Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fantasy: Matter and Form

In an earlier post, I discussed C. S. Lewis’ “mythopoeic dualism,” his theory that myth-making is a distinct art whose product is a sequence of ideas, existing immaterially, but accidently embodied in written or spoken form.

Colin Manlove, in his Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, objects to this dualism, as I do. But his counterargument is hardly sufficient. He merely takes a passage from MacDonald, criticizes it line by line, and concludes (without further argument) that its defects in style do vitiate the whole. His criticisms are unassailable but miss the point. He and Lewis are speaking about different forms—Lewis would probably have conceded that the writing detracted from the novel, but what about the myth?—and anyway the passage Manlove cites is surely too short to invalidate Lewis’s view, which concerns global aspects. Perhaps Manlove denies the existence of a mythopoeic art as distinct from writing or telling, but if that is the case he should say so, and justify his position. Even better, he should explain why MacDonald’s style fails him insofar as he is writing a fantasy novel. But doing so would involve him in stating the role of style in fantasy (as opposed to other forms of writing), whereas he approaches his subjects merely as literary novels about fantastic things.

This brings us to a more profound question: what is fantasy? Is it its own distinct branch of literature, subject to its own rules? What are the material elements? What cements these elements into a work of fantasy qua fantasy? Manlove would seem to say that the art-form of the fantasy novel is the same as that of the ordinary novel—the difference is in the material. But, like Lewis, I don’t think people read fantasy novels for the same reason they read "literary" novels. The fantastic elements serve a necessary albeit material role: they act as a trigger mechanism for a way of viewing the whole, shifting the reader into a certain mode of enjoyment. This role, as we have seen, is closely tied to the style of the telling.

I would say that “myth” is one of several material elements, among which is literary style. The “myth” element of a work of modern fantasy can certainly be enjoyed for its own sake (just as any technical virtuosity can), but bad or inappropriate writing vitiates the work as a whole. Both are necessary ingredients, but both are subordinate to the form, the final shape that determines the work as a work of fantasy. And this form is not the same as for the ordinary work of literature.

In my opinion, the writer who has come closest to elucidating the matter is Ursula K. Le Guin. In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” she makes the point that, without style, there simply is no writing, which is just as valid in fantasy as in other types of writing. Good, honest Aristotelianism. She goes even further, offering some hints as to what constitutes the fitting approach to style in fantasy as such. But the essay, while suggestive, suffers from nebulosity, and fails to come to a decisive point. The question is, what are the special demands placed upon style by the art-form of fantasy? To fully answer it, we need to have an idea of what fantasy is.

In a future post I’ll hopefully be able to explain in more detail why Le Guin’s essay, while pointing in the right direction, comes up short, and how our unanswered question might be answered.

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