In my quest to explore classic literature of all genres, I was particularly excited about this book, being a classic in my favourite genre, fantasy. Having explored a number of fantasy classics from the early twentieth century, I was fairly eager to take my exploration back to the nineteenth century to find out what had started the "modern" phase of the genre. What I found was...interesting.
Phantastes, taken as a novel, is flawed. MacDonald's dense prose, although rising to the level of brilliance at times, is more often than not somewhat clumsy and unwieldy. The poetry is adequate, at best. The plot, although containing some extremely memorable scenes, is as wandering and unfocused as if this story were written in serial format and assembled into a novel later, like the works of Dumas or any of the novels by the 1920s/1930s pulp authors.
The real strength of this book lies in its mythopoeic quality. The prose and verse used in the novel are for the most part forgettable, but the EVENTS of the book stick with the reader after the reader puts the book down, which is the main aim of the fantasist these days(possibly because of MacDonald's influence on the genre). The scene with the giants, the woman in the enchanted mirror, the evil shadow...all of these are very powerful images, in the way that the events which occur in myth stay with a person in the form of remembered scenes and images. You can see that many of these scenes were so resonant that they were adopted and altered by other authors as the genre progressed. The woman in the mirror obviously had some effect on Lewis Carrol, you can see parallels to the shadow companion in A Wizard Of Earthsea, and so on.
Despite its flaws, I can see why this book was so influential.