February 26th, 2010
|02:43 pm - The struggle to reconcile fantasy|
There has been a lot of argument about the article "Why there is No Jewish Narnia", and you may particularly like to read disagreement from fjm and Abigail.
I want to discuss the assumption of the 'No Jewish Narnia' article: that English-language fantasy springs from Christian mythos (and hence is once-removed from Jewish culture). I think this is wrong. I think that in the Edwardian era, and then on through the twentieth century, there was a move to bring folk-rooted and unarticulated elements into conscious and respectable focus. Part of this process was the co-opting of 'fantasy' as a delivery vehicle for Anglo-Catholic theology. I mean that this was done on purpose: the mythos was inserted, not discovered. (This reminds me of the way that traditional Germanic folklore was deliberately bowdlerised by the Brothers Grimm, and then this bowdlerisation was used by Freud to support his theory of universal repression).
I think of fantasy as something pre-Christian (and incidentally pre-Jewish) which rests uneasily below, or in opposition to, offical formal/normal culture. The history of fantasy is about a series of accommodations between the fantastic and the respectable.
An interesting example from the same era as Tolkein is Arthur Machen, a similar conservative high church figure. In Machen's fantasy the fantastic element is seen as wholly opposed to the 'light' - to reason, sanity and theology. In both cases a relationship is being sought between the conscious and the unconscious, but the type of accommodation is different - war and peace effectively. Therefore I'd say that Christian theological elements are an element separate from fantasy - and sometimes struggling to accommodate with it - rather than integral to the fantastic.
It may be that this painful struggle or dialectic is what has made Edwardian fantasy so powerful as a source of a whole genre. And the earlier powerful fantasies that you might think of such as Milton, Blake and Lewis Carroll, I think reflect a similar struggle to reconcile.
(ETA - and incidentally the fertile struggle to reconcile is obviously not something that excludes any group of people, and quite clearly does not exclude or limit Jewish participation in fantasy)
ETA(again) - going back to my long-term Albion interest, I think that in the European/Germanic tradition this dialactic is expressed in a positive and systematic way (Bohme, Hegel, Husserl, Marx, probably a zillion others) and in English or Irish tradition it is expressed in a more shadowy, oblique and fictional way. The English-language version is more embarrassed, less clear, probably less conscious but perhaps for that reason it can be effective: perhaps because it doesn't express itself with clarity. You can't 'argue against' Dracula or Narnia.
I didn't read the original article too closely as I came across it late last night via Neil Gaiman's Twitter (he was slightly put out), but I got the distinct impression that it was written by someone who didn't know a whole lot about fantasy and assumed it was defined by Tolkein and Carroll.
I feel like there's a lot of fantasy (not necessarily good fantasy, though some of it's good) that relies on the idea of some epic battle between good and evil. This idea presumably appeals to people focussed on the idea of Christ as saviour because you can divide the world into 'saved' and 'unsaved', but, at the same time, the good in these worlds often can exist without there being a saviour as such. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I can see this model as having particular resonance for Christians, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work for other people, nor that that's what fantasy is.
Yes - and Tolkein and Carroll had a determined project to insert Christianity into an irreligious genre. Similarly I think the idea of good and evil as clearly defined sides (of which good must win) is an imposition onto fantasy of respectable elements taken from official culture. I'm not complaining, as I think that is the dialectic which produces creativity.
The good/evil split predates Christianity. I suspect they adopted it from Zoroastrians (with intermediary steps). So, I'd agree with you that it doesn't depend on the Saviour concept.
Whereas being myself an athiest, I tend to regard the Christian mythos as a useful source of motifs for fantasy...
To me that would be a more interesting question - the differences between the fantasies written by those with religious belief and atheists.
There was a time (when I was a slightly fanatical athiest) when I'd have avoided Christian stuff in any form.
Then I relaxed, enjoyed the songs, the architecture and the scripture necessary to understand them fully. They're all part of the rich tapestry of English folklore. Thus, if writing now, I would used the religious elements differently than I would have ten years ago.
Maybe when I've stopped running conventions, I'll have the ability to write again.
I was thinking that Morris dancing and folk song were both made more respectable and brought to the attention of 'educated' people at around the time I am talking about, when fantasy stories began to be published for the mass market.
That's very true, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a connection. Though as far as I'm aware (and I could easily be wrong here) collecting British folk stories came a bit later. Much of what we think of as traditional fairy stories are German (Grimm) or Andersen or French (Cinderella).
but I know a lot less about stories than I do about dance, so my knowledge is very incomplete.
Not to mention explicitly anti-Christian fantasy: His Dark Materials, RTD's The Second Coming, Garth Ennis's Preacher.
Yes - and the notion of fantasy in a dialectic with belief can accommodate that sub-genre more easily (I think) than the idea of fantasy as a religious product. His Dark Materials brings out the contradiction, but it's already there inside Paradise Lost.