T. E. Apter (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Apter, T. E. “Introduction: Fantasy and Psychoanalysis.” In Fantasy Literature: An Approach to Reality, pp. 1-11. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982.

[ In the following essay, Apter explores the role and significance of fantasy in literature, contending that psychoanalytic theory offers a useful means of studying the unique...

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SOURCE: Apter, T. E. “Introduction: Fantasy and Psychoanalysis.” In Fantasy Literature: An Approach to Reality, pp. 1-11. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Apter explores the role and significance of fantasy in literature, contending that psychoanalytic theory offers a useful means of studying the unique difficulties posed by fantasy literature.]

The aim and purpose of fantasy in literature are not necessarily different from those of the most exacting realism. What is called ‘truth’ in fiction is often hypothetical: if a character has certain traits, then one is likely to find, or enlightened by finding in him, other, related traits; also, if a character has certain traits then his actions and responses are already to some extent circumscribed. Yet hypotheses in fiction, however ‘realistic’, must be imaginative as well as plausible. At each state in the work the artist is faced with choices and decisions that may not have been foreseen at a previous stage. The ‘truth’ of fiction is attributable not only to the integration of character traits, the balance of motives, the consequences of actions and the development of events, but also to the ways in which new plausibilities are spotted, and the ways in which the artist's decisions create possibilities which throw light on various characters, their motives, or their conditions. Truth in fiction is not a study of probabilities but a utilisation and discovery of both possibilities and plausibilities to make points about what is probably our world.

As practised readers of fiction we can gauge the point and legitimacy of conclusions drawn from fantastic as well as from realistic premises. For example, when Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect, then his and his family's subsequent behaviour reveals a great deal about Gregor's pre-insectile state and thus justifies Kafka's use of the implausible premise. The fantastic circumstances can be viewed as an economical and effective means of revealing characters' interests and emotions which would be disguised or modified in surroundings well ordered by comfort or custom; in this way they would be seen to have the same purpose as the realist's plot.

Alternatively, though not exclusively, the fantastic tale may be read as an allegory, with the literal story seen as a hieroglyph recording a previously established truth. The fantastic occurrences, setting, or characters will not tax the reader's credulity for they will be treated as systematic representations, with the particular quality of their strangeness commenting in various ways upon the ideas represented.

These suggestive readings make fantasy respectable and manageable, but they are obviously inadequate. If fantasy is a story proceeding logically from a fantastic premise, then the bizarre expectations it arouses and its peculiar brand of reasoned confusion are ignored. If the mental acrobatics of the fantasist are treated as allegories, then their revolutionary constructions are ignored. In either case fantasy becomes inessential to the work's themes and ideas, however appropriate it may be to their presentation. My aim in this book is to discuss the methods and achievements of fantasy in the modern novel and story, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Jorge Luis Borges, and to show how and why fantasy is essential to the authors' various purposes, which must be understood not as an escape from reality but as an investigation of it. The works discussed here are different from the fairy tale, myth or saga which are either enacted in a world separated from ours spatially or temporally (in a ‘Never-never land’ or ‘Once upon a time’), or which are imaginative, emblematic histories. The respective metamorphoses of Jove and the Beast are very different from Gregor Samsa's because, however wonderful, they occur within the laws of their mythic or enchanted settings. Gregor Samsa's transformation obviously breaks natural laws: if the tale is not understood as occuring within our world it loses its point. However, at the same time that Gregor's transformation defies nature and logic, it reveals an unexpected order which indubitably belongs to our world. Recognition is puzzling not only because it is disturbing but also because of the strangely literal language fantasy employs and the difficulty in marking out that area of thought, response and perception which is thereby realistically described.

At the heart of fantasy in modern fiction is the uncertainty as to which world the tale belongs—to this one, or to a very different one? The central query is unlike Hamlet's uncertainty as to the status of the ghost—an illusion, a demon, an angel, his dead father?—and unlike, too, the query in The Turn of the Screw—are the ghosts hallucinated or are they spectres which could, in principle, be seen by others? The problematic fantasies in Hawthorne, Conrad, Hoffmann, Kafka, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Borges cannot be isolated within a generally stable world, nor can answers as to the status of the fantasies solve the questions they raise. Even if Gogol's madman or Dostoevsky's Golyadkin or Hoffmann's Nathanael have got things wrong, their beliefs, expectations and perceptions persist in commenting upon this world. The impact of fantasy rests upon the fact that the world presented seems to be unquestionably ours, yet at the same time, as in a dream, ordinary meanings are suspended. Everything proliferates with potential meanings and becomes a potential danger. Even when a mistake is seen to be made, the fear is not mitigated. The ideas, objects and situations remain hedged round with baffling associations. All reassurance or reprieve is illusory in face of the anxiety arising from the knowledge that the familiar can take on, and tends to take on, strange and threatening forms.

The discontinuity of image and pattern essential to fantasy defies the systematic representations of allegory. More strongly, the fantasist's terms should not be read wholly metaphorically, however allusive they may be, for the function of metaphor is to persuade the audience that one thing can be seen as another, thereby revealing new aspects of either term. The poet, or any master-metaphorist, invites us to change, even to take risks with our perceptions, but the fantasist has already passed beyond warning signs into the danger area. However figurative his language, there is no ‘vehicle’ or ‘tenor’, no means of finding the way back to original terms. Metaphor makes it possible to employ extreme and original language without being lost among strange representations. One term can be considered in the light of another without losing its identity. Or, if a term does come, by way of metaphor, either to lose its original meaning or to have its meaning extended, the initial metaphoric thrust is subdued by common usage and the new use of the term becomes another example of the strongly metaphoric tendency of language itself; it now registers rather than challenges prevailing presuppositions and associations. The fantasist's metaphors, however, combine the conflation of vehicle and tenor with strange and new associations; figurative language becomes the only means of making literal assertions, for ordinary meanings fragment, expand, splinter, either because some new, unknown order prevails, or because the former order functions haphazardly or piecemeal. Thus the fantasist must piece together a new language.

Coleridge's well-known distinction between Fancy and Imagination, in which the former capacity creates an artefact whose elements are, though assembled, distinct and unintegrated, whereas the later creates a product whose elements are mutually dependent and richly, perhaps interminably allusive, bears no reference to the qualities of fantasy, for though ‘fantasy’ is sometimes shortened to ‘fancy’ the two terms generally have a different use. Nonetheless fantasy is frequently contrasted with imagination in ways which parallel Coleridge's distinction. Fantasy is unconscious, uncontrolled, highly personal, and its products lack integration or generality or balance. Here fantasy is linked to the day dream, to easy solutions, to egoism and escapism, in contrast with the reality-testing imagination. Nor do all slights upon fantasy bear this post-Freudian stamp. Fantasy is frequently linked to mistaken or misguided beliefs and perceptions, or to specifically unrealistic characteristics. Mercutio describes his vision of Queen Mab as dreams

Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy;
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind,(1)

though Shakespeare's use of Mercutio's speech to register the grotesque forces within Romeo's ecstasy challenges the character's dismissal.

In the sense in which fantasy is contrasted with imagination, it may lead to non-fantastic as easily as to fantastic creations. Though it is postulated as a mental activity its mark in artistic products is artistic poverty of a special kind. The work crippled by fantasy in this sense attempts crude satisfactions of personal desires, seeking simple solutions rather than resolutions to problems; or it may reveal idiosyncratic and unpersuasive associations, or tediously harp upon personal anger, or fail to communicate its meaning. This use of ‘fantasy’ is obviously different from the characterisation of fantasy literature, though there are similarities which justify the use of the same term.

Fantasy literature employs associations which are like idiosyncratic associations. Initially their strangeness may appear to be incoherent, and thus either dead to allusion or triggering off wayward, inconclusive strings of allusion. The fragmented perception, the mingling of trivial and gargantuan meanings, the anxious and inept quest for certainty, bear the mark of egoism, not only because their emphasis is on personal fear but also because the difficulties seem to arise from some flaw within the ego. There is often the impression, too, as in the case of literature impeded by fantasy, that fantasy in literature emerges from unconscious beliefs and has as its aim the satisfaction of unconscious desires. Moreover, in its display of dream characteristics, fantasy literature is peculiarly susceptible to psychoanalytic interpretations of dreams. In bearing the mark of unconscious processes—timelessness, fragmentation, mutual contradiction, exaggeration, distortion, displacement, condensation—it tempts the critic to read such literature as an exhibition of unconscious processes. The structure of fantasy literature often leaves the impression that the work has not been executed under conscious control, for many fine fantasy tales are not ‘well wrought urns’ but ungainly forms, with proliferations and fragmentations of theme and cruelly unresolved conclusions. Frequently the vitality of the fantasist's representations arises from abrasiveness and imbalance; the impact of fantasy seems to depend upon unresolved and disguised emotions.

Psychoanalytic theory, so adept at defying absurdity, is a plausible aid to interpretation of this difficult and dubious genre. Yet the special fascination psychoanalysis holds here must be ‘placed’ in the context of a criticism of fantasy literature which distinguishes between impediment by fantasy and the achievements of fantasy. The unconscious material utilised in fantasy literature is that which is ordinarily controlled by ordinary language and presuppositions essential to normal functioning. Fantasy is the means by which such material is exposed and investigated. Only in creating new associations and expectations can language set to work in this area. The characteristics fantasy shares with unconscious processes do not necessarily indicate artistic impediment.

In the Convivio Dante defined Fantasia as the representation of the intellect's dream, and though his use of fantasy as ‘visionary imagination’ is now archaic, a link between fantasy and dream seems inescapable. Yet for Dante the dream had a respectability which the modern dream lacks. Dante's dream belonged to the intellect. Its revelatory power stemmed from the fact that it was controlled, systematic, abstract. The modern conception of dream can be viewed as a development of the Romantic dream which is product of faculties in opposition to the intellect. The Romantics's dream, too, provided enlightenment, but in a somewhat disreputable and rebellious fashion in contrast to the prevailing esteem for reason. The Romantics sought the strange and exciting within themselves and were stimulated by the assumption that dream would disclose baffling and powerful inner forces. Psychoanalysis, in regard to its emphasis on beliefs and desires inadmissable to consciousness, and on the role of the irrational in the determination of human behaviour, can be viewed as an outgrowth of the Romantic glorification of emotion and impulse, for Romantic artists valued irrational influences, however controlled their imaginations in fact were.

The psychoanalytic treatment of the dream differs in an important respect from that of the Romantics, for the means by which psychoanalysis endorses the unconscious and its fantasies are also the means by which it derides them. In insisting that dreams and products of the imagination, especially those products characterised as fantastic, have significance, that even the most bizarre and apparently nonsensical mental creations have meaning, psychoanalytic theory endorses these products; but in explicating their meaning in terms of unconscious sexual fantasies attributable variously to the artist, his characters or his audience, their point and purpose is trivialised. The fantasist's use of distortion, his defiance of logic and of time, his sensitivity to ill-defined and highly personal forces, his use of fragmenting and fusing personalities is granted meaning but deprived of its artistic purpose. Psychoanalytic interpretation tends to constrict language within the sphere of unconscious personal or human history, forcing its references back to repressed desires and discarded beliefs despite its desperate attempts to delineate human reality.

Responses to psychoanalytic interpretation are ambivalent. Fantasy now is not only respectable but fashionable. Any fantasy, from folk and fairy tales to science fiction and children's tales, is valued as an introduction to unconscious material. The ‘depth’ of the unconscious as a metaphoric placing in the psychic structure is associated with depth in the sense of profundity. Any image or tale amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation is treated as meaningful in the strong, poetic sense. With Jung's help, the possibility that fantastic ideas are as susceptible to platitude as intellectual ones is usually ignored.

However, common sense and a little experience tell us that fantasy literature varies enormously not only in quality but in purpose. In both old and modern fairy stories fantasy provides the thread of reason which can restore peace and harmony. Fantasy offers escape from reality, but the purpose and effect of the escape ranges from wish-fulfilment, excitement or sheer entertainment, to release from habitual assumptions, thus providing a vantage point from which new possibilities can be realised. In most fairy tales fantasy implements hope, opening up the possibility of resolving even the most recalcitrant defeats and fears. Tolkien, in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, describes the fairy tale as a means of setting free needs and desires, confirming the validity of their pursuit and fulfilment, presenting the recovery of fragmented or lost desires, and thus also offering consolation. In the modern novels and stories discussed in this book fantasy also serves as a means of escaping from habitual assumptions and expectations, but the purpose of this escape is to show how awful, how limiting and imprisoning, the human world is. Fantasy discovers and aggravates disintegraton. It is not a means of consolation and recovery but of registering losses and fears. Thus such fantasy is predominately ‘negative’ in that it does not resolve problems but rather magnifies them. To expect a more ‘positive’ or optimistic message would be to ignore the very issues which fantasy differentiates from the ordinarily bland mass of perceptions, desires and expectations.

Fantasy provides a point of vantage from which we are shown the gaps in our knowledge. Such gaps impede self-realisation because they make predictions, and the decisions which are based upon predictions, impossible. Unable to act responsibly, we feel subject to a variety of forces. The impediments to self-realisation become humiliations. The self feels responsible for its ignorance and confusion, indeed for its very irresponsibility. Ignorance and confusion may be universal, but it seems that only select characters are sensitive to them. The truly ignorant and insensitive are the proud and cruel surviviors, whereas the one who is especially aware is crippled by the truths he perceives. Even in cases in which impediments to self-realisation are external, they tend to have highly individual effects as though they were internal impediments. Thus are they closely related to the psychic disturbances whose motives and mechanisms it was Freud's purpose to expose.

It is beginning to be acknowledged, however, by critics as well as analysts, that literature cannot simply be submitted to the prestige and authority of psychoanalysis.2 Previously literature was considered more or less as something to be interpreted, whereas psychoanalysis was knowledge, the master-interpreter of fictions and visions. Psychoanalysis found its predecessors in literature, and named many of its themes after literary figures (Oedipus, Narcissus); but, it was supposed, literary precursors had not systematised the themes now appropriated by psychoanalysis. Yet the systematisation of psychoanalysis not only shares obvious features with fiction in general but in particular with the logic and rhetoric of fantasy. This is not to deny psychoanalysis its own clinical sphere, but rather to suggest that its theories and interpretations should be more pliant towards literary influences, and that, with special regard to its theories of fantasy, it must look at what fantasy in the modern novel and story reveals about psychoanalytic theories and procedures, and, accordingly, modify its central notions as to the possible functions and aims of fantasy. In this book I suggest that fantasy can explore and test reality in much the same manner as psychoanalysis, and, moreover, that the least misleading approach to psychoanalysis is as to an example of fantasy literature, without ignoring the fascinating implications of psychoanalysis to individual works of fantasy. Freud's works, in particular, then become a magically rich text, rather than a body of theoretical knowledge.

However, any purely literary challenge to psychoanalytic theory must proceed with caution, well aware of its limitations. Psychoanalytic theory attempts to explain human behaviour, in particular the role of unconscious beliefs and desires in behaviour; its aim is not to explain human artefacts. Fantasy in literature, however ‘neurotic’ its content, has undergone (usually a good deal of) conscious modification; primary fantasy, which is the psychoanalyst's quarry, has been worked over by the secondary processes (i.e. thought), thereby endowing the primitive fantasy with reality-tested derivations.

Nonetheless, Freud himself vacillates from marking out the boundaries between psychoanalysis and art, to using the former as master over the latter. In ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’ (1928) he claims that ‘before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms,’ and in his essay on Leonardo (1910) he writes that though artistic productivity is intimately connected with sublimation (that is, the transformation of sexual or destructive impulses into socially acceptable activity), the nature of artistic attainment is inaccessible to psychoanalysis. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he acknowledges that psychoanalysis searches for the operation of exceedingly primitive tendencies; phenomena as sophisticated as art works and artistic creativeness are not its concern.3 More often than not, however, he proceeds to discuss art in complete ignorance of his modest disclaimers. In ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ (1908) and ‘Psychopathic Characters on the Stage’ (1915) the only aspect of creativity that puzzles Freud is the artist's capacity to make the expression of his egoistic and neurotic fantasies palatable to others and to distract the audience sufficiently to encourage enjoyment of ordinarily inadmissible desires.

How is it that psychoanalytic theory is so easily tempted into the artistic sphere? It is based upon psychoanalytic technique which employs free association, attention to resistance (i.e., to obstacles to free association), interpretation of dreams and interpretation of transferences. These techniques involve the subject's participation, which the psychoanalytic critic does not have. The material in art, too, is different from that upon with psychoanalytic theory is based. In the analytic session the material uncovered is subject to change in response to the analyst's interventions—interpretations, questions, efforts at clarification, affective displays—and even to adventitious events within the consulting room. The temptation to apply psychoanalytic theory to art works arises, first, from Freud's and his followers' repeated references to art works which often did uncover new material; and, secondly, it arises from aspects of Freud's theories which grant plausibility to the application of psychoanalysis outside the consulting room and independent of psychoanalytic techniques. For Freud's initial emphasis on unconscious factors in the determination of human behaviour revealed time as bound: present behaviour and associations indicated past desires, renunciations, displaced meanings, fantasies and beliefs. Thus a history could be read off from present material. In addition, certain associations and patterns, in particular the Oedipal phase and its concomitant complexes (e.g., the castration complex) and developments (e.g., the super-ego), were seen as both central and universal. Sufficient confirmation was thought to be found in clinical work to apply it to cases that could not be clinically investigated. Literary works in particular were seen to deal with desires, fears, unknown and unacknowledged motives, influences and aims, thus offering an opportunity for analysis. Moreover, artistic works were themselves the products of imagination, which has obvious links with primitive fantasy, and therefore the author's unconscious desires and aims might be gleaned from his work on similar if not identical principles to those upon which primitive fantasy is attributed in the analytic session.

Such applications of psychoanalytic theory challenge the heuristic account of the truth of psychoanalytic interpretation put forward in defence of the charge that analytic statements are unverifiable. That interpretation is ‘true’ which, when accepted by the patient, leads to the amelioration of symptoms. This account of truth rests upon the theory that the bringing forward of unconscious material to consciousness is theraputic; the experiences or fantasies upon which psychic disturbances depend are repeated in analysis, and the repetition reduces the accompanying excitation to a manageable level. It may be that repetition does not require a highly accurate description of the original material. A rough sketch, or even an analogous version, may be sufficiently suggestive. Even so, psychoanalytic interpretation is not tantamount to a drug whose adequacy is gauged only in terms of its effectiveness. Though interpretations need to be adequate rather than accurate, their adequacy depends upon their ability to aim at the truth. The effectiveness of psychoanalytic interpretation is a consequence, not the content of its truth. Therefore attributions of accuracy and validity, or the reverse, to psychoanalytic interpretations of art works, which cannot be tested by their effects upon symptoms, can be squared with psychoanalytic theory.

The mutual attraction of psychoanalysis and literary criticism is also based upon the similarity psychoanalysis has to art, a similarity which, I suggest, is far from superficial. The irreducibly figurative character of many central psychoanalytic terms—‘drive’, ‘libido’, ‘boundary’, ‘defence’—has recently been pointed out by several critics,4 as, previously, Freud's descriptions of unconscious processes in the dream work had been seen as apt descriptions of literary techniques.5 But of course Freud himself was the first and most meticulous recorder of the literary tendencies of his work. In Studies on Hysteria (1895) he says, ‘it strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science. I must console myself with the reflection that the nature of the subject is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preference of my own.’6 In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900-01) Freud defends his metaphorical treatment of ideas as images with the argument that accessory representations may be kept extrinsic from that which they ‘dissect’, though he admits that in the process of representing the mental apparatus within the mental apparatus, the layers of language are difficult to keep apart; and, indeed, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he not only acknowledges the irreducibly speculative nature of psychoanalysis but also exhibits its centrally figurative language, ‘picturing’ as he does the psyche as a ‘living vesicle’ with a ‘receptive cortical layer’, the outermost surface of which consists of a ‘membrane’ which has been ‘baked through’ so that it becomes a ‘protective shield against stimuli’, necessary because the psyche is ‘a little fragment of living substance … suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies.’7 In New Introductory Lectures (1933) he admits that the layers of meaning he once thought distinguishable cannot be kept apart and that the id must be approached with analogies.8

The persistence with which psychoanalysis turns itself into literature is grounded in two problems. First, the nature of the enterprise—that of employing the mind to discover its own processes and mechanisms which are often deliberately elusive, disguising by screen memories and other repressive techniques the procedure and quality of its evasion—is inherently tricky, with observation subject to the same pitfalls as that which is observed. Freud explains:

Every science is based on observations and experiences arrived at through the medium of our psychical apparatus. But since our science has as its subject that apparatus itself, the analogy ends here. We make our observations through the medium of the same perceptual apparatus, precisely with the help of the breaks in the sequence of ‘psychical’ events: we fill in what is omitted by making plausible inferences and translating it into conscious material.9

Thus the first ‘poetic’ tendency of psychoanalysis—that of being forced to use figurative language because the material to be described is uncharted and because the seeker is identical to the object of its search—is related to the second cause of this tendency: that it is a technique for filling in gaps, for creating hypotheses, for telling plausible stories. Since the aim is to study material which refuses to make itself obvious, the best approach is to note where the observable or the obvious ceases to make sense, where known explanations cease to satisfy, where normal patterns fail to indicate appropriate expectations. The mind must try to discover that it does not easily observe its own workings. Earlier, in his 1915 paper on ‘The Unconscious’ Freud had stated the centrality of ignorance and absence in psychoanalytic theory:

The data of consciousness have a very large number of gaps in them; in healthy and in sick people psychical acts often occur which can be explained only by presupposing other acts, of which, nevertheless, consciousness affords no evidence. These not only include parapraxes and dreams in healthy people, and everything described as a psychical symptom or obsession in the sick; our most personal daily experience acquaints us with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how.10

Here psychoanalysis shows its quarry to be that of the fantasist: the aim is to catch out unexpected ignorance, thereby exposing general limitations in perception and knowledge; the limitations also reveal the strange purposes and desires of the medium of knowledge—the mind. The need to show up the gaps in a world commonly perceived as whole requires the creation of associations and patterns which utilise the representations whose strangeness is mitigated by normal inertia. The language of psychoanalysis, like the language of fantasy, is figurative but not conventionally metaphoric, since there is no means of tracing one's way back to original terms. The figurative language describes literally: only if it is so treated can its power and import be understood. But it is not scientific language; it is an attempted, even an experimental description; it provides stories to be told about mental phenomena whose very difficulty often makes them undesirable, wilfully ignored, economically discarded, requiring creative ‘translation’ to differentiate them and bring them to consciousness.11


  1. W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, sc. iv, ll. 102-6.

  2. Cf. Shoshana Felman, ‘To Open the Question’, Yale French Studies, 55-6 (1977).

  3. All references to Sigmund Freud are from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, henceforth S.E. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), vol. 18, p. 17.

  4. Cf. Harold Bloom, ‘Freud's Concepts of Defense and the Poetic Will’ and Humphrey Morris, ‘The Need to Connect: Representations of Freud's Psychical Apparatus’, in Joseph H. Smith (ed.), The Literary Freud (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980). Also, Jean-Michel Rey, Parcours de Freud (Paris: Galilee 1974).

  5. Cf. Kenneth Burke, ‘Freud and the Analysis of Poetry’, in The Philosophy of Literary Form, revised ed. (New York: University of California Press 1957); William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 3rd ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970); and Graham Hough. A Preface to ‘The Faerie Queene’ (London: Longmans, 1962).

  6. S.E., Vol. 2, p. 160.

  7. S.E., Vol. 18, pp. 26-7.

  8. S.E., Vol. 22, p. 73.

  9. S.E., Vol. 23, p. 159.

  10. S.E., vol. 14, pp. 166-7.

  11. For a somewhat distended discussion of the way in which material can be unconscious because it is formless rather than undesirable, see Anton Ehrenzwieg, The Hidden Order of Art (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967).

Richard Alan Schwartz (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2736

SOURCE: Schwartz, Richard Alan. “The Fantastic in Contemporary Fiction.” In The Scope of the Fantastic—Theory, Technique, Major Authors: Selected Essays from the First International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pierce, pp. 27-32. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Schwartz reflects upon the resurgence of fantasy literature in the twentieth century, theorizing that this return to the fantastic is a means for modern authors to create a sense of order in a fast-changing and chaotic world.]

The turn to the fantastic in literature represents in some ways a new method if not for imposing a sense of order on our chaotic world at least for turning the chaos into something positive and useful.

The world of the fantastic has become the world of much of our foremost contemporary literature. Art is no longer Stendhal's mirror on the highway of life, reflecting accurately and unbiasedly all that passes; rather, it has become a fun-house glass, wildly distorting everything that appears in it and furthermore reveling in the distortion. Associated with the fantastic quality of modern writing are a sense of energy, vigor, and vitality and a celebration of the imagination itself. Moreover, at least in the stories told by our finest writers, a real concern for the human condition remains at the heart of the fiction. Why the sudden turn from realism, and what is the role of the fantastic in contemporary literature? Although we are approximately twenty to twenty-five years into the present resurgence of fantastical literature, these questions still merit consideration.

John Barth once complained of God that he “wasn't too bad a novelist, except he was a Realist.”1 The departure from realism that Barth's statement represents can be viewed from at least two perspectives: literary history and the evolution of certain existential sensibilities in the twentieth century. Barth, at least, views realism as something of an aberration on literary history. In an interview with John Enck he remarked, “What the hell, reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there, and literature never did, very long.”2 Indeed, even a casual glance at our literary past reveals a relative lack of interest in realism, except during the past two hundred years or so. That fact in itself is not sufficient grounds for abandoning what has in modern history become a significant and fruitful literary tradition. But although reality itself may be infinite in its variations, the ways of representing it are perhaps exhaustible. Where can the realistic traditions of Richardsonian psychological introspection and Fieldingesque expansive social examination now evolve beyond the psychological portraits painted by Henry James, Fëdor Dostoevski, and Virginia Woolf and the social landscapes drawn by James Joyce, Émile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy? Perhaps other avenues of realism are available for exploration, but to the writer who would advance the repertoire of literary possibilities, a total disassociation from realism becomes another viable possibility. Moreover, in an era in which technological innovations and bizarre human occurrences contribute a sense of fantasy to our everyday reality, where the bounds of realism seem more elastic than firm, a rediscovery of the fantastic becomes all the more appropriate.

The twentieth century has brought forth other considerations in addition to a geometrically increasing technological potential. When W. H. Auden proclaimed in “For the Time Being” that “Nothing like It has happened before,” he seemed to be referring to a sensibility unique to our time. The modern worldview is unpleasant. The notion of a God who cares actively about each individual has largely been replaced by a God who, if he exists at all, seems removed from our daily existence. Thus an Ernest Hemingway character recites the Lord's Prayer, “Our Nada who art in Nada.” With the felt absence of God no absolute, external force exists to give meaning or shape to our existence, and so our raisons d'être become relative and internally focused. Moreover, truth has been revealed to be not merely elusive but ultimately unknowable: Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has supplanted Isaac Newton's laws; probability theory has replaced causality.

Making sense out of and imposing order upon this bleak universal picture has been the primary task of modern literature. Turn-of-the-century naturalists sought to establish the fact of an indifferent universe; later writers simply accepted this fact as an axiom and sought solutions. Joyce and T. S. Eliot were foremost in turning to mythology and legend as a way to revitalize our links to the past and to all humankind and thereby afford us at least a feeling of continuity. William Faulkner and Joyce used their cultural heritages for similar effects. The art-for-art's-sake writers turned inwardly to art to chisel out an ordered world from the chaotic universe surrounding them. Existentialist writers sought to find meaning in commitment to action, to humankind, and to the fact of the void itself. These alternatives were successful, but none has proved universally “the answer.” The turn to the fantastic in literature represents in some ways a new method if not for imposing a sense of order on our chaotic world at least for turning the chaos into something positive and useful.

The art-for-art's-sake movement is in some ways a logical predecessor to the art of the fantastic in that both schools celebrate artifice and imagination. Yet significant differences exist in the manner of those celebrations: the earlier school being more High Church, the later inclining toward Bacchanalia. Generally, more geared toward poetry than prose, more to lyricism than narrative, the art-for-art's-sake group seeks to stimulate our imagination through application of intricate form; moreover, some sense of the beautiful and the elevated appears to be its chief aesthetic goal. One complaint about this often solipsistic art movement, however, is that it produces a sterile beauty. Wallace Stevens pointed out in his “Anecdote of the Jar” that the jar he plants on the Tennessee hillside to furnish the rural wilds a sense of form and order does not “give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee.”3

The literature of the fantastic, on the other hand, seeks to fill itself and its readers with a life force. We are made to marvel at and share the gusto with which Tyron Slothrop plays Rocket Man during the Malta conference, with which Henry Burlingame litters colonial Maryland with his identities, with which J. Henry Waugh becomes an entire cast of drunken baseball players, with which “Jes Grew” sweeps the nation and fills everyone's soul with rhythm and dance. Although carefully constructed novels, manifestly concerned with form, Gravity's Rainbow, The Sot-Weed Factor, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., and Mumbo Jumbo also explode outwardly into a celebration of activity. Even the nightmare world of John Hawkes is dynamic in its terror. Dr. Sear states in Barth's Giles Goat-Boy that “a certain kind of spiritedness was absolutely good. No matter what a person's other Answers are. It doesn't have anything to do with education … and it's the most valuable thing in the University. Something about Dean Taliped's [Oedipus's] energy even at the end.”4 Dr. Sear is expressing one of the major concerns not only of Barth but of all writers of the fantastic.

Contemporary writers mine the fantastic for this vitality as a way of combating the bleak aspects of our age. Black humor, which frequently uses elements of the fantastic, acknowledges the negative facts of our existence but, without seriously trying to effect a change in the facts themselves, generates vigor and energy from them. The vigor and energy become the reply to our absurd plight. Catch-22, for example, does not really seek to end war or petty politics within the military or bureaucratic red tape. Instead, it represents them in such a way that we are at once compelled to acknowledge their reality and are enabled to cope with them through laughter.

At the heart of fantastic literature, then, a discrepancy occurs between thematic assumptions and ideas, on the one hand, and our reading experience, on the other hand. This discrepancy is used to confront and cope with the problems of our age. One such problem is the inability to know anything for certain. Truth, in the sense of comprehensive understanding of what is or what was, is certainly beyond our grasp, and even our ability to ascertain the accuracy of basic facts is questionable. Einsteinian relativity brings home the unknowability of truth through its elimination of any absolute point of reference. All points of view are equally valid, and so truth must somehow be an amalgamation of viewpoints. The cubists' tendency to superimpose several perspectives of the same object atop one another reflects an understanding of this principle, as does, for example, Faulkner's use of multiple narrators in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. But even those artistic attempts to reproduce truth have limitations, because each juxtaposition of viewpoints yields its own unique insight and effect, and no particular juxtaposition is more valid than any other. Writers of the fantastic have, in effect, given up the attempt to capture truth and have dwelt upon rendering for us the fact of its unknowability. To be always unsure of the nature of one's past and present can be despairingly disorienting, but our contemporary writers use that uncertainty as an occasion for celebration and, in essence, turn it against itself for our delight and our salvation from despondency and stagnation.

John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 are fine examples of how the fantastic can be used to deal with truth's uncertainty. The politics of colonial Maryland are depicted in The Sot-Weed Factor as a tangled mass of special interests. Each time we and Ebenezer come to believe we understand the realities of the situation, new evidence comes forth that compels us to reverse our conclusions. We are convinced for 480 pages that Baltimore represents goodness, and Coode its opposite, and then Burlingame reappears to show that Coode is the saint and Baltimore the devil.5 By the book's end Burlingame convinces us that both leaders are scoundrels and that Governor Nicholson represents the path of righteousness. Furthermore, and more appropriate to the issue of the fantastic, by the story's conclusion we have witnessed Burlingame undergo so many incredible transformations that we are unsure even if Coode and Baltimore ever really existed or if they were instead Burlingame himself. Thus we end the story with virtually nothing tangible in our hands. Not only are we no wiser about American history than when we began reading, we are inclined to be skeptical of those truths we thought we knew. What we receive in return for our disillusionment, and what ultimately makes that disillusion not merely palatable but delightful, is the merriment of watching Barth's fantastical account of history, with its outrageous impostures, its bizarre coincidences, and its incredible twists and turns.

To carry over the point about truth's uncertainty from the fictitious world to our own experience, Barth employs a technique that I have labeled the “anti-tall-tale.” Tall tales are, of course, devices of fantasy that begin by appearing credible and then, after the introduction of a fallacious element, build slowly, at first imperceptibly, until the audience, having accepted the premises, finds itself accepting the absurd conclusion. The anti-tall-tale works in the reverse manner. Instead of leading the audience to accept as fact something highly fictitious, the anti-tall-tale induces the listeners to accept as fictitious something that proves factual.

Barth uses John Smith's and Henry Burlingame's private journals in this anti-tall-tale way. The highly sexual account of Pocahontis, for example, is delightful precisely for its imaginative debunking of a revered historical figure. It appears to be a straightforward burlesque of the virtuous Indian maiden. We take it to be entirely fictive; yet ultimately, it proves closer to “the truth” than our traditional accounts. John Smith, for example, commented that he could have “done what he listed” with her and mentioned how she and her women came “naked out of the woods, onely covered behind and before with a few green leaves … singing and dauncing with most excellent ill variete, oft falling into their infernall passions.”6 William Strachey, first secretary of Virginia, discussed in his 1615 Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia how Pocahontis enjoyed trying to “turn on” the male youth of Jamestown. He described her as a wanton girl who would “get the boyes forth with her into the markett place, and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning their heels upwards, whome she would follow and wheele so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.”7 The revelation that Barth's highly erotic account of Pocahontis is accurate at least in its tenor, or that Burlingame's wild legalistic manipulations in the final courtroom scene were actually those employed in Maryland's first murder trial, or even that a historical Ebenezer Cooke not only existed but also wrote a “Sot-Weed Factor”—all events that appear in the novel—flabbergasts us, in much the same way tall tales do.8 Moreover, it leaves us in a position of uncertainty about our own knowledge of what else is fact or fiction. If these bizarre occurrences prove basically factual, what then of the machinations of John Coode, the illicit lusts of Isaac Newton and Henry More, or even the existence of that incredible Sacred Eggplant aphrodisiac?

Thomas Pynchon employed versions of anti-tall-tales in The Crying of Lot 49. His almost encyclopedic knowledge allows him to bring forth obscure facts about history and science. Thurn and Taxis, for example, really ran the postal system for the Holy Roman Empire; other postal systems occasionally challenged them; the U.S. postal system actually enacted postal reform laws in the 1840s to drive out competition; Maxwell's Demon exists as a concept in modern physics; and so on. If these things are somehow “true,” then what of the Trystro, of the WASTE system, of cigarette filters made from bones of dead soldiers? The point is that Pynchon combined fact and fiction so that we are scarcely able to tell which is which. He used both to construct a plot that seems totally surreal, but the intrusions of “truth” into that surreal world cause us to question what is real and what is not. As with Barth, we are left with bemused uncertainty. A direct result of the fantastic elements—the game of Strip Botticelli, the performances of the Paranoids, the brilliant parody of revenge tragedy entitled The Courrier's Tragedy, the cartoon Porky Pig and the Anarchists, and so on—this bemusement turns the uncertainty into something positive, something we can cope with and even enjoy.

We have no dearth of writers of the fantastic. Donald Barthelme's character struggles up a glass mountain in New York City, using plumbers' friends as hand grips, seeking a symbol, only to be disappointed by discovering an enchanted princess in its stead. Robert Coover presented the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg execution as public entertainment that takes place beneath a gigantic neon sign on Times Square. Ishmael Reed reveals opposing conspiracies, dating from Moses, that lead to the emergence of jazz and its suppression (and, incidentally, to the Crusades and World War I). None of these writers tries to depict life as we live it, but all address fundamental needs in our twentieth-century existence. They all have essentially thrown up their hands at the task of their predecessors. They seek not to impose order on our existence but to face the disorder and uncertainty directly. At the same time, though, through their use of formal techniques and their employment of fantastic plots and devices, they generate from the very fact of our chaos and uncertainty a sustaining vitality. The vitality overcomes the despair and stagnation that otherwise would emanate naturally from our bleak circumstances and replaces them with a celebration of life.


  1. John Enck, “John Barth: An Interview,” Wisconsin Studies in Literature 6 (Winter-Spring 1965): 8.

  2. Ibid., 11.

  3. Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 76.

  4. John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 691.

  5. John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), 517-26.

  6. The quotations from Smith and Strachey can be found in Philip Young, “The Mother of Us All: Pocahontis,” in Three Bags Full: Essays in American Fiction, ed. Philip Young (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967), 179-80.

  7. Ibid., 180.

  8. See David Morrell's account of Maryland's first murder trial in John Barth: An Introduction (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), 27.

Charles Rougle (essay date autumn 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6764

SOURCE: Rougle, Charles. “On the ‘Fantastic’ Trend in Recent Soviet Prose.” Slavic and East European Journal 34, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 308-21.

[In the following essay, Rougle expounds on the increasing use of fantasy elements in Russian literature, especially during the 1970s and later. He also examines the major sources for fantasy elements as they are used in modern Russian literature, as well as common themes in these works, attempting to determine a common ideological ground in order to place this trend in a historical perspective.]

Until relatively recently, Soviet literature was very much dominated by normative definitions of realism which dictated, among other things, the mimetic depiction of reality. Fantasy and the fantastic—used here in the broadest sense of Kathryn Hume to mean all “departures from consensus reality recognizable to the reader as such”1—was frowned upon and, for the most part, relegated to science fiction and children's literature.

Slowly at first in the 1960s and then more rapidly in the 1970s, this situation began to change, until by the middle of the decade it could be observed:

Today there is a clear tendency in realistic Soviet literature to incorporate more often and more boldly into the style and artistic thought of works, images and devices that were previously peculiar only to science fiction. Spatial transmutations and temporal dislocations, flights awake and in dreams, and images that seem to have come from the fairy tale have somehow imperceptibly and naturally invaded analytical prose that has accumulated considerable experience in the study of the complex phenomena of everyday life.

(Černjavskaja, 71)

Although the use of such elements was judged to be still rare and timid (Seleznev, 199), within a few years there was increasing agreement with V. Turbin's contention that “… fantasy, the grotesque, the fairy tale … are already very close to becoming the norm, a symptom of the literature of the 1980s (Turbin, 209; see also Ivanova, “Vol'noe dyxanie” and Bočarov, 49-67).

The list of works that rely extensively on elements of fantasy has in fact become quite long, and the sources they draw upon are diverse. Science fiction is an important component in works by such writers as Čingiz Ajtmatov, Anar, and Vladmir Orlov. The literary fairy tale has enjoyed something of a renaissance, and among the authors who draw extensively on folklore and often include “skazka” or “skazočnyj” in the titles or subtitles of their works, one finds both prominent and less prominent names such as Šukšin, Belov, Kaverin, Iskander, Natal'ja Sokolova, and Sergej Abramov. Literary and non-literary legends and myths figure significantly in works by Ajtmatov, Margit Zarin', Nikolaj Evdokimov, and Anatolij Kim, and in the genre of Ukrainian literature referred to as “chimerical prose.” Devils, demons, fairies, and witches roam the pages of novels and tales in which the supernatural, the uncanny, and the grotesque have obvious Romantic roots. Finally, other authors—Anar, Kim, and the Estonian Arvo Valton come to mind—experiment with distortions of consciousness and displacements of spatial, temporal, and causal perspectives that are reminiscent of modernist techniques.2

Two questions in particular arise as one contemplates a literary phenomenon of this nature: What are the sources of this evidently rather extensive trend, and do representative works relying on non-mimetic devices share any common thematic or ideological core that can help place the trend in historical perspective?

The first question is connected with the complex phenomenon of literary change in general and cannot be addressed exhaustively here, but a number of both universal and more specifically Soviet circumstances deserve to be pointed out. First of all, the rising popularity of fantasy and the increase in the fantastic in “high art” is a more or less global phenomenon (Rabkin, The Fantastic, 182). That the surge came somewhat later in the Soviet Union is probably due to the inhibiting effect of official cultural ideology, which only in the late 1960s began to modify the rigid view of the non-mimetic as a pernicious manifestation of modernism,3 so that many of the factors that have affected the Western phenomenon may also reasonably be assumed to apply to the Soviet case.4

One such factor is the novelty of the fantastic, in two senses. First of all, against the predominantly mimetic background in the West and the overwhelmingly mimetic background in the Soviet Union, fantasy offers variety, relief, and freshness. (This is undoubtedly one explanation of the enormous popularity of Bulgakov's Master i Margarita (1965) and Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude (Russian translation, 1970), two works that have exerted an especially strong legitimizing influence.) Secondly, there is a sense in which mimetic realism bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. Based on the assumption that reality is accessible to rational investigation and the promise to provide ever newer knowledge and insights, at some point realism is driven to confront phenomena transcending the consensus reality upon which mimesis is predicated, and the fantastic emerges as an alternative or preferred narrative mode (Hume, 37-44). Soviet literary ideology, of course, has resisted especially this latter point and may never concede it entirely, but today it is at least widely recognized that the non-mimetic offers novelty in both senses (see, for example, Bočarov, 50, 64).5

Another reason for the broad appeal of the fantastic is that pushing to the boundaries of consensus reality and beyond into the world of the imagination is quite simply entertaining, offering considerable opportunity for the humorous, the exciting, the pleasurably frightening, the intellectually piquant. As is familiar to the Western reader, of course, all too often “entertainment” becomes simple escapism designed to provide relief from a reality judged to be boring or frustrating. While it must be borne in mind that Soviet critics are extraordinarily sensitive to all suspected manifestations of such frivolity, they would seem to be correct in discerning the rather prominent presence of the entertainment motive in a great many works employing fantasy. Three complaints are registered especially often. First, many writers are inclined to use fantastic devices as mere gimmicks that may titillate the unsophisticated reader but contribute little of substance to the work. Second, fantasy is often merely philistine wish-fulfillment, as the “magic” in many works is used suspiciously often to supply the hero with scarce goods and services. Finally, some critics have objected to the “bookishness” (knižnost') of much of this fiction, by which is meant playful literary and cultural allusion whose main function is to flatter the supposed erudition of the superficially cultivated reader.6

If novelty and entertainment potential are among the major surface factors accounting for the appeal of fantasy everywhere, there are others that are intrinsic to the specific Soviet historical and ideological context. One (discussed at length in Peterson, 76-113) is the trend that can be observed in all post-Stalin literature away from the Purpose and toward a sharper focus on the private world of the individual, which has brought with it a renewed emphasis on the emotions and the imagination, key ingredients in fantasy. As part of this overall change of course there is also the quest for cultural identity that has marked the Soviet consciousness for the past 25 years. Turning to the people in an effort to mend the bonds of tradition severed by the Revolution, both Russian and non-Russian writers have quite naturally found inspiration in folklore, legend, and myth, all of which rely heavily on fantasy. Because of their concentrated, poetic expressiveness, it is precisely the fantastic elements in the literature of the folk that have been singled out as the most effective aesthetic means for joining past and present (see, for example, Seleznev, 199, 204).

The first to use these devices extensively, of course, were the “village” writers of the 1960s and 1970s. If fantasy was an element in their search for continuity, however, it is interesting to note that the fantastic also figures prominently in the effort underway in the late 1970s to break away from village prose, which is perceived to have become too parochial and confining. The central work here is Čingiz Ajtmatov's I dol'še veka dlitsja den' (1980), where Kazakh legend and a science-fiction subplot are among the devices contributing to the spatial and temporal sweep demanded by the call for the augmented “scale” (masštabnost') that became a watchword of the early 1980s (see Clark, “On the Mutability”). It was felt that what literature needed was a “new consciousness of space and time,” and it is significant that critic Vladimir Lakšin, who has argued extensively for the concept, should single out Vladimir Orlov's Al'tist Danilov, Anatolij Kim's Lotos, and Vladimir Krupin's Živaja voda as works in which fantasy is employed to expand that awareness.

Finally, the fantastic has a certain utilitarian appeal in the Soviet context. Because fantasy offers novelty and appeals to the imagination in ways that mimetic literature does not, it has been used from time immemorial as a means of capturing and holding the attention of readers in order to cajole and exhort them to adopt and act upon the author's vision of reality. It is interesting to note that, whereas the best post-Stalin mimetic literature has been moving steadily away from overt didacticism, works employing the fantastic display the opposite tendency. As will become obvious from the continued discussion below, they are almost without exception candidly and heavily sententious, so much so, in fact, that it is doubtful whether even the hardy Soviet reader could swallow the didactic pill without the fantasy coating.7

If the Soviet literature of the fantastic is conscious of its pedagogical function, it is only natural to ask what various authors are attempting to get across to their readers. The obvious point at which to begin such an investigation is the protagonist in representative works of the trend, for, owing partly to the legacy of the Russian past and partly to structures deriving from Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology and practice, Soviet literature has typically tended to focus on the hero as the ideoesthetic nucleus of the literary work of art. To perhaps a greater degree than in any other national literature, problems of historical, social, and existential meaning are framed in terms of the predominant and/or desirable male personality, whence the recurrent centrality of such categories as “the superfluous man” and “the positive hero.”

The positive hero inherited from the classical period of Socialist Realism embodied a certain set of psychological attributes—spontaneous energy, willpower, stamina, etc., which, when molded by the correct ideological perspective in the “spontaneity-consciousness dialectic” described by Katerina Clark, produces a synthesis personifying the ideal Soviet Man of the future and demonstrating the scientific correctness of the historical vision projected by the Party (See Mathewson, 115-259 and Clark, The Soviet Novel, 15-22, 46-68).

In the hero of the fantastic work we find many of the same elements and categories arranged in a new pattern which, in some respects, is an exact reversal of the established one. Thus if the typical Socialist Realist hero numbered among his positive attributes emotional spontaneity, energy, closeness to nature, and so on, these are precisely the qualities that are subverted in the new protagonist by a kind of cerebral and/or conative hypertrophy and a narrow egotism which combine to cut him off from himself and others. Nikita Ivanov of Natal'ja Sokolova's Ostorožno, volšebnoe!, for instance, is a talented and dedicated worker and at bottom a decent person, but his “emotional culture,” as it is called, is poor. Self-centered and stubbornly rationalistic in his approach to reality, he is insensitive to others and reluctant to become involved in struggles, however just, that do not immediately affect his personal interests.

An even clearer example is Aleksej Drozdov, the cerebral scientist-hero of Sergej Zalygin's Os'ka—smešnoj mal'čik. The fantastic dreams he has on two occasions near death are an extended philosophical discourse on the pernicious effects of abstract thought divorced from concrete human needs and concerns. In the most important vision, it is suggested that abstraction, be it ever so “scientific,” spawns destructive amorality, and that utopian projects for remaking the world and humanity are the products of such spiritual sterility.8

The nameless Student in the Azerbaijani writer Anar's much noted story “Kontakt” (see Latynina, “Forma” and Znaki vremeni, 147-55) displays the same overdeveloped reliance on the rational to the exclusion of the emotional, and he is driven nearly to insanity by his inability to find neat explanations for the series of uncanny happenings that make up the bulk of the story. In the end, a mysteriously appearing “astrophysicist” explains to him that he has been the subject of an extraterrestrial experiment testing the human capacity for alogical perception. The conclusion of the work summarizes the problem that is being posed through this kind of hero:

Whether or not there will be any contacts depends on whether we can agree to a violation of our immovable logical laws of reason … if we keep on trying to find a clear rational explanation for everything unusual, incomprehensible or inexplicable that we cannot fit into our consciousness, … if we reduce everything to the poor laws of our ever so imperfect reason, then no contact with anyone will ever be possible.


In those cases where the hero's isolation is not due specifically to his hypertrophied reason, it is usually traceable to the callous egotism that thrives in philistine society or within the “establishment,” into which he is often successfully integrated. The heroes of Nikolaj Evdokimov's two works employing the fantastic epitomize this type. Thus, Vladimir Maxonin is a middle-aged Moscow school principal whose sensitivities have been dulled by years of humdrum routines, and Sergej Grigor'evič Tixomirov, one of the central characters in the long novel Triždy veličajšij, is likewise a bureaucrat who has lost the ability to relate meaningfully to others. Vadim, in Sergej Abramov's story “Melodija rannego utra,” is a successful artist whose works have photographic realism but little feeling or inspiration. Loxov, in Anatolij Kim's Lotos, has turned his back on his mother to pursue his artistic career. The musician Kristofer Marlov of Marger Zarin's Fal'šivyj Faust panders to the vulgar tastes of the interwar Latvian bourgeoisie and confuses authorship of a gourmand cookbook with true art. The negative side of the demons and semi-demons in Evdokimov's Triždy veličajšij and Vladimir Orlov's Al'tist Danilov and the traits they must overcome to become truly human and achieve communion with others derive from the hierarchical, bureaucratic nature of the supernatural world, which is a Menippean copy of the real one.

The hero of the fantastic work, then, is an “incomplete” man, emotionally and, to varying degrees, morally handicapped and isolated from society. The type is not uncommon in mimetic fiction, of course, but its overwhelming predominance here establishes it as a key element in the pattern to which this literature tends to conform. Briefly, in the typical plot structure there is a confrontation between this inadequate being and some “fantastic” phenomenon, an emotionally intense experience defying logical explanation that may or may not be plausibly explained in the end. The encounter serves to jolt the hero out of his alienation and/or provides him with some epiphanous insight into reality that leads him at least to the threshold of a richer mode of being in which he is in greater harmony both with himself and with his fellows.

The familiar Soviet didactic goal or socialization is clearly apparent here, but the agencies by which it is accomplished differ from those of the classical Socialist Realist work. Most conspicuous by its absence, perhaps, is the Party or its surrogate as the indispensable catalyst in the synthesis, although there are some partial exceptions to the rule. In Sokolova's Ostorožno, volšebnoe! for instance, the loquacious and intrusive “author” controlling and commenting upon the events is a journalist whose indefatigable party-mindedness is everywhere apparent, and one of the hypostases of the Good Wizard Ivanov who helps Nikita in his battle with Evil is a friendly volunteer policeman whose political zeal is little in doubt. Another example is the intricately structured but ultimately transparent political allegory of Marger Zarin's Fal'šivyj Faust, where a socialist minister of culture before the Nazi invasion of Latvia and a politically active Russian prisoner of war open the eyes of the hero, a reincarnation of Christopher Marlowe imbued with the individualistic ideals of the Renaissance, to the realization that the true artist must be devoted to the people and can thrive only in a socialist order (87-95, 287; see also Peterson, 200-205).

More typically, however, the hero's road to spiritual health brings him into contact with the other, less politicized forces of emotion and imagination, embodied in certain agents or vehicles. Not surprisingly considering the role that village prose has played in the fantastic trend, one such source is the simple people. Thus it is surely no coincidence that the mother of Orlov's Danilov is a Jaroslavl' peasant girl, and one of the personifications of wholeness in Zalygin's Os'ka is the eponymous hero, a simple Nenets whose closeness to nature and profound insights into reality are repeatedly contrasted with Drozdov's sophisticated but barren abstractions.

The folksy čudak or eccentric, who has become increasingly common in mimetic works as well, fits quite naturally into fiction advocating greater reliance on intuition and imagination (see Peterson, 76-113). Early examples include Kuz'ma in Vasilij Belov's Buxtiny vologodskie (1969) and Ivan the Fool in Šukšin's stylized fairy-tale Do tret'ix petuxov (1975). More recently, there is Aleksandr Kirpikov, the hero of Vladimir Krupin's much discussed tale Živaja voda (1980). A flawed character more than superficially reminiscent of Ivan Afrikanovič in Belov's Privyčnoe delo, Kirpikov is redeemed by his organic ties to the life and imagination of the people as reflected in their folklore and legends. Like the saintly heroes of many of these works, he is a seeker of truth. Realizing through the folk tale of the “living water” that his life has been worthless, he quits drinking and swearing and shuts himself up in his cellar to seek spiritual renewal. The fantastic element of the story is a miraculous fountain of “living water” discovered in the village. Except for Kirpikov, upon whom it has no effect, it makes everyone who drinks it younger and healthier. It does not improve them morally, however, and that is the whole point of the allegory—perfection cannot be had through panaceas handed down from on high, but must be attained through one's own initiative and efforts (Latynina, “Kirpikov”).

Woman, perhaps because she is associated in the male mind with the powerful and mysterious forces of the erotic and the maternal, is by far the most common agent of rebirth. In a number of works she is the sorceress whose “magic” removes the scales from the hero's eyes and heart. In Sokolova's Ostorožno, volšebnoe! for example, the phenomenon which starts Nikita on his quest is the mysterious image of a beautiful girl in a subway window. He tries to avoid involvement in the struggle against the evil spirits' conspiracy to unleash a nuclear holocaust on the world, but when the House Fairy (Domovaja Feja) reveals to him that the image is his idea of beauty and that he is moreover in love with the girl who casts it, he is spurred to action, and the rest of us can live happily ever after.

Sergej Abramov's women are often sorceresses. In “Melodija rannego utra,” it is the beautiful undine Taja whose feminine mystique lies behind the uncanny events of the story and opens the hero Vadim's eyes to a wondrous new world of life and art. In “Dvoe pod onim zontom,” Dan, a not very successful circus juggler, miraculously masters tricks he has been trying for years when he falls in love with the beautiful and mysterious “good sorceress” Olja. When he foolishly refuses her “magic” out of male pride, however, he loses his newly acquired proficiency and again becomes a second-rate performer. In a lecture on man and woman that could stand as a manifesto of the synthesis toward which much of this body of fiction is implicitly aspiring, the gruff old circus director Til' explains to Dan the error of his proud ways. Women, he expounds, are all sorceresses, provided they have not sacrificed their femininity in their foolish struggle for equality with men. As for men:

… a real man is also a rarity these days. What is a real man? When it comes to work, he's fierce; he'll break himself in two, but he'll get the job done. But he's also tender, Dančik—fragile, and only steely on the surface. Inside, underneath his steel casing, there is, to use a scientific term, a substance that is very susceptible to a woman's magical power. And a good sorceress easily manages this substance. Women, Dančik, should shape us from the cradle to the grave—that's the way of nature. There's no fighting nature—you'll be sorry if you do.


In Zalygin's Os'ka—smešnoj mal'čik there is no magic, but woman is nonetheless central to the theme of the work. Aleksej Drozdov's wife Antonina Petrovna, especially in the many flashback visions when she was still simply his beloved Tonečka, is one of his strongest links to the “real,” natural world, the tether that keeps him from drifting off into the artificial, destructive fantasy of S Island. This, indeed is Woman's role in the world—she is “… an anchor binding humanity to itself; without such an anchor, who knows where and what we would be today …” (357-59).

Although not given such extensive attention as in Abramov's and Zalygin's works, the power of Woman is apparent in other fantasies as well. Thus in Evdokimov's Proisšestvie it is Irina who leads the hero back to the wondrous world of nature and the imagination (cf. Peterson, 163-70); in the same author's Triždy veličajšij and in Orlov's Al'tist Danilov, the human side of the semi-demons Raxasen and Danilov is quite clearly connected with their human mothers, while their demonic nature is attributed to their fathers. Love of mortal women is a significant factor for both on their road to full humanity. In Evdokimov's novel, even Thrice Exalted (Satan) himself is led by remembered love of Eve in the Garden of Eden very nearly to overcome his diabolical being in a burst of truly human compassion. In the same work, the callous bureaucrat Sergej Grigor'evič's path to salvation lies through reconciliation with his mother and reawakened love for his symbolically named mistress Sonja and the crippled son to whom she is selflessly devoted. In Anatolij Kim's Lotos, Loxov's renewed love of his dying mother and erotic love for the nurse tending her are catalysts in his rediscovery of life.

In all of these cases, love is the force that leads the hero back to “the fairy tale that is life” (Abramov, “Dvoe,” 98), to the realization that “the fairy tale is right next to us” (Sokolova, 331), and that the most fantastic fantasy” is what we are accustomed to call the usual, the ordinary, or the everyday (Zalygin, 233). Having recovered this childlike capacity for naive wonder, he is then able to go on to experience compassion and integration with the human community as a whole. As becomes apparent in Orlov's enormously popular novel Al'tist Danilov and in Kim's Lotos and Belka, art works in similar ways.9

Danilov, as has already been mentioned, is a semi-demon born of a human mother and demonic father, and the plot of the work shows him moving towards complete humanity. Actually, from the outset he displays considerable human gentleness, altruism, and sensitivity, and these “flaws” make him a most unsatisfactory tool for the evil spirits in the Nine Strata (Devjat' Sloev), a satirical copy of the real bureaucratic world, whose true instruments and even inspiration are the greedy philistines and the proponents of various hypocritical or solipsistic theories.

One such source of evil has invaded even the world of art, and it is here that Danilov provides the most significant evidence of his innate humanity. The central figure is the gifted but fatefully mistaken violinist Zemskij, whose theory of “silent” music (tišizm) is easily deciphered code for decadent modernism. The world, Zemskij asserts, is cacophony of everyday noises; the only true music sounds within each individual and cannot be played audibly at all. Corresponding to this definition of incommunicable art divorced from real life is an extreme Romantic view of the artist as a solitary prophet to whom everything and everyone is merely raw material (410-16).

Opposing these views are Danilov and Pereslygin, the talented composer whose works he performs. Danilov is convinced that art expresses the higher harmony that Zemskij denies, and that the task of the artist is to communicate this music to his fellow humans. He chooses to remain human when he plays precisely because art is so inalienable a part of human communion and so delicately attuned to human emotions and aspirations. Participation in this communion is not reserved to the professional artist, but issues from a creative attitude within the reach of all. As Pereslygin tells Danilov when asked why the interesting parts in his symphony were given to the traditionally humble and subordinate viola: “There must not be any servant instruments. … In music everything is great and everything can resonate! You just have to let it sound! You have to be able to find that sound!” (400).

Danilov does find it. Part of the sentence imposed upon him by the demons dissatisfied with his behavior is that he is to develop to the utmost the vital human capacity to experience painful compassion not only for those in his immediate surroundings, but also for the woes of all humankind (590), for it is here that art and humanity most significantly coincide.

Art is also at the center of the attempted or completed spiritual regeneration of the heroes in Anatolij Kim's thus far most fantastic works.10 Loxov, the artist protagonist of Lotos, selfishly abandoned his mother on Sakhalin to devote himself to his career in Moscow. Tormented by guilt, he now returns after sixteen years of neglect to find her on her deathbed. This confrontation with the death of a loved one is the catalyst that brings him out of his self-imposed isolation to gain a new sense of communion with the world.

Through love and art, the isolated “I” of the flesh enters an almost mystical union with what Kim perhaps not altogether felicitously calls the infinite WE of the spirit, where each individual joins in “the eternal Choir that roars and thunders, filling with its peals the hollow cupola of the world” (307). The central emblem of this fusion in Lotos is the title symbol itself, an orange that Loxov fashions into the form of a flower and places in his mother's hand as a last, seemingly helpless but in fact powerful gesture of love and contrition that conquers the loneliness of death. Humble and ephemeral as the orange is, it becomes an eloquent manifestation of the quintessentially artistic ability common to all children to marvel at the wondrous transformations and transfigurations that are the throbbing heart of life and nature.

The Lotus was to tell his mother what art is, … explain to her the essence of the incomparable joy of transfiguration. … The voracious, lowly caterpillar that leaves behind it a sticky brown trail, creeping on its belly and groping half-blind for food, will someday see the clear starry sky as it soars above the forests and meadows.

Our transformation by art is similar, thought Loxov. … the artist uses his gifts of dream and imagination to picture in advance what he would have seen fluttering like a butterfly among the stars.


Loxov's own experience describes such a metamorphosis. As he enters this transcendent state, the usual oppositions between animate and inanimate, human and animal, individual and collective, life and death are submerged and united in an undifferentiated cosmic Substance whose affinities with Buddhist philosophy were immediately noted (cf. Merler et al.). Time reveals its circular, closed essence, and the animal and the human fuse as Loxov remembers in the nurse to whom he makes love the vixen he will meet fifteen years later at his mother's grave (337-38). His past, present, and future selves interpenetrate in a single consciousness that moves freely across all temporal, spatial, and causal boundaries.

… ij, the unnamed hero of Belka, is not so fortunate. An artist like Loxov, he initially possesses a marvellous transfigurative power that allows him to embrace and become anything or anyone. This special gift, he explains, allows his soul to leave his body and “zigzag like a real squirrel scampering across the branches of a dense forest” to inhabit any imaginable person or animal (10-11). The narrative is a constantly flickering manifestation of this protean consciousness, as the “squirrel” darts, sometimes twice or more in a single paragraph or even sentence, in and out of the identities of the other main characters Dmitrij Akutin, Innokentij Lupetin, Georgij Aznaurjan (all of them … ij's fellow students at art school), and Liliana Borisovna, Dmitrij's first art teacher and lover.

Working against this kind of “transincarnation” (perevoploščenie), however, is another sort of transformation (prevraščenie) in which the animal substance usurps the transcendent, human one and changes the person into a beast which embodies some definitive psychological or moral trait. Working everywhere in the world as a gigantic “conspiracy of beasts” (zagovor zverej), this insidious force manifests its power every time the individual, whether through violence, egotism, or shallow philistinism, leaves the path leading to WE, and all of the characters in the novel succumb to it. In … ij's case, it is betrayal of art that leads to his downfall. Sacrificing his artistic vision, he marries a “cow buffalo” and takes a job at a magazine producing the sort of exhortatory posters that clutter the walls of Soviet workplaces. Repulsed by the bestiality he sees around him and tormented by the awareness of his timid squirrellike self, he longs to rid himself of this side of his nature and become a “genuine human.” He makes a fateful error, however, when he singles out as his model what might be called the Promethean Man—the proud master of the Universe who would use his science and utopian dreams and abstractions to impose his will on nature and eradicate evil by force. Convinced that this is the goal toward which he must strive, he decides to obliterate the animal in himself by killing a real squirrel.

WE take complete charge of the Epilogue to propound the moral of the tale. Squirrel was right to want to eliminate the animal in himself, but murder, whether of an innocent squirrel or millions of people in the name of some great idea, can never lead to true humanity. On the contrary, such violence is a ruse employed by the very conspiracy Squirrel sought to defeat. He loses his marvellous powers of transmutation and lives out his days as “a quiet office worker, an eternally anxious low-ranking official, henpecked at home by his wife and son” and cut off forever from the fantastic but basic reality of WE (263).

What can be said of the impact of works such as these on the Soviet literary landscape as a whole? Two areas in particular come to mind. First, the widespread use of techniques and devices departing from established mimetic norms has legitimized in practice what proponents of a more flexible and open definition of realism have been advocating for years in theory. Stream of consciousness, temporal and spatial dislocations, fractured narrative voice, and grotesque or whimsical imagery no longer raise many eyebrows among either readers or critics, and in this sense the trend represents an advance. Works of fantasy have been bolder than most mimetic fiction in using previously little exploited literary and non-literary motifs, images, legends, myths, and the like. This has undoubtedly expanded the literary horizon.

As to themes and ideology, we have seen that these are remarkably homogeneous. Every work discussed above begins with the premise that problems of social reality must be solved not by collective action toward some abstract goal or ideal, but by individuals striving to perfect their emotional and moral sensibilities. This has led in some cases to open rejection of the rationalistic goals of the familiar materialist utopias and, as the ideals of logic and discipline are increasingly replaced by a more affective conflation of compassion and creativity incarnated especially in femininity and art, to some serious doubts as to the omnipotence of rational thought itself. Works of fantasy did not initiate this tendency toward a more personalist outlook—far from it (see Hosking, 30-32, 197-98)—but their unanimous adoption of it has contributed to its spread.

All of this can only be welcomed, for it has undeniably enriched Soviet literature. In the worldwide context of fantasy fiction, however, judgment must be somewhat less generous. Soviet critics note with satisfaction that however fantastic some of the devices being used, the works using them have not broken with Belinskij's dictum that departures from the mimetic, if they are to be permitted at all, must focus on revealing and correcting flaws in social reality (see Bočarov, 66-67). Adherence to such guidelines may have helped prevent Soviet fantasy from lapsing into the escapist twaddle that floods Western bookstores, but it would also seem to be at least partly responsible for one less desirable result. If in the best Western works fantasy is used to challenge received notions of reality and explore other possible meaning systems (see Hume, 168-97), the didactic imperative as it has been employed thus far in Soviet fiction tends to inhibit such exploration, and the appearance of a Soviet Kafka, Marquez, Borges, or Calvino does not seem imminent. Yet fantasy shows no signs of fading from the literary scene.11 On the contrary, now that the phantasmagoric reality of Stalinism has become a legitimate subject of fiction, critics and publishers have both publicly and privately noted a renewed surge in the fantastic (see Ivanova, “O ‘ručnom mužike,’” 265), and in a few years a new survey and analysis may well be appropriate.


  1. Hume, 20, 23. The nature of fantasy is of course an enormous and controversial topic. Hume's very general definition seems adequate to the survey here, as it appears to coincide with what Soviet critics and authors mean by the fantastic. For discussions of this theoretical side of the question, see Bettelheim, Irwin, Rabkin, and Todorov.

  2. For discussions of these and other relevant works, see, in addition to the sources already cited above, Lipoveckij, Mixajlov, and Pogribnij. The most extensive Western treatment is Peterson. See also Vishevsky.

  3. The long-winded and tangled Soviet discussion focused on the notion of artistic “uslovnost'.” See, for example, Dmitriev.

  4. Because the present article is primarily historical and thematic in scope, I am choosing to ignore here the interesting question of the psychological and philosophical function of fantasy. See, for example, Bettelheim, Hume, 147-97, and Rabkin, Fantastic Worlds, 4-71.

  5. It should be noted in passing, however, that not all opposition to fantasy comes from political conservatives. Many radical reformers insist that exposés of the past should be mimetic.

  6. See in particular Anninskij, “Mne by vaši zaboty” on Orlov's Al'tist Danilov; Urnov on Zarin'; Lipoveckij on Kaverin; Nemzer on Kim's Belka; and Semenjuk on Abramov. These and other critical reactions are reviewed in Spindler Trubetzkoy.

  7. One other possibility deserves at least to be mentioned: If some writers are entertaining in order to preach, perhaps others are preaching in order to be allowed to entertain. The critics referred to in n. 6 above seem to suspect the latter.

  8. Of the writers dealt with here, Zalygin most clearly expresses the ambivalent attitude toward science that has marked much recent Soviet fiction. See March, 227-28.

  9. See Karasev for a very interesting discussion of the relationship between art and fantasy in recent Soviet fiction (particular attention is devoted to Al'tist Danilov and Belka).

  10. For the extensive Soviet discussion of Lotos and Belka, see Anninskij, “O čem že pela belka,” Kunycyn, Merler, Jukina, Nemzer, and Semenov. See also Beitz, et al.

  11. For two very recent works, see Orlov, Aptekar', and Žitinskij.

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Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt (essay date 21 December 2001)

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SOURCE: Brottman, Mikita, and David Sterritt. “Allegory and Enigma: Fantasy's Enduring Appeal.” Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 17 (21 December 2001): B16.

[In the following essay, Brottman and Sterritt discuss the renewed popularity of traditional fantasy elements, such as wizards and goblins, in contemporary literature, contending that the idealized settings of many modern works of fantasy provide a welcome escape from the mundane and ordinary aspects of life.]

Harry Potter's enormous popularity and moviegoers' keen anticipation of The Lord of the Rings reconfirm the enduring desire of both children and adults to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds—a desire that might have swelled further since the events of September 11, given the time-proven power of escapist art in troubled times. In the age of the Internet and MTV, why do these old-fashioned fantasy realms of wizards, goblins, hobbits, and orcs still manage to pull in such eager crowds?

In an interview with Newsweek's Malcolm Jones, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, claims she regularly gets letters from youngsters addressed to Professor Dumbledore—headmaster at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the books' main setting—begging to be let into the school, convinced that it really exists. Children of all ages are clearly entranced by this world of dragons, trolls, flying broomsticks, and a three-headed dog monster named Fluffy. But if, as seems to be the case, the Harry Potter stories appeal to countless adults as well as children—adults who supposedly know truth from fiction—their spellbinding enchantment takes on more interest.

Part of the explanation clearly has to do with the deep-seated human compulsion to immerse ourselves in the lives of others, especially when those others—like Harry Potter—are unlikely underdogs faced with the challenge of overcoming phenomenal obstacles. If the unlikely underdog turns out to be gifted, with special, supernatural powers, then all the better: At the heart of every dream, Freud tells us, lies a wish. Also appealing is the escape such fantasies offer from the routine contemporary world and the often mind-numbing details of our everyday lives. Harry's battles on behalf of the noble house of Gryffindor against the dubious denizens of Slytherin seem a million miles from planning mortgage payments, keeping track of taxes, and the other mundane problems most of us have to deal with.

Equally compelling is that the fantasy world has its own ontological framework—its own history, rules, and ways of life, baffling to outsiders but second nature to regular readers, who become self-taught cognoscenti of the mythological domain. Like avid followers of soap operas and sports teams, fantasy readers are a special group with their own sense of history, their own understanding of the make-believe world, their own knowledge of characters' limitations and vocabularies, all of which inspire a disdainful clannishness at times. That elitism reinforces the arcane, hieratic character of a fantasy world whose particular nature readily excludes unimaginative outsiders, who are regularly cast into the roles of worldly earthlings or stupid, gluttonous Muggles who can't tell an orc from a handsaw.

In short, magic must have rules, as fantasists from G. K. Chesterton to J. R. R. Tolkien have pointed out. But this is more easily preached than practiced. Many fantasy novels are weakened by internal tensions between the yearning for flights of fancy and the well-defined rule systems that authors impose on their imaginary realms. Most bookstores have a section full of third-rate sword-and-sorcery novels like Laraine Anne Barker's Quest for Earthlight series and N. M. Browne's Warriors of Alavna, in which the characters' lives are so uninterestingly bound up with centaurs and unicorns that empathic engagement is precluded for most of us, making real narrative suspense or excitement almost impossible. It's hard to enter the lives of creatures who don't share human experiences or emotions.

In the best fantasies, however—the short stories of Ursula Le Guin, say, or magic-realist works like Carlos Fuentes's Aura and Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus—that tension between flights of fancy and magic's rules is a primary source of power and surprise. One of the best things about the Harry Potter series is how it locates cracks in the ordinary, everyday human world familiar to us all (a certain brick in a wall, a pillar between two train platforms) that provide secret portals to the fantasy otherworld. The most memorable of these cracks, perhaps, is the piece of prosaic furniture that leads to Narnia in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

While every successful fantasy film and novel has cadres of devoted and sometimes competitive followers, all fantasies are not created equal. It's worthwhile to make distinctions between fantasy that's pertinent and instructive, on one hand, and the banality of unmitigated escapism, on the other. Critics may come to widely differing conclusions when assessing particular works, but it seems clear that the best fantasy novels function on multiple levels, often in subtle and intricate ways. Just as Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur addresses painful issues related to personal loyalty, social conflict, and divine justice, Lewis's visionary works—whether child-centered fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia or adult books like his space-fiction trilogy—explore sociological and theological issues including the nature of religious conversion, the challenges of moral struggle, and the rewards of spiritual growth. The most powerful fantasies operate at an allegorical as well as a literal level, exploring recognizably human conflicts and crises by recontextualizing them in imaginative frameworks that have resonated with readers since storytellers first elaborated them in ancient legends and myths.

Other fantasies are less thematically and aesthetically substantial. While the Harry Potter stories are full of captivating vignettes, Rowling's prose style has little of the fluid charm found in Lewis, the mythopoetic complexity conjured by Tolkien, or the magical depth found in George MacDonald's phantasmic fairy tales. Anthony Holden, a judge of the Whitbread Book Awards for which Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a contender, drubbed Rowling for deploying a “pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity.” Equally important, the world of Harry Potter—like the realms of the weaker sword-and-sorcery novels—tends to be inoffensive and benevolent, if a tad more daring (references to death, occasional disobedience toward adults) than the most conservative children's literature. This innocuousness is appropriate insofar as the tales are aimed at youngsters presumed unready for the untrammeled complexities of adult life; but it precludes genuine insight into the daunting and haunting aspects of human experience—the very aspects that give weight and power to endlessly seductive fantasies like Le Morte d'Arthur or the inexhaustibly suggestive tales of Norse, Greek, and Roman mythology. Think of Lancelot's passion for the wife of his lord, or Galahad's sin-thwarted Grail quest in Arthur, for instance. Compared with those earlier works, modern fantasies tend to be cleaner, more calculating, less impulsive and unforeseen.

That said, book publishers and movie studios have reaped huge rewards by recognizing that the most one-dimensional sword-and- sorcery saga may have a surprisingly strong impact on a remarkably wide audience. Scoff as we might at uninspired specimens of the breed, it is clear that fantasy's age-old tradition is deeply anchored in the inescapable human proclivity for magical thinking, itself rooted in the mazes and mysteries of early-childhood experience. Whatever the limits of Harry Potter on page and screen, his stories share a primal significance with all deep-reaching flights of fancy, from fairy tales to Star Wars to Dynasty. Narrative elements like the family secret, the search for identity, the fear of abandonment, and the dread of defeat are as archetypal as characters like the wise old man, the powerful gatekeeper, and the evil stepmother, as explicated by Carl Jung and brilliantly applied by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, his classic study of fairy tales.

However circumscribed their scope or cliched their language, fantasies are meaningful in how they embody the difficulties, limits, and struggles of human understanding, especially as these are experienced by children. Imagine flipping a wall switch to light a ceiling lamp before the eyes of a baby who has no conception of electricity or wires. It's magic! The impressions we gather from an abundance of such mysteries every day persist long beyond infancy, affecting our ideas and inflecting our emotions throughout our grown-up lives.

Fantasy, then, is not just the domain of childhood. The desire to escape the limited confines of our mental and physical routines and explore other dimensions of existence fuels much of human life, propelling a boundless range of activity and thought from the faux idealism of advertising scenarios to the transcendent hopefulness of spiritual quests. Even our language is rooted in the idea that the visible world is not all there is (think of a concept like inner beauty), and that to understand the world fully we must allow our imaginations to stretch beyond the things we ordinarily see, hear, and touch. Fantasy literature is appealing because it gives shape and form to our strong intuition that there's more to life than the reality that surrounds us.

Perhaps that explains the alarums sounded against such seemingly unobjectionable works as the Rowling tales and fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons by finger-wagging Americans from the right (e.g., Christian conservatives) and left (e.g., defenders of rationality over religion). One might expect critics with theological or philosophical interests to embrace books and movies that lift thought beyond its lazy quotidian habits; yet many oppose such fantasies, asserting that claims of expanding the imagination are disguises for encouraging morbid inclinations toward paganism and the occult.

The fascination with another, special realm—a realm attained by only a select few, with its own rules and rulers—is the same impulse that motivates religious and secular zealots, who naturally see alternative systems as competitors to be discredited and discarded. Fantasy and fundamentalism alike are driven by the narrative powers of allegory and enigma, and by the tantalizing hope that life-illuminating wisdom lies couched in cryptic lore. Fantasy regards these as mind-teasing entertainment. Fundamentalism sees them as gospel truth.

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Representative Works


Criticism: Language, Form, And Theory