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Fantasy Literature Criticism Essay

Victorian Fantasy Literature

Fairy tales sparked a wave of controversy when they were first introduced into England in the early nineteenth century; they were not immediately welcomed as they had been in Germany and France. Fairy tales were considered to be strictly for children, and children's literature was expected to be didactic and moral—not entertaining. As the notions about children changed during the century, however, so did ideas about literature for children. Fairy tales gradually became more accepted, and eventually a branch of wholly entertaining children's literature began to flourish.

In the early 1800s, children were thought of as imperfectly formed adults, and most literature for them was educational, designed to instruct them in their responsibilities to family and church. The Romantic notion of a child became more popular in the second half of the century. This view encouraged imagination in children and promoted the ideas that children were innocently wise, and that in their naivete they possessed rationales and virtues that were lost to adults. Gradually, writers adhered to this concept of children and began to write stories to entertain. Early fairy tales still promoted Christianity and values of the church, concentrating on the spiritual development of the protagonist. Even so, objections to fantasy came primarily from church organizations, which attacked fairy tales as corrupters of childhood. Some literary critics also renounced fairy tales, equating "fantastic" with "unrealistic" and therefore unsuitable for rational English citizens.

Indeed, critics have shown that even as fantasy gained acceptance as literature for children, it was considered unacceptable for adults to enjoy the genre. It is for this reason, critics suggest, that with very few exceptions fairy tales were written for children, featuring children as heroes. In fact, critics point out that adults are generally absent from fairy tales in spite of numerous hidden sexual references found in most stories; the adults that do appear are tyrannical and cruel. In most fantasy literature, the child protagonist leaves the familiar world run by adults and embarks on a quest in a land of enchantment and magic, free from the laws of nature and facts of science. He typically benefits from a power or energy from nature or the earth, and usually is taught a moral lesson before leaving the fantasy realm and returning home, often forgetting about the adventure altogether.

Before the adventure is over, however, and sometimes before it begins, the hero receives guidance and instruction from a powerful or magical female, usually in the form of a grandmother or fairy grandmother. These female characters were the exception to the characteristically evil adults found elsewhere in the stories—though the women were still secondary figures, leaving the child in the foreground. Critics have pointed out that powerful female characters were commonly found in children's fairy tales before appearing regularly in adult literature. Nearly every fairy tale had such a figure, and critics often refer to works by women fantasy writers, such as Christina Rossetti's narrative poem Goblin Market (1862), as examples of early feminist writing. Critics suggest that because fairy tales were neither suitable for adults nor realistic, women who felt repressed in society and in their homes found in them an acceptable channel for strong female characters.

Male authors also used fairy tales to comment on social conditions in Victorian England. Critics have suggested that many popular authors used fairy tales to comment on the Industrial Revolution, to create ideal alternatives to unsatisfactory conditions of the real world, and to contrast Christianity with the materialism of English society. Critics have also argued that the most celebrated authors of fantasy—Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, and George MacDonald—believed that humanity had become too mechanized and serious with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. These authors wanted to restore enjoyment and recreation to, and inspire compassion for, the working class, and, critics suggest, offer an escape from reality by reversing the known and accepted rules of the real world. Carroll is generally credited with removing all the rules from his tales and writing the first amoral, and therefore totally fantastic fairy tale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In Alice, Carroll offered complete escape from the logical with no definite moral value attached. Some critics claim that Carroll's story is a parody of the critics of children's fantasy literature.

Critics generally agree that Carroll, Kingsley, and MacDonald were the premier fantasy writers of this era. All three were clergymen but each had a distinctly different approach to fairy tales. Critics cite Carroll's fantasies as being filled with sublimated sexual content, but praise his works for offering a complete escape from reality by reversing or altering laws of science to create worlds that are purely fantastic. Kingsley's works, most notably The Water Babies (1863), are, according to critics, filled with moral and allegorical themes regarding spiritual and physical cleansing, and often contain sexual overtones as well. MacDonald is generally noted by critics to offer an escape from reality based on a religious point of view, providing outstanding physical and notable psychological descriptions. Critics typically agree that MacDonald's ability to achieve the best balance between morality and imagination makes him the father of fantasy.

Victorian fantasy literature began as a way to combine education and entertainment for a child, but by the end of the century it had developed into a way to challenge a child's imagination and offer a reprieve from the everyday world of English life. In their quest to capture the world of childhood innocence as paradise, works by fairy tale authors led to the study of the imagination and of dream-worlds, which in turn prompted the study of psychology by such figures as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and served as a precursor to twentieth-century science fiction.

Fantasy in Contemporary Literature

The following entry presents discussion and criticism of literature incorporating myth, legend, and other fantastical elements through 2003.

Fantasy, legend, and myths have been an integral part of literature through the ages. From such early allegorical texts such as Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene to modern works like J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series, writers have used fantasy in novels, poetry, and short stories. Although fantasy is often studied as a genre, especially in discussions of books that focus on science fiction, the use of the fantastic as a literary element in books, poems, and drama has been a consistent trend across many genres and over many centuries. In the twentieth century in particular, fantasy has assumed a central place in literature, specifically as a structural and allegorical element that has allowed authors from varied backgrounds to tell their stories to a universal audience.

In explaining the importance of the fantastic in modern literature, T. E. Apter comments on the appropriateness of fantasy, writing that the essential purpose of fantasy in literature is, in effect, the same as realism, except fantasy literature often relates logical stories from the premise of the fantastic. However, Apter cautions against a too-literal interpretation of the correlation between fantasy and realism, noting that in modern literature in particular, fantasy is an integral element of an author's efforts to convey his or her ideas to the reader. The impact of the fantastic relies on the fact that the world presented in these stories seems to be real, yet everything is different. This discontinuity and disconnect imbues each phrase and all images in the text with layers of meanings and associations that almost create a new language. Discussions of fantasy in literature, especially that of female authors, often focus on this issue. The works of Toni Morrison, Susan Cooper, Anne Rice, and others have often been critiqued both in terms of their place in fantasy literature and as examples of works that creatively use language through the construct of the fantastic. Lucie Armitt notes that women writers often use fantasy elements, traditional myths, and legends to convey an alternative point of view. Similarly, Nancy A. Walker proposes that fantasy and irony are often used as interdependent narrative devices by female authors, who change the traditional usage of language in their works in specific and complex ways to convey the message of their text. Citing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Walker points to the opening sentences of the work as proof of how Atwood revises the mythologies of everyday life through her use of language.

Although elements of the fantastic have been a continued presence in literature through the centuries, especially during the Romantic and Gothic eras, in his overview of the fantastic in contemporary literature, Richard Alan Schwartz specifically comments on the importance of fantasy in modern literature. According to Schwartz, many modern writers have mined the world of the fantastic “as a way of combating the bleak aspects of our age,” and he cites works such as John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1967) and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) as examples of how the “fantastic can be used to deal with truth's uncertainty.” Neil Cornwell, in his study of the growth of the literary fantastic, has also made note of the fact that the fantastic was a dominant element in many works of modernist literature during the early part of the twentieth century. Identifying science fiction and horror literature as significant tangents of the literature of the fantastic, with which works of the pure fantastic share many characteristics, Cornwell draws a distinction between the two types of writing, proposing that works that belong to the realm of the pure fantastic often “stress on interfacing worlds” that seem to lie elsewhere, and yet have “mysterious connections with … normal reality.”

While a number of critics view the use of the fantastic as an effective means of confronting issues that are important in reality, an equal number of critics and authors believe in the sustaining power of fantasy because of the escape and release it provides. In their essay summarizing the reasons behind the popularity of such characters as Harry Potter and the commercial success of the film adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt point to the power of fantasy as a means of participating in worlds that play by different rules, ones that have their own histories, language, and vocabularies. Equally powerful, theorize Brottman and Sterritt, is the human compulsion to “immerse ourselves in the lives of others,” especially in cases where the protagonist offers a welcome refuge from the details of ordinary life. In addition to providing an escape, novels and stories dealing with the fantastic routinely deal with issues of sociological and theological significance. Thus, write Brottman and Sterritt, the most powerful fantasies operate on a dual level, using a combination of allegory and literal meaning to explore recognizable and pertinent human conflicts in a setting that is imaginative and extraordinary.

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