Visions of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fifteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts

By Allienne R. Becker | Go to book overview

7
Virgin, Knight, and Devil: Gottfried Keller's Legends as Fantasy

Lee B. Jennings

What we ordinarily mean by fantasy writing is not a direct manifestation of fantasy, as in automatic writing, stream of consciousness, or accounts of dreams. It is the use of fantasy to appear to create a special environment, a "world," formatted with specific or non specific options for reality escape. In what I call "closed" fantasy, departures from empirical or common reality follow a fixed pattern agreed to by the reader and are therefore not basically surprising. This is the case in certain genres, such as the fairy tale, but the different "world" can also be generated by the author, with the understanding of the reader, as in Tolkien "Hobbit" novels. In "open" fantasy, there are no basic rules; the environment is assumed to be that of our own world, but surprising and, in the end, inexplicable departures from reality occur. Supernatural or horror fiction belongs to this class. In either case, common reality is the "other" needed by fantasy in order to manifest itself.

Keller, in his Sieben Legenden (Seven Legends), enters into a complex contractual relationship with the reader, in that he appropriates a genre whose basic rules he does not subscribe to, that of the medieval saint's legend. Yet, realist that he is, he seeks to gain some degree of immediate credibility for the astounding events recounted. Unless one literally believes in the legends of the saints, they would have to be called a fantasy genre, in which miraculous events take place regularly in a fairly rigid pattern; and even if one regards them as literally true, miracles by nature depart from common reality.

It was the genre that attracted Keller, who happened upon an old book, oddly enough, by a Protestant minister and theologian, recounting the legends of the saints in a moralistic vein. Keller's work is certainly a parody, though he himself seems to have been unclear about whether it is a satire. There are numerous gibes at orthodoxy and clergy in it, yet the tone is hardly mocking or sarcastic, but rather indulgent and carefree. It is as though Keller, the agnostic, whose "secular piety" (Weltfrömmigkeit) has often been commented upon, had written new legends according to his own world

-51-

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