Fantasy Literature and the Twentieth-Century Mythological Revival

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Fantasy Literature and the Twentieth-Century Mythological Revival. Marek Oziewicz. One Earth, One People: The Mythopoeic Fantasy Series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madelaine L'Engle and Orson Scott Card. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. 273 pp. ISBN 9780786431359. $35 pbk.

The significant presence of broadly understood mythic elements in contemporary fantasy is a literary phenomenon that, probably, can no longer be reasonably questioned. The function of the motifs connected with the tradition of various myths and rites or the use of ancient archetypes in particular texts of fantasy fiction has also been analyzed on several occasions. By way of example, very interesting discussions have been offered by J. M. Walker ("Rites of Passage Today: The Cultural Significance of A Wizard of Earthsea"), P. Archell-Thomson ("Fairytale, Myth and Otherness in Andre Norton's Juvenile Science Fiction"), T. Shippey (J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century), and Ursula K. Le Guin herself ("Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction"), to mention only a few. It seems, however, that a more comprehensive exploration of the issue has been missing. Now this gap has been largely filled by Oziewicz's study.

The slightly misleading subtitle, The Mythopoeic Fantasy Series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madelaine L'Engle and Orson Scott Card, suggests it will focus primarily on textual analyses of mythic elements in some of the most prominent twentieth-century fantasy works, but Oziewicz goes far beyond that. In fact, his work is as much theoretical as analytical. He discusses contemporary critical standpoints as well as relevant anthropological, psychological, and sociological issues, touching upon problems of literary reception and contemporary culture in general; in short, he makes an ambitious attempt to comprehensively explain the complex and sometimes confusing phenomenon that is mythopoeic fantasy. As B. Attebery summarizes in his foreword, Oziewicz, apart from delivering us "careful and sympathetic readings" on some of the most prominent texts of mythopoeic fantasy, "also leads well-planned side expeditions into the philosophy of science, consciousness studies, literary theory, comparative religion and American cultural history" (2).

The book falls into two principal parts, each of which comprise four chapters. The first one is mainly theoretical, whereas the second, in the author's own words, is a demonstration of "how specific American mythopoeic fantasy series [...] may be seen as exploring the components of a new mythology for a unified humanity" (7).

The first chapter, "The Confusion over Fantasy and the Confusions of the Theoretical Era," is devoted to contemporary fantasy criticism. Oziewicz makes several insightful observations here. For example, he thinks it is essential to discriminate between fantasy as a worldview, a cognitive strategy, and a genre. The failure to perceive this distinction is the main reason for the terminological confusion obscuring fantasy scholarship. What Oziewicz suggests, elaborating on the theories of such scholars as Tolkien, Rabkin, Hume, and Attebery, is that fantasy is not a genre proper, but rather a certain cognitive mode that manifests itself in several literary forms; at the same time, "the term fantasy, when qualified by an adjective and properly described, should be used as generic definition" (24). Thus Oziewicz arrives at the more specific category of mythopoeic fantasy, which he believes to be the genre somewhat central to and most fully expressive of the cognitive mode of fantasy inherent to human minds.

While the diagnosis of the present condition of fantasy criticism is generally accurate, some of the solutions proposed may seem controversial. From a strictly genealogical perspective (genealogy of literature meant here as a systematic study of literary genres in historical context), the mythopoeic fantasy appears to be more of a convenient critical construct than the true generic category Oziewicz claims it to be. …