When I was ten, my bedtime stories were Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The prose was far beyond my elementary comprehension, my father stopping every third paragraph to explain the plot in layman’s terms, but Tolkien’s vast world lodged in my child’s brain and never left. I wanted more of hobbits and elves and scary black riders, but I didn’t understand Lord of the Rings without my father, so he introduced me to the more age-appropriate Chronicles of Narnia. Here was fantasy in spades, talking lions and eternal winters in the back of a magical wardrobe with children my age as the heroes. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment where the fantasy genre took over my life; certainly Lord of the Rings wasn’t my first experience in the realm of Faerie. I’d watched countless Disney films as a small child, and whether or not one considers “Beauty and the Beast” or “Robin Hood” to be fantasy or folklore, most of Disney’s empire has been built on the foundation of impossibility and the suspension of disbelief. Along with many other young Americans, I’d also spent early childhood waiting expectantly on Christmas Eve for an immortal fat man to fly through the snapping air of a December night and leave gifts wrapped in campy paper under our tree. My point is that fantasy, as a cultural form, is everywhere; with some of us finding our niche in the dark murky mists of Avalon or the rounded dome holes of the Shire.
While I was a well-read child, voraciously consuming historical YA, The Boxcar Children, the entire Anne of Green Gables series, and a copious Christian mystery series about a girl named Mandie, my first love and the books I gravitated towards most were ones where dragons, warriors, and magic reigned. Then along came Harry Potter.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made its way to the U.S. when I was in sixth grade, and as a member of an open-minded, yet conservative Christian household, the religious Harry Potter debate was a hotbed at our church and usually reared its ugly head around the Thanksgiving table. In truth, surprisingly, I felt no desire to read this controversial new publication when I was happy enough with Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and my good-old standby, C.S. Lewis. But my mother, who is not a reader, requested I read Harry Potter and give her an honest opinion of its contents so that she knew exactly what all the mothers at church were clutching their pearls over.
I loved it; I fell right into Rowling’s world, just like any fantasy I embarked on, and the critique I brought back to my mother was that it was just a normal fantasy: good vs. evil, interesting characters, large encompassing plots, and several books long. I couldn’t see the Christian issue, since to me, there were no differences between Harry’s magical world and Gandalf’s wizard powers in The Fellowship of the Ring. While the book peeping out of my bag prompted many strange looks in Sunday school, no one in the church ever tried to argue with my family about Harry Potter again. But the controversy surrounding the Potter series introduced me to something I’d never encountered in my reading experience before: the critic, particularly the un-read critic.
Most of the church mothers vilified the Potter series without ever having cracked the spine. They had heard somewhere (Christian talk radio, Christian magazines, friends) that this book was about witchcraft and demons, and therefore had no place in a Christian home. Unsuspecting children’s minds would read about Harry the Wizard and suddenly not be able to differentiate the fantasy from reality, causing the whole world of Christendom to come crashing down. At least this was normally the hand-wringing utterance given to me whenever I asked a parent why their child wasn’t allowed to read the same book I was enjoying so much. Their logic confused me since I was a child and I had no problem understanding that I could scream “Accio” all I wanted while waving a wooden stick, and no object in the universe was going to come careening across the room to me. Spells and magic weren’t what I was taking away from the Potter series. I knew I wasn’t ever going to receive a letter in green calligraphy telling me I had magical powers. The magic was exciting, but it wasn’t the reason I kept turning the pages. At the end of the day, I understood Harry’s yearning for friendship and his need to find acceptance after an abusive upbringing. As a bookish kid with thrift-store clothes and financially poor parents, I knew what it was to be the outcast. I knew what it felt like to not have any friends at school because I was the loner book-worm. I understood what it was to feel ‘other’, to be the only kid in Sunday school not only allowed, but encouraged to read an evil book series. It wasn’t the wizard in Harry that I wanted to keep reading about, but the human in Harry that I understood and identified with. And so it goes with most of my childhood fantasy favorites. The Pevensie children were looking for an escape from the raging war at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Tolkien’s hobbits chose to forgo a quiet life of Shire-sitting in order to save the world from darkness and help a band of homeless dwarves reclaim their mountain. A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg hoped to find her missing father and prove to the world she hadn’t been abandoned. No dwarf ever knocked on my door demanding help defeating a dragon; no wizard ever gifted me a demonic ring and sent me on a quest. No magical world had ever materialized in the back of my closet, and I’d certainly never lost my father through a time-traveling glitch. But if my father had ever gone missing, I would have gone on a crazy quest with three strange old ladies to find him. I sympathized with the homeless dwarves, and understood the terrible consequences if Frodo didn’t destroy the ring because I could see humanity’s greatest moments mirrored in these characters.
The names change, the magic is different, the stories and worlds are unique, but at the center of every great fantasy novel is a relatable human (or human-esque creature) with deep human yearnings making big human decisions. If all the fantasy is taken away, the point of the story is no different from The Great Gatsby or even the silly, moral plots of The Boxcar Children. It all comes down to the humanity; to very relatable characters struggling with the same sorrows, joys, and growing-up experiences that many children (and most adults) deal with every day. But to many, if the story is not ‘real’ in the sense that it could have happened in a real place with real people, the story has little merit.
I read The Silmarillion in high school, and distinctly remember several teachers asking why I was wasting my time reading a book on the history of nothing. That’s all The Silmarillion was, a long book about how Middle Earth came into existence. It was the history of an imaginary land, with imaginary languages and imaginary creatures. I would have been better off reading 1066 and All That; it would have at least been about a real place. But The Silmarillion’s lack of true history didn’t diminish Tolkien’s world-building, character development, or the same vivid language that captured my imagination in his trilogy and prequel. The fact that it was the history of a land that never existed didn’t change the quality of what was written on the page. But this was a difficult argument to open to a critic who’d never cracked The Hobbit, let alone The Silmarillion, and it’s an argument the entire fantasy genre has been fighting for centuries.
Stemming back to the Elizabethan period, the whole of society discarded old-wives’ tales and fireside folklore in favor of science and logic. Voyages to the new world proved that ships would not fall off the edge of the map, eventually leading to European expansion. In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories,’ Tolkien’s assessment of the situation was “…I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of ‘rationalisation,’ [sic] which transformed the glamour of Elf-land into mere finesses….It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves…” (Tolkien, 111). Coupled with the Queen Elizabeth I’s Protestant take-over and a subsequent disillusion of the mysteries in Catholic tradition, the emerging smaller world brought an end to the popularity of folk tales and fantasy stories. Anything containing dragons, faeries, or the gently fantastical reeked of medieval superstition and was considered societal regression (Carroll, 8 – 9).
Religiously persecuted immigrants landing in America during the 1600s brought this growing rational emphasis (Carroll, 8) across the pond and imbibed a culture of ‘dutiful reading’ in which the perusal of books was only permissible for spiritual growth. Pleasurable reading was sinful as it kept the able bodied from working (Carroll, 13) and this, along with many other Puritanical social ideals held sway well into the Romantic and Victorian eras. On a personal level, this explains why I may have hated my sophomore year American Literature class so much. With the exception of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which at least had fantastical elements with angels and demons, my readings consisted of religious poems, Thoreau and Whitman’s opuses to nature, and Holden Caufield being a selfish ass. While we did spend some time on Paradise Lost, we were not encouraged to focus on the fantastical elements of Milton’s epic, but on what Milton was trying to say. Neil Gaiman suggests that “many folk stories, once they got to America, lost their magic. The magic fell out. There was a weird practicality that came in” (Blaschke 136), which might explain my distaste for Paradise Lost regardless of its fantastical leanings. At the center of Milton’s poem (or at least the small part of it that we read in class) seemed to be a rationality of the epic battle between God and Lucifer. The poem was not an epic story about another world, but Milton’s way of explaining the very fantastical undertones of the Bible.
I was very aware of the Bible, coming from the uber-Christian household I did. My first real memory of any book that I loved was a picture Bible that reduced the entire scripture into a comic book drawn in the style of the “Valiant” comic strip of the Sunday newspapers. I read this book until the spine fell off, and then I taped it together and read it some more. Granted, I didn’t feel like I was reading fantasy while I flipped through my favorite stories. Moses parting the Red Sea, the Angel of Death flying over Egypt, and the many miracles of Jesus were history to me; real things that happened to real people in a time long before my birth. True or not, they still fall under the umbrella of myth; no different than Greek, Nordic, Malaysian, or Japanese, and so they retain a certain need for suspension of disbelief. Perhaps this early exposure to Bible stories opened me to the same suspension of disbelief needed to get through fantasy novels. Incidentally, the first works considered fantasy were myths; The Odyssey, The Fall of Icarus, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf and the like, many of which were part of the aristocratic educational curriculum for language and culture. However, as the Age of Enlightenment ushered in the Industrial Revolution, the Victorians “with their overriding values of rationality and progress, tended to discourage the serious discussion of the values of the fantastic” (Carroll, 8) and mythology found itself removed from the usual gentleman’s education as it was considered an irrational distraction (Carroll, 8). While America and Britain were honing out the perfect Great Domestic Novel during the Romantic and Victorian eras, fantasy found itself left out for adoption on a dirty city street corner. While the public ate up Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and any serial with Dickens’ name on it, myth and magic were deemed only applicable for the nursery, and even there fantasy and fairy tales were still scorned. The Victorians considered fantasy to be“‘ [. . .] corrupter[s] of childhood …who ‘deplored the divergence of the fairy tale from matters of fact and its violations of natural laws, its seemingly unlicensed imaginativeness and its relatively random attention to improving lessons for the benefit of the little men and women whom they saw as its potential readership’” (Carroll, 9). This divergence from reality was deemed to be psychologically damaging for adults as well as children, with claims from philosophers and psychologists of the day claiming, “the fantastic in our time can have a place only in an insane asylum, and not in our literature (qtd in Jackson 172)”, and “philologist Max Müller calling mythology a ‘disease of language’ (qtd in Tolkien 121)” (Carroll, 11). It is interesting to me, personally, that these rallying cries came during a period which gave us Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, and many other fantastical novels. One wonders about the chicken or egg scenario here. Were those beloved fantasies written to prove psychology wrong, or were the psychologists reacting to these works becoming so popular? For indeed, fantasy novels have always been popular. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sold out when it was printed in 1866, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies to date, with The Hobbit enjoying fifteen years as America’s most sold paperback (Curry, 1). J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter sold an astounding 450 million copies as of statistics from 2011. In contrast, Catcher in the Rye, a book often found in school curriculums across the United States, comes in at 65 million, with another high school curriculum favorite, To Kill A Mockingbird coming in at only 40 million (Wikipedia). While these statistics cannot show the whole story, it does beg the question of why the likes of Rowling or Tolkien aren’t considered to be in the same literary category as Salinger and Lee. Rowling and Tolkien are well written and award receiving, but only in their relegated genre.
But the tides of change are coming, as The Guardian writer, John Mullan, claims that “the barrier between this once disdained brand of fiction and ‘serious’ novels is breaking down.” (Mullan, 1) However, the question still remains: why has fantasy been relegated to the back shelf of the literary world since the Elizabethan period? In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien suggests that, “To many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining nouns and redistributing adjectives, has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate. To some it has seemed at least a childish folly, a thing only for peoples or for persons in their youth…” (Tolkien, 143) Tolkien was no stranger to critics, as his own biographer even suggested that “he doesn’t really belong to literature or to the arts, but more to the category of people who do things with model railways in their garden sheds.” (Curry, 2) As Patrick Curry states in his book, Tolkien and His Critics, “The critical rubbishing of Tolkien began with Edmund Wilson’s extended sneer… about “juvenile trash” in 1956.” (Curry, 4) Criticism Tolkien received posthumously well into the 90s delineated, “Tolkien appeals only to those ‘with the mental age of a child – computer programmers, hippies and most Americans…’” (Curry, 4)
Curry goes on to say, “Inglis writes that Tolkien’s prose “is moving, there is no doubt, but it moves a reader away from and never towards real life.” (Curry, 15) Curry points out in his conclusion that a reason for Tolkien’s harsh criticisms comes due to the literary critic “arrive[ing] in Middle Earth dressed in a hard-shell suit of Theory, protected from contamination by what they have already decided is its infantilism, escapism and reactionary politics.” (Curry, 21) It’s really the same phenomenon I discovered as a twelve-year-old Evangelical Christian reading Harry Potter. The church mothers, if they happened to crack the spine at all, brought specific components of their ultra-Christian values to Hogwarts, ignoring the human fight for love and peace through sacrifice, and saw the story only through a lens of the potential witchcraft and Satanism that terrified them. Shiloh Carroll discusses this in her Master’s thesis Fantasy & Pedagogy: The Use of Fantasy in the College Classroom. “ [To] the Christian parents and leaders, Harry Potter functions not as a story, but as a dangerous instruction manual on the practice of witchcraft. Rather than the generic magic system used in Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or The Chronicles of Narnia, the use of “real” occult and Wiccan practices within Harry Potter makes them particularly dangerous .” (Carroll, 15)
But how much more ‘dangerous’ or different is Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings from any other type of novel? And on a more critical level, what difference is there between a novel considered to be a classic, and a fantasy? I close-read Wuthering Heights while simultaneously reading The Hobbit to see if there were any differences in how either author approached their craft. Incidentally, even though the former is considered a 19th Century classic, and The Hobbit, while incredibly popular, is often seen as a run-of-the-mill children’s story, there were strong similarities and relations between the two books. For example, both authors choose to narrate their books in a conversational style: Bronte tells her story through the maid, Ellen, while Tolkien chooses an omniscient narrator who continuously breaks the 4th wall to speak directly to the reader. In both cases, the reader is being told the story from an insider’s perspective, allowing the reader to take on the attributes and opinions of the narrator. In Bronte’s case, we feel what Ellen feels, which helps color our opinion of the characters: “I wanted something to happen which might have the effect of freeing both Wuthering Heights and the Grange of Mr. Heathcliff, quietly, leaving us as we had been prior to his advent. His visits were a continual nightmare to me; and, as I suspected, to my master also. His abode at the Heights was an oppression past explaining.” (Bronte, 132) The language Bronte uses in this passage liberally uses “I” and Ellen’s description of Mr. Heathcliff as ‘a continual nightmare’ and an ‘oppression’ give Heathcliff no redeeming qualities, keeping the reader from forming their own opinion of the character. While Tolkien’s narrator is omniscient, the voice is still highly assertive and colors the reader’s opinion of the characters similarly to Bronte: “Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small, slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum–as dark as darkness….[the goblins]…had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain.” (Tolkien 79) Like Bronte, Tolkien’s narrator uses the “I” and describes Gollum as ‘small, slimy’, and ‘unpleasant’ intentionally skewing the reader to form a dislike of Gollum.
A second similarity is in the mirroring dialects of characters: both Joseph, the Heights’ handyman and Gollum, the ring’s creature, speak in a specified dialect apparent on the page. In Joseph’s case, Bronte selects a heavy Yorkshire accent that is written phonetically: “….we’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ‘em’s ‘most getten his finger cut off wi’ haudin’ t’ other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlf.” (Bronte, 127). While Gollum’s dialect is not as phonetic as Joseph’s, Tolkien uses repetitive “s” sounds and the addition of extra ‘s’s on the ends of certain words give him a snake-like quality: “Bless us and splash us, my precioussssss…..what iss he, my preciouss?” (Tolkien, 80). Through narrative style and character dialects, both authors control the reader’s opinions of characters, creating a specific emotion that pushes the story. We are meant to hate Heathcliff and Gollum for the outcome of the story, and so we do.
Syntax and structure aside, both books navigate different facets of the human condition which give them timelessness and relevance. Catherine and Heathcliff love each other on a primal, almost animal level, but are incapable of having a functional relationship. Bilbo and the dwarves continually fight for a balance in reclaiming what is rightfully theirs and being consumed by materialistic greed. The choices of the characters in both novels have far reaching consequences for not just themselves, but everyone around them. While Bronte’s consequences are domestic and Tolkien’s global, the overarching relevance of human conditions in both books mean readers find something new with every re-read.
For me, this re-read of Wuthering Heights produced very different emotions than when I read it in high school. As a teenager, I remember feeling sorry for Heathcliff, seeing beyond his sociopathic tendencies to his possible redemption. I loved Catherine and Heathcliff’s love story. I reveled in how they loved and lost, but their legacy lived on in the end. As an adult, I was disenchanted by their animal obsessions in each other and saw a family wrecked by the dysfunction of men with sociopathic tendencies and women bent on petty desires. I hated Catherine and Heathcliff and the destruction they caused in the wake of their passion.
Similar thoughts surfaced during my reread of The Hobbit. As a teenager, I never noticed just how many times Bilbo regretted his decision to go on such a ridiculous journey, yet his resilience and persistence to go on, despite feeling unequipped, scared, or lost, shows his tenacious nature and his inability to give up on his friends. Bilbo’s navigation of a world totally foreign to him in which he not only survives, but prevails, spoke to me in a way I’d never noticed as a younger person.
So why then, if Tolkien and Bronte both timelessly capture the essence of the human condition, is The Hobbit considered less respectable than Wuthering Heights in certain circles? Perhaps it’s simply what Curry suggests above; the critic cannot find their way past the enchanted forest, the magic ring, or the mythical creature. To enjoy fantasy is to enjoy the potential of the impossible and the unknown, to stretch the mind past ‘what is’ in the search of ‘what if.’ Good fantasy, as is the case with Tolkien, Rowling, Gaiman, Pratchett, Le Guin, or any of the other heavy hitting names in the genre have defined the ‘what if’ and then created a whole world around it in which the characters and settings function and follow a specific set of rules of the author’s creation. This is essentially no different than the societal rules surrounding Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
It’s when characters and settings do not follow the rules of the world that fantasy rings hollow. “The Fathers” of modern fantasy, William Morris and Lord Dunsany, revitalized a waning interest in the fantastic in the late 19th Century, publishing The Wood Beyond the World and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which were bestsellers in their times. Truthfully, I only made it through twenty percent of The Wood Beyond the World, and it took me several months to plough slowly through the high Arthurian language and medieval folk-tale plotting of The King of Elfland’s Daughter. I was dismayed by the fact that I didn’t enjoy the reading experience of either book. The King of Elfland’s Daughter was particularly disappointing to me since Tolkien espoused it as one of his greatest inspirations for Middle Earth. But I found it boring, long-winded, and a waste of two-hundred pages. As a reader of fantasy, I was baffled by my reaction to it and was led to the larger questions of what exactly is it that makes a ‘good’ fantasy for genre readers. In my personal taste, Dunsany doesn’t let me enter into the realm of his creation. He refers to the setting as “…the fields we know… ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty-five miles from Elfland.” (Dunsany, Loc 13) The characters are ciphers with little physical description; Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter and the lynchpin of the story, is simply described as being beautiful and wearing a crown “that seemed to be carved of great pale sapphires.” (Dunsany, Loc. 267) The marriage of Lirazel and Alveric is also incredibly brief and non-descript: “the good man wedded them in his little house with the rites that are proper for the wedding of a mermaid that hath forsaken the sea.” (Dunsany, Loc. 369) In contrast, Dunsany spends full chapters on poetic descriptions of the passage of time on earth versus the passage of time in Elfland; one chapter, entitled “Lurulu Watches the Restlessness of the World” spends twelve pages surmising how Lurulu the Troll watches pigeons in the rookery in order to understand how human time differs from Elfland time. Dunsany favors repetitive language in these chapters; in one paragraph “he observes…” “he sees…” “he hears…” and “he perceives…” is repeated seven times (Dunsany, Loc 1849), and I lost considerable interest wading through Dunsany’s almost philosophical introspection on the differences from one world to the other. Dunsany made me work for the magic, and then most of the magic didn’t do anything exciting. The rules for the world were not fully developed, leaving me feeling unresolved and questioning how environments functioned and what characters were doing. The King of Elfland is supposed to have incredible magical spells, but they only seem to work when it is convenient for the plot. There is no construct for when the magic happens or motive for the characters. In contrast, Tolkien’s characters function within a well-set scope of social constructs and societal norms that allow the reader to enter the world and understand its mechanisms. In the first three pages, Tolkien spells out what a hobbit is, where they live, what sort of magic they possess or do not possess, and a brief history of the hobbit lineage within the greater world. By page four, the reader has a working understanding of Tolkien’s world that the author then builds upon. Dunsany begins his story with an argument between a group of Lords and the King of Erl about being ruled by magic. On the second page, the King of Erl sends Alveric on a quest for Lirazel, but the reader has nothing to grasp onto; there are little environmental descriptors or character development. Where we have a very good idea of who Bilbo Baggins is in the first few pages of The Hobbit, “the mother of this particular hobbit [Bilbo] was the fabulous Belladonna Took….It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors had taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but…once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer.” (Tolkien, 16) From this passage we understand that Bilbo is prepared for the type of journey he will be embarking on based on his family history. In Dunsany’s case, we have very little understanding of why is characters are chosen to do what they do. The King of Erl is simply a “stately white haired man in his long red room” (Dunsany, Loc. 32), and Alveric is simply described as his eldest son, who is a young man. Other than knowing that one is a king, and by proxy, Alveric must be a prince, we have no understanding for why these characters are appropriate for their epic place in this story.
While it can be argued that Dunsany was more concerned in reviving the Arthurian tales and medieval undertones of the original myths and folktales he was borrowing from than in telling a good story, Dunsany is used as inspiration and a derivative for many a modern fantasy novel that falls into the pitfall of the unexplained world, or the non-relatable character. Dunsany’s characters were ciphers who made very few difficult human choices in their story. Alveric quests to get his wife back, but we have no idea why he decides to be so dedicated to such a cause when it becomes obvious that she cannot be found. Their son Orion spends most of the story hunting magical unicorns that only he can see due to his elfin blood, but this neither impacts his own life or the lives of his parents. Lirazel leaves her husband to go back to Elfland, but her return is more due to her father’s magical spell than any decision of her own.
In contrast, both of Tolkien’s main characters, Bilbo and Frodo, make life altering decisions in following Gandalf on his quests. Both choose to leave their homes of quiet complacency and venture out into the unknown with the understanding that there is a great chance they won’t return. While in Bilbo’s case, the adventure is thrust upon him with the appearance of the thirteen dwarves on his doorstep, the decision to join them, and later to give the Arkenstone to Thorin’s enemies in the hopes of saving lives, is a choice made all on his own.
Tolkien creates beautiful tension throughout The Hobbit by having Bilbo grapple with his desire to continue questing with his newfound friends and his desire to return to his quiet life with a cup of tea and his armchair. To pull from author Eliot Shrefer’s presentation at Farleigh Dickinson University’s 2016 summer residency, Tolkien creates a ‘wicked question’ for Bilbo that spans the length of the story. Does he risk certain death to help his friends recover their birthright, or does he stay at home where he is safe and forever wonder if he could have made a difference? More than ten times throughout the journey, Bilbo states a variation of wishing he had never set foot out his front door. But then directly in the next paragraph, Bilbo makes decisions that push him further down the questing road rather than turning back towards his Hobbit hole, which in turn, forces me as the reader to continue questing along with him. This is the human tension lacking in The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Dunsany’s characters grapple with nothing.
So what is the fate of fantasy in the 21st Century? John Mullan of The Guardian does an excellent close reading on several famous fantasy writers in his op-ed, “The Triumph of Fantasy Fiction.” He discusses how G.R.R. Martin “could, of course, write ripping historical fiction if he wished, but by escaping real history he denies the reader any privilege of knowing what is destined to take place” (3). He discusses how “Neil Gaiman…specializes in stories that do not so much take us to other worlds as admit the deities and demons of different mythologies to this one. The AU [alternate universe] is in our midst” (4). Of Terry Pratchett, a beloved and well awarded writer of the fantasy genre, Mullan explains, “Later Discworld novels, even if they are housed on the fantasy shelves, had less and less to do with sending up fantasy conventions and more with satirizing the world we know very well. Most are dedicated to the mockery of some field of modern human endeavor: journalism, academia, football….” (4) Incidentally none of the things Mullan lauds as excellent in the above descriptions has much in the way to do with the actual fantasy itself, but in the ways it is presented. Martin’s multi-book epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, appeals to readers due to his brilliantly vivid, historically based writing, even if the book has dragons, magic, and winter zombies. Pratchett’s fantasies take place in a fantasy setting but deal with articles of the daily-mundane, or in some cases, Pratchett turns the magical into the daily mundane. In one of his earlier Discworld books, Lords and Ladies, Pratchett spends two full pages describing the bath-time preparations of the witch, Nanny Ogg. This satirical and amusing aside has very little to do with the plot of his book, but he cleverly works a witch’s slightly magical ablutions into the mundane everyday, building up his world to encompass both the ‘reality’ and the ‘fantasy’ in a single character.
Secondly, Pratchett’s work is often loosely based on a classical piece of fiction that he’s emulating. In the case of Lords and Ladies, Pratchett gently riffs on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, allowing his fantasy to be enjoyed in layers. A Song of Ice and Fire functions similarity: Martin has done his research, and any mildly-read student of history has figured out that Martin changed some names and threw some dragons into the history of medieval Europe and called it Westeros. A non-fantasy reader has a way in, a magical key, if you will, and the fantasies that now appear in our cinemas and on primetime television have used that key to transcend the magical barrier. They’ve given the critics in their hard-shell suits and the non-fantasy readers with their limited imaginations a helping hand through the winding maze of Faerie.
But why now? Fantasy has been around since the beginning of recorded history in one form or another. Why has it taken until the 21st Century for fantasy to even begin finding its merit? Tolkien sums it up well in On Fairy Stories: “Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve fantasy.” (Tolkien, 141) The simplest answer to why this has changed is that the 21st Century created the appropriate technology. It’s far harder to mock a fantasy story’s mythical creature when an almost touchable CGI dragon’s face is staring out into the audience from a cinema screen. It looks real, it sounds real, and so suddenly it is real, if just for an hour or two. Any cinematic adaption of a fantasy story before the late 90s was normally a campy, low-budget endeavor that greatly taxed the suspension of disbelief for even the most avid of fantasy lovers. I had a BBC adaption of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from 1988 that had actors dressed in full sized animal costumes trying desperately to be taken seriously as talking beavers and skunks. Even as a twelve-year-old, it was difficult to believe the story when the beaver was taller than the Pevensie children, and had a man’s face and glued on buckteeth. It was even harder to be sad over Aslan’s death when it was clear that the director had just filmed the stabbing of a mechanical lion.
But the advent of realistic CGI has made it much easier to recreate monsters, dragons, and convincing fantasy set designs. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings movies, which both came out in 2001, were a few of the first fantasy-based films to visually recreate fantastical settings that were so detailed viewers could almost jump into the screen. A continuation of this idea can be seen in the Harry Potter Theme Park at Universal Studios. Visitors can go a step further and actually enter a physical world resembling the Harry Potter universe. These new and convincing outlets for the fantasy story bring in individuals who may never have cracked the book open, but may now be more apt to take an interest in the source material. And since these potential readers now have a visual before opening the book, their journey into the world of the fantastic is easier than if they’d picked up the book before watching the screen or visiting the attraction.
Another, seemingly inconsequential change for the fantasy genre was in a change of book-jacket. This seems like a trivial thing in comparison to the existential criticism Tolkien was receiving for his epic, but regardless of what librarians have been saying for years, many readers do judge a book by its cover. Ultimately, fantasy covers were part of the ‘low-brow’ sentiment many critics have historically felt towards the genre. Carroll continues in her thesis, “… it is admittedly difficult to take seriously a book whose cover is graced with a curvaceous woman wearing a barely decent chain mail bikini and sporting a sword…” (Carroll, 13) While Tolkien’s books never had a chain mail bikini clad woman on the front, they have had their share of campy covers, particularly from the 1960s – 70s. The covers of the books my father read to me as a child looked like the following:
In essence there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with these covers, but compare them to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye cover:
Salinger’s cover art has bold, eye-catching colors and heavy line work that give a certain gravity and grittiness to the image, while Tolkien’s covers have muted colors, soft lines, and give off a whimsical, children’s fairytale-esque feel. Placed side by side on a shelf, Salinger’s cover will be noticed first, the eye immediately gravitating towards the splashes of red and yellow, while Tolkien’s will be seen afterwards.
While it can be argued that a book must sell itself on the merits of its writing and not its cover, and the cover art hasn’t hurt the sale of fantasy books to the general public, Carroll makes a defining point. Like the market packaging of any product, should the outside fail to impress, it’s that much harder to get a customer in the front door. If a reader has gone to the bookstore unsure of what they’d like to read and they are accosted by fantasy covers graced with scantily clad women, whimsical paintings, or just plain bad art, they are far less likely to pick up the book and peruse its dust jacket than something that looks like the Salinger cover shown above. Incidentally, after the great success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie adaption, Tolkien’s books came out in a myriad of new covers. One such cover looks like the following:
Not only has the trilogy been bound as one book instead of three, but this cover, among several others released after The Two Towers movie in 2002, utilizes bright gold, embossed letters for the title and a movie-still backdrop of the armies of Middle Earth taking on Mordor’s gates. The tone of the book has completely changed from the bucolic, pastel colored scenery of the 1970s cover to an epic cinematic blockbuster. From the 1970s cover, it’s difficult to decipher what exactly the books are about; perhaps an opus on nature, or a collection of whimsical fairy stories with creatures called Hobbits. The cover from 2002, however, relates that this is a dark epic of war, and war will always carry more gravity than a simple fairy story.
In conclusion, the realm of fantasy is indeed breaking into the mainstream sphere after a long history of being left on the dusty back shelves. Part of this is due to the 21st Century’s ability to effectively and realistically visualize the fantastical world, but I would also hypothesize, though I have no evidence besides my own observations to back it up, that the general outlook of millennials lends itself to the acceptance of fantasy. According to Pew Research Center, millennials “are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history…. ” As well as embracing multiple modes of self-expression, the millennial generation is also more accepting of change and of societal differences than their baby-boomer counterparts. For fantasy, this means there is an acceptance of the other. The millennial generation is not afraid of the possibility of psychological damage from spending too much time in the dry hobbit holes of Middle Earth, or of falling into Satanism from reading aloud spells from Harry Potter. They’ve been educated enough to understand that fantasy is fantasy and reality is real. As a generation they do not see fantasy as a bad thing; it is a simply another art form, another type of expression, another outlet for creativity. This, coupled with the millennials’ constant online sharing and viewing of global markets, means that books’ cover art and critics no longer matter as much. Many fantasy books today have fan bases that proselytize wildly about books they love over their blogs, book review sites, or other forms of social media. As a millennial myself, when I am looking for a book to read, I don’t go to the New York Times Book Review, or even to Barnes & Noble’s Bestseller list. I go to my friends, or to Goodreads, or to the Cannonball Read Review. There I find readers like me who write about books they love, and allow me to decide if I would like them, too. Places like Comic-Con and other genre conventions also celebrate fantasy writers and allow them to meet their audiences and grow their bases more widely. Coupled with the great success fantasy films and TV shows have had recently, fantasy is reaching far more readers and making the critics of standard fiction sit up and finally pay attention to this long abused genre.
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