The Impulse of Fantasy Literature

Reviewed by:

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

Title:

The Impulse of Fantasy Literature

Author:

Colin N. Manlove

Publisher:

Resource Publications, a division of Wipf and Stock (original edition by Kent University Press)

Publication Date:

December 7, 2018 (originally published 1983)

Format:

Paperback

Length:

190 pages

OVERVIEW

“Fantasy, particularly in its modern form, exhibits a central and recurring theme,” Colin Manlove writes in his introduction. “This theme is its insistence on and celebration of the separate identities of created things.” In other words, fantasy stories, whether they take place in our world or a fictional one, create a sense of wonder about something. It may be the wonder of the solar system in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, wonder at forests in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or wonder at the complexities of the mind in George MacDonald’s Lilith. In each case, these stories are about the wonder at how beautiful a certain “thing” can be. Manlove looks at five writers who explored the “celebration of things” in various forms:

  • Fantasy as Praise: Charles Williams
  • Conservatism in Fantasy: Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Union of Opposites in Fantasy: E. Nesbit
  • Circularity in Fantasy: George MacDonald
  • Fantasy and Loss: T.H. White
  • Fantasy and Mind: Mervyn Peake

After considering how those writers describe wonder, Manlove considers works by four writers (William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison and Peter S. Beagle) who arguably wrote “anaemic fantasy,” failing to capture that wonder.

It’s been noted many times that before the 1960s fantasy boom kickstarted by Lord of the Rings, most critics saw fantasy as niche or silly. Perhaps as a result, 1960s-1970s fantasy studies by writers like L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter often feel defensive. DeCamp’s 1963 anthology Swords and Sorcery has an introduction where he makes a point to say the book’s heroic fantasy stories are not educational pieces disguised as fantasy, nor are they any more “unreal” than murder mysteries. Perhaps since these writers felt that they had to defend their genre, their studies weren’t always very scholarly. Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds and Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings give great overviews of fantasy, and most of the novels he mentions are still key to the classic Western fantasy canon. However, Carter’s books have some big errors and not all his theories stand up to scrutiny. These books are more love letters than analyses.

In contrast, Manlove made it clear from his first book (Modern Fantasy: Five Studies) that he loved fantasy, but would treat it like a true scholar. Modern Fantasy looked at well-known fantasy authors (including two of the Inklings) … and argued they undermined their own ideas. Here, Manlove is more positive, but still willing to take on canonical giants like Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. Readers used to always seeing the classics lionized may find this off-putting, but Manlove backs his points up, giving readers lots to consider before they can disagree with him.

The book’s one flaw is the five chapters on the writers that Manlove likes could have been developed more. Manlove says in the introduction that some chapters are based on material previously published in literary journals, meaning he’s taken standalone essays and worked them into this form. Readers may wish Manlove had edited/rewritten a bit more, making the chapters fit more clearly into his thesis. For example, his point about conservativism in the Earthsea trilogy doesn’t immediately sound like “the celebration of things.” Readers who think about the concept will eventually realize this “conservative desire,” maintaining the best of the old with room for the new, has lots to do with “the celebration of things.” One just has to step back and do some extra digging to make the connection. Even with this slight caveat, Manlove’s insights are quite good and always thought-provoking.

A highly insightful interesting look at fantasy literature from a Christian perspective.

ASSESSMENT

Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 stars

Suggested Audience

Readers interested in the history of fantasy literature from both a Christian perspective.

Christian Impact

While Manlove doesn’t give a “Christian defense of fantasy” or anything like that, his idea about wonder relates to the Biblical idea that God created the world and saw that it was good. On that level, his book can be seen as a discussion about how humans see the goodness in what God has created, and fantasy’s ability to recapture that wonder.

Note to Readers: Some of the material in this book reflects ideas explored in Manlove’s earlier fantasy studies, or pairs with points made by Rolland Hein in Christian Mythmakers. To read ECLA’s reviews of those books, go to:

https://eclalibraries.org/2020/09/23/the-fantasy-literature-of-england/

https://eclalibraries.org/2020/08/27/modern-fantasy-five-studies/

https://eclalibraries.org/2021/10/30/christian-mythmakers/

The Impulse of Fantasy Literature


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