ICFA 36 paper: Here at the end of all things: An Archaeology of Return

Here is my paper from this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, on the problem of ending in fantasy and John Clute’s conception of return.

Here at the end of all things”: An Archaeology of Return

Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper considers the final stage of John Clute’s grammar of “full fantasy,” first known as healing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and renamed as of 2011 when Clute questions “healing” as a useful term in Pardon this Intrusion and substitutes “return” as a “placeholder.” (116). It argues, first, that return is an irreducibly problematic and contradictory concept—not necessarily through any fault of Clute’s, but because of the historical problem of the end to which return is bound—and, second, that the extent to which fantasy involves return derives from its own historical condition.

Briefly put, my method of analysis here follows from Foucault’s description of archaeology, in The Aracheology of Knowledge. Archaeology involves the description of what Foucault calls statements. Although they are often coextensive with sentences, statements are not sentences, nor are they propositions. Sentences carry meaning and can be interpreted. Propositions carry truth, and can be judged. Statement carry something else, something we might call power, although Foucault does not use this term with regard to statements, however important it would become to him in subsequent years. In short, statements do not mean nor do they tell the truth: they state, which is to say they create a state within a discourse. Foucault writes, the statement “is a function of existence that properly belongs to signs and on the basis of which one may then decide, through analysis or intuition, whether or not they ‘make sense’, according to what rule they follow one another or are juxtaposed, of what they are the sign, and what sort of act is carried out by their formulation.” For example, the fact of a statement implies a position or individual we call an author, more properly called an author function. In the current context, fantasy’s preoccupation with the end, this state to which I now turn, implies a statement that makes this preoccupation with the end comprehensible to the student of fantasy.

In the original definition in the Encyclopedia, Clute defines “healing” as “what occurs after the worst has been experienced and defeated. It is the greening of the waste land or the recovery from amnesia on the part of the hero or the escape from bondage and the metamorphosis into the desired shape and fullness of those who have wounded/imprisoned by the dark lord. In the language of JRR Tolkien, it is the eucatastrophe” (458). There are numerous problems with this definition, problems somewhat obscured by the fact that Clute refers to healing as “the most straightforward” of the terms which define the full fantasy, the others being wrongness, thinning, and recognition (the first three stages of fantasy which lead to healing/return) and story (the overall narrative logic of fantasy). It’s not at all clear, for example, that eucatastrophe refers to the end of a fantasy so much as the moment when something like the end becomes visible or possible (more on this “something like” below). It is not so much a state of being that comes into existence at the end of a quest, nor is it where one arrives, as it is a moment in time when things start to get better, literally a “turn” and not a “return.” As such, the third stage of fantasy, recognition, seems a more likely candidate for the eucatastrophe than return. Beyond that, at the end of, for example, The Lord of the Rings (which provides so much of Clute’s grammar, both its terms and the concepts behind those terms), the hero is not healed with the conclusion of the quest nor after the journey home. The fullness of the land is not restored. In fact, Frodo has to leave Middle-earth precisely because he cannot be healed; the land is less than it was before the quest, which not only defeated evil but made permanent the thinning of the world that derives from the loss of magic. It’s here that we begin to see the impossibility of return, namely insofar as it implies not so much an end, or even a desire for an end, but for the moment before the beginning outside of narrative altogether, the “time” or “space” known as story. As such, the most significant problem with return—and different, related problems exist for topia, the final stage of science fiction, and for aftermath, the final stage of horror—has to do with the problem of the end in general.

In The Darkening Garden: A Lexicon of Horror, Clute notes that the four stages of horror, which mirror and correspond with the four stages of fantasy, “describe those works of Horror which seem most completely to exhaust the potentials of the form.” Thus “full” expresses a peculiar form of evaluation based not so much on the quality of an individual fantasy (nutritious or non-nutritious, central or marginal within the genre, better or worse), but rather something within the genre itself, a tendency which exerts a sort of force on individual fantasies by necessity, even if it does so negatively at times. To speak of the fantasy genre in this fashion is to speak of it as an historical phenomenon, as something that came into existence at a certain time and under certain conditions, as something determined by that time and those conditions insofar, as something which involves a particular episteme, as something stated if you will. The fantasy that most adheres to this tendency will be not central to the genre, or will not merely be central to the genre. It will be that fantasy which most clearly expresses the epistemological conditions under which the genre itself came into existence. Complicating this issue, of course, is the fact that the historical situation which conditions fantasy as a genre has itself significantly changed, in no small part because of the way fantasy has been stated by its relationship with return and therefore the question of the end. Frank Kermode writes, “Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.” The ways in which each genre of fantastika deals with the end seems to me indicative of, to put it simply, modern epistemologies fearful of or trusting in the notions of history that came into existence in the nineteenth century.

I don’t think I am going too far to say that fantasy, full fantasy, is driven by its relationship to the end, but this is an end that is only something like an ending. Science fiction, it seems to me, is driven by origins that lead to an end, insofar as it seeks to explain the future in terms of a break with the past that came into existence at a certain moment. We call this break, or that which created this break, the novum. Horror, as Clute says somewhere, comes “after the future,” meaning not that the future has become our historical past but that the idea of the future has become passe, impossible, unthinkable. Horror occurs when the future is foreclosed upon, when the present is all that is left. Fantasy, however, seeks an end, a radical end, one that allows for an escape from history altogether. However, this end is unlike the topia of sf, which in concluding or completing history provides the possibility of grasping history as a whole and thus offers the significance, meaning, or belonging that can only come with completion. Fantasy’s end is, as the term implies, not such a completion nor such a conclusion, but rather a return to an initial undifferentiated state, before wrongness. Fantasy does not seek an end that will grant meaning to its quests, battles, and losses. Rather, it desires a state of being in which such battles never needed to take place at all. We can see why Clute might discard “healing” to describe the final stage of fantasy. Ideally, the land does not carry on with memory of its scars, but reverses its history to arrive at a time not only before the scars existed, but before the conditions through which they would come to be existed.

However, even as fantasy seeks such an “end” that is a reversal, it fears ending in general, which is to say any end which is merely an ending, which involves only the story stopping without achieving such reversal. The problem of return, and the statement that most concerns me here, has to do with, on the one hand, fantasy’s desire for reversal that exists as part of its fullest expression and, on the other, the impossibility of actually achieving this end made clear whenever the narrative fails to stop and/or when it fails to arrive before the beginning.

Let me come back to the historical situation in which all of this manifests before turning to a specific example of the way fantasy has dealt with the question of the end. Fantastika generally, Clute argues, begins sometime between the middle of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. On one end of things, we find the advent of Gothic fiction and on the other Frankenstein’s monster uttering “Pardon this intrusion” as it violates the boundaries of the familial home. During this period, Clute argues (and others would agree), humanity (or at least those parts of western Europe experiencing the Enlightenment), begin to understand the planet itself as a drama. Notably, during this period, we also find the origins of our modern notions of history. It’s also during this period that history ends, at the battle of Jena, according to Hegel in Kojeve’s reading. We thus get a glimpse of the so-called “universal homogeneous state,” the secular end that mirrors the sacred one lost as a possibility with the advent of modernity and scientific knowledge (and one that closely resembles the topia of sf). Of course, we should note, that history did not end in 1806 and much later Fukuyama, a student of Allan Bloom (the editor of Kojeve’s English translations), would proclaim another end of history with the fall of the Berlin wall (which again turns out to be wrong).

In any case, fantasy seeks, in return, what was lost with the beginning of the modern world, a moment with an equally debatable date. This loss involves the moment before difference, before meaning, before the beginning of history. To be clear, however, fantasy’s specific concern—that the end will appear that does not involve return—does not reflect or depart from some eternal or transcendental concern with ends generally. Rather, its concern with the end involves the conception of ending at work at the time of its own becoming possible. All of this is to say that return is an historical concept. Fantasy itself, of course, does not begin as a genre at this time, but neither do science fiction and horror, both of which would come into their own as genres only in the twentieth century. However, fantasy’s desire for a return to an earlier pristine state—such a state being lost in modernity according to Hegel and other Romantics—derives from a particular moment, perhaps in response to a glimpse of wrongness and merely exacerbated over the subsequent 150 years until Tolkien stated the genre as having this concern.

To turn then to a specific statement about endings, one that comes into existence as fantasy comes into its own, again as a genre. The title of this talk comes from a line in The Return of the King, spoken by Frodo (and later repeated, the only line in the novel so repeated as far as I can tell, although I am happy to learn I am wrong on this count): “For the Quest is achieved and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” Three things about this line, which is for my purposes here the most direct example of the statement of the concern with ending in fantasy. First, of course this is NOT the end of all things. The novel has about 100 pages to go. There will be many partings (the fellowship breaks up about four times), the Shire will be scoured, and Frodo et al will leave via the Grey Havens. Moreover, the BOOK is nowhere near done. Not all of the appendices continue the narrative after the end, but the narrative does continue in the chronology provided in Appendix B. There is also Tolkien’s aborted epilogue, in which Sam tries to tell the whole story to his children, the less said of which the better. All of this adds up to suggest that even though this story might end, return has not happened. The former must not happen lest the latter become impossible.

Second, Tolkien writes it in the aftermath of numerous endings, none of which achieved what they promised. Hegel’s end of history did not achieve a universal homogenous society. Marx’s communism did not appear as the logical conclusion to the contradictions of capital (not that Tolkien likely minded that). The war to end all wars did not in fact end all wars. Moreover, these failures of social and political progress were being countered by other forms of ending including the possibility of the heat death of the universe and nuclear Armageddon, ends which did not promise return, but simply ending. That Tolkien kept writing seems an inoculation against ending in the hopes that the return is nigh. That fantasy these days seems incapable of ever ending—just one more, two more, twelve more books ought to do it—derives in part, I would argue, from exactly this impulse. Even a Brooks or a Donaldson or a Eddings or a Jordan do not think in these terms specifically, fantasy’s tendency towards length in part derives from Tolkien and therefore in part from the fear of the ending without return.

Third, this line, or some very close version thereof, appears in a great deal of fantasy. I have compiled the clearest and most direct examples on your handouts, examples which do not include countless claims about the end of the world, the end of time, or other such apocalyptic moments. So, consider the following:

  • From Jewel the unicorn, in The Last Battle: “This is the end of all things.”
  • Par-Salian, in the final volume of Dragonlance: Legends, The Test of the Twins: “‘This is the end,’ he murmered, his gnarled wasted hands plucking feebly at the air. “The end of all things.”
  • from The Darkest Road, the third novel of The Fionavar Tapestry: “And then the Wolflord of the Andain, who had dreamt a dream for so many years, who had followed a never-ending quest—not for power, not for lordship over anyone or anything, but for pure annihilation, for the ending of all things—blew that mighty horn with all the power of his bitter soul and summoned Owein and the Wild Hunt to the ending of the world.”
  • Par Ohmsford’s experience in The Scions of Shannara: “He felt himself buffeted and tossed, thrown like a dried leaf across the earth, and he sensed it was the end of all things.”
  • Jane’s assault the Sprial Tower, in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter: “They were embarked on a quest of destruction, going up against the greatest Enemy of all, to die and in death seek the obliteration of history. It was the end of all things.”
  • In The Runes of the Earth, Esmer states, “The Dancers of the Sea desire the end of all things.” (The third volume in the series that contains Runes, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, is entitled Against All Things Ending, reminding us yet again of the tension between one sort end and the other.)
  • Two from The Hero of Ages, the second spoken by Ruin: “‘If this truly is the the end of all things, then the Resolution will soon be hers;” “‘This process we are engaged in, the end of all things—it’s not a fight, but a simple culmination of inevitability. Can a man make a pocket watch that won’t eventually wind down? Can you imagine a lantern that won’t eventually burn out? All things end.’”
  • In Shadowplay: “Of course he did not belong, here at the end of all things.”
  • From the final volume of The Wheel of Time: “‘they will keep on searching, but these notes contain everything we could gather on the seals, the prison and the Dark One. If we break the seals at the wrong time, I fear it would mean the end of all things.”

Again, this list does not even account for numerous variations on this theme, about the end of the world, the end of times, the proximity of such ends, cataclysms, apocalypse, etc. Many of these passages likely do not refer intentionally to Tolkien, and none of them restate Tolkien precisely, in the Foucauldian sense of statement. Lewis’ Narnia, of course, is far more explicitly Catholic than Middle-earth, and the end of all things imagined in that context derives from a lack of faith first and foremost (and results in a new beginning in Paradise most of the other texts fail to offer as such). Swanwick’s use of the phrase carries with it the teenage angst of his protagonist and the blackly humorous rage of a dying dragon who demands answers for what has befallen him. The selections from Donaldson and Jordan carry their own irony, given the length of each of the series in question (and note that the passage from Jordan was actually written by Brandon Sanderson, who had already used it in Hero of Ages).

Of course, this list does not provide proof of anything, but merely suggests the extent to which fantasy has committed itself to thinking about the “end of all things,” a concept which stands against the tendency within the genre to desire return, which is precisely not an end. Nonetheless, by way of conclusion I would like to suggest that Tolkien’s statement, which of course some if not most fantasy avoids, involves a sort of double limit. On one hand, we are limited to return within fantasy because of the statement. That is, only with great difficultly can we conceive of fantasy outside of return. Even that fantasy which avoids it does so only to appear as a negative example. We may never return, it is true, but we always return to return. On the other hand, we are limited by it in terms of our own sense of history. To be trapped in or simply to think in terms of return so-conceived, it seems to me, is to be stifled by history, or at the very least an historicist type of thinking. Return only makes sense within history; it opposes history to story, to coherence, to a full and unfallen state of being. And thus, so long as we think this way, I would speculate, we cannot in fact effect return. Nonetheless, I would also argue that return is one of only two ways to even conceive of an outside of history that does not require history itself as a motor, the aftermath of horror, which involves a present out of step with itself, being the other. Return may require history as a condition of its conception, but history is, strangely, not its motor in the manner that topia manifests by virtue of our going through history. Of course, here we have the Marxist critique of fantasy, namely that it IS historical insofar as it is a symptom of capitalism, but that it fails to THINK history because it tries to imagine history’s outside. Perhaps all I have done here is get us back to this argument, but in getting us there a different way, I want to suggest that even as return is a limiting factor within fantasy, it remains the genre’s real contribution to a critique of the very thinking that gave us capitalism to begin with. Thank you.

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One Response to “ICFA 36 paper: Here at the end of all things: An Archaeology of Return”

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