop the ritual, destroying the worshippers’ idol and unleashing a monster. In the fight, both the monster and Anodos die. Anodos spends some time as a spirit before waking up alive on Earth with all his memories from Fairy Land. The story ends with his sister telling him he was only gone for three weeks despite his journey feeling much longer.

A Quick Analysis of Phantastes

It would betray my English degree if I didn’t analyze Phantastes after laying out its plot. Anodos starts his adventure into Fairy Land as a young man naive to the land and its customs. He encounters several figures who act as mentors in this new land but often ignores their advice to achieve his own wants. Anodos’s inability to reject his own desires often gets him into trouble and hurts others in some form. A recurring example of this is Anodos’s relationship with the Marble Lady, whom he chases throughout his journey and yet never catches because she runs away from him. 

A popular theme of fantasy stories is man versus himself. Phantastes sees Anodos not only get in his own way as he wanders Fairy Land, but he also faces his actual shadow as an enemy at certain points. The function of Anodos’s, the hero’s, shadow as an obstacle that Anodos has to overcome represents how Anodos’s own beliefs are the actual thing he must overcome. It is not until Anodos dies as a consequence of his own actions that he ultimately learns his lesson, and he’s thrust back to reality.

Illustration by John Bell of Anodos meeting fairies in "Phantastes" by George MacDonald.

The full title of the novel, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, is deceiving because romance does not really occur. Anodos is certainly infatuated with the Marble Lady, and female figures are a temptation that he is unable to resist, but his feelings are never reciprocated. Anodos is searching for what he thinks is romance, but his inability to capture the object of his desires or experience any reciprocation is a clue to how skewed his perception of romance is. Rather than depicting a love story, as “romance” would imply, Phantastes is a coming-of-age story where Anodos must shed his old ideas about romance and desire to return to the world he left behind a changed person.

Anodos is not like the heroes we see in popular fantasy today: he is not tasked with helping a displaced species reclaim their homeland like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, nor does he need to liberate a magical land from a tyrannical ruler like the Pevensie siblings in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Anodos is more similar to the likes of Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood, a young figure who needs to save himself from his own preconceived notions.

The Man Who Would Be King

If many academics credit Phantastes as the first modern fantasy novel and MacDonald gained prominence for his fantasy writing, why does J.R.R. Tolkien prevail over him as the founding father of fantasy?

One reason for Tolkien’s popularity could be that Tolkien became critical of MacDonald’s writing later in life. Tolkien initially admired MacDonald, enjoying his Curdie series in his childhood and eventually reading the series with his own children. Tolkien even admitted to parallels between MacDonald’s work and his own, citing that he drew inspiration from MacDonald’s goblins and dwarves to create the creatures that feature in The Hobbit.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien.

But with age, Tolkien grew more critical of MacDonald, disliking MacDonald’s frequent allegories and overt Christian morality. Upon reading the works he used to be so fond of, Tolkien noted:

…in all his many books he preaches, and it is his preaching that is valued most by the grown-up people who admire him most.

Tolkien was not against adults reading fairytales. In a 1939 lecture called “On Fairy-Stories,” he argued that fairytales are psychologically valuable for adults. Tolkien saw fairytales — and, by extension, fantasy — as a useful way of interpreting reality by creating a distance for readers to gain a perspective they couldn’t otherwise have of the real world. Writers create this distance through what Tolkien calls a “secondary world,” a fictional world with magical elements that separate it from the “primary world,” reality. Tolkien and MacDonald, while mostly in agreement on the benefits of fantasy, differed on the delivery of these stories. 

Where are we now?

Another reason why Tolkien dominates fantasy in a way MacDonald doesn’t could be the sheer magnitude of Tolkien’s writing and how it transformed the genre. Tolkien was not the first to argue that fairytales all existed in a separate realm, but he was the first writer to become so acclaimed for his thorough worldbuilding, to the point that hundreds of writers still use his terminology today. Tolkien’s secret to effective worldbuilding was that the secondary world had to be completely immersive; the moment any disbelief or doubt about the imagined world came into play, the reader was thrust back into the primary world, and the story was ruined.

More important than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gave people the language to discuss what draws them to fantasy. Even though he grew to dislike MacDonald, the influence MacDonald had on Tolkien is undeniable. Even if Tolkien didn’t borrow MacDonald’s goblins and trolls, Tolkien was so displeased by MacDonald’s fantasy for adults that he decided to write his own, which is a type of inspiration in itself.

Genres, like literature itself, are ever-evolving vessels that writers use to deliver stories. In the 19th century, George MacDonald knew the traits of fairytales so well that he spawned a new genre from it, creating the modern fantasy that caught Tolkien’s interest. Although MacDonald’s brand of fantasy may not fit in with our world now, we have to acknowledge the work he did that created the blueprint for fantasy as we know it.

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