# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978
Problems of Fantasy
"Fantasy," like SF and other imaginative literature, has lately
been the subject of intense scrutiny by academic critics. Heading the list are
three new books under the names of Rabkin, Irwin, and Manlove (complete
bibliographical references to secondary literature on Fantasy are located at the
end of this study unless specified otherwise). But this is only the most
important part of the new spate of publications which also includes an entire
issue of the journal Mosaic (10.2, 1977), several new doctoral
dissertations, and a large number of articles in the critical anthologies and
journals. In addition, Eric Klinger's Structure and Functions of Fantasy
(US and UK 1971) now constitutes a comprehensive and reliable guide to extra-literary
fantasy, especially in relation to dreams, play, and motivational aspects of
behavior; the bibliography by itself is a substantial contribution to the
psychological study of fantasy.
Certainly real progress toward a fuller understanding of Fantasy literature
has been made, but it is also true that the critics are still presenting
piecemeal insights and observations rather than convincing total theories. I
will therefore make it explicit that I have no intention of generating a
holistic new theory, nor of erecting a unified meta-theory on the basis of the
earlier scholarship. I will attempt only (1) to discover what perspectives on
fantasy are common to the diverse theorists, (2) to make judgments as to what
might be most or least valuable in the various theories, and (3) to suggest what
problem areas might be most productive for future research on Fantasy.
1. Problems and Critics. One of the limits on the new critical literature
must lie in what R.D. Mullen has termed "every man his own Aristotle"
(SFS 10:311) to refer to the current fad in academic writing on literature for
individual critics to generate holistic theories and taxonomies. The concept of
"the fantastic" offers a ready example. Todorov's
"fantastic" is grounded in an ambivalence as to whether the narrative
world presented the reader is a natural or supernatural one. Irwin's
"fantastic" refers to the introjection of any "antireal"
subject-matter into a narrative (p 8), but it is not a literary
"genre" as Todorov's is. Rabkin's "fantastic" is somewhat
like Irwin's, though specifically limited to "the reversal of narrative
ground rules" (p 12). Hence, Rabkin's "fantastic" turns on
reversals of perspectives within the linguistic texture of the narrative itself,
and in its Structuralist/linguistic coloring is closer to Todorov, another
Structuralist, than to Irwin. Yet Irwin (pp 54-5) tries to accept Todorov's
scheme and work it into his own theory, whereas Rabkin (118n.1) rejects Todorov
out of hand as "a different view of the fantastic" (on Rabkin's
misunderstanding of Todorov's theory, see David Ketterer, Novel 10:189-92).
Words like "fantasy" and "fantastic" derive from common
parlance and popular culture, and because their semantic fields are at once
broad and vague they are unlikely to be appropriate for the refined analytical
techniques typical of contemporary literary scholarship. Instead, attempting to
"specify" those loose terms as abstract generic literary concepts only
leads to the reduction of the systems of these critics to private credos, and
then to obvious contradictions among the various systems.
Rabkin is most vulnerable to the charge of being overly speculative, even as
he is the most sophisticated and provocative of the new critics in the area of
theory. The Structuralist inspiration for his book seems authentic, but
unnecessary jargon like "grapholect," "microcontextual,"
"super-genre," and "dis-expected" betrays an a priori
interest in creating a system. When he reads closely, as with David Lindsay's A
Voyage to Arcturus (pp45-9), Rabkin is an impressive critic. Most of the
time, however, his book is over-theoretical: his insights are not founded upon a
wide-ranging knowledge of Fantasy and related imaginative literature, nor are
his various "generic" prescriptions and their accompanying diagrams
(e.g., pp 144 and 147) anything more than perhaps useful intuitions. Clearly
Rabkin recognizes only the "extrapolative" model for SF (p 121) and
appears to have missed Darko Suvin's discussions of "analogical" SF (College
English 34:373-82, and Genre 6:251-73). Also one wonders what
justifies so thorough a departure from the subject at hand, literary Fantasy, in
so slim and allusive a volume when in his final chapter Rabkin abandons
literature altogether for a series of speculations on Victorian art and
Manlove's study is another kind of literary criticism, one concerned with in-depth
explication of individual narratives rather than broad theoretical observations.
Though such analyses are sorely needed, this book seems disappointing on the
whole. It does contain a substantial amount of biographical and philological
lore (on Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and
Mervyn Peake), and Manlove does an admirable job in consulting the ample non-fiction
opus of each author. Yet somehow the Fantasy fiction gets lost in the concern
for these "other writings" and Manlove seems blind to
"literariness." Throughout the book, in fact, he seems to believe that
the non-fictional works (theological/philosophical in the cases of Kingsley,
MacDonald, and Lewis; literary critical in that of Tolkien) constitute some kind
of absolute from which the fictional narratives deviate, and thus Manlove
regards the fictions as intellectual failures (p 217, e.g., and cf. p 206 where
Tolkien is rebuked on the assumption that the Rings-trilogy does not fulfill the
critical vision of "On Fairy Stories").
Hence, when it comes to individual narratives Manlove's readings are diffuse,
muddled, and uninteresting — except perhaps in the case of the Gormenghast
trilogy (for a more favorable view, however, cf R.D. Mullen, SFS 3:206). Only in
the last instance does Manlove mostly avoid his worst pitfall of quarreling
constantly with the "philosophy" he attributes to the author (on
MacDonald, e.g.: "aware that a mystical and involuntarist position is an
inadequate view of man's relation to God, MacDonald has attempted to graft on to
it a belief in free will which it will not take" [p 62; similar statements
on pp 66, 68, 71 and 81]).
Overall, this must be regarded as an extremely old-fashioned approach to
literary criticism: much of its energies are directed to extra-literary issues;
it uses wit and stylistic elegance, which Manlove possesses in abundance, to
comment on the worth of literature, to award praise or blame, to approve or
disapprove, or to be encomiastic or vituperative by turn. With work he likes,
Peake's, the results can be eloquent and insightful. Otherwise, Manlove appears
completely unsympathetic from the outset toward his authors and their works.
Thus his "reading" of Tolkien's Rings is best characterized as
debunking, not criticism. The two final sections of his discussion of Perelandra
(pp 135-51) are a self-announced analysis of the "flaws" in Lewis'
moral/theological ratiocinations, but in the process he never considers the
narrative as Fantasy or fiction. He also dislikes Kingsley's digressions in
Water-Babies, yet Northrop Frye has made a good case for an entire class of such
narratives, renamed "anatomies" (Anatomy of Criticism [US
1957], pp308-14) from precisely this stylistic habit of including digressions
and catalogues and taxonomies. Since Manlove starts out from a "dislike for
this kind of thing," he of course has no capacity for reacting to the book
Kingsley actually wrote for us. What is even more revealing, Manlove is even
harsher on the Fantasists he has chosen not to criticize (e.g., Morris,
Dunsany, Eddison, Cabell, and many others are dismissed arrogantly on p 11), nor
does he have much use for earlier Fantasy scholars whose work he reports (Tony
Tanner on MacDonald, Douglass Parker and W.H. Auden on Tolkien). Despite the
fact that he is writing about Fantasy, Manlove is a Rationalistic critic and
skeptic who has little use for non-realism in fiction at all, and what he
actually accomplishes is to register his distaste for the genre of Fantasy on
practically every page.
Finally, even Manlove's definition of Fantasy is overly complex and
impressionistic, and therefore unlikely to be of much theoretical value: "a
fantasy is: a fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantial and
irreducible element of the supernatural with which the mortal characters in the
story or the readers become on at least partly familiar terms" (p 1). Yet
"supernatural" is soon redefined so loosely as to mean "the
impossible" (pp 3-7, the latter a term we will return to later; also cf.
R.D. Mullen, SFS 3:206). Of itself, the definition relates little to the
subsequent five essays on specific authors.
In my review of Irwin, which appeared earlier in this journal (SFS 4:75), I
have already been sufficiently critical of the diffuse point of view and the
lack of really insightful analyses of individual works. But his book does
generate some interesting theoretical viewpoints, and for these he will be given
credit later in this essay.
Another whole problem area in recent work on Fantasy literature has nothing
to do with constructing definitions or theoretical models. Rather, we turn from
these abstract and categorical insights back to the field of actual literary
narratives to pose the question: "What class of actual fictions can
reasonably be covered by the word 'Fantasy'?" Here more than anywhere else
we see remarkable divergences among the critics.
Thus on one side we have the very interesting, and unique, selection of
Fantasy narratives by Irwin. Works like Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Kafka's
The Metamorphosis, and Ronald Firbank's Flower Beneath the Foot
are just three among the many examples which typify the Fantasy selection in
this book as minor "mainstream" classics. Irwin's list of Fantasy
authors (pp 4-5) illustrates this same selection process and is revealing:
"Max Beerbohm, Edward Bellamy, G.K. Chesterton, John Collier, Walter de la
Mare, Norman Douglas, Ronald Firbank, E.M. Forster, David Garnett, William
Golding, Kenneth Grahame, Robert Graves, James Hilton, W.H. Hudson, Richard
Hughes, Aldous Huxley, Ronald Knox, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Machen, George Orwell,
T.F. Powys, Victoria Sackville-West, James Stephens, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain,
Rex Warner, Sylvia Townsend Warner, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, T.H. White,
Charles Williams, Virginia Woolf, Elinore Wylie." However, in an appended
list (pp 199-205) of "Suggested Reading" he has included many items
—passed over more or less completely in the text — which show an awareness
of the popular/fan tradition. By the latter, I mean those treated in Lin
Carter's Imaginary Worlds or L. Sprague De Camp's new popular history,
Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (in the late 30s and 40s and later these
overlap to some extent with the so-called "SF ghetto" writers).
Rabkin's list illustrates the topic of his title, "the fantastic in
literature," and it often goes far afield from Fantasy proper, from SF to
pornography to the detective story. Because of the constant reversals in the
narrative frames of reference, the Alice-books of Lewis Carroll constitute an
ideal of Fantasy literature for Rabkin. But by any estimate these are bizarre,
unique works of fiction; they cannot be regarded as typical examples of Fantasy.
For Borges to be counted a Fantasist, however, is only logical on Rabkin's part.
Todorov's genre of the "fantastic" provides another distinctive list,
overly specialized in one sense, too allusive in another; and as well his
selection of fictions demonstrates that there is much common ground between
Fantasy is general and Gothic literature in the narrow sense. No one ever seems
to mention Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in a positive light —
granted, its style is as peculiar and extravagant as in any of the author's
horror fictions — yet it describes many authors and works, unmentioned by
other critics, which would have to be included in the genre Fantasy.
In her dissertation (§2) Jane Mobley at least attempts a history of Fantasy
literature, and older related genres like the French contes de fees and
German Kunstmaerchen are given some, if slight, attention. But even here there
is no recognition of the ancient forms of Fantasy — though Winston's recent
study of Iambulus and "Cocaigne Utopia" and Whitman's chapter on
Fantasy in Aristophanes indicate the potential for further research in this
area. In addition, Mobley's historical schema for modern Fantasy is too indebted
to Carter's treatment, while her interests in myth and magic lead her to take
over too much of her critical language for Fantasy literature from Ernst
Cassirer's myth criticism. Cassirer and Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories,"
the other major influence on her system, are useful for interpreting the
"world-creating" dimension in Fantasy literature, but the Structuralist emphasis of Todorov and Rabkin is more adequate for analyzing the
relationships between the Fantasy world and the real world and for demonstrating
the philosophical/ epistemological implications of such relationships.
Indeed, like Manlove, Mobley illustrates one recurrent failure in
Fantasy-criticism: too much of the theoretical discussion has centered on myths
and fairy tales and supernatural phenomenon even when these are not crucial to
the actual narrative in question. The same principle holds true for Mobley's Extrapolation
article (esp. p 120): in order to equate Fantasy with "magic fiction,"
the concept of "magic" loses its original associations with religious
phenomena like witchcraft, rituals, and sacraments and is made to obtain a new
Cassirean meaning of any alternative "causality" system and is
too general to be of value as a descriptive definition. With their emphasis,
Irwin and Rabkin share the virtue of forcing us to look more widely in
literature for Fantasy (how widely is a question which still seems open-ended).
Consequently, for some time we will have to consult all the studies to gage
the range of possibilities, for, after all, our understanding of what
constitutes Fantasy literature depends on the actual works consulted. It is
important to realize that neither Fantasy nor SF proper had a nineteenth
century, that is, an intense period of historical and bibliographical
scholarship such as that accorded the classical and most of the modern-language
literatures. Such work for Fantasy and SF is only very recent, with the result
that basic critical-bibliographical work on these imaginative literatures is
going on at the same time as the large-scale production of a theoretical
literary scholarship which operates at a very high level of generalization (as,
e.g., Rabkin). Clearly we need to bring the theory closer to the actual Fantasy
fictions, and one way to accomplish this is by the production of more close
analyses of individual narratives: though neither Manlove nor Irwin seem proper
models, Rabkin and Todorov are leading in the right direction.
2. Two Characteristics of Fantasy: "The Impossible" and "The
Conceivable." Significantly, there is general agreement among the
critics that Fantasy constitutes what Irwin calls "the literature of the
impossible." By this expression he means that the fictional worlds
portrayed by the Fantasist take as their point of departure the
deliberate violation of norms and facts we regard as essential to our
conventional conception of "reality," in order to create an imaginary
counter-structure or counter-norm (Irwin's term is "antireal") which
can then be explored by the given Fantasy writer in any number of ways. Despite
their commitments to various other formal definitions of Fantasy, the
authorities certainly emphasize this "counter-reality" principle as
essential: James Gunn (Alternative Worlds [US 1975], p 214), Kagarlitski,
Manlove (p 3), Mobley, Panshin, Parker, Rabkin, Schmerl, and Tolkien.
But we must regard this "antifact" only as the starting point. The
original hypothesis must then be worked out with enough consistency that the
final fictive product — the Fantasy narrative — may be understood by the
reader as an intelligible "world" to be taken on its own terms:
Fantasy fiction develops its own frame released from what we usually
consider probable reality. The reader and the hero alike must confront the
passing strange and wondrous fair without any of the standards or norms
applicable to physical reality. Perhaps this partially explains the frequent
occurrence of guiding figures and testing situations in fantasy, since there
the old boundaries do not apply, and as the narrative creates new ones, both
reader and hero must be guided within them. Both must be continually testing
and tested by the new norms. (Mobley, Extrapolation 15 [1973-74], p
119; cf. Manlove, p 70).
In turn, this "impossible" universe somehow converges creatively on
readers' understanding of the real world (Irwin, p 166, on Parker's earlier
review article). Like all other literature known to us, then, Fantasy must be
regarded as dealing with human realities and as having a reality-oriented
function despite the self-conceived irreality of its hypotheses and
Fantasy has claimed with considerable vigor a special status in literature.
It has insisted that it is capable of non-realism, of an imaginative divorce
between fictional models it constructs and the world we all experience. This
claim, too, has proved unfounded. No man has succeeded in imagining a world
free of connection to our experiential world, with characters and situations
that cannot be seen as mere inversions or distortions of that all too
recognizable cosmos. Thus, if we must acknowledge that reality inevitably
eludes our human languages, we must admit as well that these languages can
never conduct the human imagination to a point beyond this reality. If we
cannot reach it, neither can we escape it. And for the same reason: because we
are in it. All fiction contributes to cognition, then, by providing us with
models that reveal the nature of reality by their very failure to coincide
with it (Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation [US 1975], p 7).
This is precisely the point where Rabkin's study of three nineteenth-century
Fantasists suggests larger implications. His overarching thesis is that
"the special worldview of the High Victorian era was the result of a
special confluence of perspectives on history, religion, and science" (p
83). Each of these conceptual fields, in turn, had a Fantasist — Morris,
MacDonald, and Carroll, respectively — whose narrative worlds involve
reversals of fundamental conceptual norms: "in [Morris'] Wood Beyond the
World, the reader finds a self-contained escape from the Victorian
perspective in history" (p 94); in Phantastes and Lilith,
"MacDonald uses the allowed Fantasies of childhood to offer true
consolation for all ages from the rigors of contemporary religious
doctrines" (p 99); Dodgson escaped from his world of science, and he
escaped from it under the name of Lewis Carroll" (p 109). Rabkin thus
proposes that Fantasy narratives allow us for a time to stand outside the
various codes which comprise our sense of reality and thereby gain perspective:
"the very nature of ground rules, how we know things, on what bases we make
assumptions, in short, the problem of human knowing infects Fantasies at all
levels, in their settings, in their methods, in their characters, in their
plots" (p 37).
As with so much else in this fascinating book, though, Rabkin has a habit of
facile overgeneralization. His reading of Wood Beyond the World, for
instance, imposes an artificial scheme of three conceptions of time (myth, aevum,
and history, respectively [p 94]) on a work which really provides a counter-structure
to Victorian beliefs across many more cultural codes (e.g., marriage customs,
maturation ideals, attitudes toward mercantile capitalism) than the strictly
"historical" one, which does not seem all that important.
Here, as elsewhere, Rabkin's own best insights argue against the
overspecialized, Structuralist-derived view that Fantasy involves the reversal
of narrative ground rules. Fantasy can ideally be based on the reversal
or inversion of any reality-comprising norms — conceptual, institutional,
metaphysical — not just those belonging to the narrative-language order (cf.
R.D. Mullen, SFS 3:311, "Professor Rabkin's initial proposition is that
fantasy derives from the reversal of ground rules, but ground rules [i.e., rules
established in and for a particular narrative] soon yield to generalized
perspectives on the reality of the world around us."). Rabkin himself
admits as much several times (e.g., p 42: "a narrative world itself may
offer a diametric reversal of the ground rules of the extra-textual world";
cf. pp 73 and 155: "Our fantastic worlds directly [sic, my emphasis]
reflect the worlds in which we live"; Ketterer, Novel 10, remarks at
length how Rabkin is careless in his notion of what constitutes a
Rabkin's insight receives confirmation in one of the recent dissertations. In
studies of George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, and Kenneth Grahame,
Cornwell's thesis is that Victorian Fantasy is involved with exploration of
phases of the self via creation of an imaginary realm variously represented in
fairyland, dreamland, or childhood (cf. Todorov's important chapter on
"Themes of the Self"). This presupposes that Victorian Fantasy is
reared upon a conflict between the expectations of everyday life on one side and
the image of an "impossible self' — the Child — on the other. Such
Fantasy is therefore a challenge to conventional Victorian beliefs about what
was or was not "real."
Just as there is this common intuition among the scholars that Fantasy begins
by asserting "impossible realities," there is basic assent that the
worlds of Fantasy must bear an intelligible relationship to the real world,
hence, serve some reality-function. This function has been described by James
Gunn when he observes that "fantasy, which is concerned with the conflict
between man and his imagination, which deals with the fanciful explanations man
has created to rationalize himself, his origin, and his fate, and the mysterious
forces that act upon him and his world — that is, with myth and legend — has
as long a history as literature itself; they are interwoven and in some ways
identical" (Alternate Worlds, p 214). Julius Kagarlitski further
proposes that Fantasy, far from being the irrational ("myth-like")
phenomenon it is usually taken for, is closely dependent on a rationalistic
frame of references: "Fantasy, a child of the new age, came into being only
with the destruction of syncretic thought, wherein the real and the imaginary,
the rational and the spiritual are inseparable. Fantasy begins to take shape
only from the moment when the original unity is destroyed and distintegrates
into a mosaic of the probable and the improbable. A myth is believed in too much
for it to be fantasy. When disbelief arises side by side with belief, fantasy
comes into being" (p 29). Here the only correction I would suggest is,
again, that Fantasy is not strictly a modern event: the works of Aristophanes
and Lucian and Winston's "Cocaigne Utopianists" indicate that the
ancient Greek intellectual enlightenment — which was certainly both
rationalistic and scientific — produced works that illustrate Gunn's and
Kagarlitski's generalizations perfectly.
Certainly, the relationship between "imagination" and
"reality" is a fluid one, with some Fantasists allowing for more
reality-functions to the imagination even to the point of believing that
everything conceivable can happen (writers and fans of so-called "Wonder
Fiction" often seem to take this stance), while others go to the opposite
end of the spectrum where imagination would be restricted almost solely to the
realm of the unreal (e.g., Lucian in True History). At the imagination-pole
one would expect to find mystics, idealists, pseudo-scientists, and cult-fadists
of all sorts; at the other, skeptics, satirists, positivists, and analytical
philosophers (my list is not intended to be exhaustive, only suggestive). But
since Fantasy deals with the relationships between reality and imagination
and is a dynamic literature, we must expect fiction that could exemplify any of
the eight ideologies noted above, as well as involve them in more complex
literary schemes. Some Fantasists, like Lucian or Cabell, can take all our
convictions about reality as mere fictions without such a thorough skepticism
requiring disapproval of fictions. There are even "meta-fictional"
Fantasies, like Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao and Peter Beagle's
The Last Unicorn, which self-consciously and self-critically speculate on
the nature of Fantasy and its reality-creating or reality-extending functions.
"Belief' is not the most significant factor here, either. If we think of
a category like "Christian Fantasy," for instance, C.S. Lewis and G.K.
Chesterton would still be Rationalists, Charles Williams and George MacDonald
mystics. Nor would there be any argument among either Christian or atheist
readers that these writers' imaginary worlds are at once Fantasy and
Christian: even Christian readers are aware that in Christian Fantasy the
various imaginary worlds comprise "impossible" realities. There are
indeed many "disputed" realities based on various questions about
religious phenomena, extraterrestrial visitations, and pseudoscientific monsters
(see R.D. Mullen, SFS 10:201). Many people would insist that such things
are true, but this is not a problem for literary Fantasy. The latter is really
only capable of portraying imaginary worlds and situations as a way of reacting
to (rejecting, reversing, transcending) present conceptions of reality shared
variously by author and reader. Schmerl is right to insist that "to suspend
disbelief when reading a fantasy may mean to fail to understand it" (p
We should now admit that Fantasy fiction is not intended to inculcate
dogmatic beliefs. If it were, why should Fantasy also always be so
idiosyncratic, so unique and personal in its vision of reality, so
individualistic in its style and expression? This does not sound like a very
intelligent or effective way to proselytize for one's narrow religious or
philosophical cause. The stronger thesis is that Fantasy should make us
sensitive to the bad beliefs that we already have and open to new, better ones.
Fantasy is in this sense intellectually subversive. Such a view implies, for
instance, that C.S. Lewis' Perelandra-trilogy should be read as an imaginative
critique of modern scientism and not as closely argued orthodox theology (though
this does not preclude Lewis from being a fairly orthodox Christian). Fantasy
thus seems to appeal to the intellectual non-conformist in us all.
Since products of the human imagination in the widest possible sense are the
central concern of Fantasy fiction, this would account for why so many Fantasy
narratives appear as "worlds of mind" which hypostatize mental or
imaginary phenomena. Thus there is the implication that Fantasy literature can
deal with any topic covered by man's imagination — though the entire range of
"the conceivable" is hardly tapped in its full potential by actual
Fantasy narratives. Indeed, typically the "impossible" worlds
conceived by Fantasists are based on conventional and outmoded forms of
intellection, like old theologies (the Catholic Middle Ages are popular, for
example), myths and myth-like concepts (e.g. Fairies) — which have been
regarded as "impossible" since as long ago as the ancient Greek
Enlightenment of the Fifth Century B.C. — and recognizably outmoded
philosophical systems, especially Idealistic ones (though the popularity of the
latter is probably also due in part to their detailed systematic character). In
his recent study of romance, and the renewed taste for Romances in our time,
Northrop Frye refers to this process of reverting in imaginative fictions to
outmoded intellectual systems as "primitivism," nor does this commit
him to a negative view of Romance; his study, however barely touches on either
SF or Fantasy for its generalizations (The Secular Scripture [US 1976]).
Dreamworlds are also typically important for Fantasy narration, as indicated
by as old a formula as Novalis' Romantically conceived one: "A fairy-tale
is a dream-picture without coherence, a collection of wonderful things and
occurrences (reported by Manlove, p 62; Mobley in Extrapolation, p 118,
wants to exclude dream fiction from Fantasy). Yet even when we admit with Freud
that dreams are important and meaningful, universally a part of man's mental
life and natural to his experience, we would not expect to meet up with dream
events and occurrences during the normal waking state. The choice of a dream
framework — that is, a dream imagined by the Fantasist as real as normal
waking life — signals the presence of the deliberately chosen impossible, if
the waking state counts as normal reality, as it typically does.
The most unprejudiced view of what constitutes "modern" Fantasy
would therefore see it connected with "disbelief" (as Schmerl, p 105)
rather than belief; and, in particular, historically associated with the
collapse of Metaphysics as a credible science of Being since the time of
Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. A number of critics have
observed that since the late eighteenth century, the entire notion of
"reality" has tended to become more and more "fantastic"
(Irwin's sense); that is, ever more open to impossibilities and incredible
notions, in science, art, and literature alike (inter alia, see Robert Plank, The
Emotional Significance of Imaginary Beings [US 1968], David Ketterer, New
Worlds for Old [US 1974], Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation; cf.
S.C. Fredericks, SFS 2:134-7). Rabkin's study of literary Gothic presupposes
much the same idea (pp 182-8). In a world where we have long been used to
intellectual pluralism, where our notion of what realities are possible is less
certain every decade, and where a relativistic attitude toward knowledge is
still rapidly increasing, more than ever we are open to Fantasy narratives,
hoping to discover in their relational interplay between the real and the
imaginary ways to sharpen our own individual senses of how to decide what is or
is not real.
The increased openness to Fantasy in our time involves more than progress in
literary criticism and theory of fiction. Some change in the literary
preferences of a large number of readers is also indicated, for the general
popularity of Fantasy is now as marked as the recent increased popularity of SF.
One could easily relate this change to the increased reliance on
"Gothic" in recent popular films and books; to the continual growth of
religions or quasi-religious cults, from Transcendental Meditation to Hari
Krishna and the Moonites; to the "Star Wars" mania; and even to the
"altered states of consciousness" paradigm now gaining ground in
psychological research. Analogically, one could look back to the origin of the
18th century "Gothic" literature as a "Fantasy" reaction to
the dominant philosophy and sensibility of Classicism (the latter regarding
itself as being close to a "natural" and "realistic"
interpretation of the world). But in whatever era it emerges, Fantasy marks the
rise of a non-conformist, pluralistic attitude toward "reality."
Though it may be involved with a Dionysian revival of irrationalism — as
sometimes seems the case with popular culture today — just as often Fantasy is
an intelligent critique of hyper-rationalism, demonstrating the relativity of
our knowledge of what constitutes reality.
3. Fantasy vs. SF and Fantasy vs. Satire. Somehow the distinction between
Fantasy and SF remains as important to the critics as it is problematical.
Typically, the critics wish to reserve some special dimension of
"credibility" for SF, as distinct from the "incredibility"
of Fantasy. Thus there is a strong tendency to understand the alternate worlds
of SF as more or less natural extensions of our own, provided that the author
explores the cognitive possibilities of ideas drawn from the physical and social
sciences and various other intellectual disciplines which are assumed to
systematize aspects of the physical and social environment. Rabkin (p 119)
further suggests that "hard" SF involves a close, intense association
of the imaginative conception with well researched speculations and is
"scientific" in a broad, but thoroughly cognitive sense. Thus SF would
best be read, not as the polar opposite of Fantasy, but as a special form of sub-class
of it: SF presents "impossible" or "incredible" worlds which
become credible and naturalized; the antifacts of SF come to appear as possible
or credible "facts" depending on the quality of the given writers as
to their research (scientific dimension) and their means of making alternative
realities palpable and convincing to the reader (literary dimension). Indeed,
two of the recent critics — Alexei Panshin (pp 64 and 179, n.2) and Julius
Kagarlitski — simply regard all SF as this special kind of Fantasy.
A number of corollaries are implied by the awareness that Fantasy and SF are
not contraries: Fantasy is not bad science, nor failed SF, nor out-of-date SF
(on all these points, see Joanna Russ, SFS 2:112-3). It is, of course,
"escapist" in a technical sense since its fictive alternative worlds
are portrayed as radically unlike the real world, but this cannot preclude an
authentic cognitive dimension to Fantasy. Darko Suvin's notion of
"cognitive estrangement" in SF may still be accurate as long as it
does not consign Fantasy to some absolute non-cognitive area: that is, Fantasy
and SF may involve different modes of cognition or sources of cognition. Or is
science (in as broad a sense as anyone wishes) the only authoritatively didactic
voice to which we are to listen? Happily, Irwin and Robert Scholes (Structural
Fabulation) insist on a didactive and educational potential for Fantasy. If,
as Rabkin proposes, Fantasy really is a literature which investigates the nature
of our various reality-comprising codes by creating imaginary alternatives to
them, then Fantasy must be regarded as a "cognitive" and critical
literature and not as irrational in its aims and functions. In any case, we
should no longer try to define SF by saying it isn't Fantasy.
If we view SF proper as a special form of Fantasy, there should be a
literature which could authentically be called "science fantasy" and
which should satisfy the requirements for both categories of SF and Fantasy. For
example, Abbott's classic Flatland certainly has some claim to being on
the SF side for high cognitive/scientific quality: the model is of course
derived from mathematics (some plane geometry, some number theory, some symbolic
logic) which many philosophers of science once actually regarded as the
"language of science"; but on the other side its presentation of the
paradoxes of other-dimensionality leaves us with the distinct impression of
impossible other-worldliness — conceivable, comprehensible, but definitely not
Yet this kind of "science fantasy" is something different from what
is usually meant by the term in popular SF circles. Here it is best
characterized as a kind of Fantasy fiction which exploits typical SF genres and
themes, playing up their strictly imaginative dimensions as opposed to their
cognitive/scientific ones. Pseudo-science also seems particularly attractive as
a source of speculative hypotheses for this literature. Some of the more famous
names associated with this form are Andre Norton, Fritz Leiber (especially for
the "Nehwon" mythos), Jack Vance (especially for the "Dying
Earth" universe), Emil Petaja, Philip Josť Farmer, Roger Zelazny, and
Henry Kuttner. Norton's Witchworld mythos might be taken as typical: the natural
laws which operate in the imaginary universe are imagined somehow to be equated
with what might, in the context of our own natural world and from its
perspective, be termed "magical." Thus this literature — as is
announced on countless dust-jackets — purports to describe a universe where
magic and science are indistinguishable. However, there is little interest
expressed in working out the epistemological implications of science and magic
being one and the same. Instead, the identity is merely established as a given
and from there these works are mostly concerned with depicting wondrous
environments, social or physical. Clearly such "science fantasy" is
closer to the dreaming than to the cognitive pole of SF. Some of it can indeed
even be self-styledly "archaic," arguing for an earlier
epistemological system like magic, as against one like science. This leaves many
of these writers open not only to the charge that they are ideologically
"anti-science" (cf. Rick Brook in his "Andre Norton: Loss of
Faith" [The Book of Andre Norton, DAW Books, 1975]), but also to the
charge that they are insufficiently informed about what science is, thus
vitiating any authentic attempt to identify it with magic or related
supernatural systems. Roger Zelazny in Jack of Shadows has, however,
questioned this antithesis between science and magic as mutually opposed
consciousness systems or modes of understanding reality in a serious
One other insight into this subgenre of Fantasy literature is that most often
the "science" in science fantasy is merely a form of rhetoric and not
a substantive dimension of the epistemological framework of the narrative; thus
we find Kuttner and Norton or, sometimes, Zelazny and Farmer inserting a
purported scientific concept or speculation into their stories which would be
viewed more appropriately as SF conventions about superpowers: these are really
nothing more than literary conceits borrowed from ghetto SF, and so this science
Fantasy too comes down to being a rather specialized case of Irwin's
"literature of the impossible" which derives from a peculiar literary
Typically, too, we find that authors who practice this form choose it because
it involves a polemical choice of an intellectual anti-structure
("magic") as an alternative to the dominant intellectual structure
followed by normal culture ("science"). Here again we might single out
Le Guin's Earthsea-trilogy as a serious attempt to imagine a "magical
universe" (see T.A. Shippey's "The Magic Art and the Evolution of
Words: Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy" in the Mosaic collection).
Since philosophers of science like Robert Oppenheimer and Thomas S. Kuhn inform
us of the inherent pluralism of science and of its self-transcending character,
it ought to be possible for a Fantasist to describe a "post-scientific"
universe, one that has transcended at least our kind of science.
The relationship between Fantasy and satire should also be questioned, if
only briefly at the end of this study. "Satiric fantasy" is a literary
reality, with ancient writers like Aristophanes and Lucian already constituting
sophisticated examples. Irwin, in fact, describes many works of modern satiric
fantasy in his book, yet never discusses satire in any formal way; it is, again,
left to Rabkin (pp 144-50) to recognize there is common ground to the two
classes of narratives. "Satire" would imply that dimension of the
given narrative which employs humor and laughter to criticize, demean, or reject
a given set of norms. Leonard Feinberg's definition of satire as "A
playfully critical distortion of the familiar" (The Satirist [US
1965], p 7) thus views satire, like Fantasy, as a reaction to norms, but with an
emphasis on humor and criticism, which is not essential to Fantasy. Rather, in
satiric fantasy "Fantasy" would refer to that dimension of the fiction
which creates a viable imagined alternative to the norms in question. And, of
course, the further satiric alternate worlds depart from our normal lived
worlds, that is, the more "estranged" such satiric worlds become, the
more they will appear as Fantasy realities. Hence, works like Gulliver's
Travels or the Alice-books or Douglas' South Wind, which were readily
taken as satires in their own socio-historical context, tend to be taken more
and more as Fantasies by later eras of readers as we get further from the lived
norms against which those books were intended to react.
Carter, Lin, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy (US
Cornwell, Charles Landrum. From Self to the Shire:
Studies in Victorian Fantasy (University of Virginia doctoral
dissertation, 1972; DA 33.7, 1163-4A).
Davidson, Alice E. The Fictional Technique of Charles
Williams (Indiana University doctoral dissertation, 1977).
De Camp, L. Sprague. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers:
The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (US 1976).
Hillegas, Mark (ed.). Shadows of Imagination: The
Fantasies of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams (US 1969).
Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of
Fantasy (US 1976).
Kagarlitski, Julius. "Realism and Fantasy," in
Thomas D. Clareson (ed.), SF: The Other Side of Realism (US 1971), pp
Lovecraft, H.P. Supernatural Horror in Literature
(Dover Publications ed., 1973, intro. E.F. Bleiler; reprint of 1945 ed. which
had a forward by August Derleth).
Manlove, C.N. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (UK 1975).
Mobley, Jane. Magic is Alive: A Study of Contemporary
Fantasy Fiction (University of Kansas Diss., 1974; DA 36.2, 881-A).
Mobley, Jane. "Toward a Definition of Fantasy
Fiction," Extrapolation 15(1973-74):117-28.
Panshin, Alexei. "Science Fiction in Dimension,"
in Clareson, SF: The Other Side of Realism (US 1971), pp-326-33.
Parker, Douglass. "Hwaet We Holbytla...," Hudson
Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature (US
Sanders, Joseph. Fantasy in the Twentieth Century British
Novel (Indiana University doctoral dissertation, 1972; DA 33.2, 764-A).
Schmerl, Rudolf B. "Fantasy as Technique," in
Clareson, SF: The Other Side of Realism (US 1971), pp 105-15.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to
a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard, with new Forward by Robert
Scholes (Cornell Paperbacks ed., 1975).
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories," in Tree and
Leaf (UK 1974) and The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine Books, 1966).
Whitman, Cedric. "Discourse of Fantasy," in Aristophanes
and the Comic Hero (US 1964), pp 259-80.
Winston, David. "Iambulus' Islands of the Sun and
Hellenistic Literary Utopias," SFS 3(1976):219-27.
Wortley, John (ed.). Faerie, Fantasy and Pseudo-Mediavalia
in Twentieth Century Literature (Mosaic 10.2 [Winter, 1977])
Fantasy, like SF and other imaginative literature, has lately
been the subject of intense scrutiny by academic critics. Heading the list are
three recent books by Eric S. Rabkin, W. R. Irwin--who to varying degrees both address the
recent work of Tzvetan Todorov--and C. N. Manlove, whose approach is philological and
biographical. New publications on fantasy also include an entire issue of the journal Mosaic
(10.2, 1977), several doctoral dissertations, and articles in critical anthologies and
journals. In addition, Eric Klingers Structure and Functions of Fantasy
(1971) now constitutes a guide to extra-literary fantasy, especially in relation to
dreams, play, and motivational aspects of behavior; the bibliography itself is a
substantial contribution to the psychological study of fantasy. Though real progress has
been made, critics are still presenting piecemeal insights and observations rather than
convincing total theories. I have no intention of generating a holistic new theory, nor of
erecting a unified meta-theory on the basis of earlier scholarship. I will attempt in this
essay only (1) to discover what perspectives on fantasy are common to theorists, (2) to
make judgments as to what might be most or least valuable in the various theories, and (3)
to suggest what areas might be most productive for future research on fantasy.
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