My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Phantastes reads like a self-aware, coherent dream. It follows the wanderings of Anodos (I don’t believe his real name is ever given, but this is what he is sometimes called) through the strange realm of Fairy Land. There is no real plot to this story per se, merely a series of episodic encounters whereby we learn more and more about the inner workings of this hidden world of Faerie and the longings of the protagonist.
At times the writing sparkles and is deeply moving, offering profound insights into the nature of love, goodness, and beauty. At other times the narrative feels arbitrary and esoteric. The story is drenched with poetry and song, often originating from Anodos himself. Like the story, these lyrical passages are a mixed bag, often lovely and enchanting, at other times feeling forced and awkward.
Probably the most coherent, compelling section is the recounting of the story of Cosmo and the Lady in the Mirror, from a book which Anodos read in the fairy castle. It is the only part which reads like a conventional story and, though it has a tragic quality to it, is quite beautiful. The novel gains momentum the further along it goes, but ultimately the story boils down to a series of fantastic, very symbolic events which would take many readings to puzzle out. Despite its shortcomings, Phantastes is a worthwhile adventure, a glimpse into perhaps the most fully realized, mysterious, and unique Fairy Tale in all of literature.