I’ve never formally studied literature and I'm not terribly wide-read. My way is to find a vein of metal that appeals to me and mine it for all it's worth. Also, I approach fantasy as a writer, not as a critic; one belongs to the sphere of making, the other to the sphere of knowing. But I do like to read critical theory from time to time, to give myself some perspective if nothing else.
Right now I have a copy of Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, courtesy of the county library’s ILL program. One excerpt I've particularly enjoyed is Don Elgin’s "Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy." Ordinarily, theories of eco- this and ethno- that and Marxist so-and-so turn me off. But any theory of fantasy for which Frank Herbert falls naturally into place beside Tolkien and Lewis is sure of piquing my interest. The piece doesn’t quarry works for evidence of ecological awareness or supposed eco-symbolism or anything like that. Rather, it probes the ways in which fantasy expresses a certain attitude toward man's complex relationship with his environment.
Elgin describes two fundamental views of man's place in nature. The first, the tragic, sees man in opposition to his environment, its user and its ruler. The second, the comic, sees man as one dependent part of a complex whole. The first Elgin associates with the purely "literary" or experimental novel, now in a state of effete exhaustion (reflected in the destruction of nature), and the second with fantasy. He sees these as the two basic types of novel in the world today, and avers that it is through the latter, however "disreputable," that mankind will find his way forward.*
Comedy has been the somewhat embarrassingly omnipresent, somewhat disreputable black sheep of the literary family. And within the comic tradition lie the basic traditions of sound ecological practices. When combined with ideas inherent in the romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the result has been the production of a new kind of novel, the fantasy novel. And, because of this merging of form and theme, the fantasy novel has become one of the two major strains that the novel as a genre will be taking in the coming years. This does not guarantee the continued existence of the novel or of humanity, but it does offer to both the promise and opportunity to take the wandering, unknown road of which Bilbo sings. And it offers to both the opportunity to go beyond the tragic ideal, with all the horrors which its abstractions have brought to western humanity… [L]iterature, especially the fantasy novel, offers humanity a way to reintegrate itself into the natural world and, in so doing, invites a new relationship between itself, its fellow creatures, and the science and literature that mirror that world.
Tolkien’s novels are held up as the prime example. It strikes me that what Elgin writes concerning the end of the Third Age and the farewell to the tragic attitude there symbolized dovetails with Tolkien’s own view (expressed in his letters) of the "sin" of the Elves in wishing to keep the world static, which is what caused them to fall under Sauron’s power through the Three.
One reason I resonate with the essay is that there's always been an acutely painful tension in my relationship to the world around me. I've described this in some of my earlier posts; perhaps it's related to my autism disorder. At any rate, my attempt at novel-writing is tied to my attempt to reconcile myself to my ambient reality, to the brutally innocent world of nature as well as to the rape of that world by the society of which I am part. Books like Dune and The Lord of the Rings and Titus Groan attract me because of the role of the secondary world in each.
On a final note, I don’t know that I agree with Elgin's statements (cited from other sources) about the role of western religion in the tragic view. The attitudes there crudely ascribed to traditional Christianity regarding man's place in nature are actually held to have been consequences of the Fall, not of Creation. Man was to hold dominion over the earth, it is true, but we are told that all that was made was good, and that the mutual antagonism came after the expulsion from Eden. Seeing man as the pinnacle of creation is not the same as seeing him as nature’s tyrant.** No, I don't think it is necessary to look beyond post-medieval Europe for the causes of our present situation, and it strikes me that the holistic views espoused by Elgin are profoundly Thomistic. It is Tolkien’s inherited philosophy that gives his work so many of the qualities that Elgin admires.
* For this reason and others, I think it unfortunate that some contemporary fantasy authors feel the need to adopt "experimental" poses in their fiction in order to validate it. It is against the very nature of fantasy to be experimental. "Experimentation" in fantasy always amounts to copying some technique from a "literary novel," to the detriment of both technique and fantasy. There is nothing worse than clever, self-conscious fantasy.
** And man knows that he is the pinnacle. If he were wrong in this, then he would at any rate be the only creature in all the universe capable of posing the question or being wrong.