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Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. London: Middlesex University Press, 2009. 285 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-1-906-75068-0. $25.00.

A Short History of Fantasy was written according to its authors "to track the conversation of fantasy writers as they develop and extend the genre. The book will make little reference to the critics, but should provide readers with a very long reading list" (6). It also intends to fill the absence of a short history. As a history, its chapters proceed in chronological order, beginning with "From Myth to Magic" (and Gilgamesh), followed by "1900-1950," and then by decades with interspersed chapters on Tolkien and Lewis and on Pullman, Rowling, and Pratchett. The end matter consists of a chronology of important works and people; a chronology of important movies, TV series, and other media; a glossary; a list of further reading; an index of titles; and an index of authors and topics. It does include mentions of comics, television, and films in addition to literature.

The danger of a chronological history is that sometimes it separates rather than unifies. Some of the later chapters, in particular, leap from topic to topic. There is some difficulty with that here. Lost-race (e.g., Talbot Mundy's Jimgrim series) and utopian fantasy (e.g., James Hilton's Lost Horizon) and alternate history fantasy are not well covered. Also, those works derived from existing mythologies do not receive much attention. Studies like C. W. Sullivan III's Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy are not mentioned in the important works section, and while the authors in fact point out their own avoidance of the secondary literature, ignoring the work of scholars leads to occasional and unfortunate omissions. For example, the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and the Proceedings of the International Conference on the Fantastic are missing, which is particularly odd since Mendlesohn is the immediate past president of the sponsoring organization, the Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.

The authors indicate that they do not want to get involved "with the critical arguments which continue to sideline fantasy" but they do outline four approaches to understanding and explaining it (2; emphasis added). The first is the presence of the impossible and the "unexplainable." This premise was championed by Colin N. Manlove in his Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (which is not cited by the authors). The qualification here is that the impossible must be judged within the actual social, cultural, and intellectual milieu of its creation. Thus, one era's belief is another's fantasy just as one group's religion is another's mythology. This can be very difficult to assess since the identification of readership is very inexact. Certainly, Claudius Ptolemy knew the Earth was round in the second century, but it took the rest of humanity some time to catch up. The authors do account for this by mentioning John Clute's "taproot texts" (a.k.a. sources) to identify older texts that were written as fact but are now read as fantasy--a situation that was well known to Lin Carter when he helped create the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in 1969.

The second approach, which is tied to time and place as well, is historical and postulates that fantasy as "self-conscious art" arose in the later eighteenth century. Thus, fantasy cannot arise until the numinous and phenomenological worlds are separated by science. More discussion of this will come below with an examination of the myth and magic chapter. The third approach is identified as the academic and is a potpourri of various definitions offered with reference to Kathryn Hume's mimesis, Tzvetan Todorov's hesitation, Rosemary Jackson's desire and subversiveness, and Manlove's allegory. The authors suggest that anyone interested in these should go read them for themselves. They indicate that their present work is informed by theorists Michael Moorcock (a theorist?), Brian Attebery, John Clute, and Mendlesohn herself. They also suggest the very debatable point that "much of the best criticism ... has been written by fantasy writers" (5). The fourth approach is what publishers and booksellers label as fantasy. Oddly, here the authors venture into the realm of fantasy art that they believe has its origins in William Blake, Gothic painters, and the Pre-Raphaelites. However, there is some consensus that the Gothic leads to horror while the Romance leads to fantasy.

To the four approaches outlined by the authors, at least two more could be added. One is fandom and the enormous influence it can have. The authors explore this when they examine the popularity of Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks could also be included in this category. The second is the canon. Primary bibliographies can be used to establish a canon, which can be scrutinized and sifted and winnowed. The only primary bibliographies the authors mention in their Important Works are E. F. Bleiler's generic A Guide to Supernatural Fiction and Supernatural Fiction Writers and Diana Waggoner's flawed and incomplete The Hills of Faraway. While Salem Press's five-volume Survey of Fantasy Literature is listed, it is never mentioned in the text. This reviewer's The Literature of Fantasy and Kenneth J. Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer's Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide are not cited. (Another way to establish a canon is to examine the available general anthologies. As of this review, however, there seems to be no historical or comprehensive anthology in print that might guide readers to fantasy's evolution.)

The chapter following the introduction, "From Myth to Magic," does not begin very well. The authors suggest that "Fantasy and not realism has been the normal mode for much of the history of Western fiction (and art)" (7). This may be true for a twenty-first-century reader, but it was certainly not for those who created and read before the numinous and factual were separated, which is still a greater percentage of Western history and thought. What they delineate as the tropes of fantasy (monsters, dragons, magic, etc.) were not so originally. They then go on to speak of when fantasy "as a genre" emerges (6). Since genre means form (e.g., sonnet, novel, etc.), this is confusing but may also explain why there is little mention of fantasy poetry, whether it be Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock or David Lunde's award winning poems. The point that the authors are trying to make is that intentional fantasy arose out of a response to mimesis. A more accurate way to view this is fantasy exists when Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" is required or, as Manlove, in Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, observes, fantasy is the result of games of "non-fact" in which the reader and writer collaborate to evoke wonder. Mimesis is not a cause but the result of a cosmological and epistemological shift that separated the supernatural and natural worlds. The authors do allude to this later in their consideration of the effect of the Enlightenment.

What may appear as a transition from myth to magic here is actually a discussion of when mythology (and religion) turned into magic, which explains why time is spent in this chapter on epic, saga, legend, the Greeks and the Romans, medieval romance and dream vision, fairy and folk tales, the Gothic, and early modern verse and prose. These are discussed as "taproot texts," which should not be confused with actual sources and which this history should not be expected to employ without more rigor.

This historical introduction does not mention what some believe is the first self-conscious fantasy, Sara Coleridge's Phantasmion (1837), and it identifies Lewis Carroll's Alice books as whimsical (whimsy is defined later as being amoral, incoherent, and capricious), which is partially true, but seems to ignore Martin Gardner's insights and research in The Annotated Alice as well as Carroll's enormous popularity in the nineteenth century, which probably exceeded George MacDonald's and William Morris's. Also, the authors do not clearly differentiate between fantasy and horror with their discussion of the Gothic and with their references to obvious horror authors like H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Horror is based on the loss of freedom and will; it inspires numinous rage and fear because it maims and distorts creation. As such, it is subversive. Fantasy is conservative and celebrates restoration in its affirmation of natural law (or what is perceived as such within the setting). Certainly, horror exists within fantasy to heighten the latter's effect. A good case in point is William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. If it were not for Puck's magic, it might as well be Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare points directly to this possibility when he mentions the defeat of graves, "all gaping wide" and "remembrance of a shroud" in his capstone soliloquy (V.i.371-90). So too, the danger of the wild wood and the city are identified early in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (which the authors call "fear fiction"), and Mordor is omnipresent in The Lord of the Rings. While the archetypal shadow occurs throughout fantasy, radical differences remain between it and horror.

The chapter that covers from 1900 to 1950 is agonizingly, if necessarily, brief. It includes most of the major authors and correctly identifies the role of "sword-and-sorcery." There is also a good discussion of "science fantasy" (science masquerading as fantasy), which might have benefited from a mention of Henry Kuttner but that would have violated the chronological order. Later, the authors do discuss how Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels tread this line (as well as Frank Herbert's). Again, horror creeps in via Shirley Jackson and Lovecraft among others. Also, it would have been helpful if the mention of Keith Roberts's "alternate historical novel" Pavane were followed with the later Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle to gain continuity.

The authors take a hiatus from the march of time and deservedly devote the next chapter to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Of particular note is the Narnia series as sexist and colonialist. Generally, the explorations are adequate in dealing with both authors and their relationship. Perhaps more depth into both authors as Christians would have been helpful. Both clearly embed Christian and Catholic values but adapt them to earlier mythologies. Tolkien, for example, has his own creation myth in The Silmarillion, and Lewis alludes to Apollo. The authors do explore this very briefly based on Tolkien's pronouncement that the trilogy is a "Catholic epic." In fact, the survival of the pagan gods is fairly typical in Western European literature. Also, by describing The Lord of the Rings as a quest fantasy, instead of as an epic and saga as well, the authors miss a number of elements, not the least of which is its domestic ending. This ending also occurs in That Hideous Strength, which is not examined well at all (most of the attention is on the Narnia books). This is unfortunate since it is very much fantasy with its use of the Arthurian Pendragon and the concept of Logres.

Chapter 5, "The 1950s," focuses on "the apparent dominance of whimsy" and authors who write both sf and fantasy. Mervyn Peake is the first author considered through biography and the Gormenghast trilogy, which is defined as a Ruritanian romance (opportunist fiction) and as an "edifice fantasy" by John Clute (The Encyclopedia of Fantasy) in which the castle is the protagonist. This is not so peculiar; there are other works in which the setting is so powerful as to assume the status of a character, such as the locus amoenus. However, there are those who do not see the fantastic in Peake since there is nothing supernatural or magical, just the convoluted strange. Other whimsical writers considered are Paul Gallico, E. B. White, Mary Norton, P. L. Travers, Eleanor Cameron, Edgar Eager, Philippa Pearce, and James Thurber.

Mendlesohn and James's exploration of the authors who write both sf and fantasy begins with their consideration of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the United States and Science Fantasy in the United Kingdom. Anthony Boucher, the editor of F&SF, "banned 'heroic fantasy'" (67) and promoted horror and ghost stories. Here A Short History wanders astray into such authors as Dennis Wheatley, Jerome Bixby, Richard Matheson, Frederic Brown, and Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote obvious horror and/or sf. Focus returns a bit with sf disguised as fantasy in Anderson, Ray Bradbury, and Jack Vance. It's hard to think of Vance's Dying Earth as anything other than fantasy, but Bradbury's best candidate for fantasy, Something Wicked This Way Comes, is never mentioned. The chapter gains a bit more fantasy momentum with L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, and Fritz Leiber, but it seems as if Mendlesohn and James think the 1950s were devoid of much real fantasy.

"The 1960s" develops two motifs: the division of United States and United Kingdom markets because of the increased cost of importing books and the division between adults' and children's fantasy. Mendlesohn and James correctly point out that shipping costs delayed the influence of the British (the majority of the authors in this chapter) on the United States for a decade (and vice versa). It also marked the introduction of the aforementioned Ballantine Adult Fantasy series under the direction of Ian and Betty Ballantine. Not only did it reintroduce a number of classic reprints but added new titles, such as Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series and Sanders Anne Laubenthal's Excalibur. The decade also saw the rise of the prolific Andre Norton and her matriarchal Witch World series, and Michael Moorcock made a very notable appearance with his monomyth champion and Elric of Melnibone series, as well as his editorship of New Worlds magazine--all of which receive significant coverage in this chapter. Over forty works by children's fantasy authors are also included.

Beginning with "The 1970s," the authors attend to an avalanche of authors and titles (somehow omitting Philip Jose Farmer's wonderful Riverworld series) that rushes to the last chapter. For brevity, and with a few exceptions, then, this review will just identify the trends identified in each chapter. "The 1970s" begins with the statement that the decade marks the movement of sf writers into fantasy. Ursula K. Le Guin receives significant initial attention with her Earthsea tales (influenced by her anthropologist father who was also a Jungian, which explains the numerous archetypes in her fiction). Three powerful elements are identified in Le Guin's work: the importance of true speech and the incarnate word, the unnerving introduction of "brown" characters, and the "less straightforward" fictional constructions of gender. However, what is shocking is the omission of Tehanu, the fourth Earthsea novel. For feminist fantasy, the deconstruction of the male heroic is a major event, one that Le Guin explained in her "Earthsea Revisioned," a lecture she presented at Oxford University in 1992 (published in 1993). She indicates that she previously wrote "as an artificial man" (7). The dubious justification for the inclusion of "science fiction" is that it is "indistinguishable from fantasy" (92), according to this study. Other authors apart from Le Guin are noted for their returns to the Middle Ages, the Greeks, the Vikings, and the Celts. This long chapter also includes discussions of race and feminism as well as exploring gaming and "theatre fantasy," film, quest fantasy, and animal fantasy. There is considerable space dedicated as well to horror fantasy, which seems to be an oxymoron.

The authors point to the 1980s as the time of the rise of films that closely resembled novels (e.g., The Dark Crystal) and begin with a distinction between quest fantasies, which have goals and closure, and sword-and-sorcery, which is open-ended. Mendlesohn and James see a rise in the "literariness of fantasy" (130). Also, there is good coverage of game formula books, such as Ian Watson's Queenmagic, Kingmagic and Sherri S. Tepper's Peter and Mavin Manyshaped novels. Additional quest fantasies are represented by Mercedes Lackey and Raymond E. Feist. Mendlesohn and James also point to attempts to subvert quest fantasy by Geoff Ryman and Julian May. Steve Jackson, Tracy Hickman, and Margaret Weiss developed series tied to gaming that were franchise fantasy; Mendlesohn and James identify these writers as "real hacks" (123) who exhausted the quest form via such series as the Fighting Fantasy and Dragonlance books. Other areas discussed are the combination of fairy tales and fantasy (e.g., R. A. MacAvoy), Arthurian fantasy (e.g., Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robert Holdstock), edifice fantasy (Little, Big), "conversational fantasy" (133; a.k.a. meta-fantasy) that has characters talking about magic (e.g., Tea with the Black Dragon), magical realism, urban fantasy (e.g., Charles de Lint), and sword-and-sorcery in comics (e.g., Sldine). The end of the chapter wanders back into horror with vampire fiction from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ and reference to historical horror and year's best anthologies.

The 1990s, according to the authors, were a time of diversification and added new dimensions such as Indigenous fantasy which, with its urban and rural settings, allowed authors to localize fantasy (although Kenneth Grahame and others did this some time ago). There is attention to the growth of fantasy in Britain, Canada, and Australia. Again, in this chapter, the authors wander into "dark fantasy" (horror) and paranormal fiction. Medieval fantasy continued from the 1980s with page counts increasing geometrically with its use of various formula, such as maps (J. B. Post's Atlas of Fantasy should have been mentioned here), and the authors indicate that medievalist fantasy was becoming overly stylized and "ludicrous" (145). Other subjects include satiric fantasy and modern fairy tales.

If it seems that these chapters are jumping from one topic to another, that is the case and is one of the obvious limitations of chronological order mentioned earlier. Mendlesohn and James do pause to devote an entire chapter to the popularity of Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett. Much of the discussion of these three authors is devoted to various markets and fan bases. They point out that Rowling draws on many earlier fantasy devices and address the factors that created her success. Pratchett's humorous work is rare, if only because fantasy generally takes itself very seriously. It would have been helpful to address something of the history of humorous fantasy.

A Short History of Fantasy concludes with "2000-2010" and authors and titles continue to cascade in greater and greater numbers. Without the test of time, this is inevitable, and it will be interesting to see how many of the authors mentioned turn out to be ephemeral. In this chapter, the topics expand to include the contributions of small presses, which are hardly new to this decade, and more fairy tale revisions, film, a Canadian boom, new weird, paranormal romance, Australian fantasy (Patricia Wrightson's The Ice Is Coming trilogy should have been mentioned as its progenitor), metafiction, historical picaresque fantasy, young adult fantasy, dark fantasy (horror again), queer fantasy, and graphic novels with a brief mention of computer games.

Mendlesohn and James certainly deliver on their promise to supply "a very long reading list" and to "make very little reference to critics" (except for their select few) (6). Along with the omitted scholarship already mentioned, they also ignore other important treasure troves like Sullivan's Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy and C. W. Sullivan III and Donald Palumbo's Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series (McFarland). Many important items are not mentioned in the appendices. This neglect or contempt or dismissal means a solid definition of fantasy is never established and the earlier history is weak. This is a great book for those who want to expand their reading, but it is too fragmented to contribute significantly to the understanding of fantasy.

Work Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. Earthsea Revisioned. Cambridge: Green Bay, 1993. Print.
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Author:Schlobin, Roger C.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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