Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore and Fantastic Literature

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore and Fantastic Literature

Article excerpt


At first blush,joining a term like "folklore," which has its roots deep in traditions traceable back through generations, with terms like "fantasy" and "science fiction," which seem to have less to do with the past than with alternate realities or projected futures, may seem like a juxtaposition of dubious value. Folk materials, it seems, are something we recognize quickly in nineteenth-century writers like Cooper, Melville, or Hawthorne, or something we use to decode writers from longer ago and farther away-Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Gawain poet, for example. But this latter use of folklore, to help decode literatures of the remote past and therefore substantially removed from the world in which we now live, is a key to that juxtaposition: the writer of fantastic literature, the creator of impossible worlds, has need of and uses folklore to make those imagined words accessible to the reader in much the same way, if obverse, as the modern critic might use a knowledge of folk materials to gain access to the meanings) behind Shakespeare's depictions of "heroic deaths" in Macbeth, Chaucer's use of the color red in reference to the Wife of Bath's stockings, or the Gawain poet's attention to hunting lore. In short, fantasy and science fiction authors use traditional materials, from individual motifs to entire folk narratives, to allow their readers to recognize, in elemental and perhaps subconscious ways, the reality and cultural depth of the impossible worlds these authors have created.

The word "impossible" appears in many of the leading critical definitions of fantastic literature. C.S. Lewis, in Experiment in Criticism (1965), defines fantasy as "any narrative that deals with impossibles or preternaturals" (50). In Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975), Colin Manlove argues that a "substantial and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds, beings, or objects" is essential to fantastic literature; and he defines "supernatural or impossible" as "of another order of reality from that in which we exist and form our notions of possibility" (3). In The Fantastic in Literature (1976), Eric Rabkin argues that the "polar opposite" of reality is fantasy (15). And in "Problems of Fantasy" (1978), S.C. Fredericks calls fantasy "the literature of the impossible" (37). These critical exercises, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s, as fantastic literature was experiencing an enormous increase in popularity, led Gary Wolfe, in "The Encounter with Fantasy" (1982), to assert that the "criterion of the impossible ... may be the first principle generally agreed upon for the study of fantasy" (1-2).

Although the foregoing definitions have appeared to set fantastic literature in opposition to realistic literature, critic Kathryn Hume suggests that we should see the real and the impossible as separate ends of a continuum that includes all fiction. She argues that

literature is the product of two impulses. These are mimesis, felt as the desire to imitate, to describe events, people, and objects with such verisimilitude that others can share your experience; and fantasy, the desire to change givens and alter reality-out of boredom, play, vision, longing for something lacking, or need for metaphoric images that will bypass the audience's verbal defenses (20).

And fantasy, Hume continues, "is any departure from consensus reality" (21, italics in the original). All literature is, then, part mimetic and part fantastic, with realistic fiction toward one end of the spectrum and fantastic fiction toward the other.

The creation of a fantastic world is not just a matter of introducing impossible people or things into an otherwise realistic world, blending the mimetic and the fantastic-although that is basically the strategy of much horror fiction. Science fiction and fantasy require the author to create a world that makes sense in and of itself. J.R.R. Tolkien may have been the first to articulate the principle of the Secondary World. …

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