Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth: Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and Hoffmann

June 4, 2009

Fantasy writers are notoriously read (and even studied) mostly by enthusiasts of a fannish bent. The "mere" readers consume fantasy voraciously, and often without making or wanting to make any distinction between the qualities of, say, Tolkien and those of his worst imitators - but even many of the serious readers are so immersed in the texts that the resulting scholarship bears little relation to what goes on in other wings of the literary academy.

William Gray's book is a truly critical work, in the best sense: an examination of fantasy literature that moves beyond literary history and taxonomy, without resorting to pure abstraction. In doing so, he places some of the best works of modern fantasy in a tradition, and a tradition other than that of the epic.

George MacDonald's novel-length romances, Phantastes and Lilith, are often cited as important influences on modern fantasy. But they are difficult books, dreamy and plotless tales concerning indistinct characters in environments lacking physical definition - how they relate to the more earthy fantasies of strange lands and societies with heroes, quests and magic is not apparent. Gray goes behind these to the writers of the German romantic tradition - Novalis, Hoffmann, the Grimms and others - who were themselves read by MacDonald.

In doing so, he evokes Harold Bloom's belief that philosophical source-hunting is the only worthwhile job for the literary critic, although this may be mainly for the sake of finding an overall theme for Gray's various author studies. One need not be persuaded by (as Gray disarmingly admits) his "(suspiciously grand) narrative of high Romantic Fantasy" to find this backstory illuminating.

Gray also takes seriously the unfinished texts of Tolkien's that are gathered in the volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Why, to the potential irritation of the undergraduate, he should write about "the Notion Club Papers" rather than The Lord of the Rings, is that these texts show Tolkien inventing his world: which is, after all, the most important and interesting thing a fantasy writer does.

The advent of Philip Pullman has given a new (and welcome) edge to writing about C. S. Lewis. Plenty of students are now busy opposing quaint, pious and non-PC Narnia to the sexy, blasphemous and postmodern His Dark Materials; Gray does salutary work in reading beyond facile oppositions and putting both writers into a wider and more nuanced intellectual context.

In a word, Gray takes his chosen fantasy writers seriously as thinkers and shows the struggle of serious writers to imagine worlds, and to imagine them in accordance with their own beliefs about the imagination. It seems that the best fantasy writers are not simply fine storytellers, but people who have a philosophy. Bloom approves of the obscure writer David Lindsay - and perhaps E. R. Eddison, an important fantasist overlooked here - because he shares his world view, and disapproves of Tolkien and Lewis as fantasy writers because he is hostile to theirs. But the point is that clearly MacDonald read Novalis, Lewis and Tolkien read MacDonald, and Pullman read Tolkien and Lewis, and that these writers are all in their own way scholars, who make up their minds about important matters of their practice through thinking about each other.

This raises the question - which Gray gestures to in his short final chapter - of the status of the exemplary texts of the contemporary fantasy boom. The Harry Potter books, and most of the fantasy published since The Lord of the Rings appeared in paperback in the mid-1960s, is not interesting in quite the same way, being written with rather than against the prevailing aesthetic grain. A contemporary storyteller will take to fantasy not necessarily for any reasons that are examinable in Gray's terms, but simply because (for better or worse) the genre is popular. The rules are laid down, and there need be for the author no philosophical struggle.

Gray has read his texts with scrupulous care, with a sharp, philosophically oriented intelligence. He has read around his authors thoroughly, he writes with conviction and openness, and sets a high bar for critics who would follow.

Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth: Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and Hoffmann

By William Gray. Palgrave Macmillan. 232pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780230005051. Published 12 November 2008

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