Introduction: Everything Old Is New Again
One of the core facts about fantasy as a genre is that it takes up older story elements and reshapes them, as Tolkien did with Beowulf and George MacDonald did with the Medieval stories about Lilith. Somewhere in the background of virtually every classic fantasy text is an oral traditional one: a fairy tale, sacred hymn, legend, ballad, or epic. And since these sorts of folk texts define cultures and help us find our identities within those cultures, fantasy matters in ways that are not obvious to readers who can’t see beyond the surface of glittering spells and furry feet and outdated social systems. These once-oral texts are master narratives: stories within which we inscribe our own life stories.
But there are other sorts of cultural narratives as well, other masterplots of the sort that cultural commentators tend to call myths. America has a number of these: the myth of the self-made individual, the myth of the empty and endless frontier, the myth of racial superiority, the myth of manifest destiny. One of the tasks of artists is to examine such myths, to test them against history and to conduct thought-experiments with them to see where they might be leading or misleading us.
An interesting development in fantastic art is a turn toward treating prior works of the imagination the same way those works treated traditional tales and legends. Rather than going back to European Märchen or classical fable, a number of writers are drawing on Gothic tales or classic fantasies, not so much as raw material but as objects of interrogation. One of the earliest and still one of the finest of these is Geoff Ryman’s Was, from 1992. Was is about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and about the 1939 musical adaptation of Baum’s book and about its star Judy Garland, but mostly about America itself as a place of cruelty and despair and hope and magic. Ryman treats Oz as the cultural myth that it has become.
I have recently been reading a number of worthy successors to Was. These are stories that go beyond parody or pastiche or homage to become both metafiction and cultural commentary. Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, for instance, not only interrogates colonial adventure stories such as H. Rider Haggard’s but also sneaks in a nod to pioneering fantasist Edith Nesbit, author of The Enchanted Castle and other subversive children’s books. John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus juxtaposes two cultural myths or story tropes, the Jane Austenesque romance and the Mary Shelleyan Gothic. Theodora Goss also explores the borderline between the Gothic and an adjacent story territory, in this case the detective story, in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. And Kij Johnson recently won a World Fantasy Award for her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which places a sensible academic heroine reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane in a world created by H. P. Lovecraft. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country goes further in taking on the horror writer’s problematic political and abysmal racial views. In a lighter vein (but still with a social point) Johnson has followed up The Dream-Quest with the delightful The River Bank, in which the world of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is enriched and critiqued by the intrusion of two determined females.
Perhaps it is not by coincidence, then, that all the articles in this issue of JFA have to do with new ways of looking at classic fantasy, often through the lens of other, more recent texts. Kathryn Walls, in “An Analogous Adversary: The Old Dispensation in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” reexamines a classic fantasy text by C. S. Lewis in light of his use of Biblical typology. That is the practice of reading the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the New, which is itself a kind of metanarrative doubling, or, if we add in Medieval applications of such typology to contemporary experience, a tripling.
Sean Ferrier-Watson looks at a more obvious example of revision of a classic text, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which reimagines L. Frank Baum’s Oz but in a very different way from Ryman’s. Ferrier-Watson performs what he calls an “existential reading” of Maguire’s novel and its green antiheroine Elphaba. He looks in particular at the way time, prophecy, and choice are intertwined for Elphaba and for the reader.
The ur-text in Clotilde Landais’s contribution is Alice in Wonderland and the filtering metafictional text is Aliss by Patrick Senécal, using Gérard Genette’s concept of the metalepsis, which is parallel with his time-jumping concepts of prolepsis and analepsis but involves not merely shifting the narrative backward or forward but out of the narrative timeline entirely. Metalepsis is usually considered to be a postmodern and metafictional technique, which it is in this case, but Landais suggests that it is also a way of enhancing the uncanny properties of Senécal’s novel.
Mariano Martín Rodríguez’s “The Literary Spoof Paper” is less obviously about metafictions but it does explore a form of intertextuality. The mock scientific paper is a genre that has received little attention in spite of the fact that it perfectly performs the sort of cognitive estrangement that critic Darko Suvin says is central to the genre of science fiction. Looking at examples by Isaac Asimov and others, Martín Rodríguez suggests that the use of scientific discourse in a text that is profoundly counterfactual not only serves as a way to critique science but also generates the sort of textual complexity that marks literary, rather than merely parodic, play.
Finally, in “The Lost Worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger Series,” Conor Reid surveys Doyle’s most extended non-Sherlock-Holmes creation. Taking up the idea of the “lost world” as not merely a plot device and a way to exploit interest in various 19th-century expeditions into previously uncharted places, Reid connects Doyle’s interest in geographical exploration with his flirtation with spirituality Most explicitly in The Land of Mist, Doyle has his scientific stand-in, Professor Challenger, turn to, as the novel says, “fresh worlds to conquer. Having exhausted the sporting adventures of this terrestrial globe, he is now turning to those of the dim, dark and dubious regions of psychic research.” We can read these texts, which depict the use of scientific methods to explore—and potentially colonize—the world of the spirit as well as physical globe, as examples of intertextuality and what we might call intergenrefication. Like some of the recent examples mentioned above, these novels jam together seemingly incompatible textual varieties, in this case the scientific romance and the spiritualist tract, as a way to test both against one another and perhaps to encourage them to hybridize. Doyle’s hope seems to be that the genres thus mated together might produce new narrative models, new myths to live in.
An Analogous Adversary: The Old Dispensation in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Many Roads of Oz: An Existential Reading of Maguire’s “Wicked Witch of the West”
Aliss by Patrick Senécal: The Narrative Metalepsis as an Instrument of the Uncanny in Contemporary Fantastic Fiction
The Literary Spoof Paper: An Overview
Mariano Martín Rodríguez
The Lost Worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger Series
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Rev. by Adrion Dula
Melbye, David. Irony in The Twilight Zone: How the Series Critiqued Postwar American Culture.
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Elliott-Smith, Darren. Queer Horror: Film and Television – Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins
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Rev. by Tommy Mayberry
Koch, Sebastian. Der Kampf des Helden gegen den ‘egeslîchen trachen.’ Zur narrative Funktion des Topos vom Drachenkampf in vergleichender Perspektive [The Heroic Struggle Against the Terrible Dragons: The Narrative Function of the Dragon Fight in Comparative Perspectives]
Rev. by Vibeke Rutzou Petersen
Guay, Patrick. Jacques Spitz, Le myth de l’humain [Jacques Spitz, The Human Myth].
Rev. by Tessa Sermet
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Rev. by Adam Spires
Jad Smith’s Alfred Bester
Rev. by Dennis Wilson Wise