In chapter 22 of MacDonald's Phantastes, Anodos finds himself being held captive in a narrow tower. The walls that surround him are barriers that he has created for himself because of his pride, and only by finding humility can he free himself from his prison: "I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood" (pp.286-87, The Victorian Web).
In Tennyson's The Holy Grail, we encounter another proud character named Percivale who is searching for the coveted Grail in order that he might attain salvation and find an easy way into heaven. Nevertheless, like Anodos, Percivale's pride hinders him, and he finds himself in a rather precarious situation:
. . .At the base we found
On either hand, as far as eye could see,
A great black swamp and of an evil smell,
Part black, part whiten'd with the bones of men,
Not to be crost, save that some ancient king
Had built a way, where, linked with many a bridge,
A thousand piers ran into the great Sea.
And Galahad fled along them bridge by bridge,
And every bridge as quickly as he crost
Sprang into fire and vanish'd. [pp.455-456, ll.497-506]
The key technique that Tennyson uses in this passage is clearly setting in terms of place. We immediately recognize that this is an imaginary location that exists solely within the mind of its creator. The setting is very reminiscent of a scene that might have been described in Phantastes, and the way Percivale moves in and out of the scene with no clear entrance or exit reminds us of the literary tactics used in Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Tennyson also uses pathetic fallacy in order to add an emotional element to the setting. The "evil smell" of the swamp, for example, is only evil in the sense that it probably smells very bad.
Yet Tennyson's description of this fantastic realm can only be truly appreciated when contrasted with another passage that demonstrates a high level of realism. The following passage comes from Trollope's The Warden during one of the bedroom scenes between the archdeacon and his wife:
The reader must now be requested to visit the rectory of Plumstead Episcopi; and as it is as yet still early morning, to ascend again with us into the bedroom of the archdeacon. The mistress of the mansion was at her toilet; on which we will not dwell with profane eyes, but proceed into a small inner room, where the doctor dressed and kept his boots and sermons; and here we will take our stand, premising that the door of the room was so open as to admit of a conversation between our reverend Adam and his valued Eve.
"It's all your own fault, archdeacon," said the latter. "I told you from the beginning how it would end, and papa has no one to thank but you."
"Good gracious, my dear," said the doctor, appearing at the door of his dressing-room, with his face and head enveloped in the rough towel which he was violently using; "how can you say so? I am doing my very best." [pp.96-97]
The setting illustrated in this passage is perhaps, in all respects, the polar opposite of the one portrayed in the first passage. The description of this bedroom scene reflects Trollope's supreme ability to create characters and locations that one might encounter in everyday life. We appreciate the subtle details involved in his writing, such as the idea that the archdeacon was not just in a small room, but that he was in a small room where he "kept his boots and sermons." Moreover, the scene is made all the more realistic in light of the fact that it takes place within a bedroom, which was an area generally off limits to Victorian writers. The Victorians were extremely concerned with privacy and proper etiquette, and it is a credit to Trollope that he was willing to explore new territories in realism.
While the two passages above may differ in terms of mode, the subject of pride is nevertheless common to both. Like Anodos, Percivale's pride causes him to become trapped. He watches in horror as the bridges around him burst into flames, and only when he begins to see his weakness does he start to find humility. In a similar vein, the archdeacon's pride is matched only by his tyrannical pursuit for control. To be sure, Dr. Grantly inspires fear both in Mr. Harding and in his own father, the bishop. Yet when the archdeacon enters his bedroom, he does a complete turnaround. The move from public life to the private sphere causes him to lose all his authority and control, and he is humbled by the presence of his wife to whom he defers on all matters. Thus, both Trollope and Tennyson seem to point out that setting often has the power to completely alter a character's personality.
MacDonald, George. Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Text on The Victorian Web.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Tennyson's Poetry. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.
Trollope, Anthony. The Warden. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Last modified 12 May 2003