On the history of fantasy scholarship

This is some writing I did for Here at the end of all things that will not make it into the final ms in this form. I have cannibalized quite a bit of it, but much of the overall point of this section was lost as I did so, especially the point about fantasy scholarship largely avoiding any attempt to historicize the genre. This point has become increasingly less necessary as I have developed my argument for the overall project. Nonetheless, I thought someone, somewhere, might find this lit review interesting or useful (or even wrong). There are no doubt some typos and other mistakes here, so I present it as is.

Framing the discussion

If, as I suggested in my introduction and will continue to make clear in below, fantasy suffers vis-à-vis science fiction as a genre incapable of doing what science fiction does, namely think through the problem of history and think through problems in an historical manner, some of the blame for this state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the scholars who have sought to identify what the genre is and describe what it does. Albeit without any ill intent, the critical reception of fantasy has generally not included strong arguments about the genre’s historical status since it (the critical reception) began in earnest in the 1970s. Numerous critics have rightly noted the historically recent invention of mimetic fiction and that fanciful treatments of reality had long been the norm prior to the rise of the novel, even if such treatments should not be taken as generic fantasy or even fantastika in a broader sense of the term. Likewise, and following from this acknowledgement, critics of the genre and related forms have noted that the distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is itself historically determined (arriving at something more similar to its present form than ever before in the late eighteenth century, at the moment when, as Clute suggests, the future becomes visible and therefore threatening). However, such acknowledgements made, the scholarship has tended to focus more on defining what fantasy is than investigating the specific conditions under which it emerged or the ways in which it reacts to those conditions.i In the last decades of the twentieth century, these debates mainly focused on four unevenly distributed topics: the literary history of fantasy, its antecedents in folklore, fairy tales, epics, the romance, the pastoral, etc.; the question of the impossible; the distinctions and relationships between fantasy and the fantastic; and the rhetorical strategies through which fantasy achieves its ends. In recounting this history, as well as its aftermath, I shall focus more on some of these topics than others in order to show how these early discussions set the terms of the debate, terms which not only influence my intervention here, but are themselves interesting from an historical perspective. Even where these terms do not prove to limit such debate absolutely, they nonetheless enjoin the later critic to address them. Such is even more pressing a concern for the critic of fantasy, an object that has yet to enjoy the wide and varied scholarly conversation that has been conducted around, for example, science fiction.

Although early studies of fantasy acknowledge the historicity of the genre (as well as the manner in which distinctions between realist/mimetic fiction and the fantastic generally are products of specific historical formations and conditions), these studies tended to focus more on drawing boundary lines between fantasy and its various others and with defining the positive features of the genre in terms of its formal and conventional properties. In short, these studies tended to be concerned with genre in a relatively ahistorical sense. For example, in his 1976 study The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, William Irwin notes, “Late in the nineteenth century various authors turned to writing fantasy,” perhaps because they felt confined by the limitations of the social realism that dominated the moment.ii This historicization remains incomplete, however, for the fact that, first, it does not account for the historical transformations of the late eighteenth century which provided the conditions for both social realism and for fantastika or, second, for the distinction between those fantasies which appeared prior to The Lord of the Rings and those which appear after. I argue that only the latter can be included in the genre properly understood (for reasons I shall elaborate in chapters two and three). In any case, Irwin’s goal is not to situate fantasy in its historical moment so much as to describe its formal features, and to do so with an eye towards differentiating between the fantastic (for Irwin something that appears at the level of content) and fantasy (which involves rhetorical devices specific to fantasy as a form). As such, he offers what has become a highly influential definition of the genre as that which “plays the game of the impossible.”iii He goes on to further claim that “a narrative is a fantasy if it presents the persuasive establishment and development of an impossibility, an arbitrary construct of the mind with all under the control of logic and rhetoric. This is the central formal requisite.”iv Irwin not only firmly establishes the concept of the impossible with regard to fantasy scholarship (which I shall further discuss in chapter XXX), but also makes clear in this claim that he is less concerned with the nature of the impossible than with the rhetorical devices which establish impossibility in the mind of the reader. Fantasy is a sort of sophistry insofar as it seeks to trick its readers into imagining impossible things for the sake of a game (however serious) than with the political implications of such thought. As such, history is largely irrelevant, as this game can be played at any time and in any place. That the game comes to be in a specific time and in specific places does not seem to be a concern. Not only would the notion of impossibility (and Irwin’s specific formulation of it) become important in subsequent years to critics of fantasy, but his focus on rhetoric has likewise been influential, as suggested by at the titles of at least three important books on the genre, Rosemary Jackson’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) (although each of these later works considers rhetorical form in more sophisticated, and even historico-political, ways).

Another 1976 study, Eric S. Rabkin’s The Fantastic in Literature, focuses far more on the fantastic, as opposed to genre fantasy, and thus underscores part of what Irwin’s attempt to differentiate the two in order to not focus on the fantastic. In his preface, Rabkin begins by noting that his book “explores the nature and uses of the fantastic. By examining what makes Fantasy special, we can isolate the affect (in the psychological sense of the noun) that flavors so much of our experience of art.”v Like Irwin, Rabkin does not concern himself with content so much as form, but the forms with which he concerns himself are not those that critics now generally understand to be part of genre fantasy. Rabkin spends considerable time discussing Edward Bellamy, Jorge Luis Borges, and Lewis Carroll—each of which has a rather tenuous relationship to the genre as it is now understood—but almost none on Tolkien (and even less on LeGuin, who had published several notable fantasies prior to Rabkin’s study). Rabkin does spend a good deal of time on G.K. Chesterton and William Morris, each of whom provide for fantasy taproot texts and other inspirations and influences, but neither of which can be included in the genre properly understood. None of this is to find fault with either Irwin or Rabkin, but only to highlight the early state of the field with respect to fantasy as an object.

Something of Irwin and Rabkin’s legacy becomes visible in other early studies that dealt with questions of history, but which did so with regard to the fantastic with a focus on form, notably those by Christine Brooke-Rose and Rosemary Jackson.vi Brooke-Rose begins her Rhetoric of the Unreal as follows,

That this century is undergoing a reality crisis has become a banality, easily and pragmatically shrugged off. Perhaps it is in fact undergoing a crisis of the imagination, a fatigue, a decadence. And rhetoricians usually appear in times of decadence, that is, when stable values disappear, when forms break down and new ones appear, co-existing with the old ones. Their task is then to try to make sense of what is happening by working out reasoned typologies of structures and trying to account for ‘deviations from the norm’ (the norm being what they, and people generally, have been used to).vii

Mirroring, or even anticipating, Fredric Jameson’s arguments about postmodernity, Brooke-Rose claims that the coming to prominence of the fantastic, which critics must define and describe, represents shifts in form that in turn represent shifts in cultural understandings of the present. She goes on to argue that the twentieth century has been unable to shake off the epistemologies of the nineteenth, and that this failure has caused historical crises altogether different than those experienced in other centuries: “One, obvious even to the layman, is that the very notion of progress is now untenable in its secure nineteenth-century sense of man’s perfectability—indeed in the moral sphere we may seem on the contrary to be capable of regressing several centuries, or rather, or making ‘progresses’ in iniquity unimagined before.”viii Brooke-Rose’s diagnosis of this particular crisis dovetails with my own argument below about the need for rethinking fantasy in the context of posthistory, but she makes her case well before the Berlin Wall even fell, an event which set off contemporary discussions about the posthistorical condition by thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama on the political right and Jean Baudrillard on the political left. For now, suffice it to say that Brooke-Rose makes an early attempt to understand the rise of the fantastic in the second half of the twentieth century specifically as a response to the historical situation of that world.

However, in describing the historical situation of the fantastic, Brooke-Rose decries anything that we would now understand as belonging to the fantasy genre. Tolkien for example, who must be understood as a singular figure in the establishment of the fantasy genre sense for good or ill, comes in for especially harsh criticism and is dismissed as partaking of the merely marvelous (rather than the fantastic, which hovers between the supernatural marvelous and the natural uncanny in Tzvetan Todorov’s influential argumentix). Take, for example, Brooke-Rose’s discussion of Tolkien’s use of the rhetoric of “so that,” a gambit that reveals the contrived concordance between every event in the fantasy and its end: “The warrior Boromir’s role is more structural [than Gimli’s or Legolas’, who merely represent their societies] (apart, but even more transparent: his function wholly to introduce dissension in the Company (book II/chapter 10), so that it can split, so that Frodo and Sam should be alone in the quest, so that the adventures may be separated. When that is achieved Boromir is got rid of (dies).”x Brian Attebery takes Brooke-Rose to task for her criticisms, specifically for her disdain for “so that,” but generally for the fact that she misunderstands the genre she purports to critique:

Why does Brooke-Rose object to the use of the rhetoric of the marvelous in a tale of the marvelous? Because she is applying standards based on other rhetorical modes. Inadequate motivation is a lapse, not in fantasy, but n the realistic novel, where we expect to be provided with enough character analysis to conceal the mechanical nature of the plot. Brooke-rose objects to LOTR because it offers some of the features of realistic fiction, but not to the same degree we have come to expect.xi

Brooke-Rose’s study remains valuable for historically situating the fantastic, but her refusal to consider the nature of the fantasy genre reveals much about the scholarly debate about fantastika more broadly, namely that fantasy has long been considered unworthy of particular types of scholarly attention. This lack of attention, again, has made it difficult to identify I fantasy what it can tell us about our contemporary situation beyond our simple and naïve desire to escape it.

Like Brooke-Rose, Jackson is much more interested in the fantastic than fantasy, although she departs from Todorov’s understanding of it: “For to see the fantastic as a literary form, it needs to be made distinct in literary terms, and the uncanny, or l’étrange, is not one of these—it is not a literary category, whereas the marvelous is. It is perhaps more helpful to define the fantastic as a literary mode rather than a genre, and to place it between the opposite modes of the marvelous and the mimetic.”xii By positioning the fantastic between the impossible and the everyday, between the supernatural and the mundane, Brooke-rose shows how it draws from both the marvelous and from realism in order to do something rhetorically neither can do on its own. She writes, “Fantastic narratives confound elements of both the marvelous and the mimetic. They assert that what they are telling is real—relying upon all the conventions of realistic fiction to do so—and then proceed to break that assumption of realism by introducing what—within those terms—is manifestly unreal.”xiii What the fantastic can do, then, is challenge authoritative truths and thus achieve a sort of political viability. However, fantasy, as again represented by Tolkien, cannot do so because it dwells entirely within the marvelous. However, even in her criticism of fantasy, which we can reject for the reasons Attebery has already provided for us, Jackson reveals an important truth about the genre that speaks to its relationship to history, if not its actual historical situation:

The narrator [of the marvelous tale, including those called “fantasies”] is impersonal and has become an authoritative, knowing voice. There is a minimum of emotional involvement in the tale—that voice is positioned with absolute confidence and certainty towards events. It has complete knowledge of completed events, its version of history is not questioned and the tale seems to deny the process of its own telling—it is merely reproducing established ‘true’ versions of what happened. […] The effects of such a narrative is one of a passive relation to history. The reader, like the protagonist, is merely a receiver of events which enact a preconceived pattern.xiv

Although the sort of authority Jackson describes here can become a constraint—for example, in the dystopia, certain horror, and certain newer fantasies which challenge the statement about story made by Tolkien and his imitators—in fantasy this absolute narration of history, the understanding that story is telling you in John Clute’s formulationxv—is, in fantasy, an embrace, the guarantee of one’s place in the universe. In short, it bespeaks consistence rather than existence, the perfect coincidence of one’s meaning and being that is opposed to the self-direction under which the historical subject unfortunately labors. I do not mean to suggest that such authoritarianism should be simply accepted, only that it is part and parcel of fantasy’s desire for ahistory.

As Attebery puts it, after surveying some of the field I examine here, critics such as Brooke-Rose, Jackson, and Fredric Jameson “were not interested in the genre of fantasy at all. They turned to Tolkien only because he could not be avoided in discussing twentieth-century uses of the fantastic.”xvi We may note that, in the early 1980s, by which point all of the studies mentioned here had been published, the fantasy genre may have been largely invisible to critics, with only Tolkien standing out for the fact that he had made such an impact in the publishing world generally,xvii although Attebery had himself avoided this limited understanding of the genre in his 1980 study The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to LeGuin, which included not only discussions of A Wizard of Earthsea, but also of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.xviii Less than for this consideration of specific texts, however, the importance of Attebery’s work resides more in the fact that it was willing to engage, well before other critics for the most part, with the genre of fantasy. It’s limitation was that, mainly, it relied on Irving’s definition of fantasy in terms of impossibility, a definition which does not adequately delimit the genre that began in the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

However, in 1992 Attebery would offer a definition which, while still limited in terms of how it historicizes the genre, delimited the scope of the genre in terms recognizable to its current fans and critics (even if such delimitation can never settle debates about its precise shape). Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of fantasy is, like the logical model from which it takes its name, “defined not by boundaries but by a center.”xix The boundaries of fantasy, which give way to the fantastic as well as science fiction and horror (among other things) remain to this day unclear and likely will forever barring some radical shift in the epistemological assumptions that underpin literary theory. However, its center is much clearer, although still open for debate. Attebery places Tolkien at that center: “Tolkien’s form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template, and will be until someone else achieves equal recognition with an alternative conception. One way to characterize the genre of fantasy is the set of texts that in some way or another resemble The Lord of the Rings.”xx This definition has remained a touchstone, if sometimes a contentious one, for later scholars of fantasy. It frames this book’s understanding of the genre, which is here understood to begin, in its proper sense, with Tolkien and the statements he makes about fantasy, even if we can trace, as I will in chapter two, prior “variants” on these statements that may have framed the genre but did not.xxi Moreover, the present text understands Attebery’s method for generic centering as less useful for identifying family resemblances between various fantasies than for establishing an historical baseline for the genre. Whatever the case, Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of fantasy must be counted as perhaps the first serious attempt to describe the fantasy genre.

With Attebery’s delimitation in place, fantasy criticism in subsequent years has been freed from ruminating about exactly what its object is and has thus begun the work of developing approaches apposite that object. Three books, each of which make reference to Attebery and thus acknowledge his impact on our understanding of the genre, are worth mentioning here. First, Farah Mendlesohn’s 2008 study Rhetorics of Fantasy returns us to the issue of the formal linguistic and narratological strategies through which fantasy achieves its effects but does so, first, without the previously necessary consideration of the fantastic and, second, by developing concepts specific to the fantasy genre, namely those of the portal-quest fantasy, the immersive fantasy, the intrusion fantasy, and the liminal fantasy.xxii Each of these terms designates a rhetorical form Mendlesohn identifies and describes by way of close attention to a wide range of individual texts. They explain how the fantasy genre, for example, establishes narratorial control (or gives it up), connects the reader to secondary worlds (or pushes her away), and the manner in which possibility and impossibility not only structure the experience of fantasy readers, but also the experience of fantasy worlds by those who dwell there. Second, Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings investigates the obvious, but largely unexplored, relationship between epic fantasies and the maps that so frequently seem to preface them.xxiii This investigation, which relies on both quantitative and qualitative analysis of these maps, yields important insights in the paratextual apparatus which supports fantasy narratives. Finally, Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness offers one of the few book-length treatments of a major political concern in the context of genre fantasy.xxiv Of these texts, only Mendlesohn’s could be possibly conceived as providing a general approach to the genre, a fact which bespeaks the development of criticism of it. Other recent books, such as Attebery’s Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth and Michael Saler’s As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality, are worth mentioning here.xxv However, certain specific points aside—such as Saler’s understanding of the ironic imagination and its relationship to modernity, discussed below—none of them provide a solid historical framing of fantasy of consider what such a framing would provide for our understanding of it.

This overview of the history of scholarship on fantasy, then, has made clear not only the lack of discussion about the historicity of the fantasy genre itself, but also drawn out the debates that have largely conditioned our critical understanding of it.xxvi Such debates—including that over the fantastic, that over the question of possibility, and that over the rhetorical forms through which fantasy and the fantastic operate—remain in the background of the present argument, and some of the discussions they involve will return in subsequent pages. However, at this point I will relegate them to secondary status in order to make clearer not only the historical situation of the fantasy genre, but also the importance for doing so. This situation includes at least four specific moments or varying degree of importance to the present argument. First, fantastika begins during the same period which witnesses the birth of historical consciousness and the philosophy of history that continues to inform contemporary understandings of the subject. Second, in the late nineteenth century, proto-fantasies, driven by what Michael Saler calls the “ironic imagination,” began to sketch the parameters of the genre that would eventually differentiate itself from science fiction and horror. Third, following the first and second world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, and under a literal threat of the end of all things, Tolkien established the fantasy genre as we now know it by “stating” it (in the Foucauldian sense) in terms of its positive understanding of story, its “being for” the human, and its understanding of the end.xxvii Fourth, and finally, in the wake of Tolkien and his imitators and following the collapse of historical narratives mentioned by Brooke-Rose and characterized by the debates about the end of history in the 1980s, fantasists since at least the 1990s have sought to reshape the genre and the ways in which it is stated. These fantasists often draw from a fantasy tradition hidden, to the casual observer, beneath the Tolkienien surface of the genre, a series of “variants” that run orthogonally to Tolkien’s statements. The following section of this introduction takes these moments in reverse chronological order, starting in the posthistorical present and working backward to the beginning of historical thought. In this endeavor, I retain Attebery’s notion of the fuzzy set in order to mark the historical before and after of genre fantasy properly understood, rather than to establish resemblance between various fantasy texts (this comparison will be based on other factors, namely the grammar of fantasy established by John Clute as well as some of the specific ways that fantasy texts have taken up or departed from the statements made by The Lord of the Rings).

iFarah Mendlesohn and Edward James trace the major dates, names, titles, and movements associated with the fantasy genre going back to Gilgamesh in A Short History of Fantasy (London : Middlesex University Press, 2009). This discussion is exceedingly useful for any scholar of the genre, but nonetheless does not accomplish the task I have set for critics here.

iiIrwin, The Game of the Impossible, 4.

iiiIbid., ix.

ivIbid., 9.

vRabkin, The Fantastic in Literature, ix.

viJosé B. Monleón’s A Specter Is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1990) is also worth mentioning here for the fact that it exhibits clear interest in both history and politics but focuses on the fantastic rather than genre fantasy.

viiChristine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 3.

viiiIbid., 7.

ixTzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1975).

xBrooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, 237.

xiAttebery, Strategies of Fantasy, 26.

xiiJackson, Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion, 32.

xiiiIbid., 234.

xivIbid., 33.

xvSee the entry on Recognition in John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), 804–5.

xviAttebery, Strategies of Fantasy, 36.

xviiIndeed, as many populist appraisals of twentieth-century fiction and publishing would have it, Tolkien may well be the “author of the century.” See T. A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

xviiiAttebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature.

xixAttebery, Strategies of Fantasy, 12.

xxIbid., 14.

xxiI am using “statement” in the sense given by Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge, And the Discourse on Language, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982) and “variant” in the sense given by Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006). I shall deal with these terms and their importance for the study of genre at length in chapters two and three.

xxiiMendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy.

xxiiiEkman, Here Be Dragons.

xxivHelen Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (New York; London: Routledge, 2016).

xxvAttebery, Stories about Stories, Saler, As If.

xxviI realize that this brief history of fantasy scholarship leaves out several important works that complicate my argument, notably C. N. Manlove, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), C. N. Manlove, The Impulse of Fantasy Literature (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983), several essays collected in Gary K. Wolfe, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), Ann Swinfen, In Defence of Fantasy: A Study of the Genre in English and American Literature since 1945 (London ; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984) and Don D. Elgin, The Comedy of the Fantastic: Ecological Perspectives on the Fantasy Novel, Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, no. 15 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1985). Because some of these studies have been less influential in subsequent years than those discussed, while others involve the dynamics I here describe, I believe my argument stands as is. Moreover, my point, again, is not to say that no one has made interesting or useful arguments about fantasy. Each of the texts discussed has made significant contributions to the field. Rather, I seek to demonstrate that the lack historical analysis of fantasy not only dovetails with its denigration at the hands of science fiction scholarship, but also because of the way the object called “fantasy” was framed by early debates about it.

xxviiThese claims will be examined at length in chapter two.


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