Realistic Fantasy: an Oxymoron

(n) a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction
(n) the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things
(a) representing things in a way that is accurate and true to life

Last week I addressed the idea of grit in fantasy and promised a return to a particular topic I raised;

My undying love for the Lord of the Rings has been seriously stretched in the past years as my reading has expanded to encompass a wider range of authors, authors who have presented me with realistic fantasy worlds.

As shown above, adherence to a dictionary understanding of the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘realistic’ place the two at opposite poles to one another. Joining them creates an oxymoron (a word which, sadly, has nothing to do with an unintelligent bovine).

To understand just how these two words fit together is to require a measure of understanding of the genre of fantasy as a whole, specifically the critical literary reactions to J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ upon publication. To do this we turn to Tom Shippey’s renowned “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century,” a “highly erudite celebration and exploration of Tolkien’s works” according to the Houston Chronicle. In pushing any such idea – that J.R.R. Tolkien could be the greatest author of the 20th century – requires a lot of courage. Thankfully, Shippey also had a lot of data and public opinion on his side as well.

In his forward to the book, Shippey examines the success Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has had, as well as the horror its success caused the self-proclaimed literati. He recounts the numerous polls and surveys which were conducted throughout Britain during 1996-97. First the British bookshop chain Waterstone’s with BBC Channel Four’s program Book Choice ran a readers’ poll to determine ‘the five books you consider the greatest of the century’. 26,000 replies later and more than 5,000 had cast their vote in favour of The Lord of the Rings. The Daily Telegraph – with its very different audience – similarly ran a poll and found the same result. This was followed by similar results from the Folio Society, the television program Bookworm, and another survey reported in 1999 commissioned by Nestle had actually managed to get The Lord of the Rings in at second … behind the Bible.

Shippey tears apart the words of Susan Jeffreys, of the Sunday Times, “who on the 26th of January 1997 reported a colleague’s reaction to the news that The Lord of the Ringshad won the BBC/Waterstone’s poll as: ‘Oh hell! Has it? Oh my god. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear’.”

Shippey continues;

This at least sounds sincere, if not deeply thoughtful; but Jeffreys reported also that the reaction ‘was echoed up and down the country wherever one or two literati gathered together’.”

In reading Shippeys following statements, one can imagine a measure of revulsion welling up inside him at encountering the word ‘literati’:

She meant, surely, ‘two or three literati’, unless the literati talk only to themselves (a thought that does occur); and the term literati is itself interesting. It clearly does not mean ‘the lettered, the literate’, because obviously that group includes the devotees of The Lord of the Rings, the group being complained about (they couldn’t be devotees if they couldn’t read). In Jeffreys’s usage, literati must mean ‘those who know about literature’. And those who know, of course, know what they are supposed to know. The opinion is entirely self-enclosed.

The critics’ distaste for The Lord of the Rings is best summed up by quoting Germaine Greer, who writing in the Winter/Spring 1997 issue of W: the Waterstone’s Magazine said that ever since her arrival at Cambridge in 1964 it had been her “nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialised,” she added, before continuing;

The books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic.

“Flight from reality” is thrown around here as some sort of insult, as if it was inherently known as the lowest form of use literature could ever be put to. However Shippey again points us to the fallacy behind this derision. Not only is there no real issue with escaping from reality, but that books like Lord of the Rings – and other texts religiously derided as ‘escapist’ such as George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ and William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, books that also appeared regularly and highly in the afore mentioned polls – have been lauded for the way that they have commented on reality.

Consider the fact that Tolkien, Orwell, and Golding are all combat veterans. Tolkien was at the Battle of the Somme and lost two of his three best friends to the Great War. Another author of early 20th century ‘fantastical’ writing was Kurt Vonnegut, author of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, who witnessed the firefombing of Dresden first hand.

For each author, their creativity allowed them an outlet for the horrors they witnessed. To somehow attribute “flight from reality” to Tolkien’s work is to seriously misjudge the story being told. While hobbits with furry feet and a penchant for lots of food and drink may sound, on paper, an amusing and fantastical idea, the fact that Frodo finished the story giving up his happiness and security, his wholeness, for everyone gives the lie to Jeffreys and Greer’s statements. A similar reading could be applied to a story full of talking pigs and horses, but only the most uneducated of critics is liable to miss the sheer multidimensionality of Orwell’s Animal Farm and its parallels to the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century.

Fantasy has, for decades now, been anything but fantastical. Real understanding comes when you attribute the word ‘fantasy’ to the world in which the author places his characters and story. The events that happen next, the story and the history, are more often than not perfect reflections of humanities greatest failings.

Authors like Stephen R. Donaldson, Glen Cook, and more recently Steven Erikson have all written works that bear the ‘fantasy’ label, but flight from reality they are not. In referencing Glen Cook’s work, Steven Erikson wrote that “reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote.”

The issue at hand is not so much the possibility that there are flights from reality within the fantasy genre. There most certainly are. The issue is that there are flights from reality within each genre, and most certainly not limited to fantasy. Furthermore, blanket statements cannot be so blithely thrown around simply because a critic doesn’t particularly favour one genre over another. This is especially the case with fantasy, home to some of the most important works of fiction over the past century. One cannot dismiss the impact Lord of the Rings has had on 20th and 21st century cultures, and the same will no doubt be said for authors like Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. Leguin, Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, and Kate Elliott – a long list of names that will each impact society in their own way.

The current day popularity of fantasy (and science fiction) must surely be a thorn in the side of many of the self-appointed literati, but one wonders whether maybe they have come yet to realise the importance fantasy has in literature.

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