Modern Fantasy: Five Studies

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


Modern Fantasy: Five Studies


Colin M. Manlove


Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock

Publication Date:

April 14, 2020 (first edition published 1975)




318 pages


What is fantasy literature? What sets it apart from ghost stories or other tales about the supernatural? Scholar Colin Manlove delved into those questions in Modern Fantasy, first published in 1975. The book went on to become a seminal thesis on the fantasy genre (and like many seminal academic texts, hard to find in good condition without paying exorbitant sums of money). This second edition reprints the original with minor corrections, making the book accessible to a new generation of scholars. Manlove starts by distinguishing fantasy from other genres, and then examines five of “the better and better-known writers of fantasy”:

  • Charles Kingsley
  • George MacDonald
  • C.S. Lewis
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Mervyn Peake

In each chapter, Manlove focuses on what he considers to be the writer’s best work and whether the writer creates a fully convincing, consistent fantasy world.

Manlove argues in his preface that while fantasy was a well-known genre by 1975, no one had written a serious study of it. In many respects, this is correct. Lin Carter had written Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (published 1969), and followed that up with an overview of the fantasy genre titled Imaginary Worlds (published 1973). Amusingly, Manlove mentions Carter in his introduction in a list of then-current “escapist fantasy” writers. Although Carter had some solid insights and a very compelling writing style, his lack of academic training meant his arguments were not very thorough. In contrast, Manlove carefully develops his ideas, making a point to get the facts right and building his thesis on research into each writer’s life and apparent aims. The only time he comes across as under-researched is writing about Tolkien, possibly because Tolkien had only died two years before Modern Fantasy came out. Given the time it takes for books to get published, Tolkien may have been alive while Manlove was writing his final draft.

Reading the book today, some of Manlove’s criticisms of MacDonald, Lewis and Tolkien may seem a bit harsh. So much more has been written about their works since the 1970s, and various Christian artists’ groups have praised and even idolized them. In that context, hearing someone suggest that their works aren’t flawless can feel rather shocking. However, it’s clear that Manlove loves their works, even if he thinks they struggled to carry out some of their creative ideas.

More importantly, Manlove sets his critiques of Tolkien, Lewis and MacDonald in the context of a problem that he suggests all modern fantasy writers struggle with. Namely, it’s hard to create a fully-consistent fantasy world when writing for an audience that doesn’t think fantastic things are possible. Manlove argues that up through the Renaissance period, people seriously believed that otherworldly things could be just around the corner and that the “universe was instinct with meaning, each phenomenon at once concrete and conceptual.” After the Renaissance, people saw the world more and as divided between natural and supernatural, physical and metaphysical and so on. This means that in a Post-Renaissance age, it’s become much harder to make the jump between “normal” and “fantastic” which makes it possible to take fantasy literature seriously. Oddly enough, Carter mirrors this point in his book on Tolkien. Carter argues that for the ancients, “man shared his world with all manner of fantastic beings,” and thus it’s not surprising their first recorded stories, Gilgamesh and The Iliad and so forth, are about fantastic travels and encounters with impossible beings. Thus, rather than attacking Lewis or Tolkien or MacDonald, Manlove points readers to the unique difficulties that fantasy writers have to deal with in their chosen genre.

It’s also interesting to note that Manlove’s critiques tend to point back to spiritual questions. For example, he argues that it’s hard to believe in The Lord of the Rings that Frodo is choosing of his own free will to carry the Ring to Mordor, given that the alternative is clearly to let evil overtake Frodo’s home. This criticism hinges on how one defines free will. Does free will mean having the freedom to pick one’s own path regardless of the consequences, or the freedom to pick a path which fits into God’s divine plan? Debates about Calvinism, providence and predestination frequently come back to this point. So, in making this critique, Manlove (perhaps inadvertently) points to how fantasy writing is what Tolkien called an act of “sub-creation.” That is, the fantasy writer invents a world and populates it, emulating God’s ability to create worlds and populate them. Just as God’s relationship with creation affects how things work, the fantasy writer’s choices affect how the fantasy world works. Therefore, fantasy literature has spiritual overtones and applications which are well worth exploring.

While fantasy literature and studies of the genre have changed in many ways, Manlove’s ideas and their applications are still highly readable and highly intelligent. Over forty years since its original publication, Modern Fantasy is still well worth the read.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 stars

Suggested Audience

Readers interested in serious studies of fantasy literature, particularly early studies on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Christian Impact

Manlove takes an in-depth look at how four of these writers had Christian convictions which informed their work. As he considers how the writers developed those ideas, this prompts readers to consider how spiritual beliefs have consequences, and what occurs when a person’s beliefs are not fully consistent. As noted above, Manlove’s ideas imply ways in which fantasy literature has spiritual applications which readers may find particularly interesting.

Modern Fantasy


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