The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin

By Brian Attebery | Go to book overview

TWO
Fantasy and the Folk Tradition

JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER, in the collection of curiosities he called The Supernaturalism of New England, recounts the story of a family of Irish immigrants in New Hampshire, proprietors of a disastrously unsuccessful tavern. "The landlord," he says, "was a spiteful little man, whose sour, pinched look was a standing libel upon the state of his larder," and the wife was no better, being a scold, a slattern, and a tippler. 1 Nevertheless, their trade suddenly took a turn for the better when a company of Irish fairies took up residence and began holding conversation in the parlor. British fairies, as a rule, abhor both sloppiness and ungenerous dealings, 2 but these may have been lured by voices from home. At any rate, the inn prospered under their influence until the novelty wore off and the crowds once more deserted. Says Whittier: "Had the place been traversed by a ghost, or disturbed by a witch, they could have acquiesced in it very quietly, but this outlandish belief in fairies was altogether an overtask for Yankee credulity" (p. 61). The fairies, "unable to breathe in an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion" (p. 62), promptly departed for greener shores. Whittier himself stands firmly on the side of the unbelieving Yankees, suggesting that the whole incident was an ingenious fraud.

Fraud or not, this anecdote suggests a great deal about the nature of Anglo-American folklore. A general trend, since the landing of the Puritans, has been a paring away of the supernatural in those folk genres most amenable to its presence: ballads, tales, and legends. A writer who wishes to produce something both American and fantastic, and who would root his creation, as did the British fantasists, in his native lore, must move against the current, restoring what has been lost over the years or finding eddies of tradition that have resisted the general erosion of the marvelous.

-16-

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The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • One - Locating Fantasy 1
  • Two - Fantasy and the Folk Tradition 16
  • Three - Belief, Legend, and Romance 33
  • Four - Fantasy for American Children 59
  • Five - Oz 83
  • Six - Fantasy and Escape 109
  • Seven - The Baum Tradition 134
  • Eight - After Tolkien 154
  • Notes 187
  • Bibliography 200
  • Index 210
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