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Winter in "Phantastes"


Maeve A.E. Faul

"Nature lived in sadness now;
Sadness lived on the maiden's brow, 
As she watched, with a fixed, half-conscious eye,
One lonely leaf that trembled on high, 
Till it dropped at last from the desolate bough-
Sorrow, oh, sorrow! 'tis winter now." (p.83).

Winter. The very mention of that desolate season causes my spirit to ache. Nearly every aspect of it stirs hatred within me. It seems that every year I gaze in helpless agony as the glory of the life around me withers and dies. The Earth, in all its splendor, is stripped of its majestic cloak of emerald and gold. In place of this royal robe, it dons the death-bed garment of frigid white. "She watched them dying for many a day/ Dropping from off the old trees away/ One by one; or else in a shower/ Crowding over the withered flower." (p.82). It is equitable to experiencing the death of a loved one, but instead of the memory of the ordeal easing with time, there lingers the knowledge that next year you will have to witness the beloved die yet again.

George MacDonald is masterful at evoking the emotions of his readers. By depicting winter through the medium of a young girl's sorrow, I was able to relate to the story in a new way. I uncovered my own buried emotion in the plight of the other-worldly maiden. 

I recall complaining to my mother, this past winter, that I didn't believe I could survive another horrific winter without the sun. I sometimes feel a bitterness in my heart towards the sun, for I believe that somehow it is responsible for the death of the land and its inhabitants. It is as though, each year, the sun abandons the child it has nurtured, raised, and allowed to prosper. The author plays upon this feeling in the following line: "The sun, that had nursed them and loved them so long/ Grew weary of loving, and, turning back/ Hastened away on his southern track..." (p.82). 

I also feel an immense connection to the trees of the earth. In all seasons they mirror both my sorrows and my joys. They are a constant that grounds me and assures my heart again and again of my heavenly Father's everlasting love and protection. Their beauty chants continuous praise to their creator. At the sight of them, within me wells a longing to join in their "exultant song." (p.83). Yet when the deathly gusts of winter wind sweep over the land my soul weeps at the sight of the gray spears of lifeless wood that protrude from the frozen ground, as skeletons from an aged coffin. 

No longer sensing the bond shared with the clothed trees of warmer months, I 
can hold no love for the barren trees of winter. They seem distant to me. Their nudity shrieks of the deprivation of light and life. No longer do birds "fill the branches with melodies." (p.83). No more is each sense "filled with its own delights." (p. 83). As well, I am able to function better not only physically, but mentally in the summer months. "Lulled with an inner harmony," my imagination thrives on and marvels at summer's beauty. (p.83).

But upon the arrival of winter, all is silenced ... including clarity of thought. My sole hope comes from the memory of the earth's once awesome glory, though even this thought is foggy. I have oftentimes found myself, on the dreariest, most desolate, gray days of winter, wondering if perhaps summer was only ever a dream. Perhaps a delightful story. On these occasions, time itself seems frozen along with the earth. Will winter never end? Will I never again see spring in all its splendor? 

"Oh! many and many a dreary year/ Must pass away ere the buds appear; Many a night of darksome sorrow/ Yield to the light of a joyless morrow." (p.83). My only comfort in "night[s] of darksome sorrow" is the knowledge that all things must experience winter in some form, including relationships, careers, and faith.

The changing of the seasons mirrors many aspects of our culture. The tale of Christ, a history having great spiritual importance to me, is a prime example. Summer represents the prosperity and fruitfulness of Jesus' life on Earth, his healing and evangelizing ministry. Good Friday, the day of his betrayal and death, is represented by the slow decay of autumn. Fall is a double-edged sword: the colours are breath-taking, yet one is faced with the constant reminder that everything is in the process of dying, just as his blood is beautiful to those on the other side of Easter, but the pain of his death is ever-present. The agonizing day following his death is winter. To everyone close to him, it must have seemed as though their hope for the future had forsaken them. Just as I experience the despair of seeing the sun abandon her earth-child every December, they mourned over the man they thought to be their savior and king. 

Resurrection day is the rejuvenation and rebirth of glorious spring. All is made perfect in spring. With this analogy I am able to view winter more positively. The winter of one's spiritual walk can cause the weary and doubtful soul to grow in faith, to lean only on that which is unseen for strength. Therefore, winter is a 
necessity. If it didn't exist, would I learn patience? Would I ever comprehend the meaning of the biblical verse, "be still and know that [God] is God?" If trials ceased to occur, would I still be able to see the fantastic beauty I am able to in the "springs" of life? 

Hence, through the depiction of winter in such a manner, MacDonald was able to evoke my own feelings towards the season. His ballad spoke to me on all plains of existence: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. I believe this was the author's purpose, to immerse the reader in his world by overwhelming every part of one's being. Only by so doing is the adult reader's realistic mind quieted enough to allow the freedom of uninhibited imagination be experienced to the full. 

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