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An Author’s Journey: The “Many-Terraced Houses” of Fantasy, 2: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature”

Inspiration of 20th Century Fantasy: Edward James, "Tolkien, Lewis, and the explosion of Genre Fantasy," in James & Mendlesohn, eds., "The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature" (here, Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of 20th Century Fantasy: Edward James, “Tolkien, Lewis, and the explosion of Genre Fantasy,” in James & Mendlesohn, eds., “The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature” (here, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast,” art by John Howe)

An Author’s Journey: The “Many-Terraced Houses” of Fantasy, 2: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature”

Good Morning, Everyone!

Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, eds., "The Cambridge Guide to Fantasy Literature" (CUP: 2008)

Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, eds., “The Cambridge Guide to Fantasy Literature” (CUP: 2008)

On a recent return flight from NYC, I had the pleasure of finishing The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (edited by Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, 2008).  I’ve been arguing in these blogs for a couple of years that the epic (or “high”) fantasy market needs a “reboot,” and it my heart good to see an academic approach to the entirety of the subject, especially in such a concise book, whose articles run the gamut of the origins of modern fantasy in the 17th Century to works that reach well into the 21st.

James and Mendlesohn even reach past a typical academic audience and find a way to popularize their material by making a three-legged stool of Fantasy Literature, investigating the subject via the themes of “History,” “Ways of Reading,” and “Clusters.”

Inspiration of Early Modern Literature: Ludovico Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso" ("Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica," by Gustave Doré)

Inspiration of Early Modern Literature: Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” (“Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica,” by Gustave Doré)

The first leg of this approach, the “historical assessments,” let the editors clear the brush of the many ancient or medieval examples that might have expanded this slim volume to twice its length.  By stating that they’ll “ignore those earlier fictions about the fantastical — The Odyssey, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Orlando Furioso, The Midsummer’s Night Dream and very many other texts…” — the reader immediately hits the early modern period running, with Gary K. Wolfe‘s essay, “Fantasy from Dryden to Sunsany.”  Wolfe starts with an examination of the first instance of “fantasy criticism” — in Joseph Addison’s 1712 magazine The Spectator — to centuries of attempts to refine a definition of the subject include a host of literary luminaries (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, through to William Morris and the Pre-Rapaelites.

I was surprised to learn that even William Blake was an early contributor to what’s become a still-relevant debate in literary circles about the merits of Fantasy (when compared to traditional forms):

William Blake's "The Day of Judgment" for Robert Blair's "The Grave" (1805)

William Blake’s “The Day of Judgment” for Robert Blair’s “The Grave” (1805)

[Begin Wolfe excerpt]: “In his 1810 ‘A Vision of the Last Judgment’, William Blake equated imagination with ‘Visionary Fancy’ and set this apart from fable or allegory, ‘a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry … Fable or Allegory is Form’d by the daughters of Memory, Imagination is surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration’. Blake’s distinction not only anticipates [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge (albeit with a different set of terms), but also anticipates a critical battle that authors of fantasy from George MacDonald to C.S. Lewis would wage: namely, that fantastic narratives are not necessarily allegories or fables.” [End Wolfe excerpt]

Other authors and essays in Part I’s “Histories” section include: Adam Roberts, “Gothic and horror fiction”; Paul Kincaid, “American fantasy 1820-1950”; Maria Nikolajeva, “The development of children’s fantasy”; and Edward James, “Tolkien, Lewis and the explosion of genre fantasy.”

Kari Maund's essay, "Reading the fantasy series" (Here, Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Death," Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Fritz Leiber, “Swords against Death,” Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Greer Gilman's essay assesses "Languages of the Fantastic" w/reference to such works as Michael Swanwick's "The Dragons of Babel" (art by Stephan Martiniere)

Greer Gilman’s essay assesses “Languages of the Fantastic” w/reference to such works as Michael Swanwick’s “The Dragons of Babel” (art by Stephan Martiniere)

The second leg of the book, “Ways of Reading,” offers a variety of ways to approach fantasy, many of which are grounded in modern literary studies (e.g., “Political Readings,” “Psychoanalysis,” “Modernism and Post-Modernism,” etc), but in this section I was struck by three essays: (1) Brian Attebery’s “Structuralism” (pp. 81-90), (2) Greer Gilman’s “The languages of the fantastic” (pp. 134-146) and (3) Kari Maund’s “Reading the fantasy series” (pp. 147-153)

Just to cite one interesting example from this section:  Brian Attebery‘s convincing argument that the “structuralist” 1960s/1970s critical mode of interpretation & analysis is particularly well-suited to the study of fantasy, because “…The very origins of the structural analysis of literature are tied to traditional fantastic genres such as fairy tale and myth, and the structuralist approaches remain useful as correctives to critical assumptions about the pre-eminence of realism as a literary mode.” Atterby takes the reader on a ride through the history of linguisitics on the way to making his point (works by Ferdinand de Saussure, Vladimir Propp, before assessing the works of Joseph Campbell and Claude Lévi-Strauss in relation to myth-making.

Inspiration of Ancient Myths & Legends: "Oedipus & Antigone exiled to Thebes" (oil on canvas, Eugène-Ernest Hillemacher, 1843)

Inspiration of Ancient Myths & Legends: “Oedipus & Antigone exiled to Thebes” (oil on canvas, Eugène-Ernest Hillemacher, 1843)

I appreciated that Attebery criticized the works of both, but allowed for the areas where Campbell’s and Strauss’s research & methodology could be helpful in critiquing “Fantasy.” For example, here’s Attebery on Lévi-Strauss’s interpretation of the Oedipus story [where a Theban king tragically & unwittingly fulfills a prophecy that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother]:

NY Times Headline, 3 Nov 2009: "Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologist, Dies"

NY Times Headline, 3 Nov 2009: “Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologist, Dies”

[Begin Attebery excerpt]:  “… in his 1955 essay, ‘The Structural Study of Myth’…Lévi-Strauss claims to be working inductively, first identifying all the motifs within a particular myth – he focuses mostly on the story of Oedipus – and then grouping them into ‘bundles’ of relations. In practice, though, his groupings depend upon the particular binary oppositions that his previous structural studies have led him to expect. He innocently ‘finds’ in the Oedipus story just what he expected to find: oppositions such as life and death, kinship and strangerhood, human parentage and monsters born directly from the earth. Thus, ‘the myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that mankind is autochthonous [i.e., in mythology, the belief that people are born from the earth] … to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman.

"Oedipus and the Sphinx" (oil on canvas, Gustave Moreau, 1864)

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” (oil on canvas, Gustave Moreau, 1864)

‘Furthermore, he finds these oppositions at all levels of the narrative, from names of characters to aspects of the setting of significant actions. The same message is given many times over, because ‘repetition has a as its function to make the structure of the myth apparent.’

‘…Lévi-Strauss has been criticized for privileging the researcher over the culture-bearer: he seems to find meanings that no one within the society that tells the stories is conscious of. It is unlikely that oral storytellers in ancient Greece would have singled out the single meaning that Lévi-Strauss does. Certainly when Sophocles dramatized the story, his version did not invite the spectator to focus on autochthony as a key theme, nor do Aristotle or Freud emphasize it in their readings of the story. However peculiar this reading of Oedipus may be, Lévi-Strauss’s central insight that meaning, as well as narrative, might be structural, is a powerful tool for studying all kinds of literature and especially fantasy.” [End Atterby excerpt] 

Other authors and essays in Part II’s “Ways of Reading” include: Andrew M. Butler, “Psychoanalysis’: Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, “Political Readings”; Jim Casey, “Modernism and Postmodernism”; Farah Mendlesohn, “Thematic criticism”; Greer Gilman, “The languages of the fantastic”; Kari Maund, “Reading the fantasy series”; and Gregory Frost, “Reading the slipstream.”

Nnedi Okorafor's essay "Writers of color" includes reference to N.K. Jemisin's "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms"

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Inspiration of Different Voices: Steven Barnes's "Lion's Blood" (2002)

Inspiration of Different Voices: Steven Barnes’s “Lion’s Blood” (2002)

The third and final leg of this analytical seat upon which James and Mendlesohn situate their study on Fantasy is a section called “Clusters,” or a series of sub-genres that allow for broad coverage of the current spate of fantasy literature that don’t easily fit into categories (e.g., “magical realism,” “writers of colour,” “quest fantasies,” “urban fantasies,” “paranormal romances,” etc).

Here, Sharon Sieber’s essay “Magical realism” (pp. 167-178) begins with a question of “What is realism?” and answers that most of the Western usually ties any interpretation of “reality” to scientific evidence and explanations; to begin the discussion, she uses Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion as an inroad into discussing how modern fantasy reflects this generation’s understanding of the term:

Rosemary Jackson, "Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion"

Rosemary Jackson, “Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion”

[Begin Jackson excerpt]: “As a literature of ‘unreality’ fantasy has altered in character over the years in accordance with changing notions of what exactly constitutes ‘reality’. Modern fantasy is rooted in ancient myth, mysticism, folklore, fairy tale and romance. The most obvious starting point for this study was the late eighteenth century —the point at which industrialization transformed western society.’ [End Jackson excerpt] 

Sieber gives a fine sketch of the current debate that surrounds this term, and then asks a great one of her own:

Inspiration of Quantum Mechanics

Inspiration of Quantum Mechanics

[Begin Sieber excerpt]: “The question to ask here is why the magic of magical realism has become so important in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, particularly at a time when hard-line, linear scientific discoveries seem to diminish in importance and reality next to the fantastic discoveries such as Hugh Everett III regarding the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This development was also taking root at just the time when the two literary movements which had become paradigms of the Western world, modernism and post-modernism, have affirmed the random nature of existence and events, twentieth-century alienation and fragmentation, assembly-line mass production, lack of free will and self-determination, identity disintegration, chaos, dysfunction and dystopia… [End Sieber excerpt]

Alexander Irvine's essay "Urban fantasy" assesses aspects of China Miéville's "Perdido Street Station" (art by Gordillo, DeviantArt)

Alexander Irvine’s essay “Urban fantasy” assesses aspects of China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station” (art by Gordillo, DeviantArt)

Other authors and essays in Part III’s “Clusters” section include: Nnedi Okorafor, “Writers of colour”; W.A. Senior, “Quest fantasies”; Alexander C. Irvine, “Urban fantasy”; Roz Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and paranormal romance”; Catherine Butler, “Modern children’s fantasy”; Veronica Schanoes, “Historical fantasy”; and Graham Sleight, “Fantasies of history and religion.”

For those who’d like to quickly catch-up on the latest interpretations of the Fantasy genre, I heartily recommend The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature.  Edward Jones and Farah Mendlesohn have done a remarkable job in distilling centuries’ worth of thoughts and ideas about the subject into a well-organized, accessible, and immensely readable volume.  The book is a welcome contribution to both academic and popular studies on fantasy literature.

Thanks for visiting, and have a great week!

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Really loved the William Blake (Wolfe excerpt) section!! Nice writing!!

    Sent from my iPhone


    February 17, 2015
    • Hi, amyrorydoctorwho!

      Thanks for the kind words & glad you enjoyed the review!


      February 17, 2015

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