This past spring I audited a Socratic dialogue class on the literature that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. Among the many works explored and discussed, we spent two weeks reading Phantastes, by George MacDonald. The students in the class were discussing the character of Anodos and his seeming inability to make reliable decisions and follow the advice given him. They put this down to his naiveté, however, when I considered their discussion more deeply later, I discovered that Anodos was not naïve at all, rather he was vastly immature.1
To be naïve is to be innocently ignorant. Naiveté is often associated with young children, for children will often make mistakes because they are not old enough to know better. One of the faults of a naïve person is that he will sometimes take advice blindly without considering the credibility of the advisor.
An immature person is old enough to avoid the uninformed mistakes of childhood. Immaturity is a form of pride, for an immature person will disregard wise advice because he thinks he is wiser than the advisor, when in reality he is not.
At the beginning of his journey through Faerie, Anodos shows signs of naiveté. He wanders through Faerie in blissful admiration, as a child would, simply drinking in the wonders before his eyes. But he soon looses his purity of mind. Although throughout his journey he possesses an ability to sense the underlying good and evil of a person or situation, he consistently disregards his deeper convictions in favour of what his eyes see.
In his search for the Marble Lady, he meets the evil Maid of the Alder-tree. However, because the two women look similar to one another, he never doubts that the Maid of the Alder-tree is his Marble Lady. He later admits, “Yet, if I would have confessed it, there was something…in the sound of the voice, although it seemed sweetness itself…that did not vibrate harmoniously with the beat of my inward music.”2 Despite this and numerous other misgivings, he excuses them for the unexplained and unpredictable ways of Faerie and makes the disastrous error of mistaking great evil for great good.
As he continues his journey through Faerie, Anodos repeatedly disobeys the advice of those wiser than he, bringing consistent disaster and heartbreak upon himself and those with whom he interacts. Despite numerous warnings, he enters the ogress’s house (again ignoring his subconscious sense of good and evil). Upon entering, he is curiously attracted by a certain closed closet door. “You had better not open that door,” the ogress tells him.3 Anodos later writes, “The prohibition, however, only increased my desire to see.”4 He opens the door and is faced with his Shadow, whose company haunts him and destroys the beauty around him.
These are characteristics of immaturity, not of naiveté. Anodos does not act blindly out of ignorance. He is repeatedly given clear warnings which he consistently disregards. His actions are the result of pride. Anodos assumes he is wiser than the wise people around him when he is not. However, although it takes him some time to learn, Anodos slowly loses his pride. He becomes wiser and more understanding of the ways and world of Faerie, so much so that in the end he is able to defend a fellow wanderer who, like Anodos in the beginning, mistook great evil for great good.
1I am of the opinion that the class’s description of Anodos as being naïve arose from a misunderstanding of the word naïve, rather than a misunderstanding of the text.
2George MacDonald, Phantastes, Chapter 6
3Ibid., Chapter 8