Fantasy and Our Modern World: A Few Observations
The first truly modern fantasy work was The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. That’s not a statement that very many critical theorists can dispute. But how did Tolkien make fantasy “modern,” and what does it mean for us today?
Fantasy vs. Academia
A lot of people have a lot to say on this subject. In fact, I had a lot to say about it when I wrote my senior thesis almost five years ago. I had set out to make a case for the fantasy genre as “serious” literature and worthy of being studied at the academic level. This post revisits that thesis, though not nearly as long or exhaustive. However, I did want to improve upon it and change a few things since, in the past five years, I’ve learned more about the genre I write in.
In 2017, I was asking the real hard-hitting question: why wasn’t Tolkien (or any serious fantasy literature) being studied in universities? Well, I’ve since found the answer.
According to Edmund Wilson—a literary critic in Tolkien’s time—it’s because fantasy is “juvenile trash” without any artistic value. And that’s the real reason why our education system doesn’t permit most fantasy literature in the curriculum.
The Modernists and Realist Literature
“What?” you might ask.
Well, it comes down to how people define what art is. The modernists (and to some extent, the postmodernists) believed that art is supposed to be “autonomous,” which means it was “created for its own sake and without consideration of the desires or needs of the potential audience.” Believe it or not, many people still believe this, and our education system is founded on it. Fantasy stories are said to have “market value” instead of “artistic value.” It is seen as escapist rather than academic literature.
Surprisingly, Tolkien agreed with that last statement, but he also wrote that most literature is escapist anyway and that fantasy literature may be considered only one of many escapist literatures. Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians series, however, disagrees:
It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world…fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.
Whatever you believe, the point is that fantasy has seldom been taken seriously after the 1940s because a whole lot of our infrastructure is founded on modernist thought and critical theory that emerged during this time. Or should I say evolved? Thanks in large part to World Wars I and II, we have an entire creative genre that isn’t (and may never be) welcome in academia.
(So yeah, if you want to blame the Nazis, go ahead!)
Realist literature is Art with a capital “A,” and fantasy literature is juvenile trash.
So what did Tolkien do to change all that? And why was Edmund Wilson totally wrong?
To Critique a Genre, You must Know the Genre
To answer the first question, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, that’s what.
And the problem with LOTR was that it was so groundbreaking that no one knew how to read it. By that, I don’t mean that people couldn’t read his writing. (Tolkien was a good writer for his time.) No, what I mean is Tolkien had created a brand new genre of fantasy—and no one knew how to interpret it. He used tropes that everyone was familiar with, but he combined them in a way that no one had seen before. I will discuss this more in-depth later.
According to Christine Barkley, this is what modern critics want from writers: “…to reflect only on the familiar world of realism and not deviate from this primary world as they create and people their secondary worlds. Anything supernatural or magical in literature is suspect and relegated to dream, hallucination, or delusion/madness.”
LeGuin shares a similar, albeit impassioned, conviction against such criticism and (I think) hits the nail on the head: “I’m not saying people don’t read fantasy; a whole lot of us people do; but scholars and critics for the most part don’t read it and don’t know how to read it.” Elsewhere she explains: “But nobody can rightly judge a novel without some knowledge of the standards, expectations, devices, tropes, and history of its genre…”
That’s it. That’s why Tolkien isn’t studied in academia: because too few people know how to read the fantasy genre properly.
Well, they should have asked Stephen R. Donaldson, who wrote one of my favorite apologetic treatises on fantasy ever written, called Epic Fantasy and the Modern World. He wrote:
[M]agic is perhaps the most fruitful metaphor available to this kind of fiction. In good fantasy, it is an expression of the inner imaginative energy of the characters – an expression of their charisma, their force of personality – an expression of the part of being human that transcends physiology. Writers of fantasy use the metaphor of magic as a means of discussing the ways in which human beings are greater than the sum of their parts.
So, instead of signaling delusion, magic is a metaphor for transcendence. It gives me chills just thinking about it. That is how you interpret fantasy—by its own rules and not by some Freudian nonsense.
On Secondary Worlds
In 1947, Tolkien wrote a scholarly essay called On Fairy Stories that essentially discusses his entire philosophy on fantasy. In it, he coined an interesting term that scholars still reference nowadays: the “secondary world.”
So, if there’s a secondary world, then, ipso facto, there must be a primary world, correct?
Worldbuilding Gold Standard
Yes! The primary world is our “real” world, while the secondary world is an “internally consistent, fictional, fantasy world or setting that is different from the real ‘primary world.’” But if we’re honest, Tolkien didn’t invent the idea of a secondary world. Children have been falling down rabbit holes or poking around behind mirrors and getting lost in secondary worlds for ages.
But Tolkien did something different with his Secondary World, Middle Earth. He enabled it so that “both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of the senses while they are inside; but in its purity, it is artistic in desire and purpose.” In essence, the gap between the magical land of Middle Earth and you is closed. You are the one falling down the rabbit hole this time.
But it’s more than that.
Middle Earth isn’t just a secondary world. It’s really the Holy Mother of all secondary worlds! It has a depth that is previously unrivaled in fantasy. I don’t care who you are or how big your series is, your world will never be as complex and deep as Tolkien’s.
Why is that? you ask.
Because he spent whole decades of his life developing Middle Earth. While bullets were ricocheting past his head in the trenches of World War One, Tolkien was writing down notes, inventing languages, and building Middle Earth into something that would become much more than just a secondary world. It would become a cultural phenomenon.
Now, I realize and admit that one does not have to go to the lengths Tolkien did to create a secondary world, but his is still the golden standard of worldbuilding. The closer you get to that standard, the better off you’ll be as a writer. Even if you can’t get into The Lord of the Rings as a reader—or any of Tolkien’s writings—objectively, his writings on Middle Earth have the most detailed history that rivals most actual history books…
…and can be way more enjoyable as well.
Even if you know all this, and I’m telling you nothing new, one connection most readers and writers don’t make is why he did all this. Sure, he loved linguistics and history, but when LOTR was written, fantasy literature was relegated to children. And for those of you who have read it, is LOTR a children’s book?
Nope. The Hobbit absolutely was, but LOTR was a more mature book in terms of characters, themes, and length. It may have started as a Hobbit-esque “fairy story,” but it didn’t end that way.
No, the primary way Tolkien made the genre more “modern” was by redirecting fantasy toward a new audience: serious, intellectual adults. He wasn’t the first to try this, but he was the first to truly succeed, even if he didn’t mean to become a literary and cultural phenomenon that would keep resonating more than a half-century after.
The Problem of Definitions
So now that Tolkien has changed how society looks at fantasy, what exactly has emerged? What exactly is fantasy?
In my senior thesis, I undertook the daunting task of crafting a definition for the fantasy genre. I’ll put it here and then pick it apart.
[Fantasy is] a genre of the sub-category speculative fiction where the writer has (i) created an impossible secondary world apart from the reader’s/writer’s primary world which may or may not be based on the primary world, (ii) created characters whose internal processes are dramatized externally, and (iii) created rules (usually in the form of magic) for which he/she is held accountable by the reader as part of the secondary world’s infrastructure.
In an academic thesis, this definition holds up. I understood the problem of definitions—and that problem was this: the more general the definition risks including too much, and the more narrow the definition risks excluding too much.
Brian Attebery, who’s written a few essential scholarly and critical books on the subject of fantasy, likens the genre to a “fuzzy set,” which is a range of definitions with “centers” (key texts within the genre) instead of boundaries. If there’s a book on the fringes of this “fuzzy-set,” it may or may not belong to the genre, depending on your interests. There also may be no single quality that links an entire set.
Attebery was getting at one way to study a genre critically is to look at the key texts in the genre, put them at the center, and identify what other books or sub-genres lie near or farther away from them. For example, LOTR sits near the center of the Fantasy genre, whereas the magical realism in The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges sits far away from that center.
All of this is to say that definitions are tricky. What Tolkien created with LOTR may appear different to everyone, although ignoring his influence on the genre is impossible.
Attebery writes: “Tolkien’s form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template, and will be until someone else achieves equal recognition with an alternative conception. One way to characterize the genre of fantasy is the set of texts that in some way or other resemble The Lord of the Rings.”
And this is entirely not what Tolkien set out to do when he wrote his most famous work. He didn’t want the hundreds of subsequent copycats or the idea spread around that fantasy had to have the tropes presented exactly as they were in his books.
But alas, Tolkien’s eurocentric fantasy has become what people think of when they think of fantasy. One of the primary reasons for his success was that his type of fantasy was extraordinarily lucrative and marketable to an economically privileged audience, and others wanted to follow in his footsteps. And this has brought on the accusation that the fantasy genre is inherently racist.
(I could discuss this topic at length, but it would take up another post. Boiled down, there is truth to some of these accusations, though I don’t believe they hold up against Tolkien himself.)
I return now to my definition of fantasy. Does it absolutely have to have an impossible secondary world? (I recognized this conundrum as I wrote my definition and provided an escape clause: “the secondary world may or may not be based on the primary world.” Either way, the secondary world will be different from the primary world simply because of the existence of magic.)
Since Tolkien’s LOTR was published, there have been copycats, yes, but there have also been series such as The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Both are set in urban societies of our “real” world but show us hidden parts that we would never see otherwise. Both, I argue, fit squarely within the fantasy genre’s “fuzzy set.”
When all is said and done, fantasy doesn’t have to look like LOTR. It took us a long time to realize that—longer than it should have—but that’s the kind of hold Tolkien had on the imaginations of several generations of fantasy writers. It’s not only impressive, it’s fascinating.
Deconstructing Fantasy and Other Sins
Okay, so basically, “deconstructionism” is all about taking apart a text and looking at the multiple meanings and how they relate to one another. There’s more to it than that, but in the fantasy genre, authors take those multiple meanings (also called tropes) and switch them into something new and then subvert your expectations.
This can be problematic for several reasons, but I’m not going too in-depth about postmodernist deconstructionism in fantasy. Brandon Sanderson already wrote a great article on it if you’re interested.
To Critique a Book, You Must Know the Book…
Here’s the deal. When you deconstruct something, you are both original and unoriginal at the same time—much like Schrödinger’s cat in the paradox of quantum superposition. This is because your deconstruction could not possibly exist without the original. And since deconstructions are often critiques of the original work, you run into the problem of criticizing the same authors who built your foundation.
If you take tropes and move them around like pieces on a chessboard with no regard for why the author organized them in the first place, you will fail at deconstruction. Therefore, your “subatomic event” that must occur for you to write an original deconstruction is that you must know what you’re deconstructing, and you must know it well.
Here’s an example: the series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin is often regarded as one of the greatest epic fantasy stories since LOTR. I’ve heard GRRM described as Tolkien’s “successor.” He uses a lot of the tropes that Tolkien used, and he uses them well and subverts our expectations in a way that’s (usually) satisfying and not gimmicky.
The series has also had a strong cultural influence that it would not have enjoyed if LOTR had never existed.
ASOIAF is, for the most part, a success. People love the story and subsequent HBO series, and it’s made GRRM so wealthy that he’ll never have to write another book again—
Martin vs. Donaldson
Anyway, I’ve read A Game of Thrones, and I enjoyed it, but my problem with GRRM is his attitude toward the source material. It’s sort of like “Tolkien, I appreciate you, my dude, but here’s EVERYTHING you did wrong…” And when he says things like “Gandalf should have stayed dead,” I’m concerned he doesn’t understand the source material as much as his writing shows.
Here’s the full quote for your information:
“Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, ‘Fly, you fools. ‘What power that had, how that grabbed me.”
It absolutely was powerful. But Gandalf returning made sense thematically and reflected Tolkien’s philosophy and religious convictions. GRRM himself uses resurrection in ASOIAF, though very differently. Perhaps it fits with his themes and purposes (I think it does), but it would not have worked in Tolkien’s admittedly Catholic-centric universe.
You can argue that GRRM did understand the source material better than he lets on, and that’s possibly true. But there are writers out there who don’t understand everything Tolkien was trying to do in LOTR. I can imagine those writers reading GRRM’s quote and agreeing with him without understanding the complexity and nuances behind the decision to bring Gandalf back.
One of the greatest deconstructions of LOTR manifests in Stephen R. Donaldson’s “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” series, published in 1977. Often misunderstood and dismissed, the first book, Lord Foul’s Bane, is one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. I’ve read it three times now, and I rarely read the same book more than once—if I finish it at all.
Donaldson uses similar tropes that Tolkien does: a magical ring, a secondary magical world, a dark lord, a quest. He then uses them in a unique way that isn’t necessarily a criticism of Tolkien but as an example of how writers could use those tropes to tell another interesting and more mature fantasy story with similar themes and conflicts.
I could gush for pages about Donaldson’s books (maybe I will…), but the point here is that deconstructions in fantasy can go one of two ways—and readers don’t always find them the most compelling. If you plan on deconstructing Tolkien, know that it’s been done before by many, many others, and most haven’t been done well.
Look for the different meanings and understand how they connect. Know the source material better than you know yourself.
The Meaning of Experience and the Experience of Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl, in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
This quote is fascinating to me on several different levels, but it’s especially poignant as a writer. Let me put it this way, substituting some of the words in the quote:
“Ultimately, [a character] should not ask what the meaning of [their] life is, but rather must recognize that it is [they] who [are] asked. In a word, each [character] is questioned by [their] life; and [they] can only answer to life by answering for [their] own life; to life [they] can only respond by being…”
I left out the last word to focus on one aspect of this quote. Read it over again if you need to.
Essentially, your character’s meaning (or purpose) is defined by their being—in who they are—and their being is defined by four key aspects: worldview, backstory, action, and dialogue.
What Does It All Mean?
What does this have to do with fantasy? Well, this has everything to do with good fiction or good storytelling. I’ve talked about how fantasy is often viewed as “escapist” in nature and a few points of view that favor and oppose that idea. What do I think? Is fantasy escapist or not?
Have you ever gotten “lost” in a book? Have you also been challenged by a book? You want to finish it, but it makes you work hard for that ending? I think all of us have had experiences where we’ve read a book both for enjoyment and to stretch our minds in sometimes uncomfortable yet satisfying ways.
I think there are degrees of escapism—or a spectrum if you will (everything seems to be a spectrum nowadays). No one reads a book with the intent of getting disappointed by it. At least in fiction, anyway. And that enjoyment will either transport you or not. Fantasy is meant to transport you far, far away from where you are.
What does that mean, though? What is the meaning of fantasy?
To answer that, we must return to Donaldson’s quote from the beginning:
Fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external individuals or events…this means that in fantasy the characters meet themselves – or parts of themselves, their own needs/problems/exigencies – as actors on the stage of the story, and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story.
Any writer of fantasy worth their salt should understand this: fantasy takes the internal struggles we really care about and brings them out into the open so that their characters can deal with them as if they were external struggles.
Thus, the meaning of fantasy is universal: to transcend the hidden, inward things of our souls.
And isn’t that what magic is? A transcendent power and force of will? Fantasy is meant to bring out the magic in each and every one of us. And that’s what it means to be human.
Today, fantasy is a complex, multifaceted, and all-encompassing genre with audiences of every age range. It’s also a multi-billion dollar industry. At the same time, it’s statistically evident that the fantasy and science fiction genres (which the late David Farland called “wonder” literatures) become less and less appealing as we grow older.
“Wonder” is a child’s game.
Or, at least, it used to be.
I remember a time before the first Spider-Man (2002) when comic book movies were niche. If you liked things like Pokémon, Sonic the Hedgehog, or X-Men…you were branded a geek or nerd and shunned. But then the millennials grew up! They were getting jobs and making money, and influencing the economy. All those things we used to enjoy playing as kids got smattered all over the mainstream window.
Nostalgia sells, folks.
Fantasy became a staple of entertainment. Peter Jackson’s adaptations of LOTR made an enormous tidal wave that, some might argue, influenced our culture more than the books ever did. For the better part of the 20th century, fantasy had been “relegated to the nursery.” Now, it’s not just for children anymore.
Backward vs. Forward Facing
It’s also no longer stuck in the past.
The idea that fantasy should “look like” LOTR and should be set in a medieval-type setting is no longer the case. Today, fantasy can be set in the past, present, or future (borrowing, at times, from science fiction). Just look at the Marvel movies. That’s fantasy, garnished with thriller, action, mystery, and romance. Besides our films, our books have started to move out of the past as well. Smart authors are putting smart fantasy stories in settings other than medieval Europe. Just pick up anything by Octavia E. Butler or N. K. Jemisin.
Which brings me back to where I started, asking the question: why isn’t Tolkien (or any serious fantasy literature) studied in academia? Still, after all these years, very few university-level institutions acknowledge fantasy works like LOTR as having any literary, let alone educational, value. It’s just marketable entertainment.
Beware oncoming sarcasm.
Because we’re entertained when we see Frodo get corrupted by the One Ring. We love watching him suffer and change into a shadow of his former self. We can’t get enough of watching Frodo fail in his quest to destroy the ring once he finally reaches Mordor—the place where he’d given up hope that he’d ever reach alive…
Does that sound like escapist fluff to you? Or is there more nuance to Tolkien’s story than the modernists gave him credit for?
Today, I hope people are seeing that fantasy isn’t just racist “juvenile trash,” but that, when done well, it actually speaks to the inner workings of what it means to be human—regardless of whether it looks like LOTR or not. All fiction strives for those depths.
Why can’t fantasy?
Matt Wright is the author of the Sun Maker Saga, a self-published space opera fantasy series, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing fantasy and science fiction for over fifteen years and has written full-length novels since he was in high school. He loves writing in the epic genres with echoes of mythological and historical contexts. He currently resides in St. George, Utah, with his wife, Elizabeth, and his best bud in the whole world, Joey (4).
Keep in touch with Matt at starsreach.net.