What Fictional Fantasy Means

Maxfield Parrish, Stars

Maxfield Parrish, Stars

Having taught British Fantasy Literature for the first time last semester, I need to think back on it before it becomes a distant memory.    By reflecting publicly, I can share some of the insights I gained from the course.

Two major things I learned are that

(1) fantasy is an oppositional genre—by which I mean, it operates as an alternative to experienced reality. It may function as a comment on existing reality, an escape from it, or a protest against it. To understand the significance of fantasy, then, one needs to look at the issues confronting people at the time it was written.

(2) When we turn to fantasy to escape from reality, we will encounter a version of what we want to escape from within the fantasy itself. In fact, that’s the power of fantasy: we meet up with a symbolic version of what oppresses us and triumph over it, something that we aren’t doing in real life.

Here’s an example of how this works, drawn from a Harry Potter post that you can read here. The Harry Potter stories appeal to adolescents feeling suffocated by life at home (the Dursleys are an exaggerated version of this life). Harry goes off to Hogwarts where he encounters several authority figures who are no less tyrannical than the Dursleys (like, say, Severus Snape or headmistress Dolores Umbridge). In the fantasy world, however, he is able to break free of family.  He has more autonomy, he has good friends that help him out, and he increasingly steps into his powers, with the final result that he breaks free from the forces that inhibit his growth. In other words, the fantasy is integrally tied into the process that we would call a successful adolescent rite of passage.

My approach to fantasy (as regular readers of this website will not be surprised to hear) is that it helps readers negoiate life’s challenges. To better appreciate this drama, I was careful to ground each work historically. How would Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, have helped young Elizabethans handle suffocating social restrictions and authoritarian fathers. (Answer: By treating them to a tospy-turvy fairy fantasy in which all rules are suspended and all relationships are possible—and then returning them to a more balanced relationship in which the relationship rules, while still in force, are more benign.

Originally I had planned to begin the course with Chaucer (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) and Sir Gawain in the Green Knight because I was interested in how those works kick against the limitations of official Christianity. For instance, the Wife complains about Christian friars having exorcised fairies from the land (including the Queen of the Fairies, who ruled at a time when women had power), and the Camelot knights are never sure what to make of the pagan vegetation god that shows up in their midst and challenges them to a beheading contest. Both stories get at dimensions of life that aren’t covered by the Bible.

Because I had only so much time, however, I decided to focus mostly on the 19th century, which was a time when fantasy flourished. Here are the works that I taught:

–William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream (I considered choosing The Tempest)
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Kubla Khan”
–John Keats, Eve of St. Agnes, “Lady of Shallot,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
–Selected fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm
–Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols
–Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces
–Charles Dickens, Hard Times (not a fantasy work but one that explores fantasy)
–Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
–Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
–Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
–Rider Haggard, She (dropped when I got sick)
–Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books
–James Barrie, Peter Pan
–Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
–J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

If the Middle Ages turned to fantasy to deal with a repressive Christianity and the Renaissance resorted to it to deal with strong centralized authority, the 19th century did so to counteract the bright light of the Enlightenment and an increasingly rationalized society. Simply put, science banished fairies, ghosts, and the like, sending them scurrying into the shadows. Reason, whether applied to society, industry, education, biology, the human mind, or anything else, seemed king.

But reason can only go so far, and people turned to fantasy to articulate those aspects of life that more rationalized approaches to life failed to honor.  For instance, science (even after Freud) has difficulty dealing with dreams and the imagination.

A key work addressing this issue, added at the last moment, was Dickens’ Hard Times. That’s because Dickens shows how pragmatic utilitarianism and bottom-line economics can be barren. We used Dickens’ critique throughout the course.

It was interesting to see the different kinds of fantasies that the age was drawn to. Coleridge drew on the passion for polar expeditions to imagine a place where retributive spirits could operate. Keats and later the Pre-Raphaelites who were drawn to his poems turned to Gothic Medievalism, which seemed spiritually richer than their industrial age. Tennyson resurrected mythical Camelot to work through (among other things) his pessimism that his age was degenerating.

Lewis Carroll went after didactic religious instruction that insisted so strongly that children be raised morally that they weren’t allowed to be children. Alice is a secret rebel, seemingly the obedient child and yet always managing (unintentionally of course) to mangle any lessons she is given–and doing so in ways that give maximum offense to whichever teacher or parent figure is telling her to recite instructive verse.

We even got into Animal Studies (a new field for me) when we explored Jungle Books and Wind in the Willows. The significance of animal characters, we determined, is that they have the flexibility of adults but not their baggage. Baloo is a fantasy teacher, even if he does knock young Mowgli around, whereas an actual teacher—well, now you’re just talking about an unsatisfactory reality.

My students had two major criticisms that I will take to heart when I teach the course again. The reading list was too long and there was not enough theory. By theory, they meant tools that will help them make sense of the fantasies.

The theories of Carl Jung and his student Joseph Campbell were useful—the students especially liked the notion that life is a hero’s quest in which one identifies and claims one’s powers (the process of individuation). Once they were attuned to such concepts as the shadow, anima and animus figures, spiritual guides, belly-of-the-whale existential crises, and a magical elixir that the hero must find to restore his or her society to health, the fantasies took a shape for them. Suddenly fairy tales, animal stories, and Middle Earth adventure tales were not just fluff but empowering instructions sent to us from a world not recognized by official reality.

Other theories I could draw on might include those of Frederic Jameson (who sees a radical utopian impulse operating within fantasy) and various education theorists. I think I will include The Magician’s Book, which I’ve written about here and here (which will mean adding The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Author Laura Miller models the kind of critical but engaged perspective I would like my students to develop. I’m open to other theories of fantasy if you’d like to send them along.

I’m wondering whether the idea of fantasy itself is too broad a concept for this course, which sometimes seemed a bit diffuse. Maybe I need to narrow it down—say, to fairy tales or Gothic fantasies or science fiction or Arthurian literature or adventure fantasy. I also realized that the children’s fantasies that speak deeply to me don’t necessarily speak to today’s students (I’m talking about the Alice books, The Jungle Books, Peter Pan, and Wind in the Willows). Maybe it’s better to stay with adult literature that depends less on one’s childhood experiences. I know that I must find a way to keep Eve of St. Agnes, which I have fallen in love with and which generated great discussions.

One feature I think I will maintain is the open-topic final essay, even though the assignment poses special challenges for the teacher. I let the students choose any work of fantasy they wanted and apply to it the theories and ideas we had explored in the course.  Almost half of the books the students wrote about were ones I hadn’t read (or even heard about). I glanced at each work, interpolated the rest, and was able to give some feedback. For instance, I could generally tell when the conflict between hero and villain involved a shadow drama and, through conferencing with the student, was able to figure out what the hero’s journey entailed (if they hadn’t done so on their own). Choosing their own works was important for the students because so much of their identities are tied up in the fantasies. As a result, the final assignment helped reenforce one of the major goals of the course, which was to have the students understand why fantasy is important, what it means, and why they are drawn to the fantasies that they are.

I need to reconsider the ten 1000-word informal essays I assigned on the individual works, even though the students rose to the task and learned a lot.  I, on the other hand, didn’t have time to provide individual feedback, just grades. For my own sanity (and maybe theirs) I probably should cut back. Maybe I’ll have several of those essays be collaborative.  Group work provides its own kind of learning.

Oh, and Lord of the Rings is too long a book, especially for those students that are not fans (there were a few students who were actively hostile to all the hype).  Several people have recommended that I teach Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass, which I’m willing to look into.

In short, it’s a course that is worth teaching again but it needs some refining.

This entry was posted in Andersen (Hans Christian), Carroll (Lewis), Chaucer (Geoffrey), Coleridge (Samuel Taylor), Dickens (Charles), Grahame (Kenneth), Grimm Brothers, Haggard (Rider), Keats (John), Kipling (Rudyard), Rossetti (Christina), Shakespeare (William), Sir Gawain Poet, Tennyson (Alfred Lord), Tolkien (J.R.R.) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted January 8, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a great course. What a wide range of authors. This seems the kind of thing that would add definitition and help corral the various worlds of fantasy into, perhaps, one cohesive stream of appreciation and understanding?

    I’m surprised when discussing animal fantasy, you didn’t mention WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams. This is the first book I would have thought of had I been writing an essay for your course. But thankfully, I don’t have to. I would be MUCH too intimidated.

    I love WIND IN THE WILLOWS, but purely for reasons of comfort. Was there ever a discussion in your course about the ‘comfort’ of fantasy? Or was that implied?

    What happens if by defining it too closely and too deeply, we lose the ability to fantasize in any spontaneous way? Is there any danger of deriding fantasy once we understand what it is or isn’t? I’m always leery of ‘understanding’ the charm out of something, you know, beating it to death.

    But I think your course stops short of that.

    I often wonder if the writers you mention set out to right the world when they wrote their stories. Did they mean to teach? Or was it just a spontaneous combination of genius and circumstance? Where does ‘fun’ come into this?

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Watership Down is a great suggestion, Yvette. (And you’ve got the right instincts and commitment that you’d flourish in such a course.) I’m glad you love Grahame’s book but that starts to put you in a minority. Comfort is definitely an integral part of fantasy and I would also add delight: fantasy writers are delighted with the fantasies they come up with. We wouldn’t read them without that delight, that sense of fun. I never want my students to analyze a work before they have reveled in it. (It just becomes Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect” when they do.) But once they’ve had fun, they can add to their enjoyment (I tell them) by examining where their enjoyment comes from.

    Since I see you also responded to my Sports Saturday football post, let me illustrate that point by using an example from football spectatorship. One can enjoy the game just on the surface level–quarterbacks make beautiful throws, running backs (like that Seattle player) make dazzling runs. But there is another level of watching the game as well: someone who really knows the game appreciates a block here, a strategy decision there, which springs free the runner or makes the pass possible. And those who really know the game might enter into the way the teams were constructed, the individual histories of various players, what kind of rehabilitation someone has gone through to return to the field, etc. Rather than such analysis detracting from delight in the game, such people tell me, it enhances it.

    So back to the notion of “comfort.” First of all, I would note that there are some very uncomfortable passages in the Wind and the Willows, starting with the weasels and stoats in the Big Woods. Then there is Ratty’s sense of being trapped in a life which suddenly seems stifling, so that he dreams of going abroad. There is the mayhem that Toad creates with his automobile. There is Mole’s breakdown when he can’t communicate to Ratty his love of home. Maybe most powerfully, there is a sense that we have of a lost connection with a greater power–when we sense that we have lost that connection, it threatens to break our hearts and blight our lives only that, mercifully, the great god Pan sends forgetfulness. And I would also say that Grahame senses that this pastoral world that he so loves, that he feels so comfortable in (when he’s not feeling suffocated by it), is slipping away. And then we, reading the book after World Wars I and II and all that has happened since, find ourselves seized by the same nostalgic longing. So to indulge that longing, we take delight in a book that shows us what makes us uncomfortable and then provides comfort. Knowing how it’s working doesn’t entirely detract from the comfort.

    The ultimate poem on this subject, by the way, is Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” After talking about what he has lost from when he saw the world through a child’s eyes, he talks about the higher sense of connection that comes with knowledge. Exploring the gap between charm and understanding is also the central goal of Laura Miller’s wonderful book The Magician’s Book, which I’ve posted on a couple of times. She tracks her relationship with the Narnia books over the years and says that, if it came down to sacrificing her delight in the books or the knowledge she has gained, she would sacrifice delight–but that fortunately she has found that she can have them both. But she does admit that she is not swallowed up in Narnia the way she once was. We lose the garden of Eden when we get older.

  3. Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I’ve attempted all my life NOT to be one of those adults who loses ‘the garden of eden’ completely. It’s not easy.

    My brother is one who gets on my back for not completely KNOWING or UNDERSTANDING the way football or baseball works. I MUST KNOW THE NUTS AND BOLTS or I’m NOT a real fan. At least according to him. I disgree. I don’t NEED
    to murder to dissect. I love the games in my own way. And I don’t put him down for loving them his own way. There really are things I don’t need to know.

    When Einstein was asked once for his home phone number he replied he didn’t know what it was. When questioned about this, he said he rarely had occasion to call himself. And that he didn’t see the point in keeping worthless information cluttering his brain. He’d rather concentrate on what he considered important.
    (I paraphrase, but you get my gist.)

    When I mentioned my comfort in WIND IN THE WILLOWS, I realized, after reading your post, that what I meant by comfort was, possibly, my enjoyment of illustrator Kenneth Graham’s original visualization of the story. Though I do remember all the incidents you mention, Robin, I am so fond of the character of Mole that I find comfort in his existence. And I think Ratty really would not be happy anywhere else. I love too, the friendship that exists between these characters. Nostalgic longing for something that never existed except in our imaginations. It’s a very English story I think, and I am a sucker for all that. When I travelled to England many years ago, part of my reason for going was a longing to find what I’d read about in many of these types of stories.)

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    You’re relationship to sports, Yvette, is kind of like my relationship to wine. I once figured that if I developed a more refined palate than the one I have, I’d want to start buying wines that I couldn’t afford. So I decided not to take a wine tasting class.

    I’m also deciding not to take tennis lessons to take my game to another level–I have a set of faculty friends that I’m on a par with and that would throw off our competitiveness.

    The more I understand about people, on the other hand, the more enriched I feel. And literature helps me do that. So I never feel that I can know too much.


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