Why the Academy Is Afraid of Dragons:
The Suppression of the Marvelous
in Theories of the Fantastic
The last thirty years have witnessed an unprecedented validation of the fantastic as a category in literary theory. Since publication of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre in 1970, and its translation into English in 1973, many studies have sought to apply Todorov's definitions, modify them, create their own competing theories, or analyze the use of the fantastic in specific works and genres—including the Gothic, Romantic fiction, horror, postmodern fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. The fantastic is now a recognized critical term, with its own authorities, standard lines of argument, and entries in handbooks of critical terminology.
One irony in this increasing critical acceptance, however, is that although it seems to have finally created a solid theoretical base for criticism of fantasy, the overall effect has actually been to perpetuate the exclusion of certain types of the fantastic (here defined broadly as any violations of consensus reality in a literary work1) from serious critical consideration. Studies of the fantastic have tended to emphasize its disruptive, even subversive, effects on perceptions of external reality, internal psychic states, and even the status of the narrative: as the entry on the “Fantastic” in one critical dictionary states, “It is characteristic of the fantastic text that the reader is made unsure how to interpret and respond to the events narrated.”2 It follows that works in which the fantastic element fails to create a disruptive effect—including works of modern genre fantasy, fairy tales, and romances from almost every period—are classified either as “not really” fantastic (as in the reference cited, which specifies that “Works of fantasy, such as J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction and C. S. Lewis's Narnia series” fail to fall into the category of the fantastic because “The reader is invited to feel not bewilderment at but respect for the order of the 'supernatural world' ”3) or as, at best, second-class members that fall short of what the fantastic is expected to accomplish. Even critics such as Eric S. Rabkin, with clear ties to modern fantasy, use definitions that valorize the disturbing cognitive effects of the fantastic, so that they must contrive expediencies to defend