The motif of decay appears several times in MacDonald’s Phantastes although it often appears far less negative than it does in works of many other Victorian writers, including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, A. C. Swinburne, Max Beerbohm, and Oscar Wilde. MacDonald's narrator first mentions the word decay itself when Anodos is lying beneath the beech tree and, in his trance-like state, imagines that he “in autumn, grew sad because [he] trod on the leaves that had sheltered [him], and received their last blessing in the sweet odours of decay.” Here, MacDonald construes decay as positive, associating it with the “sweet odours” that accompany autumn, rather than focusing on them as a precursor of winter and death. As in other Victorian authors’ works, however, he continues to connect decay with nature and with leaves in particular. Although the odors are pleasurable, they still symbolize the death of the leaves and the only consolation is that they will return in the spring.
MacDonald speaks of decay in relation to trees and leaves in other instances throughout his work. One example is when Anodos arrives at the farmhouse and sees Fairy Land from the daughter’s window. He comments:
The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in motionless rivers of light.
Once again, MacDonald refers to decaying leaves along the forest floor, and although he terms them “brown,” a bleak color of dead nature, he also uses the word “rich.” This ascribes a positive idea to the decay, as the sweet smell did in the previous passage. MacDonald seems to recognize the death that decay brings, but accepts it as a part of nature and embraces the positive attributes of decay, such as the color and smell.
In another passage, however, MacDonald becomes more negative when Anodos describes, “Yet, as the clearest forest-well tastes sometimes of the bitterness of decayed leaves, so to my weary, prisoned heart, its cheerfulness had a sting of cold, and its tenderness unmanned me with the faintness of long-departed joys.” He no longer portrays the leaves as having a “sweet odour,” but rather a “bitterness,” and the forest does not enliven him, but makes him cold. This negative shift gives the forest a much more sinister representation, creating a duality of both good and evil in the woods. Another time that MacDonald mentions decay in a negative light is when the Maid of the Alder-tree, with whom Anodos becomes enchanted, turns to her real form and Anodos describes her as “a rough representation of the human frame, only hollow, as if made of decaying bark torn from a tree.” This gruesome description also sheds a sinister light on decay. By giving this enchantress, who attempts to leave Anodos at the mercy of the Alder-tree, a body of rotting bark, MacDonald portrays decay as almost monstrous, since she is.
The woman in the farmhouse reinforces the association of decay with the Maid of the Alder-tree when Anodos asks her how the maid can look so beautiful and yet act so cruelly. The woman explains, “when she finds [a man] in her power, her desire to bewitch him and gain his love . . . makes her very lovely — with a self-destructive beauty, though; for it is that which is constantly wearing her away within, till, at last, the decay will reach her face, and her whole front . . . and she be vanished for ever.” This passage depicts decay as a self-destructive and consuming force that will ultimately destroy the maid, more or less equating decay to death. Finally, MacDonald uses decay to describe the crumbling of buildings, such as where Anodos relates, “some of the battlements which yet stood, had been repaired, apparently to prevent them from falling into worse decay, while the more important parts were being restored.” Like Brontë’s depiction of Thornfield after the fire, the excerpt portrays buildings dissolving into nature, mostly as a function of weather (or in Brontë’s case, natural forces like fire) and a lack of attention. This decay, while not so harmful as that associated with the Maid of the Alder-tree, still manifests itself as a destructive force and adds another negative component to MacDonald’s dual portrayal of decay.Overall, MacDonald’s story looks at both the positive and negative implications of death and decay in terms of nature and people, representing them more positively than do authors writing about Victorian society. This just portrayal fits appropriately with his Fairy Land where both good and evil exist in a fairytale-like way. Although the forces of good and evil often find themselves in conflict, they result in a harmony and justice: reward for those who are good and punishment for those who are bad. Knights fight Alder-trees and maidens deceive, but everything works itself out ultimately. Moreover, while decay can destroy and kill, it can also renew and create beauty, particular in fragrance.
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Last modified 16 May 2010