The modern fantasy novel might hardly seem to need a defence, were it not for the curiously ambivalent position it occupies in the contemporary literary scene. On the one hand, many post-war writers have employed the genre with considerable skill and variety, some phenomenal publishing successes have occurred in this field, and an increasing number of universities throughout the English-speaking world now include the literary criticism of fantasy as part of their English Literature courses. On the other hand, some critics and academics condemn the whole genre with a passion which seems to have its roots in emotion rather than objective critical standards.1
Relatively little has been written on post-war fantasy, except for studies of individual authors. This is an attempt to redress the balance, by taking what it is hoped is a wide-ranging and comprehensive view of fantasy – what it is, what it tries to achieve, what fundamental differences distinguish it from the realist novel. This study covers modern fantasy published over the three decades after 1945.
To some extent the precise period has been arbitrarily chosen, for there is no special significance in the terminal dates. However, the period as a whole has been selected deliberately, for it witnessed a considerable expansion in the publishing of works in this genre and the emergence of a number of notable novels by a new generation of writers in both Britain and America. This may be partly due to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, but this is not to say that many of these novels are simply derivatives of Tolkien’s pioneering work. A great many, indeed, appear to owe little or nothing directly to Tolkien, and some writers may be said to surpass him in imaginative power or philosophical conception. The point is, rather, that Tolkien made fantasy ‘respectable’. Since the publication of The Lord of the Rings it has been possible for British and American writers with a serious purpose to employ once again the genre of marvellous writing, as they had not been able to do since the growth and dominance of the realist novel. Even so, they have too often been obliged in the first instance to publish as children’s writers, only later (as of course was the case with Tolkien himself) becoming accepted by an adult readership. It is quite clear from any prolonged study of what might be termed ‘high fantasies’ that to label them as children’s books is grossly misleading. They operate on an adult level of meaning, and the issue of deciding the dividing line, if such could ever exist, between worthwhile literature for children and for adults seems to be a futile exercise. In any case it is tangential to the current discussion, and no such division will be made here.
While disclaiming the existence of any identifiable school of modern fantasy, this study is founded on the demonstrable fact that many of these writers have some characteristics in common and share similar concerns. Indeed, it is for this reason that the subject is approached broadly on a thematic basis instead of author by author, as has been the case in other works.2
It becomes clear that fantasies published during the period are frequently imbued with a profound moral purpose and, even when set in a different historical period or, more interestingly, in a complete otherworld, display a concern for contemporary problems and offer a critique of contemporary society.
Yet it would not be wholly satisfactory to deal with this period as if it were totally divorced from what had gone before. Indeed, it might be argued that modern fantasy writers are simply the heirs of a long-standing literary tradition, even perhaps that they could scarcely have existed but for the foundations laid earlier in the development of European literature. Where appropriate, attention to such historical origins will be given in the succeeding chapters. For the moment it is sufficient to point out that modern fantasy employs structures, motifs and marvellous elements derived from its predecessors in myth, legend, fable, folk-tale and romance. Yet it cannot employ such elements in the same way as these predecessors did. In a world governed by materialism and scientific rationalism, fantasy sets out to explore the immaterial and irrational. Moreover, unlike, for example, the writer of a medieval romance in what was virtually a universal Christian culture of Europe, the modern writer of fantasy cannot start from a widely accepted basis of belief. The moral premises must be established within the work itself. In addition, the literal-mindedness of the modern reader militates against the writer of fantasy. With their wider interpretation of what could, or might, constitute human experience, earlier audiences were readier to accept a Grendel or a Green Man. The modern writer must expend much effort in order to induce ‘secondary belief’. Hence, although there are similarities with earlier marvellous literature (and indeed without this rich tradition, fantasy could not achieve many of its most deeply moving moments), modern literary fantasy is, of its nature, a different genre.
Some omissions must necessarily be made in a study which ranges over so wide a field of literature in an attempt to clarify and assess its particular characteristics. For example, there is no extended consideration to be found here of the works of Tolkien, for the obvious reason that such a consideration, if properly carried out, would leave no room for anything else, and that in any case his work has already received considerable critical attention. The writings of Mervyn Peake, like those of Tolkien, have been studied elsewhere, and his novels also appear to be rather different in character from the works being discussed here. Some other writers have been regretfully omitted simply for reasons of space. Nevertheless, even with these omissions there remains a large corpus of works, all of which repay close study, and some of which are of notable literary merit. Throughout, the intention is to examine the nature of fantasy as a whole, rather than individual writers in isolation.
Before embarking on a study of modern fantasy novels it will be useful to arrive at some idea of what exactly is implied by the term ‘fantasy’. The epigraph which appears at the beginning of this work is one of many passages in which Dante refers to both imaginativa
To Dante imaginativa
, the imaginative faculty, which comprehends the art of prose fantasy, was divinely inspired, offering a dimension of creativity going beyond man’s empirical experience. La Divina Commedia
itself is perhaps the greatest poetic fantasy in European literature. Tolkien, who first applied the phrase ‘the sub-creative art’ to the writing of fantasy, saw such literary creation as the natural outcome of man’s own creation in the divine image.4
As the Creator creates, so man in His image is also a creator. At the same time, the writing of fantasy appears to be closely linked with man’s rational being and perception of the natural world. What may at first sight seem to be a paradox lies in fact at the heart of fantasy: that is, that to create an imaginative and imaginary world it is necessary to observe faithfully the rules of logic and inner consistency which, although they may differ from those operating in our own world, must nevertheless be as true to themselves as their parallel operations are in the normal world. The
writing of successful fantasy, then, is amongst the most demanding forms of literary creation.
The interchangeability of ‘fantasy’, ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’ in the terminology employed by various writers at various periods could support a very wide interpretation of the term. Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, attempted a distinction between imagination and fancy, which allocated to imagination the creative power and to fancy a more mechanical role. However, Coleridge’s definitions do not fully account for the nature of fantasy as subcreation. It is obviously necessary to arrive at a definition of fantasy which is both adequate and relevant to the works to be discussed.
As a starting-point we may take Tolkien’s discussion of the concept in his lecture ‘On Fairy-stories’, delivered at the University of St Andrews in 1938 when he had already published The Hobbit and was writing the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. As the author of several of the most notable works of fantasy written this century, Tolkien is able to offer particularly significant views on the genre itself. His ideas on fantasy do not simply constitute an apologia pro operibus suis. Fantasy, even modern fantasy, does not begin with Tolkien. Going back to the beginning of this century, we find Walter de la Mare’s The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910) embodying many of the characteristics to which Tolkien alludes. The nineteenth century had also produced some distinguished contributions to the genre. Tolkien, therefore, was writing at a point when fantasy was already deeply embedded in the English literary tradition. Moreover, such was the influence of his own work, both in offering an outlet to serious writers unwilling, for whatever reason, to restrict themselves to the requirements of the modern realist novel, and also in shaping the subsequent development of the fantasy novel, that an understanding of Tolkien’s conception of fantasy becomes indispensable for an understanding of the genre.
Tolkien’s lecture is concerned with the nature, origins and purpose of ‘fairy-stories’, a term which proves not easy to define. A study of the genre reveals that such stories are rarely concerned with fairies. ‘Most good “fairy-stories” are about the aventures
of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches’ (TL
, p. 16). The nature of fairy-story thus depends upon ‘the nature of Faerie:
the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country’ (TL
, p. 16). The term ‘fairy-story’ is thus misleading, and although Tolkien continues to use it in his lecture, it will not be used in this study.
Instead, the term ‘fantasy’ has been preferred, as having perhaps a wider currency now than in the 1930s. Current usage varies widely, however, even when it is applied in a literary sense, and contemporary writers on the subject of fantasy usually find it necessary to define the term, often at some length.5
Tolkien defines the term ‘fantasy’ as embodying both ‘the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.… Fantasy (in this sense) is … not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed, the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent’ (TL
, p. 44).
In this study the term ‘fantasy’ will be taken to mean both the sub-creative art, with its quality of strangeness and wonder, and the kind of novels which such art produces. The essential ingredient of all fantasy is ‘the marvellous’, which will be regarded as anything outside the normal space-time continuum of the everyday world. Pure science fiction is excluded, since it treats essentially of what does not exist now, but might perhaps exist in the future. The marvellous element which lies at the heart of all fantasy is composed of what can never exist in the world of empirical experience. Elements of the marvellous may irrupt into the normal world, but more often the reader is carried, at least part of the time, into another world, where, Tolkien asserts, he does not undergo what Coleridge described as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (BL, XIV, p. 169). The writer as sub-creator creates a complete and self-consistent ‘secondary world’, and if he is successful, the result is ‘secondary belief’ on the part of the reader: ‘He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside’ (TL, p. 36).
Our normal experience of the primary world thus leads us to give primary belief to primary realism, while successful sub-creation induces secondary belief in the secondary realism of a secondary world.
Contrary to a widespread misconception, the sub-creative art of fantasy, the expression of man’s natural creative capacity, in no way conflicts with the exercise of his other principal faculty, his reason. As Tolkien asserts:
It [fantasy] certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured.… For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. (TL, p. 50)
Indeed, the detailed examination of modern fantasy bears out precisely what Tolkien alleges here, as will be seen later in the discussion of the realism of secondary worlds and of the vital ‘inner consistency’ of all successful fantasy writing.
In the sub-creative art of fantasy, Tolkien detects three faces: ‘the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man’ (TL, p. 28). Unfortunately, by deliberately choosing to exclude two types of tale – the beast fable and the Lilliputian story – Tolkien largely excludes the mirror of scorn and pity. Yet this seems to be one of the predominant characteristics of fantasy, and this study includes a discussion of both these types of tale, and of the mirror of scorn and pity – that is, the use of fantasy to mock or exhort foolish mankind, often through the use of Utopias and dystopias.
The magical face of fantasy seemed to Tolkien to be the essential one, and it is indeed the most characteristic of his own work. It is by the magical renewing and refreshment of our perceptions that we come to view the primary world, dulled through familiarity, with newly wondering eyes. ‘We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves’ (TL, pp. 51–2). Fantasy is thus an enrichment of life, for even if dragons exist only in otherworld, our lives in the primary world are richer and more beautiful simply through the imagining of them. Indeed, ‘magic’ is perhaps not the best term to use for this aspect of fantasy, for magic ‘produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World.… it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills’ (TL, p. 48). Fantasy may be said to aspire rather to the ‘elvish craft’ of enchantment. At its heart lies creative desire, like Dante’s: ‘In this world it is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves’ (TL, p. 49). Fantasy draws much of its strength from certain ‘primordial desires’ for the enrichment of life: the desire to survey vast depths of space and time, the desire to behold marvellous creatures, the desire to share the speech of the animals, the desire to escape from the ancient limitations of man’s primary world condition.
The third aspect of fantasy, as the vehicle of mystery, Tolkien feels is the most difficult to achieve, although when successful it produces stories of ‘power and beauty’. Tolkien’s friend and colleague C. S. Lewis wrote the cycle of Narnian fantasies as the vehicle of Christian mysteries, and these will be studied in subsequent chapters. Other, younger writers like Ursula Le Guin and Leon Garfield have also produced mystical fantasies of great power and beauty. And indeed the mystical nature of fantasy is the source of what Tolkien ...