Why We Need Fantasy Literature

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold around 150 million copies worldwide, which makes it one of the bestselling fiction novels of all time. Some even claim it is the greatest book of the twentieth century. While Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels continue to grow in popularity, many scholars still refuse to take them seriously. Most critics not only disregard, but despise them with a fiery passion. Critics of the younger generation focus on the supposed social problems in Middle-earth, such as racism or sexism. But the most astounding criticisms come mostly from the older generation of literary critics, who claim that Tolkien’s writing is just awful. Edmund Wilson argues in “Oo, Those Awful Orcs” that The Lord of the Rings is nothing but “juvenile trash.” In the introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Interpretations: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Harold Bloom claims that Tolkien’s writing style is “stiff, false archaic, and overwrought.” Bloom is “not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff.” These criticisms are as absurd are they are comical. If anything, The Lord of the Rings is anti-racist and anti-sexist and beautifully written. Of course, the merit of any work is, in essence, subjective and tastes differ. But what is the cause of both the contemptuous criticisms and unwarranted indifference toward The Lord of the Rings?

Realism has taken over literature; fantasy—and other genres—have been deemed childish garbage. Ursula K. Le Guin blames the modernists for this. In her article “The Critics, the Monsters and the Fantasists,” she writes,

The modernists are largely to blame. Edmund Wilson and his generation left a tradition of criticism that is, in its way, quite a little monster. In this school for anti-wizards, no fiction is to be taken seriously except various forms of realism, which are labelled ‘serious.’ Universities have taught generations of students to shun genres, including fantasy (unless it was written before 1900, wasn’t written in English, and/ or can be labelled magic realism).

But realism is a very recent movement. Before the eighteenth century, genre fiction was literature. What makes genre writing after 1900 any less significant than its predecessors? There isn’t any lost, secret knowledge on how to write fantastical literature. There isn’t anything about English that changes the literary merit of genre writing. Perhaps, as Le Guin asserts, these critics simply don’t understand how to read fantasy. And, if they don’t understand how to read genre literature, by what authority can they criticize The Lord of the Rings?

Critics’ obsession with allegory may be one of the obvious pitfalls, since fantasy literature—at least according to Tolkien—should never be read in this way. In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

Of course, as Tolkien states, there’s nothing wrong with finding parts of faerie stories applicable to our own individual lives: that’s one of the greatest things about them. But Harold Bloom’s claim that The Lord of the Rings is a “giant Period Piece” about World War II is nonsense. Simply put, it is a story of a hobbit and his companions and their quest to destroy a ring. Tolkien did not write allegory. Anything more you get from the story is on you. Of course, living through both world wars influenced Tolkien’s ideology, and that ideology made its way into his fiction—but, in writing the books, Tolkien had no political agenda. He only wanted to create a faerie story.

But what is it about The Lord of the Rings specifically that provokes such strong objections from the critics? Possibly, the question is too specific. Perhaps it’s the genre of faerie story that critics detest, not The Lord of the Rings itself. Critics raise the same objections to other modern fantasy works that receive acclaim. In a review of Harry Potter, Bloom writes, “Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it. The Harry Potter epiphenomenon will go on, doubtless for some time, as J. R. R. Tolkien did, and then wane.” This is from a review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the series, and was written in 2007, while the novel itself was written ten years previously. Yet, twenty-one years after publication, Harry Potter is still as big as ever, if not bigger. It makes one wonder what Bloom thinks of Amazon’s plans for a new Lord of the Rings series (65 years after publication, The Lord of the Rings is still going strong). These faerie stories aren’t going anywhere.

They aren’t going anywhere because we need them. It’s no coincidence that the fantasy genre can be traced back to some of the earliest forms of writing. We need the warriors, the adventure, the monsters, the magic. Exploring these aspects of fantasy is a great way of gaining insight into what it means to be human. Critics love to attack fantasy for not being serious literature: realism is the human experience. But not only does fantasy encompass the human experience, it does so better than realism. In his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T. S. Eliot outlines his theory of the objective correlative:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

Don’t tell us how you feel—show us how you feel. This is one reason storytelling is so important. It’s not that realism can’t incorporate the objective correlative in beautiful ways, but what better way to show our fear of the deep than Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water, our fear of death than Ringwraiths, or our fear of the forest than Mirkwood? These images are so much stronger than those realism can produce. Realism is forced by its own limitations, in many instances, to deal in abstracts, while fantasy gives us concrete images of emotions that couldn’t be as vividly portrayed otherwise. Fantasy also allows us to lower our guard, which makes it easier to understand otherwise difficult subject matter, and helps us see things from new perspectives. Maybe the new insights into ourselves that we gain from fantasy literature are too difficult for critics to accept. People usually don’t like to admit they’re wrong. And maybe, whether they’re aware of it or not, that’s why critics shun fantasy literature: they’re afraid of what they’ll discover about themselves by studying it. The anthropocentric nature of realism makes us out to be both the victims and heroes of our reality, while fantasy forces us to confront the monsters within ourselves. I bet the critics don’t like accepting that. I doubt anyone does. But the truth is important.

Not only does fantasy remind us of what we are, it reminds us of what we once were. The industrialization of our current world has severed us from the connection we used to have with nature. In “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” Ursula K. Le Guin expresses this beautifully:

The fields and forests, the villages and byroads, once did belong to us, when we belonged to them. That is the truth of the non-industrial setting of so much fantasy. It reminds us of what we have denied, what we have exiled ourselves from.

Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals … what fantasy generally does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential.

That’s possibly another reason critics discredit fantasy literature. Fantasy, at its foundation, is anti-anthropocentric. But news flash, critics: we’re not in charge. We don’t run the world: nature does. We enjoy pretending we’re in control—and fantasy challenges that. Progressivism is certainly at least partially to blame for the shunning of the fantasy genre. The idea of progress assumes that it is imperative to the betterment of the human condition, but it may be just the opposite. The repercussions of such a philosophy are a narcissistic, materialistic and ruthless humanity, which is becoming more and more distanced from its roots in the natural world. It’s no coincidence that realism took over as the primary literary mode during the Industrial Revolution. Maybe we’ve become too sophisticated to find meaning in childish fairy tales. But, as we run away from these childish themes of hope, heroism, magic and divinity, we become less inclined to care for anyone or anything but ourselves. We’ve become selfish. We build ourselves up just to tear others down; we pollute our oceans and destroy our forests. We are disconnecting ourselves from nature, with which we should be in harmony. So maybe it’s society’s fault that critics shun The Lord of the Rings and other fantastical literature. We don’t need magic; we have science. We’re our own heroes, in it for ourselves. But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere worthwhile in our industrial progressiveness: we live in a world of greed, hatred and constant war. Possibly, one of the reasons is our abandonment and complete disregard of the faerie story and its significance. This may seem like a giant leap, but maybe we can only learn morality through storytelling and from the magic embraced by fantastical literature.

In the Boston Globe article “Dumbing Down American Readers,” Bloom claims that the fantasy genre is dumbing down America. But perhaps it’s our flight from fantasy that is dumbing us down. Bloom says that the reasons are “very complex … there’s very little authentic study of the humanities remaining.” But maybe we’re tired of being told what is and isn’t relevant. Maybe we’re ready to accept that fantasy is an important aspect of the human experience and will continue to be. The twenty-first century is a century of the strange and magical, of the fantastical. It’s a century of wizards, faeries and dragons, and the critics will eventually have to accept that. The fantasy genre is back, ready to reclaim the rightful place in the world of literature that realism unjustly stole from it.

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11 comments

  1. “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” What a germane quote from Tolkien. Realism is often constrained to the issues of the or sent, while genre fiction can encompass broader themes. I do agree with the use of fantasy to explore themes larger than ourselves, themes outside the sciences. We do need magic precisely because we have so much science. Science cannot explore, much less explain, love, loyalty, hate, courage, dishonesty, or evil. LOTR, Harry Potter, and GoT have remarkably wide audiences across space and time because they tackle these human themes.

    Incidentally, I think science fiction is great at bridging the gap between science and magic.

  2. Didn’t Tolkien attribute the fall of men to mixed breeding? It’s been a while, but if I remember correctly there were the superior humans (race of Numenor). The decline of humanity was attributed to these superior humans mating with the rest and diluting the “blood of Numenor”. That is actually quite racist…

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this invalidates the importance of his work. I loved his books, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some issues…

    1. yes, he was a writer of his time, and many of his views are not what we would find acceptable today. fortunately, we’ve solved that. no writer from our time is ever going to be said to have had wrongheaded and problematic ideas by people seventy years from now. because we’ve finally gotten it right.

  3. Why We Don’t Need Fantasy Literature (wink)

    there is something potentially very special and elevating about any genre or subset of art that is widely looked down upon. when an artist works without the foreseeable hope of appealing to or impressing “the right people”, they are thusly liberated from the temptation to pander to them. they can say anything without that weighing them down. they can create challenging work, and make observations that few would dare make if they thought that people they respected might be watching. but put a genre on an intellectual pedestal -deserving though it may be of it- then it’s practitioners tend to become petitioners for the favor of the intelligentsia, the work becomes awards-bait, and it escapes the popular imagination. jazz, which was throughout the teens and twenties raucous and firey, expanded it’s audience through the thirties and forties, by the fifties became viewed as art, in the sixties became the hoity-toity high art of the young well-off intellectuals who dare not sully their ears with the the teenage yelping of the upstart popular musical forms, and today exists as something taught to white kids in conservatories, of particular interest to few outside of jazz aficionados. it is, like classical music, a dead form that no longer truly speaks to very many people.

    we are in an age were fans desperately seek such a position for the subject of their fandom, but the price for this is the very quality that made them fans in the first place. hip-hop is lesser now that NPR routinely covers it. science fiction is less imaginative and less stingingly allegorical now that it’s accepted as culturally important. comic books are far, far less subversive now that they are viewed as literature.

    below the radar is where the most fascinating and transcendent work occurs. so to that end I say: fantasy literature is a lowly genre for the feeble-minded and sub-literate.

  4. As a progressive fan of fantasy I think the author may be conflating progressivism with classical liberalism. However I would hardly be surprised if a classical liberal fan of fantasy would dispute that too. Recognizing our dependence on nature and the importance of things beyond ourselves can transcend ideology. Tolkien after all was a conservative advocate of environment conservation.

    I can add a few other benefits of fantasy as follows:

    – Sometimes it does provide us with allegory that can help us feel the importance of particular issues. Yes Harry Potter is a story about spell-casting teens but it also deliberately illustrates the importance of resisting the formation of repressive regimes.

    – Mass society can make it difficult for individuals to find connections. Many of us are set adrift from the old anchors of religion or class or culture (and frankly some of us are fine with that). But shared interests in topics such as books, comics, movies, games and sports allow us to form new connections in various fandoms.

    – Even if all the above is dismissed, reading or watching genre fiction can be great fun.

  5. Tolkien has been hated for a long time for the crime that the people love him. Only the upper crust is qualified to judge the best books of all time and having LOTR up there sticks in their craws. Well, T.S. Here’s what Papa Tolkien had to say:

    “He thinks that there is now a tendency both to believe and teach in schools and colleges that “enjoyment” is an illiterate reaction; that if you are a serious reader, you should take the construction to pieces; find and analyse sources, dissect it into symbols, and debase it into allegory. Any idea of actually reading the book for fun is lost.

    It seems to me comparable to a man who having eaten anything, from a salad to a complete and well-planned dinner, uses an emetic, and sends the results for chemical analysis.

    He finds the matrix of a quickly-moving, well-written narrative ideal for presenting and developing character, dialogue, and background, the flesh and clothing which cover the skeleton of plot; many people do not realize how much they can enjoy what is simply a well-told story.”
    — J.R.R. Tolkien interview, 1966

    And a sample of Tolkien’s mastery of words, for those who have never experienced it:

    Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.
    — J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

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    1. Being a “critic” is how they justify their status to themselves. Status is very important to us humans, and if they weren’t critics, they wouldn’t feel good about themselves.

      Moreover once you’re a “critic” you get to look down on so many things. Again, very satisfying to a certain sort of human.

      1. anyone who argues against critics and criticism in general is someone who can just as easily be tarred with that self-same brush. the act of criticism is inevitable, and essential. I don’t know about you, but I cannot read every book published, see every movie released, listen to every album produced, or watch every television show that airs. I’m going to rely on some sort of external criticism to help me narrow down the field a bit. the quality of that criticism is the matter that should be discussed (and criticized), not the mere act of it.

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