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    painting of a hilltop city with sun and clouds in a turquoise sky

    Sara Coleridge’s Phantasmion

    The First Fantasy Novel

    By James Smoker

    July 12, 2021
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    When Sara Coleridge (1802-52) was six years old, her father sent for her to stay a month with him in Grasmere, in England’s Lake Country. She hardly knew him. Her parents had separated when she was an infant. Later, in the memoir she wrote for her own daughter, Sara confessed that she suspected the visit was a ploy: Her father seemed “anxious that I should learn to love him … and not cling so exclusively to my mother.”1 When her mother arrived at the end of the month, her father became so upset at the show of affection between the two that young Sara ran and hid in the forest behind the house. It was a painful visit which offers an all-too-common glimpse of a broken family.

    There was one bright spot in Sara’s memory of that month. At that time, her father, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was living with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. They entertained some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the early nineteenth century, discussing literature, politics, and philosophy long into the evening. Sara would lie in bed, overhearing scraps of conversations she did not understand. After the adults wore themselves out talking, Samuel would come to Sara’s room. There they would stay awake until one o’clock, and he would tell her fairy tales.

    Sara was always afraid of the dark. When she was six, lions prowled in the shadows. As she grew so did her imagination, and soon a “whole host of night-agitators, ghosts, goblins, demons, burglars, elves, and witches” joined the lions.2 The adults laughed at her fantastic night terrors. Her mother was annoyed with her refusal to “bear the loneliness and the night-fears” in her own bed. Only her father, for all his other faults, understood. Samuel insisted they let Sara keep a lit candle in her room. As Virginia Woolf writes in her essay on Sara, Samuel “too, had been afraid of the dark.”

    Decades later – after she grew up, married, had children, after the death of her father – Sara took those witches, lions, and fairies and placed them in what she called “the crucible of imagination.”3 She shaped them into a story of her own. It was a fairy tale, but longer, meandering, overflowing with people and events. Her publisher was uncertain what to do with the three hundred fifty pages and gave it a limited run with no commissioned illustrations. Sara was pragmatic: “to print a Fairy Tale is the very way to be not read, but shoved aside with contempt.”4 Yet she had done something quite new. What had begun as a series of fairy stories she wrote for her son, Phantasmion: The Prince of Palmland (1837) became the first literary fantasy novel written in English.

    painting of a hilltop city with sun and clouds in a turquoise sky

    Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Castle public domain

    “A young boy hid himself from his nurse in sport, and strayed all alone in the garden of his father.”5

    Phantasmion begins in a garden.

    The child, Prince Phantasmion, has followed a bee from flower to flower, back to its hive, farther than he has ever wandered before. He watches, fascinated, as the insects unload their nectar and busy themselves around their home. Just as he is about to poke a blade of grass into the hive, a voice calls his name. Phantasmion looks up, startled, and sees an ancient woman, “firm and upright.” He is afraid.

    The woman is Potentilla, Fairy of the Insects. Rather than scold Phantasmion, she sees that he is “most beautiful” and offers to show him her power. The child laughs and asks her to make the hive swarm to a nearby branch. The fairy obliges. She unveils both her power and the beauty of her world as “the bees poured out of their receptacle by thousands and thousands, and hung in a huge cluster from the branch of a sycamore; and as the child looked upon the swarm, it seemed to be composed of living diamonds, and glanced so brilliantly in the sunshine that it dazzled the sight.”6

    Then Potentilla goes beyond a mere unveiling. She invites Phantasmion to take part in her power, and hands him her wand. “Strike the tree,” she tells him, “and say, ‘Go in!’ and they shall all enter the hive again.” He does, and the bees obey his command. Finally, Potentilla makes a promise:

    “My little Phantasmion, thou needest no fairy now to work wonders for thee, being yet so young that all thou beholdest is new and marvellous in thine eyes. But the day must come when this happiness will fade away; when the stream, less clear than at its outset, will no longer return such bright reflections; then, if thou wilt repair to this pomegranate tree, and call upon the name of Potentilla, I will appear before thee, and exert all my power to renew the delights and wonders of thy childhood.”7

    Phantasmion is the story of the prince’s coming of age in a world of mysterious powers and shifting reality. As he grows, Potentilla grants him various insect powers – he is alternately given wings, grasshopper’s legs, a beetle’s armor. He explores neighboring lands, uncovers secret histories, and discovers a plot to invade his kingdom. He falls in love with the beautiful Princess Iarine. The novel becomes a tangle of mismatched loves, imprisonments, rescues, and intoxicating dreams. All the while, fairies, sorceresses, and a malevolent sea creature manipulate the actions of mortals for good and evil ends.

    Reviews were mixed. The journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote, “I was delighted with the beginning, but a thick volume of such luscious description surfeits as a bellyful of macaroons would … what begins very pleasantly is ended with disgust.”8 When the novel was republished in 1874, the Edinburgh Review declared “the story has no backbone: no definite plan or purpose.”9 Nineteenth-century readers expected fairy tales to contain a clear moral lesson. Phantasmion refused to fit this mold. A New England paper, in one of the novel’s few unambiguously positive reviews, declared it “a work of pure imagination.”10

    Pure imagination, for Sara, was the core morality of the story. Like C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, Sara refused to talk down to children. A teacher’s job, she wrote, was to “give nature elbow room, and not to put swathes on [children’s] minds … to trust more to happy influences, and less to direct tuition.”11 She disliked virtue-laden picture books that translated biblical morals for young readers; a child was able to handle “the five Book of Moses, and the four Gospels, with a mother’s living commentary, together with the Catechism and Liturgy.”12

    Fantasy, play, and storytelling – these were the means by which children learned to live and move in the world. Sara says as much in the book’s envoy, which begins,

    Go, little book, and sing of love and beauty,
    To tempt the worldling into fairy land,
    Tell him that airy dreams are sacred duty,
    Bring better wealth than aught his toils command –
    Toils fraught with mickle harm.

    Yet Phantasmion is not merely escapism. The monsters that lurked in the dark of her childhood bedroom lurk in her fairy story too. Monsters followed Sara all her life.

    Sara was brilliant. Born two days before Christmas in 1802, she was “a most fearless child by daylight – ever ready to take the difficult mountain path and outgo my companions’ daring in tree-climbing.”13 By seventeen she was fluent in classical languages. Her oldest brother teased her that “Latin & celibacy go together.”14 She confided in her other brother that she wished she were born a boy. If she had been, she said, she would go to seminary, live as a country clergyman, and never make a woman feel ashamed. Sara fell in love and married. She had children. She taught her son how to sew; she taught her daughter Latin. She wrote theology, published poetry, and took up her father’s literary legacy. She reminded a friend “to admire toads and spiders, and think them as beautiful as butterflies.”15

    Sara’s life was difficult. In 1834, she gave birth to twins; one died two days later, the other two days after that. She had fragile health, anxiety, postpartum depression. She often couldn’t sleep. Doctors prescribed opium, as they had to her father. Sara fell into the same addiction.

    Then, in the midst of the darkness, Sara began writing. As one of her biographers describes it, “At Ilchester in October and November of 1836, incapacitated by menstrual pains and bound to her room by what her physicians called ‘hysteric’ outbursts, Sara devoted hours to manuscript revisions of a world of fairies, sorceresses, kings, queens, and princes.”16 In the darkness, Sara returned to fairy stories.

    The fairies of Phantasmion flit at the edges of sight. They are beautiful, powerful, mysterious, and capricious, drawing mortals into their secret plans. After a once rival power rescues him from a dreamlike trance, Phantasmion is confused by her sudden help. He muses, “Had the voice [of the fairy] a hidden meaning or no meaning at all?” Was she now a friend, or does she, “like the winds of heaven” follow “no settled course, to sport with human hopes and purposes her only plan.”17 Later, he worries that his own guardian spirit, Potentilla, has abandoned him after he is transformed into a horrifying beetle: “She deserted Dorimant [his father]!” he thinks, “perhaps she will leave me also to my fate.”18 Potentilla does return to free him, but only at the extra urging of the Fairy of the Earth. Why she nearly abandons him is a question never answered.

    Likewise, the story’s human characters are not merely good or evil – they are driven by ordered or disordered passions. Zelnith is driven to deception by her unrequited love for Phantasmion, but her love is redeemed when it is rightly turned to the King Penselimer. Phantasmion himself is often foiled by his own impulsiveness. Meanwhile, his romantic rival, Karadan, finds a rare moment of virtue when his unholy ally, the sea-creature Seshelma, demands Iarine’s infant brother as payment for her help. It is a step too far for Karadan: “O never will I betray the child that Iarine loves to this monster!”19 Human virtue is not inherent. It is cultivated when love is rightly ordered; it is corrupted by jealousy and greed.

    In Phantasmion, all any mortal can do is walk in the way of justice, honor, and love as best he can. It is an ethos that will resound into the next century, in words spoken by Gandalf the Grey. As he wisely reminds Frodo, we do not get to decide what trouble comes to us; instead, “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    Phantasmion’s greatest monster, however, is not a fantastic creature. It is the hopelessness of the grave. In the book’s second chapter, Phantasmion’s mother dies. Avoiding this reality, he finds an unnamed child playing alone in the palace. Together they go to the garden and encounter an old gardener. The gardener confronts the prince with his mother’s death, and offers a holly branch to him. Phantasmion throws the branch to the ground and cries,

    “How darest thou say that my mother is dead?”

    “Go to her chamber, and see,” replied the man sternly.

    Phantasmion turns to his young friend. To his horror, the child has eaten the holly berries and died. The gardener picks up the body, his eyes suddenly full of “shot fire like that of a panther: – 'So look the dead,’ cried he, ‘ere they vanish away: just so Queen Zalia is looking!’”20

    The prince runs screaming from the vision of death in the garden, and from the end of his innocence. He runs straight into his mother’s burial procession.

    Phantasmion is a death-haunted story. After the loss of her twins, after the death of her father, as despair kept her confined to bed, Sara has once again run into the woods – only now they are in enchanted Palmland. Here, in this fairy-world, she wonders if the winds of heaven exist only to sport with human hopes.

    Her answer, anticipating the answer that will resound again and again in fantasy stories, is no. Death is not the end of hope.

    The horrifying scene of Phantasmion’s first confrontation with death has a counterpoint later in the story, in a seaside conversation between the Princess Iarine and her young brother, Albinet. In a tender moment, the princess sings to the sleeping boy:

    How gladsome is a child, and how perfect is his mirth,
    How brilliant to his eye are the daylight shows of earth!
    But Oh! how black and strange are the shadows in his sight
    What phantoms hover round him in the darkness of the night!21

    Albinet suddenly wakes:

    “I dreamt that we were in the grave,” said Albinet, roused by his sister from sobbing sleep; “and I began to cry: but, behold, it was only a passage, and there was light at the other end.”

    “What have we to do with the grave?” said Iarine, in a sprightly tone: “We can never be laid under ground, only our worn garments. The earth is nature’s wardrobe; for out of it every living thing and every tree and plant receive apparel. Ere we go hence we must replace our garments in the great receptacle, that the old materials may serve to make new clothes for other creatures.”

    The boy, who has been disfigured since birth, looks at himself:

    “I will have finer clothes than these in heaven,” he said, “and such as fit me better.”22

    The hope of Phantasmion is a resurrection hope. In spite of the powers we do not understand, the passions within us and the world without us, and the horror of death, there is a flickering light that says, even so, all will be well.

    The story’s fantasy makes space for the darkness of the world. “I wish,” says Albinet, “that we could get [to heaven] without going down into the dark grave. Is there no lightsome road to heaven, up in the open air?”23 But confrontation with death is inevitable. What the fairy story offers is consolation; its promise is the same as Potentilla’s: when innocence is lost and despair threatens, the hope-filled imagination “will appear … and exert … power to renew the delights and wonders of thy childhood.”

    Phantasmion ends in a garden.

    After many trials, schemes plotted and foiled, loves mismatched and rearranged, the world has been set right. The prince has defeated the armies which would conquer Palmland. Iarine is by his side. Her two brothers, the baby Seshelma wished to steal and the kidnapped Albinet, are restored to her. Albinet’s disfigurement has even been healed by the water of a magical spring.

    Then, for a moment, it seems that the tale is about to circle back to its beginning: Iarine’s baby brother repeats Phantasmion’s playful action, striking the beehive with Potentilla’s wand. Once again, “myriads of bees came crowding forth” shining “with all the dyes of the opal.”24

    Phantasmion panics. He has been drugged and bewitched so many times that he can hardly tell what is a dream and what is reality. The garden scene is so sweet that he “felt as if he had dreamed of years, not lived them … the trees around all seemed as green and flourishing; the grove was filled with just the same soft insect murmur.”25 Can this goodness, he wonders, be just another illusion? He looks around for Iarine, dreading that she will evaporate, that her love was just another bit of nothingness. Instead, he is reassured: “there she stood, her face beaming bright as ever in full sunshine, the earnest that all he remembered and all he hoped for was not to fade like a dream.”26

    Sara Coleridge wrote her fairy story for her children; she wrote it for herself. It was an act of imagination that consoled her through years of death, isolation, and threatening despair. It was the candle she lit in the dark.

    The same candle has been lit in decades since. It was carried by princess and miner to ward off goblins. It has stood as a lantern in a land of eternal winter and been held in the hand of a hobbit. Its light has shone over sea and archipelago, through space and tesseracts. It has stood against serpents and spiders, witches and ogres, Echthroi and Balrogs. It is found in a house of endless hallways and an eternal sea, lighting a world of immeasurable beauty and infinite kindness.

    Phantasmion doesn’t hide the pain of this world – no respectable work of fantasy does. The pain of death, the fear of monsters without and within, and the breaking of families all remain. Yet, says the fairy-story, there is more. Suffering is not the end, and hope is more than a dream. These are the stories we tell in the dark. They are where we whisper to one another about the mystery of the world, and where we hold fast to hope.

    Footnotes

    1. Edith Coleridge, ed., Memoir and Letters of Sara Coleridge, (London: H.S. King, 1875), 14.
    2. Memoirs, 20.
    3. Memoirs, 77.
    4. Memoirs, 82.
    5. Sara Coleridge, Phantasmion, (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874), 1.
    6. Phantasmion, 2.
    7. Phantasmion, 3.
    8. Quoted in Jeffrey Barbeau, Sara Coleridge: Her Life and Thought, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 67-68. I am indebted to Barbeau’s biography for this essay, and highly recommend it for those who would like to read more deeply on Sara’s life, relationships, and theological writing.
    9. Quoted in Allison Cooper Davis, “Ponder and Believe: Interpretive Experiments in Victorian Literary Fantasies,” PhD diss., (The University of North Carolina, 2009), 78.
    10. Quoted in Barbeau, Sara Coleridge, 69.
    11. Memoirs, 45.
    12. Memoirs, 83.
    13. Memoirs, 20-21.
    14. Quoted in Barbeau, 12.
    15. Memoirs, 424.
    16. Barbeau, 59.
    17. Phantasmion, 238.
    18. Phantasmion, 298
    19. Phantasmion, 186.
    20. Phantasmion, 6.
    21. Phantasmion, 133.
    22. Phantasmion, 134.
    23. Phantasmion, 134.
    24. Phantasmion, 347.
    25. Phantasmion, 347.
    26. Phantasmion, 348.
    Contributed By

    James Smoker lives in St Andrews, Scotland, where he is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews School of Divinity. His research focuses on the intersection of theology, imagination, and doubt in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When not writing, James spends his time with his wife and three children exploring the countryside, eating good food, and reading together. You may find him on his (occasionally updated) blog 1thousandfold.wordpress.com or on Twitter @jamesgsmoker.

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