Monday, October 4, 2010

A Medievalism Post: What is Fantasy?

For the second semester in a row, I'm teaching T. H. White's The Once and Future King, a book I first encountered 25 years ago, and haven't really thought about since. I have not been, surprisingly for a medieval lit and lang guy, a big fan of Arthurian literature. But I returned to the novel in part because the more I know, the more I appreciate, if not exactly like, the "Matter of Arthur." Further, I thought it might be a good doorway into things medieval for lower level undergrad students. So now it is part of the curriculum for the semester.

The book cover of this edition declares the book "a fantasy classic." In looking for some criticism of White's work, I didn't find much; but I did find a couple of people expressing puzzlement as to why White is not considered on the same level as Tolkien in terms of 20th century fantasy literature etc. And here I have a problem. Well, ok, several problems....

First, I would contest that Tolkien is fantasy, but that is a post for another time. Second, My question is what makes White fantasy? Well, first one has to determine what "fantasy" as a genre is. And that's where I have problems. These days, there seems to be a popular and academic definition to define anything containing supernatural power "fantasy" literature. Epic of Gilgamesh? Fantasy. Iliad and The Odyssey? Fantasy. Beowulf? Fantasy. One definition said that the genre was "any work of fiction in which the laws of nature are suspended or violated." Hmmm, so this includes a lot....James Fenimore Cooper has characters who leap distances that should a normal human being experience would shatter their bones. Suspension of natural law: so the Leatherstocking tales are Fantasy? Hamlet has a ghost: Fantasy? Defining the fantasy genre with such a wide inclusion seems to me to be a knee jerk reaction to the negative connotations to the fantasy genre. In the end though, watering down the genre to include Toni Morrison, Epic of Gilgamesh, David Eddings, and Hamlet all as "fantasy" does little to make the genre appear legitimate nor in describing what makes fantasy literature a viable, vibrant, and potentially interesting genre.

BUT, all of that is to get to the point. Once we stop trying to defend the Fantasy genre by making it so broad as to include just about everything and actually hammer out a workable definition or at least description of Fantasy that really describes it as a modern genre (just as epic can't really be epic without whether by placing it outside the known world or universe or in an alternative history in which the action is dependent on the radically different operation of forces in that world and removed from reality. And yes, I'm aware that such borders are nebulous and that one easily has genre mashups and the like.

So, T. H. White is retelling Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. As a result, there is some magic, though far less than in Malory. But the important thing is that White's Arthur is very much this world in this historical timeline and the main action of the story is very real, very this world. Merlin's "magic" is explained in mundane terms, and disappears after the first 25% of the story, and none of the action of the tale depends on that "magic". In fact, the only reason I can think of to call White's The Once and Future King "fantasy" beyond trying to make money by marketing is that its MEDIEVAL. Hence this post is my response.

Now, I have no issues with Fantasy literature. I do have an issue calling Medieval literature "fantasy". Because a work has swords does not make it a fantasy story. Because a story has medieval characters, themes, or backdrop, these elements do not make it a fantasy tale. I chafe at the consistent association of the medieval with "Fantasy" in the modern sense. They should not be linked. Star Wars is evidence of that. Anyway, thanks for reading....that's my point.

4 comments:

Tom Elrod said...

Larry: If you get a chance, I'd like to hear your thoughts on White and The Once and Future King, and what you think works/doesn't work in it.

theswain said...

Well, Tom, that greatly depends on what you mean: work as a novel, or as a retelling of Malory, or as a teaching text.

The best part of the work is honestly the first, Sword in the Stone. With each successive section, the tale as White tells it becomes less inspired in my view.

Jeff said...

I taught a SF/fantasy course for the first time last fall and came away from it not entirely sure whether fantasy is a genre, a mode, a form, a marketing category, or just some catch-all cultural concept. That said, I do think that TOAFK is fantasy not because of its medievalism (since not every manifestation of medievalism is fantasy), but because White taps into the same body of legend and folklore as more conventional genre writers. His setting is also textbook fantasy: a world full of inexplicable marvels such as grails and questing beasts--even if wizardly magic per se is in short supply. (I've yet to see a good academic definition of fantasy, but everything from White's reliance on literary realism, to his interest in animals, to the way his characters' wonder gives way to skepticism about escapism, pings some aspect of the definitions fantasy scholars have floated.)

I'm with you, though, on thinking it's silly to define medieval works as "fantasy" retroactively. I have no problem seeing both The Once and Future King and Wyverns of Wonder, Book XVIII as belonging to the same genre, but I think we're in danger of confusing and short-changing students if we suggest to them that elements of the fantastic necessarily make a medieval work close kin to modern fantasy.

Diana said...

Thanks for sharing such wonderful post.......
http://www.medieval-armor.net