RECOMMENDED FOR READING
Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre
Book by John H. Timmerman; Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1983
In "Birches," Robert Frost looks upon the ice-bowed branches of the pliant birch and imagines a boy swinging upon them. Trusting to his imagination and materials at hand, the boy turns momentarily from this world to the free swing of the birch bough. "It's when I'm weary of considerations," writes Frost, "And life is too much like a pathless wood," that he too finds himself longing "to get away from earth awhile." Frost immediately qualifies his longing: May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth's the right place for love....
That affirmation lies at the heart of fantasy literature; the reader longs to stand apart for a time, not to escape but to rejoin earth's "pathless wood" with a clearer sense of direction and purpose. Fantasy is essentially rejuvenative. It permits us a certain distance from pragmatic affairs and offers us a far clearer insight into them. This fact may account, in part, for the enormous appeal of fantasy literature. It does more than simply restructure a reality which we already know-it also offers a parallel reality which gives us a renewed awareness of what we already know. There is an enormous and unquenchable thirst in humankind for precisely this opportunity for pause. And, as the pace of modern life inexorably quickens, the fascination for fantasy literature quickens simultaneously. "A child," J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "may well believe a report that there are ogres in the next country; many grown-up persons find it easy to believe of another country." 1 Here is the invitation fantasy extends to the reader-to recover a belief which has been beclouded by knowledge, to renew a faith which has been shattered by fact. We may know there are no ogres in the next country-we haven't seen them in our travels-yet we may well believe there are. Like other types of literature, fantasy gives us the opportunity to become lost for a time in another world so that we can discover or recover a fresh perspective in this world. Bruno Bettelheim acknowledges this in his study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment: "If we hope to live not just from moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. It is well known how many have lost the will to live, and have stopped trying, because such meaning has evaded them."
Fantasy is not a new thing under the sun, after all. Its legitimate forebears include the fairy tale, the Romance, and the fable. But man's thirst for "otherness" has sharpened in recent decades. A casual glance at booksellers' lists will disclose the phenomenal surge in sales figures for fantasy works. 3 More startling, perhaps, is the fact that these works are not only sold but read. As fantasy literature has become increasingly popular, more critical attention has been paid to it. For some years this attention was professionally coordinated by scholarly organizations such as The Popular Culture Association of America. Within the last few years several books on fantasy have been published by major presses. These books share two common traits. First, they generally focus on individual authors and individual fantasy works. Primary attention goes to certain works worthy of that attention by virtue of their aesthetic merit. This is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor, but it does little to identify the unique properties of the genre itself. There is little critical distinction, for example, between fantasy and its related genres such as science fiction. Second, but akin to the first, is the common failure to identify fantasy's place in the tradition of western literature. What features does fantasy share with all outstanding literature? Fantasy is not a sideshow at a shady comer of the main thoroughfare. Although unique, and deserving of individual identification as a genre, fantasy has a central place in the western tradition as a whole. It provides new ways of seeing a thing, and new answers to what is seen; but it deals with enduring matters.
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The task now seems to be one of identifying the genre and locating its relation to literary tradition. There are attendant questions: What is the worth of fantasy? What does it do? Why and how does it do what it does? Such questions may be answered only by a thorough consideration of the primary issue.It may be precisely in defiance of such theorizing that fantasy exists. Some readers have observed that J.R.R. Tolkien really had a critic in mind when he wrote: But harder than stone is the flesh and bone Of a troll that sits in the hills alone. Fantasy seeks the undefinable; its subject is nothing less than the human spirit. This, in part, accounts for its powerful impact. Fantasy is never content with objective testimony to pragmatic reality; instead, it explores the world of humankind in its spiritual reality. Ursula K. Le Guin has commented that "A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you." 5
All the more important, then, is the need for a better understanding of the genre. In A Preface to Paradise Lost C.S. Lewis states that "The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is-what it was intended to do and how it was meant to be used ... the first thing is to understand the object before you...." 6 But form is not always easy to understand. As Lewis might have pointed out, some cathedrals may look like overblown corkscrews, and it is possible to imagine a corkscrew having a steeple-shaped handle. Form is always something intensely individual for the creative artist; no less so than his ideas. Somehow, within established literary patterns he must find an individual pattern which may be shaped to best reveal what he has to say. As Lewis suggests, "The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it becomes really original, really the origin of great work." 7 My intention here is not to craft one more paean to the expert authors of fantasy literature we now have, a task that has been undertaken admirably by several scholars. My concern instead is to understand the form that the fantasy writer wants, and in fact achieves. The effort here is to attempt a theoretical understanding of why fantasy operates, how it operates, and to what end it operates by focusing upon the nature of the genre itself.
Like most readers of fantasy literature, I have been enchanted by certain authors. I was tempted to turn repeatedly to those authors for evidence, but I have resisted that temptation insofar as possible. When individual examples were called for, I attempted to select them from fairly well-known works. In this study I will identify six traits which must be present to some degree to characterize the work as fantasy literature. In each instance I have attempted to use the common literary terms, although fantasy literature may make special use of those terms. These six traits are the use of traditional Story, the depiction of Common Characters and Heroism, the evocation of Another World, the employment of Magic and the Supernatural, the revelation of a Struggle between Good and Evil, and the tracing of a Quest. By understanding these theoretical qualities of fantasy, perhaps we can discern that the sideshow does indeed belong center stage, taking its proper place in the literary tradition. In John Gardner's Grendel, the uncanny monster is reminded that "Tedium is the worst pain." Perhaps we shall look at more theorizing at first than fantasy, but it is only to permit us to exclaim with another voice that Grendel hears: "The gods made this world for our joy!" Grendel reflects: "The people listen to him dutifully, heads bowed. It does not impress them, one way or the other, that he's crazy." 8 The question is whether we can provide the theoretical structures that permit us to make that happy claim without Grendel's final qualifying clause.