Academic journal article Arthuriana

Memories, Dreams, Shadows: Fantasy and the Reader in Susan Cooper's the Grey King

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Memories, Dreams, Shadows: Fantasy and the Reader in Susan Cooper's the Grey King

Article excerpt

Remember that quotation? 'It is what you read when you don't have to, that determines who you will be when you can't help it.'

-Susan Cooper, 'A Plea for the Book' (1993)1

Arthurian fictions have always had designs on their audiences, and nowhere is this more self-evidently and self-consciously true than in fictions for young people. For more than two hundred years, children's Arthuriana has enlisted the pleasures of Camelot to help determine who readers would be 'when they couldn't help it.' However, while popular wisdom and pedagogical theory have consistently asserted the link between reading and self-formation, understandings of the specific mechanisms and goals of that process have shifted, in ways that have contributed to the broader refashioning ofArthur's significance in contemporary popular culture. This essay will explore the illuminating case of Susan Cooper's The Grey King (1975), fourth book in the fantasy series 'The Dark Is Rising.'2

The work stands at the intersection oftwo of the most notable developments in twentieth-century Arthurian fiction: the dramatic expansion of fantasy on the one hand, and the continuing growth of Arthurian juvenilia on the other. Arthurian studies has embraced both trends, yet The Grey King has received little serious attention. Its Arthurian elements are frequently mentioned in passing-it appears, for example, in the selective chronology of the Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend-but it has been the subject of few critical analyses, and almost all of them in children's literature venues rather than Arthurian ones.3 Yet The Grey King has much to offer scholars and students interested in some of the most far-reaching and intriguing developments in modern Arthurian fiction. These would include not only the turn toward fantasy, but also the return to pre-romance versions of the legend; the growing focus on Merlin-figures, as wizard-heroes displace knights and kings; the detachment of Arthurian elements from standard narratives to become mythic archetypes; the influence of new discourses about myth and its role in human psychology; the use of 'the medieval' as the location of the lost secrets of modern culture, and thus the natural territory of fantasy; and, finally, the increasing importance of children's fiction as the place where Arthurian readers are made.

This essay will focus on the question of how those readers are made. What is the relationship between the nature of the text and the experience of reading it? What long-term impact might it have on values, character, or imagination? What are the uses of fantasy in particular, and what kinds of readers might fantasy produce? These questions were, in fact, key concerns for mid-twentieth-century fantasy writers. In the wake of seminal works by such authors as J.R.R. Tolkein, T.H. White, and C.S. Lewis, and partly as a defense against the critical marginalization and disparagement of their genre, fantasy enthusiasts undertook a broad reconsideration of the nature of fantasy and the functions of imaginative reading. They found ammunition ready to hand in the discourses of popular anthropology, folklore, and Jungian psychology that were already influencing the transformation of the Arthurian tradition. It is well-known that such discourses helped to revitalize and reshape the cultural significance of Arthurian symbols such as the Grail Quest, but they also had a notable impact on how fantasy writers conceptualized the imagination and its relation to the reader's formative experiences of literature.4 The Grey King offers an instructive example, for although Cooper's concern with education is apparent in her earlier books, The Grey King-its series' second bildungsroman-marks a definitive turn toward the unconscious as the key location of the quest. As it follows the progress of its modern Arthur-andMerlin team, the work becomes both an allegory and a demonstration of the ways in which its own readers might find themselves in the 'inner' worlds of medievalist fantasy, by means of the uncanny power of reading for pleasure. …

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