The beginning of school has been delayed for two days because of snow, giving me more time to prepare for my upcoming British Fantasy course. Richard Mathews’s fine book Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination (Twayne 1997) has given me a new way to think about fantasy written over the past two centuries. This will be useful as I help students understand why they are so attracted to the genre and how they use it to negotiate their lives.
Mathews notes that, while people have been creating fantastical stories for thousands of years, the fantasy created since the 19th century is of a different order. The image of fantasy that comes most readily to mind are the sword and sorcery adventures of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. So what sets this kind of fantasy apart from, say, The Odyssey, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Book of Genesis, The Arabian Nights, Beowulf, and Midsummer Night’s Dream?
It all comes down to differences between a world that believes in magic and one that doesn’t. Before the age of science and reason, Mathews argues, the purpose of fantasy was
to cast the infinite in finite terms, to translate overwhelming and eternal forces into down-to-earth language and physical presences, to use the imagination and the containment, or expression, of words to control and comprehend the overwhelming forces.
By contrast, Mathews says that the modern fantasy genre arose to
reawaken imaginative faculties too long accustomed to control and command of the natural and created world, too long dominated and ruled by human reason.
In other words, modern fantasy should be seen as oppositional. Because we are scientific and rational, we become blinded to important dimensions of reality. Literary fantasy helps us recover those overlooked dimensions. As Mathews puts it, fantasy authors conjure up “primitive, unpredictable, infinite powers beyond comprehension.”
Mathews quotes Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” which argues that fantasy does not avoid “the actual” but gives us a more complete understanding of it. As I read Mathews’s summation of Tolkien, I thought of my students’ hunger for a richness that seems missing from their lives. The glimpse of joy mentioned by Tolkien is a glimpse of a life lived with meaning:
Escape [from mundane reality] follows as a liberation from the prison of habits and conventions of the contemporary real world, and as the cultivation of the ability to imagine possibilities beyond all our limits—that we could communicate completely enough to speak with animals, elude the shoddy march and stench of technology, swim like fish, fly like birds, and escape even “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice death.” Tolkien speaks of the last as “the oldest, deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” Lastly, he speaks of fantasy as offering “Consolation,” something like the opposite of the feelings of tragedy, which Tolkien sees as the “highest form” of drama. He invents a word for the profound “Consolation of the Happy Ending” in fantasy: eucatastrophe—“the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn.’…a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” This moment is dependent for its effect on the universal recurrence of “sorrow and failure” but allows “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world poignant as grief.”
“Fantasy,” Mathews goes on to say, “resonates with moments of joy amid darkness.”
When I regard fantasy in this light, I have a clearer idea of why the fantasy classes I teach always fill up quickly. Of course, fantasy literature can be a trap if it leads to a refusal to deal with the world as it is (think of Don Quixote and of Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey). But if people come to understand why fantasy means so much to them, they can then use this understanding as a tool to shape the reality around them into something they find fulfilling.