Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Cool Thing; Plus, a Review of a Bad Book on Fantasy

Well, a contributer to Scientia et Humanitas just asked if he could take me out to lunch as a "thank you" for my help in publishing his essay. I was pleasantly surprised and told him I'd be delighted to accept. He probably had to work harder than any of our contributers to make it into the journal. His paper was in economics, which none of us understood of course, but we got independent confirmation that his argument was sound. More significantly, though, his prose was littered with EFL mistakes. (He's originally from Bangladesh.) We made him go to the Writing Center 4-5 times, gave it to a heroic copy editor, and even then I had to meet with him several times to fix passages and hammer out the References page. All in all, I must have spent 10-15 extra hours working with the contributer to get the paper publishable. The ends, though, justified the meanings. I've never seen anyone so proud to get their academic work published, and he even got a Deans' Distinguished Essay Award, given to the top essays in the issue. 

I love working on an academic, even a small-scale one like Scientia.


Anyway, time now for the book review.


Went to the library last night intending to edit my Saruman paper, but putzed around reading a fantasy monograph I'd heard about instead. Turns out, the book's awful. 




Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of the Imagination. New York: Twain, 1997. Print.

An extremely superficial book aimed for the (very) general reader. He has an all-inclusive, reader-response definition of fantasy as “a fiction that elicits wonder through elements of the supernatural or impossible” (2). He lists nearly “all of the surviving literature of the ancient world” as rooted in fantasy, thus enabling his overview to cover all centuries and continents imaginable. He runs through a plot-description-heavy laundry list of all texts that include anything marginally non-natural, from Gilgamesh to Mahabharata. Not only does he ignore every cultural context in which these diverse work appears, he also ignores the historically shifting concepts of the “natural-supernatural” divide. Personally, it makes no sense to me to talk about “fantasy” literature until about the 19th-century. (C.W. Sullivan has the same critique in his review of the book.)

Mathews then turns to chapters on William Morris and Tolkien. Sadly, they focus mostly on plot summary and biography. Then he uses some Northrup Frye to give some theory to his observations. Frankly, I didn't waste much time with unpacking what he was trying to do there. Ultimately, he seems to believe that Morris’s heroes are “rooted to the human community, charged with the task of becoming his own god, overflowing with the need to explore individual and psychological potential,” whereas Tolkien’s heroes are “dislocated in a fallen world, charged with the task of renouncing the temptations of human power, surrounded by others clearly different . . . finding his hope in creating from his sufferings an immortal written word” (94)—meaning Frodo, of course. He also thinks Frodo foreshadows “the alienation of Donaldson’s wounded hero Thomas Covenant” (95).

He also covers Robert Howard and Ursula Le Guin, but I skipped those sections. Again, their emphasis on plot summary and biography overshadowed any buried interpretations he may have had of their work -- interpretations which, given the intended audience, were neither new or all that exciting to an academic.

Anyway, Mathews also thoroughly undermines himself by occasionally making absolutely ridiculous statements. I skimmed the rest of the book after struggling through the pedantic first chapter, so the following list is far from exhaustive:
  • "Unlike realistic fiction, fantasy does not require logic . . . to explain the startling actions or twists” (3): um, fantasy requires logic like anything else.
  • "Although those who heard or read the [ancient fantasy] texts may have believed them to be literally true, the artists who created them clearly placed significance on nonliteral metaphoric or mythic purposes” (6). Um . . . do you have any proof of this? No, of course you don't -- cuz it doesn't exist.
  • "Tolkien bestowed a kind of academic blessing upon fantasy” (54): just no. Academia mostly ignored his fiction (when they didn't outright hate it) until recently.
  • "Piers Anthony, whose fantasy novels, which combine Tolkien’s scale and inventiveness and his own style, humor, and theme. . .” (83): is he seriously putting Anthony in the same category as Tolkien? Worse, does he actually think Anthony has SCALE???????

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