Text: Martin Bickman, “Mapping the Light Fantastic,” Poe Studies, December 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 16:46-47


[page 46, continued:]

Mapping the Light Fantastic

Brian Attebery. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Gsuin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. vii + 212 pp. $17.50.

This book has most of the qualities one hopes for in such a survey — it is wide-ranging, thorough, erudite, judicious, yet written with grace and vivacity. It is the kind of serviceable book that may come to be known as “definitive,” a compendium of work already done on individual fantasists and a starring point for future specialized studies. And yet it is ultimately disappointing, not just for the inevitability that depth has to be sacrificed for breadth, but for the ways it accepts the genre’s own unexamined assumptions; Attebery’s enthusiasm for his subject, which serves him so well in many respects — how else could he have made his way through so much material of varying quality? — sometimes reduces the critical distance a full examination requires.

For a young scholar, Attebery surprisingly — and somewhat refreshingly — accepts notions like influence, continuity, and tradition whole-heartedly, and builds his literary history on them. After briefly defining fantasy, or to use the book’s own term, “locating” it as a straightforward treatment of what the author and its readers would consider impossible, Attebery elaborates on the five characteristics of what he calls “high fantasy“ — setting, which is usually an Other World free from the quotidian, “where elemental passions and eternal conflicts take the foreground” (p. 12); structure, which is described in Proppian terms; character of the protagonist, an ordinary person to whom extraordinary things happen, “lucky and clever, perhaps, but no more so than we imagine ourselves to be” (p. 13); types of secondary characters, neither ordinary nor completely god-like; and significance, in which the narrative forms a moral and ethical pattern of meaning.

After elaborating on the difficulties for a potential American writer of fantasy — our [column 2:] Puritan vestiges, our pragmatic rationalism, our folk traditions which themselves exclude or undercut the supernatural and marvelous — Attebery examines nineteenth-century romance writers, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, who, although not pure fantasists themselves, “helped clear the way” (p. 58). Their greatest contribution to the evolution of fantasy seems to have been Hawthorne’s wonder stories, which stand at the head of a tradition of writing for children in the second half of the century that culminates in the work of Attebery’s central figure, L. Frank Baum: “Before 1900 there was no coherent American fantasy world; afterward there was” (p. 84). As might be expected, the chapter on Oz is the richest one in the book, the most detailed and perceptive, as when Attebury examines the ways Oz is both like and unlike its counter-world, Kansas. Subsequent chapters examine three representative fantasists for adults — Burroughs, Cabell, Lovecraft — then three writers “in the Baum tradition” (p. 134) — Ray Bradbury, Edward Eager, James Thurber — and finally those contemporary writers influenced also by the publication of Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, especially Ursula Le Guin, whose Earthsea trilogy is seen as the culmination of the American fantasy tradition.

Attebery does not hesitate to make value judgments, literary and otherwise, which, although personal and impressionistic, are practically necessary in separating the gems from the straw, the tales that inspire a true sense of wonder and delight from the formula entertainments. He has a fine ear for style, as when he picks out some wonderful sentences from James Thurber and some atrocious ones from Peter Beagle. And he knows how to retell a story, a feat perhaps too often repeated in this book.

The main problem, as suggested earlier, is the way fantasy is accepted on its own terms, a good strategy for the reader but more dubious for the critic. Early in his study Attebery notes that “fantasies are usually told in a conservative manner, without the shifts in time and point of view, the verbal tricks, and the violations of illusion that characterize much modern literature” (p. 35), but does not examine the implications of this insight. Poe’s “Usher,” for example, is described as a story where there are “no particular values” (p. 40), since neither rationalistic nor supernatural explanations of the events are given full credence, since neither is adequate. Moreover, the author apparently vitiates his effects through self-consciousness, “as if Poe wished, not to hide his conventions and devices, but to highlight them” (p. 41). My contrary view is that part of art is to unmask its own and previous conventions. Attebery only partially appreciates — and that in a vaguely disapproving way — that “Usher” like the other great American romances renders the very fabric of “reality” problematical, and radically questions our habitual distinctions between nature and art, outer and inner, reason and madness. Genre fantasy, on the other hand, as Attebury himself notes, readily accepts the conventional notions of “reality” in order to depart from them, to define its Other World against them. Thus fantasy ironically tends to make the world safe for “reality“ — i.e., our already formed and shared symbolic structures — by making a defined and separate space, a mental ghetto, for the individual creative vision. Some of our “mainstream” writers, then, — Poe, Melville, Faulkner, Nabokov, Pynchon, for examples — have the greater claim to [page 47:] be champions of the imagination, especially in the ways they disrupt and disorient to show us the strange, marvelous, fantastic nature of This World. Experiments in language and rearrangements of narrative form are not eccentric tics but weapons against a grey, narcotized, positivistic world-view. The reason “high fantasy” did not root as early and as well in America as in England may be the central place of the fantastic in the general current of our literature rather than our puritanism or pragmatism. All this is not to minimize Attebery’s impressive achievement but to offer a counterbalance to his unconditional embrace of the brave new worlds he has charted.

Martin Bickman, University of Colorado, Boulder


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]