Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

Brian Attebery

Teaching Fantastic Literature

Although I have been able, once or twice, to teach a course entirely devoted to science fiction, more often I incorporate both sf and fantasy into an introductory-level course called Fantastic Literature. Even though this means dealing with a wide range of students (including the barely literate) and making the syllabus conform to the specifications for a general education literature course, the students and I generally find it helpful to place contemporary fantasy and sf in a larger historical and generic context. Furthermore, working at a level that does not assume answers to basic critical questions turns out to work to the benefit of the texts, since many of the standard answers to such questions are based on a realist model for narrative.

Perhaps half of the students who sign up for the course are already widely read in contemporary fantasy; slightly fewer are regular readers of sf. These students are proficient at what Samuel R. Delany calls the protocols of sf: they are alert to the verbal clues that establish a consistent magical or alien fictional world. Usually, though, they are less able or willing to analyze the text for style, tone, or narrrative technique. The other half are current or prospective English majors who can readily spot an extended metaphor or an embedded narrative but are not always sure what is happening in the story.

The disparity between these two groups of students can be useful. In the first class sessions, I use short passages to demonstrate different reading protocols, following Delany's model, and then for the rest of the semester let the students fill one another in on alternative ways of making sense of a particular selection. The trick seems to be to articulate the difference itself so that it becomes available for discussion.

Whatever background students bring to the course, it rarely includes much awareness of the traditions that modern fantasy writers are drawing upon or responding to. Accordingly, I proceed more or less chronologically, starting with classical or mythological texts that illustrate alternative constructions of reality of the sort that fantasy writers imitate and/or steal from. I have had success with the Homeric poems, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Gilgamesh. H.R. Ellis Davidson's Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, on the other hand, proved to be unpopular with the students for the same reasons I liked it, because it told them more than they wanted to know about the culture and society within which Norse myths functioned. Next time I go the Northern route I will probably find a more straightforward retelling of the Eddas. The wild mix of bawdiness and reverence in Apuleius's The Golden Ass makes it a wonderfully teachable story (as well as a powerful lead-in to C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces) but represents a late and skeptical treatment of mythic materials, arguably closer to modern fantasy. In addition to one of these longer texts, I like to assign a number of creation stories from around the world (including the opening chapters of Genesis).

It isn't possible in an introductory course to confront all the issues raised by myth scholars, but I do try to bring in a few ideas that seem to translate well to the study of fantasy. These include differences between oral and written narrative, the role of myth in codifying a society's sense of itself and its institutions, ways of analyzing a story's structure and categorizing motifs, psychoanalytic readings of myths (and major objections to them), and the idea of mythic time as a cycle—Eliade's Eternal Return. This last concept is particularly useful in making students aware of the power of narrative to organize time.

Studying mythic texts is also a good way to get students to ask why cultures tell stories at all, and particularly why they so frequently tell stories that deviate from reality, at least as defined in rational, materialist terms. For the storytelling cultures, of course, reality is not limited to scientifically verifiable phenomena—nor is it so limited for many of my students, who will argue that ghosts nor telepathy nor prophetic vision are enough in themselves to push a text into the category of the fantastic. Here again the pedagogical challenge is to encourage students to become aware of their own assumptions and to recognize that a different set of assumptions will give rise to dramatically different readings. Rather than argue over what is real, I try to get students to investigate the way different conceptions of reality affect the way we interpret literature. For instance, the ancestral influences in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day are enough like religious legends told within the Mormon church (to which many of my students belong) that they are able to fit most of the story into their view of the cosmos and hence feel no need to interpret its events metaphorically, the way they do, say, the dragons of Earthsea. It is usually possible, nonetheless, to reach consensus about what might be called everyday reality: the range of possible events that do not push one across a threshold into the numinous or the weird.

Along with myth, I incorporate selections from the other primary forms of folk narrative that do cross the threshold: legend, folktale, and ballad. Folklorists, basing their conclusions mostly on European materials, generally distinguish between legends, which are usually open-ended or tragic and are believed by their tellers, and magical folktales, viewed as fictional entertainments even by their tellers and tightly structured along the lines analyzed by Vladimir Propp. After introducing this distinction, I like to muddy the waters by offering something like a Navajo Coyote story, which may function simultaneously as comic folktale and sacred myth, with a bit of pourquoi legend thrown in at the end: "and that's why coyotes have yellow eyes." A good example of such a tale in cultural context can be found in Barre Toelken's Dynamics of Folklore.

After a quick tour of the forms of oral narrative, I move to genres that imitate or embroider those forms: the literary fairy tale, the literary ballad, and the medieval romance. Populated by fairies, giants, and other beings from tale or legend, these narratives demonstrate the writer's freedom to add descriptive details, motivations, moralized conclusions, and rationalized explanations to their folk models. One of the best texts to illustrate all of these changes is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which not only represents a pinnacle of the Arthurian tradition but also suggests a link with twentieth-century fantasy through J.R.R. Tolkien, who played an important role in popularizing the poem.

Moving beyond the medieval era, there are a number of important Renaissance (or Early Modern) writers who made use of the fantastic, but I pass over Drayton and Milton to concentrate on a Shakespeare play. A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest are obvious choices, and I have used them with success, but lately I have found myself selecting more obscure and problematic plays, such as A Winter's Tale or Pericles. These offer a couple of advantages. First, the students have no preconceptions about how to respond: even if they have read any Shakespeare they almost certainly haven't been introduced to these plays, and they can't even fit them into categories like tragedy or comedy. Second, there is enough disagreement among critics as to the plays' meaning and worth that there is room for each student to form an original judgment, especially since the critical confusion can be traced in large part to the plays' fantastic elements. By the way, the filmed BBC productions of them (which I use in class) deal awkwardly with intrusions of magic and the divine, and one of the things I invite students to do is to imagine staging a play in such a way as to give the fantastic its due.

At this point in the syllabus, I give up any pretence at historical coverage. The eighteenth century disappears entirely, and the nineteenth is reduced to a couple of poems and one novel: Frankenstein, or something of George MacDonald's (Lilith is a challenging but rewarding choice), or even Dickens' Christmas Carol. In the class I am currently preparing, I am using The Wizard of Oz primarily so that I can follow it with Geoff Ryman's Was.

My choices from among twentieth-century writers range widely in style and genre. I have used short fiction, selecting in different semesters from Eric Rabkin's Fantastic Worlds, Silverberg's The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Ursula K. Le Guin's and my Norton Book of Science Fiction, and, next semester, Greg Bear's New Legends. I have also used Angela Carter's collection of wickedly revisionist fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Among novels, I have been most pleased by those that, like Carter's tales, dramatize the complex relationship between twentieth-century readers and earlier storytelling traditions. Examples are Lewis's Till We Have Faces, Delany's The Einstein Intersection, Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home, Zelazny's The Dream Master (Lord of Light has never been in print when I have tried to get it), Jeanne Larsen's Silk Road, Nancy Willard's Things Invisible to See, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. These are strongly intertextual works, works that embody some of the processes that I hope to see in class discussions and student writing. The most important thing that can happen in class is when two or more texts connect up like batteries in a circuit (and occasionally even light up the dimmer bulbs in the room). I often find myself surprised at the interactions that begin to take place among the various readings we have done, at the way one Promethean character critiques another or one framing of a tale invests another with unexpected irony.

Some texts do not interact so freely with earlier forms of the fantastic. A couple of years ago, Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits slipped right past most of the students. They did not have the historical and cultural background to make many connections with the text, and the earlier reading we had done had very little to do with Allende's brand of magical realism. Science fiction can also pose a problem unless I spend a good quarter of the class on the development of its particular devices and concerns. While Frankenstein, The Einstein Intersection, or Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country interact synergistically with Greek myth and medieval legend, much sf engages primarily with earlier scientific and science-fictional discourse and responds less readily to a body of readings focusing on traditions of the fantastic.

I don't believe that much of what I have outlined here is unusual among courses on the fantastic, although I'm sure that all who teach it have different favorites among authors and genres. If there is any innovation in my course, it is the result of my attempts to rethink the concepts through which I originally learned to interpret the fantastic. As I look over what I have written here, it looks rather retro. Historical periods? Close reading? An obligatory pass through Shakespeare? Structures and motifs? Myth criticism, for the gods' sakes? Yet in each case, the old song has been reharmonized in the light of contemporary theory.

The old way to look at myths was as more or less pure glimpses into the archaic collective soul. No one paid much attention to the fact that the Homeric epics, for instance, were the work of an individual artist (or two, or several) who not only shaped traditional tales to fit his own taste but also represented a particular historical moment and social circumstance, without which the poems would not have been written down or even performed orally. Those circumstances dictate, for instance, a particular view of the roles of male and female deities that is quite different from what we can reconstruct of the women's mystery religions.

Another important consideration in looking at mythic texts is the degree to which they have been affected by the conventions of written literatures, especially because the written versions we have of most myths represent several layers of editorial intervention. Folktales, likewise, have passed into and out of oral tradition; the many variants of "Beauty and the Beast" may all derive from the version of "Cupid and Psyche" written and possibly invented by Apuleius. Recent studies of the Grimms's collection emphasize the number of young, urban, literate women among their informants, which casts doubt on the peasant oral tradition the collection is supposed to represent. All of this information encourages us to rethink Freud and Jung and Lévi-Strauss: it may be that the myth texts do not reflect human nature so much as create it, that the unconscious is a product of, rather than the source of, collective narratives.

Each time I introduce an idea like myth, it changes a little in response to what I have been reading and thinking about. I find that the course in fantastic literature is a marvelous arena in which to debate fundamental ideas about storytelling, interpretation, the elements of fiction, and the functions of literature. Listening to students who have few preconceptions, and dealing with texts that challenge even those few, I am forced to reinvent myself continually as a reader, scholar, and teacher. Most of the critical writing I have done in the past decade has been formulated and tested in the laboratory of the fantastic literature class. Student responses to the texts and my attempts to understand and amend those responses have led me to investigate such topics as the dramatized oral narrator in fantasy novels or the gendered metaphors through which sf conventionally represents the process of scientific discovery.

Over several years of teaching fantastic literature, I have gradually altered the way I perform in the classroom. I tell less, ask more. I try to set things up so that the students have to interrogate their own reading experience, both in discussions in class (not always easy in a class that averages over forty participants) and on paper. I emphasize writing as a part of reading by requiring a reading journal in which students keep track of their reactions and make sense of them in terms of specific details from the text and outside experiences that have affected their reading. Most of the students get very conscientious about keeping up their journal entries when they find out that they may bring the journals, but not the texts, to all exams.

Judging from what they say and write, most students learn a little more about how they read, and some discover new ways to enjoy reading. Those who already read sf and fantasy occasionally resent becoming more self-conscious about how it works and what they get out of it. Those who have never read either genre usually find at least some items that strike a chord in their imaginations. All who stick with the class have had to think, for a little while, about the power of language and of storytelling to create strange worlds, including the ones we live in.

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