"There and Back Again": Progress in the Discourse of Todorovian, Tolkienian and Mystic Fantasy Theory

By Bechtel, Greg | English Studies in Canada, December 2004 | Go to article overview

"There and Back Again": Progress in the Discourse of Todorovian, Tolkienian and Mystic Fantasy Theory


Bechtel, Greg, English Studies in Canada


THE ACT OF LITERARY CRITICISM is always an act of creative fantasy. The critic constructs an internally consistent structure from fragments of texts, observations and (inevitably) personal biases, and this construction begins with a what-if proposition. What if literary texts have political implications? Might there be a correlation between a writer's gender and the language available for that writer's expression? Could it be that language itself is indeterminate, and, if so, what impact would this have on the Western tradition of liberal humanism? The critic speculates, fabricates an imagined network of logical implications and, in the case of publication, presents this fabrication for serious consideration by a scholarly community. The following act of literary criticism is, like all such acts, a fantasy of critical discourse. To survey a history of fantasy criticism--as I shall in this paper--is to build a meta-fantasy, a fantasy of fantasies of fantasy.

That fantasy has been dismissed or excluded from the canon of Western literature is a commonplace of the critical work on the genre. This sense of exclusion may be the strongest recurring theme across all forms of fantasy criticism, an otherwise highly heterogeneous field. Karen Michalson, for example, introduces her exploration of Victorian fantasy by suggesting that "certain readers will object to my subject matter as well as to my approach. Fantasy literature does not enjoy the kind of critical attention or prestige that other literary genres, like the realistic novel do" (i). Michalson then proceeds to examine the historical, "non-literary and non-aesthetic reasons" for the exclusion of fantasy from "the traditional literary canon" (i) as founded in Victorian England. Although her tone may appear unwarrantedly defensive (and perhaps it is), it resonates with my own initial ambivalence in approaching fantasy as a scholar. Although I have (and do) read what is often referred to as "genre-fantasy," this material rarely appears in a scholarly milieu (i.e., literature courses). Rather, for many, the reading of fantasy is often characterized as a guilty pleasure or indulgence, carrying an implicit stigma. (1) Whether or not such a stigma exists in any universal sense, fantasy readers, writers and critics often perceive "fantasy" as a beleaguered and disrespected form of literature, the (alleged) perpetrators of this (perceived) stigma characterizing the genre as material more appropriate for children than adults or, at best, a variety of "light" or "unserious" reading. Ursula K. Le Guin names this phenomenon the "genrefication" of fantasy, a process by which genre becomes not a neutral descriptive term, but rather a label applied only to those types of literature that are other-than-serious ("Spike" 18-19). (2)

In spite of this apparent stigmatization, the "serious" study of fantasy has formed the basis of dozens of book-length critical studies since the early 1970s. Christine Brooke-Rose, in one of these studies, suggests that the late twentieth-century re-emergence of fantasy literature may be due to "a reality crisis" (3) in Western culture. She further argues that fantasy provides one possible response to a world in which "the very notion of progress has become untenable" (7) and "the real has become unreal" (9). For Brooke-Rose, fantasy embodies one mode through which authors may explore the implications of this unreal reality, and she thus attempts "to account for the return of the fantastic in all its forms" (7).

Unlike Brooke-Rose, my project is not to account for the reappearance of fantasy in contemporary Western literature, but rather to examine the various critical approaches to the genre that have appeared since the early '70s. My methodology echoes Erik Rabkin's approach to "world-view" in The Fantastic in Literature, where he suggests that "the study of the fantastic provides new tools for the analysis of world-view" (74). Rabkin develops these tools in terms reminiscent of Kenneth Burke's rhetorical theories, suggesting that "a close analysis of metaphor, by attention to all language used to create a fantastic world, . …

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