JFA 31.3 (2020)

Introduction: New Perspectives on Fantasy

Brian Attebery

Our peerless reviews editor Jeffrey Weinstock recently forwarded to me a query from his students: Why doesn’t fantasy have the same critical/theoretical tradition as science fiction? I have several possible answers. One is the lack of a venue. Until this journal was established as an outgrowth of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, there was no outlet for critical essays devoted specifically to the fantastic. We’ve been around a while now, considering that this is volume 31, issue 3, but that is quite a bit younger than journals such as Extrapolation and Science Fiction Studies. We’ve done a lot, but we’re still playing catch-up.

More problematically, there has been no academic book series devoted to fantasy—until now. I am delighted to announce the establishment of such a series, called Perspectives on Fantasy, from Bloomsbury Academic Press. The series editors are Matthew Sangster, Dimitra Fimi, and me, and the planning for it took place during my half year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, under the care and feeding of Dr. Robert Maslen. Here is a description from the Series call for proposals:

Inspired by fantasy’s deep cultural roots, powerful aesthetic potential, and reach across a broad range of media —from literature, film and television to art, animation and gaming—Perspectives on Fantasy provides a forum for theorising and historicising fantasy via rigorous and original critical and theoretical approaches. Works in the series will cover major creators, significant works, key modes and forms, histories and traditions, the genre’s particular affordances, and the ways in which fantasy’s resources have been drawn on, expanded and reconfigured by authors, readers, viewers, directors, designers, players, and artists. With a deliberately broad scope, the series aims to publish dynamic studies that embrace fantasy as a global, diverse, and inclusive phenomenon while also addressing oversights and exclusions.

We launch this year with Taylor Driggers’s study of Faith and Fantasy: Queering Theology in Fantastic Texts, with others in the pipeline. I hope these projects will help consolidate the efforts by many scholars around the world and give our favorite mode greater academic visibility and impetus.

The impetus part of that—or lack of—is related to an additional factor, which is the resistance of fantasy to the kind of analysis that falls under the heading of “theory” as that is usually understood. Cultural theory is a philosophical endeavor in a particular European tradition that looks back primarily to Marxist critique with an overlay of psychoanalysis. It offers a powerful set of analytical tools that has proven wonderfully applicable to science fiction. Indeed, Carl Freedman claims that science fiction is theory, or at least that “the conjunction of critical theory and science fiction is not fortuitous but fundamental” (Critical Theory and Science Fiction, Wesleyan UP, 2000, 23). The claim is plausible because of sf’s forward-looking stance and its origins in satirical and utopian literatures.

On the other side, defenses of fantasy by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—incisive as they are—can put a halt to materialist, historically grounded, and politically engaged readings of the genre. Tolkien’s “recovery” is not seen as cognate with Brecht’s defamiliarization; mythopoesis seems to be headed in the opposite direction from satire. People remember Tolkien’s decrying of allegorical readings of The Lord of the Rings while forgetting that he allowed for applicability.

Articles in this issue offer an assortment of approaches to fantasy’s versions of cognition and politics without taking routes favored by theorists from the Birmingham, Frankfurt, or Vienna (i.e., psychoanalytic) schools of cultural critique.

First up, Madison Noel Gehling explores The Wind in the Willows as a response to social conflict as well as an invocation of the myth of Arcadia. Gehling proposes a dialectic of sorts that positions the River Bank against the Wide World. Each of the protagonists variously negotiates the contrary pulls of the two social spaces. Rat, Mole, and Toad must find ways to reconcile history and myth while maintaining ties to community and acknowledging change—as do we all. In this regard, I recommend taking a look at Kij Johnson’s respectful but revisionist take on Grahame’s creation in The River Bank (2017), in which, among other things, she introduces assertive female characters to The Wind in the Willows’s masculine utopia.

Next, Joshua B. Tuttle proposes a new lens on the Weird subgenre of fantasy that he calls the Spooky. He positions the Spooky in relation to prior formulations such as Freud’s Uncanny, Tzvetan Todorov’s Fantastic, and Mark Fisher’s Eerie, all of which begin with what seems to be a purely emotional or even physical response and move toward an analysis of the narrative structures that transform sensation into something more philosophical. Like Gehling, he looks carefully at narrative spaces, which in fantasy are almost always more than mere physical locations. “The Spooky,” says Tuttle, “deals with the preparations or properties of a place or a narrative that function as signs of a possible encounter or threat, characterized by a growing sense of imminence. ”The Spooky is all about an encounter that hasn’t happened yet but that we feel must certainly happen: what will be, must be encountered is of a piece with the things we have lost in modernity. Says Tuttle, “If in a disenchanted world we are denied access to transcendence even as a fantasy, fundamentally, the Spooky allows us to read this possibility back into our experience of the world.”

Anca Rosu invites us to take a look at Patrick Rothfuss’s popular TheKingkiller Chronicle as a negotiation between two cognitive systems, magic and science. It might seem as if the former were the only relevant paradigm, but Rosu takes us on a historical detour through older occult sciences andreturns to the present to find that the older magical ways of seeing the world have not disappeared from modern scientific language and thought. Rather, the practice of science (if not its idealized image) involves humans perceiving and interacting with the natural world in ways not as far removed from Hermetic magery as we might believe, especially when it comes to interpreting nature in terms of secrets and sympathies. Rothfuss brings out this similarity by backdating modern scientific terms and ideas, placing them in an otherwise convincing Renaissance world.

Hamish Williams focuses on one of the core modern fantasists, Tolkien, and his invention of a different sort of Arcadia from Grahame’s. The island of Númenor lies between Middle-earth and the Undying Lands that are Tolkien’s version of paradise. It is usually read in mythic terms, a cross between Atlantis and Avalon, two other imagined islands west of Europe, with additional echoes of Hy-Brasil and the Hesperides. But Williams reminds us that Atlantis was fixed in the European imagination by Plato, and is of a piece with Plato’s other social thought-experiment, the Republic. Additionally, Plato’s mid-ocean utopia is “characterized by a curious alternation between an idealized Western utopia and a corrupted Eastern kingdom.” In other words, both Plato and Tolkien imagine the Occident in terms of a collectively imagined Orient, and the tensions that pull both societies apart are rooted partly in the mix of desire and repulsion with which European culture views lands to its east and south. Númenor is both Golden Age past and dystopian future, and in both capacities, it links the world we currently inhabit with the ones we are bringing into being.

Finally, Matthew Sangster also looks at the intersection of myth and utopian thought in connection with the fantastic city-scapes of Tolkien, Calvino, Le Guin, Chesterton, and others. Considering cities as texts alongside their uses in texts, Sangster finds both intelligibility and ambiguity. Cities can be textually constructed as integral wholes or as conglomerations of warring fragments—or both at the same time. Because both are truths about modern urban spaces, the symbolic capabilities of fantasy may be the best means of encompassing cities in our thought and imagination: of knowing them. Fantastic versions of the city, says Sangster, “make visible cities that were never there for others, and in doing so, they remake the meanings of their worlds.” That may be one of the key functions of fantasy: to make visible what was previously hidden, an act that can be both cognitive and practical if we act on the visions that we have been given.


Introduction: New Perspectives on Fantasy
Brian Attebery

Beyond the River Bank: Toad’s Secret Arcadia in The Wind in the Willows
Madison Noel Gehling

Dancing in the Ruins: Toward an Affect-Narratology of the Spooky
Joshua B. Tuttle

Magic/Science in Patrick Rothfuss
Anca Rosu

Westwards, Utopia; Eastwards, Decline: The Reception of Classical Occidentalism and Orientalism in Tolkien’s Atlantic Paradise
Hamish Williams

Holism and Division in Dreams of the Metropolis
Matthew Sangster


John Newell’s A Century of Weird Fiction: 1832–1937
Rev. by Antonio Alcalá González

Dan Dinello’s Constellations: Children of Men
Rev. by Emrah Atasoy

Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.’s The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Adaption
Rev. by Barbara Braid

Anna MacFarlane, Lars Schmeink, and Graham Murphy’s The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture
Rev. by Simone Caroti

Sabrina Mittermeier and Mareike Spychala’s Fighting for the Future: Essays on Star Trek Discovery
Rev. by Cait Coker

Joseph W. Campbells’s The Order and the Other: Young Adult Dystopian Literature and Science Fiction
Rev. by Teresa Cutler-Broyles

Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ
Rev. by Amandine Faucheux

Jonathan Cott’s Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature
Rev. by Dimitra Fimi

Andrew Milner and J. R. Burgmann’s Science Fiction and Climate Change: A Sociological Approach
Rev. by Anya Heise-von der Lippe

Gerald Farca’s Playing Dystopia: Nightmarish Worlds in Video Games and the Player’s Aesthetic Response
Rev. by Ashley P. Jones

Sarah E. Maier and Brenda Ayres’s Neo-Gothic Narratives: Illusory Allusions from the Past
Rev. by Wesley Scott McMasters

Elizabeth Parker’s The Forest and the EcoGothic: The Deep Dark Woods in the Popular Imagination
Rev. by Annemarie Mönch

Anna Vaninskaya’s Fantasies of Time and Death: Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien
Rev. by R. J. Murphy

Clive Bloom’s The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Gothic
Rev. by Leah Richards

Daniel Adam’s Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality
Rev. by Shannon Scott

Emily Lauer and Balaka Basu’s The Harry Potter Generation: Essays on Growing Up with the Series
Rev. by Megan Suttie