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Reality vs Fantasy Literature

17 Feb 2017Literature Essays

During the second half of the 20th century fantasy fiction has become one of the most productive and commercially successful of literature genres in English. In one sense this is not surprising. Literature containing elements of the fantastic is as old as literature in English, and includes such works as Beowulf, with its fire-spewing dragon and man-eating and man-eating ogres, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with its enchantresses and shape-shifting giant, or Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, with their respective complements of enchanted swords, elvish knights, fairies, and wizards (Fantasy Fiction 2007).

The literature of the fantastic at any date can draw on a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of concepts and characters from the age-old, international, and pre-literary genre of the folk tale, or tale of wonder. Literature of the fantastic should, however, be distinguished from fantasy fiction, a genre in some respects decisively modern. Readers and writers in a period dominated by science and by rationalistic world-view face problems in entertaining such concepts as those listed above, now known or at least very generally thought to be impossible or nonexistent. The problems were until recently increased by the low rating given to fantasy and the fantastic by practitioners of the realistic novel. In what one might call the post-Quixotic era, fantasy was marginalized into becoming a form for satire, for diversion, and above all for children.

The greatest influence within the fantasy genre, however, has been another maverick, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s fantasy world, fabricated out of shattered myths which we, as “post-moderns,” ought no longer to believe in. The Lord of the Rings is essentially a re-creation, a synthesis of rejected myths and images into a fragile new composition. A skeptic may well ask why a discussion of fantasy must begin with metaphor, emblem, and suggestion. The irritation of the skeptic has point. It is one thing to identify the appeal of fantasy, but to demonstrate its value calls for something more bracing than suggestive emblems. Yet the proper beginning point is in the emblems, the metaphors, the haziness, the elusive circularity with which so many readers of fantasy articulate their responses. Tolkien used his expert in scholarly knowledge of Old English and Old Norse to create the world Germanic folk tale (Tolkien 2007).

In C.S. Lewis’ chapter on “The Meanings of Fantasy” in an An Experiment in Criticism, with its repeated emphasis on fantasy as “disinterested castle-building,” to see the syndrome of metaphorical elusiveness at work. Even the more substantial writing of Tolkien in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” in Tree and Leaf will be a bitter pill for the skeptic since Tolkien’s begins by describing the reading of fantasy not as an act of intellection, but as a journey through another country. And if Lewis and Tolkien, whose reputations as fiction writers rest almost exclusively on fantasy, seem to have a vested interest in speaking of their craft in mystifying terms, maybe we should listen to a novelist who works run a wider gamut (Children’s Literature 2007).

Fantasy is the art of the unreal, the literature of the insecure soul. For the most part, fantasy is to be a vehicle for the soul of both writer and reader to articulate and reflect on man’s basic insecurities. Fantasy allows people to think and imagine thoughts which are foolish in the eyes of society. Fantasy is a flower in an analytical and social jungle.

What the students are saying is that readers of fantasy are often far more interested in protecting themselves than in protecting the art or the artifacts. The acknowledgment of feelings of insecurity, of foolishness, of an absorption so thorough that distance between self and book blurs, of fear that schematic constraints will cause imaginative coitus interrupts-all these responses indicate that the readers have lost control of themselves, have surrendered themselves is potentially embarrassing because those on “the outside” may find their reactions incomprehensible, unsophisticated, or socially unacceptable. These readers fear, in short, that they are not “acting their age,” and so describe their responses in stubborn or polemical or whimsical or cunningly vague terms which will shield them from charges of immaturity-shield them, in fact, from the repulsion and coldness which Freud saw as the dominant culture’s rejection of public expression of fantasies by adults (Guibbory 2005).

Fantasy restores a clear view of the familiar by making us free our vision form the blur of “possessiveness.” Tolkien’s ethico-aesthetics provides a rationale for the basic convention of fantastic literature: the transference or displacement of familiar human situations and psychology to an unfamiliar, exotic, or bizarre setting. A look at one use of the convention in The Lord of the Rings will suggest how the fantastic transforms the familiar into the visionary. Readers of fantasy are like Frodo in Lothlorien, looking into an alien world but seeing little that has not been seen before. The “machinery” of the Rings-wizards, monsters, elvish runes, talking trees-is not its visionary center. The ostensible marvels have genuine charms of their own, but in the larger aesthetic of fantasy they are so much Windex for clearing the vision to more homely simple sights (Dubrow 2001). What keeps successful fantasy from self-indulgence or the decadence of mere novelty is that a writer like Tolkien does not let the attention rest on the marvelous machinery, but directs the eye back to the richness of ordinary things. With access of knowledge and power the reader may turn to his own world, his consciousness of self, others and environment refreshed and cleansed.

Tolkien, of course, neither invented nor exhausted the convention of displacement. And it is important to be wary of making Tolkienian fantasy an aesthetic-or ethical-norm. Neither the vision nor the response to vision which the Rings propose should be taken as definitive. In the trilogy the preferred response to fantastic vision is exuberance; even the bitterest knowledge the characters in the fiction acquire is tempered by a resiliency and vitality which makes the best of things.

To say that a principal effect of fantasy is the return of the reader to his own world with access of knowledge and careful attention to the familiar is to hint at an important relation of fantasy to education. When education is a matter of refreshment, it proceeds, as do these types of literary fantasy, by simplification and subjective engagement. Simplicity and subjectivity may seem the very worst features of literary fantasy to adapt to the process of education; for the skeptic these features signify the unhealthy affinity between the fantastic and the escapist.

As soon as teacher says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed,” he is appealing to learner’s fantasies, inviting them to attach personal, subjective value to a complex and recondite idea. The appeal to fantasy involves a severe simplification of the theological idea of heaven in order to transform the vision of heaven. As teacher, Jesus enlists the fantasies of his hearters by creating an image of the kingdom which is at once familiar and fresh, engaging and delightful. That image represents a sacrifice of conceptual rigor and precision; the pedagogy is “anti-intellectual” in that the teacher assumes the vision is father to the idea that subjective valuation precedes intellectual refinement Jesus the parable-maker exemplifies in his role as teacher the important function fantasy serves in the educative process (Timmerman 1983).

We have, then, in simplification and subjectivity via Tolkien an illustration of the concomitant operation of creative and destructive forces in fantasy. The essential educational principle to which these forces contribute is the widening of thought through the abolition of conventional and obstructive categories of thought. The appeal of fantasy in education makes possible the restoration of the worth of an idea, to which complexity will add a later delight. As simple ideas from and solidify the teacher can wisely introduce more complex contingencies, not just to challenge simple ideas but to persistently reinvigorate the initial subjective valuation of learning. To keep simple ideas from themselves becoming inert and stale the teacher can cultivate the desire for the complex as a means to the continuing transformation as stretching of vision. In that sense, fantasy is not only the beginning point of education but its abiding motive, always opening new possibilities, always affirming a process of thought (Schefer 1997). As agent of education, the power of fantasy to renew and refresh what is inertly familiar creates an activity of mind whose enemies are habitual states of mind.

This view of fantasy as a source of recovery and renewal-popularized and sanctified by Tolkien-makes fantasy out to be reason’s natural ally: the freedom of fantasy is simply the prolegomenon to the discipline of reason. The appeal of fantasy may become a pedagogical trick which teachers can safely employ to engage students in process which will not undermine rational modes of thought and discourse. But there is another view of fantasy with other implications for education. The other view shifts emphasis from the familiar to the unprecedented, from powers of refreshment to powers of revelation, from an alliance with reason to an assault on rational consciousness, and form the secular to the numinous. That other view is adumbrated in the journal of a student who writes that fantasy requires not a willing suspension of disbelief, but “a willing expansion of belief.” When one suspends disbelief one adopts a temporary credulity; it is just a matter of shifting stance to return to disbelief: the mystery is disposed of, the book reverts to artifact, and the idea becomes tractable. But if an expansion of belief occurs, the shape and scope of one’s world changes. Mystery is the dominant presence in a world where expanded belief dissolves boundaries between fantasy and actuality (Wemdorf 2002). A reader becomes implicated in a book and it cannot become again purely an artifact. A person is less likely to seize and master an idea than to feel seized and mastered by it. Fantasy is a way of enlarging experience, emphatically not a strategy for containing or rationalizing experience.

In Alice in Wonderland of C.S Lewis expressed disappointment at the discovery that Alice’s adventures were all a dream. Fantasy is the ultimate/extreme of literature as an imaginative art. It is the incredible, the improbable, the implausible, the outlandish-the totally unlikely. But at the end of Alice, Carroll concedes to the plausible and denies his fantasy that extremity, that refusal to bargain with the laws of the “normal” world, which is an aesthetic standard many readers want to apply to fantasy. The ethical aesthetic came into play frequently in student responses to the endings of literary fantasies. A false note from the author at the end, a hint that de didn’t mean to be taken too seriously, would threaten to unbuild a reader’s belief in and respect for a work which had seized his imagination. The epilogue is far more clever and ambiguous than Carroll’s, but it was the cleverness, the feeling that Lewis wanted to manipulate her imagination. Lewis didn’t want apologizing for writing a fantasy and she didn’t want to hear about “real” and “practical” purposes (Morely 1887). Pray you no epilogue, for your fiction needs no excuse.

The Little Prince is a fantasy which invites grokking. And Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s fantasy of expansive and open-ended belief has had, loyal following than The Lord of the Rings. The mystery with Saint-Exupery stops the story is only an extension of the participatory nature of the entire narrative. The book is open-ended because it is throughout, filled with secrets and problems which it tempts each reader to ponder and fill in, each in his own way. The secret beauty of The Little Prince ad its doctrine of hidden riches and grokking an idea is not a matter of insights: grasping, enlivening, enhancing, discovering, discovering, and making one’s own this-or-that return in the real-world-by virtue of gracing it with this-or-that private image (Bernstein 1999).

Mystery. Belief. Grokking. Outsight. The words suggest very personal educational goals which have to do with establishing a sense of identity, grasping the meaning of ones relation both to the world outside oneself and to the world within oneself, even pursuing a from of religious fulfillment. Tolkien has described the fantasist as a “sub-creator,” one who does not create fantasy so much as the structural conditions for fantasy. The structure of a fantasy novel is a source of delight and stability for readers, but what they learn from fantasy comes from their imaginative participation in the work, not from any tendentious designs of the author. What fantasy is capable of offering is a means for finding some order to one’s impermanence’s; what the teacher is capable of proposing are suggestions about the economies of discovery.

Harry Potter in the classroom might be to explore and define fantasy novels. According to Beach and Marshall (1991), a fantasy novel includes the following characteristics: an element of good versus evil, a quest, physical metamorphosis, “secondary” world, magic and supernatural elements, and illustrations. With the exception of the cover design, no other drawings appear in the text of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. However, Rowling’s use of imagery and descriptive language serve as a substitute for illustrations in the definition presented bove. Fantasy provides the students the opportunity to encounter works that deal with basic questions of life. What is the nature of human being? What constitutes evil? What are appropriate ways to combat it? (Children’s Literature 2007). Given opportunities to do so, students will come up with answers, searching within themselves, to judge the characters in Harry Potter and their actions.

Whether Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are capable of sustaining a lasting place on the literary table remains to be seen and may be highly debated. For example, Anthony Holden, a British critic believing Harry Potter is no Beowulf, labels the popular new book “derivative, traditional, and not particularly well written.” Conversely, in an eloquent justification of the book’s literary merit, critic Richard Bernstein (1999) explains, “The key here is the hero, Harry himself.” Harry Potter’s story offers psychological depth “with its early images of alienation, rejection, loneliness and powerlessness leading to it’s classically fairy tale ending.” It meets the rigorous criteria outlined by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment.

The essence of fantasy fiction, however, is liberation from the constraints of what is known, coupled with a plausible and persuasive inner coherence. The reader of fantasy accepts the rules set up by the fiction, and ignores, or relishes, the contrast with the rules of everyday reality, often glimpsed in fantasy as a horrific world of tedium and mediocrity.

Reasons for the popular appeal of fantasy fiction no doubt include discontent with the mundanity of everyday life in consumer societies, openly voiced in Le Guin’s The Beginning Place (1980), and the associated yearning for more natural and colorful environments. Fantasy has however, also shown it ready to deal with questions of the utmost cotemporary importance, in particular, with the nature and origins of evil. Fantasy fiction has shown itself capable of dealing with topics which seem outside the range of the traditional realist novel, and speaks for and to a contemporary mass audience whose taste it has itself created.

Works Cited:

  • Beach, Richard, & Marshall, James. (1991). Teaching Literature in the Secondary School. Ft Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
  • Bernstein, Richard. (1999). Examining the Reality of the Fantasy in the Harry Potter Stories. New York Times. 30 Nov., B1. Children’s Literature. (2007). 
  • Dubrow, Heather. (2001). Recent Studies in English Renaissance. Studies in Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 41.Fantasy Fiction. (2000). 
  • Guibbory, Achsah. (2005). Recent Studies in the English Renaissance. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 45. Longaker, Mark, & Bolles, Edwin C. (1953). Contemporary English Literature. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Morley, Henry. (1887). English Writers: An Attempt Towards a History of English Literature. Cassell.
  • Schefer, Jean Louis. (1997). Critical Reflections. Artforum International, Vol. 35.
  • Timmerman, John H. (1983). Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Boling Green State University Popular Press.

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