Science Fiction Studies

# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978


S.C. Fredericks

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 architecture.

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 conceptions:

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 "reversal").

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 105).

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 real.

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 epistemological Romance.

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 environment.

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.

REFERENCES

Carter, Lin, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy (US 1973).

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 29-52.

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 Review 9(1956-57):598-609.

Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature (US 1976).

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])

 

ABSTRACT

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 Klinger’s 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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