Spring 2012 Course: Fanatsy after Tolkien

A lot of people who do 20th century lit, the posthuman, media studies, etc seem to have started their path to lifelong readerdom as SF aficionados. Not I. My first love was fantasy, although I now understand that my reading of fantasy was largely restricted to Tolkien clones. Seriously, I can recall one trilogy (fantasy is almost ALWAYS written in trilogies since Tolkien, even the heterodox stuff) that was nearly the same EXACT story complete with little people, a kraken guarding and long abandoned mine, and numerous other similarities so similar I can’t believe that there wasn’t a lawsuit. Wish I could remember the name of it. Likely buried in my parents basement along with Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and my complete Narnia collection.

In any case, it’s only been recently that I have returned to fantasy (thank you Richard Morgan for The Steel Remains!) and have been asking myself whether there is something there beyond a tenuous connection to Rabelais, Beowulf, the classical epic, etc. Hence this class.

Like the baseball class, I am somewhat nervous about this one. With baseball, that nervousness derives from the fact that I have thought SO MUCH about the topic without actually conversing about that thought with anyone but myself. The nervousness here derives from the fact that I have not done a tremendous amount of thinking about the topic, was not even aware that there was thinking about the subject to be done until recently. As such, I am only dimly aware of the themes that we need to explore in the class. I am confident that 1) these themes will clarify themselves as time goes on (I am giving myself a crash course in the fantasy I don’t know very well right now: Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson and a bit of Lovecraft for this purpose); and 2) that this immediate non-knowledge will be a feature and not a bug–classes seem to go better for me when they becoming a process of discovery with students rather than a redistribution of knowledge that flows from me to them. We’ll see. In any case, I am excited to be thinking about this stuff and for the possibilities it opens for rethinking the 20th century.

Oh, and I have to say it: next term is very boy heavy, between this and baseball. Baseball seems a given, and fantasy it turns out is not much better in this respect. There are other women who could be included here beyond Clarke, but the two with which I am most familiar (Susan Cooper and Anne McCaffrey) are not appropriate I think (the reading level of each is not right for the class, and McCaffrey strays too much towards SF). I am sure that there are others I am missing, and regret that. I also regret that race is not more of an issue for the class, although Delaney touches on it (and the question of sexuality). I think that this shortcoming has to do with the genre and its intended audience (I recently read that the “hottest” woman in the history of D&D is the one who is willing to play a role-playing game with boys). However, I am also aware that I could use to learn more about the alt-history of fantasy. I am sure its out there.

ENGL 3060-009 & -010: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Fantasy after Tolkien


Fantasy literature offers something of a contradiction. On one hand, it is a thoroughly contemporary genre. Yes, the fantastic has a longer history than that provided by the twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century that gave the world fantastic as fantasy, magic that no one believed in, monsters that only existed in the imagination. However, on the other hand, fantasy implicitly and explicitly continues to allude to moments in the past when our understandings of the world were not quite set by science and rationality. The conflict endemic to a great deal of fantasy literature is that of modernity: the passing away of the supernatural and its replacement by the mundane. Think of Tolkein’s elves leaving Middle Earth or Lewis’ children who grow up and can no longer find Narnia.


Considered in this context, fantasy literature offers up a number of avenues of investigation. What happens to the fantastic in the face of the rational? Why is the fantastic so often portrayed according to the tropes of realism? How do various representations of the fantastic allow us to rethink the history of modernity in the United States and the West? This class will read fantasy literature produced in the wake of and against Tolkien as an evolving set of genre conventions and as a literature committed to experimental considerations of nature and history.


Evaluation will be based on quizzes, class presentations, response papers, and a final essay.


Reading List

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Samuel R. Delaney: Tales of Neveryon

Stephen R. Donaldson: Lord Foul’s Bane

Neil Gaiman: American Gods

Felix Gilman: The Half-Made World

Robert E. Howard: “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Fritz Leiber: “Ill Met in Lankhmar”

George RR Martin: A Game of Thrones

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

Michael Moorcock: Elric: Stealer of Souls

JRR Tolkien: The Return of the King


One Response to “Spring 2012 Course: Fanatsy after Tolkien”

  1. […] are the course materials for my Spring 2012 Modern and Contemporary Literature course, Fantasy after […]

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