I had noted that many passages in Phantastes are mostly poetry, but I didn't realize this until I approached the end: the reason many (even most) passages are poetry is because Phantastes is
a poem. Yes, the entire book is a long and meandering poem, and will make more sense (and seem less poorly written) if viewed as poetry rather than novel. It also probably explains why I had enormous difficulty getting through it--I was attempting to read it as a novel.
This quotation from chapter 16 refers to a character the protagonist meets, but arguably describes the entire story: "[S]he seemed removed into that region of phantasy where all is intensely vivid, but nothing clearly defined."
More than with Lilith
, there's something Bradburyesque about Phantastes; if none of it evokes the feeling of Bradbury's overall body of work, then specifically Dandelion Wine--there's something of that here. I strongly felt that Dandelion Wine was poetry (in substance if not form), sung to the memory of youth; Phantastes is definitely poetry, more so because unlike Bradbury, MacDonald is evidently an actual poet. That becomes much more evident in the later chapters of Phantastes, where MacDonald creates little poems of his own in addition to the German Romantic poetry that he has quoted at times throughout the book.
Because of this, the book is much more challenging than its length (about 190 pages in my edition) suggest. It took me roughly two months to read, although that was partly for being distracted by other books.
Like Lilith, Phantastes is highly impressionistic. Dreamlike quality? I'm not sure I would say it feels dreamlike overall, but MacDonald's way of describing physical setting is extremely similar to what someone with a good memory might write down in a dream notebook. Writers wanting to evoke the surreal or, more generally, to describe imaginatively rather than photographically, should probably study Phantastes.