‘Modern fantasy has a very large readership, and already enjoys considerable academic repute, particularly in America: it is surprising that as yet no serious study of the subject has appeared.’
Thus writes Colin Manlove in the preface to his 1975 offering, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, the first book of academic criticism about fantasy literature (as opposed to books by insiders — Moorcock and Le Guin, for instance) that I read. In it, Manlove looks at the works of five fantasists: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, C S Lewis’s Perelandra, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Mervyn Peake’s Titus books. The treatment of each work is in-depth, looking (briefly) at the author’s life, their stated intentions for their work, and then at how well they realise those intentions.
Each time, Manlove concludes the work to be a failure.
With Peake, for instance, he’s not convinced by Titus’s desire to escape Gormenghast. He says there’s no evidence in the text that having his every spare moment taken up by age-old meaningless ritual has a detrimental effect on the young boy. As this repugnance for Gormenghast’s constant ceremonies and rituals is, really, a fundamental element not just of Titus’s character, but of the three books’ basic worldview, Manlove fails to be convinced by the trilogy.
With Tolkien, he finds three points to criticise. First, that there’s a ‘continued presence of a biased fortune’ in the plot, meaning that ‘it is not mortal will but luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal, mere posturings in a rigged bout.’ Second, that ‘Tolkien has realised [Mordor and Sauron] far more vividly than anything he gives us to oppose them. What we have is… an imaginative imbalance: good is supposed to overcome evil, but since it is less real to us, its victory does not convince.’ And third, that ‘there is no real pain in the laments’ — that the air of melancholy created by the passing of the great ages of elvish magic is no genuine loss, but is, instead, ‘a loss so bejewelled that it is a pleasure to contemplate’.
With all of these points, for both Peake and Tolkien, I find myself wondering just where Manlove is coming from. To me, Gormenghast’s ritual — and, specifically, its effect on young Titus — is so much the sharp end of all that shadowy edifice’s oppressiveness, that to say there’s no evidence for Titus’s dislike of it seems to be missing the massive, and fundamental, weight of Gormenghast itself. (Also, I’d say that Titus is the least interesting character in the books, and to judge them a failure because of Titus’s character would be similar to judging, say, The Tempest a failure because of the limp character of its male lead Ferdinand — ignoring the splendours of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.) To Peake, a free spirit if ever there was one, the need for freedom was perhaps too fundamental to be stated; nevertheless, oppression saturates Gormenghast’s shadowy gloom and soaks every word of those two fabulous books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, to the point that every word is, surely, the ‘evidence’ Manlove finds lacking.
With Tolkien, I have to say Manlove’s first point may be a genuine criticism, it just never occurred to me while reading the books. (Or watching either Jackson’s films, or Bakshi’s.) Manlove says there are too many narrow escapes from danger for us to believe in them — despite acknowledging that the narrow escape from danger (what Tolkien termed the ‘Eucatastrophe’) was fundamental to the fairy-tale effect Tolkien was after. But does anyone starting to read The Lord of the Rings really doubt the One Ring will be destroyed, at the end? So, we have to accept that, throughout the three books, all we’ll ever have is the illusion of peril, otherwise the quest will fail. And it’s the very narrowness of the escapes from danger that, surely, provide that illusion. It certainly worked for me.
The point about evil in Tolkien’s work is simply bizarre. Manlove argues that ‘Sauron is more real than anything else in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien has chosen never to present him directly.’ Which surely goes against Manlove’s requirement for ‘textual evidence’ (as in the arguments against Peake). It’s also odd considering most people’s objections being that Tolkien doesn’t do evil very well, precisely because Sauron never appears (Leiber, quoted in Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: ‘he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards’). I’d say Sauron can’t appear because he’s pure evil, which can’t convincingly be embodied, and it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t try. Against this, the forces of ‘good’, which Manlove finds unconvincing, are partly ‘good’ because they’re so diverse — because they allow individuals to be individuals, with no single, fixed idea, no ‘One Ring to rule them’, no single figure to embody their various ideals. It’s this very multiplicity — they’re a ragtag many against a totalitarian one — that makes their stand against Sauron all the more difficult.
Manlove’s criticism of the elegiac air of Tolkien’s trilogy comes down to the fact that the elves aren’t dying off, but are merely leaving Middle Earth for other shores. However, they are still leaving our world, and this is perhaps the basis for the feeling of loss in The Lord of the Rings: it’s an elegy for the fact that our world isn’t the world of wonder and magic that we find in fairy tales. Tolkien can’t kill off his elves, because they’re immortal — they will always live, because they live in our imaginations — but still, they aren’t here, with us, and we don’t live in a magical world. This, though, is a poetic fact, something that I find in the books, rather than something Tolkien writes about, and so is, therefore, something ‘serious’ academic criticism can’t address, however vital a part of the reading of the trilogy it is, to me.
I’ve always been interested in the polarising effect fantasy has on people. Some get it, and enjoy it, others not only don’t enjoy it but feel the need to attack it. They can’t just say, ‘It’s not for me,’ they have to say, ‘Of course, it’s rubbish,’ or, at best, ‘Yes, but it’s for kids.’ I still never fail to be amazed to find people writing entire ‘serious’ books on a subject that, at a deep level, they clearly despise. I wouldn’t say this applies to Manlove, who went on to write several more books about fantasy, including The Fantasy Literature of England (1999) and From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003), which are less critical (perhaps because they’re overviews of subjects, rather than in-depth looks, and both are very useful for the sheer breadth of their coverage) — but there’s a feeling of inevitability to his conclusion that ‘not one of the people we have looked at sustains his original vision’. Why? I didn’t understand it at the time I first read Modern Fantasy (in the mid-90s, after finding it in our local library), but have since come to think there’s something fundamental missing from the academic criticism of the time, in its approach to fantasy. By writing a ‘serious’ book on fantasy, Manlove is, of course, criticising using the standards and methods he’d use when approaching ‘serious’ literature (as it was once called): by looking at the various elements like plot, characterisation and style — all vital elements — and finding that the work failed in each of these departments. But I think fantasy criticism requires consideration of another basic element, something that’s to be found in all art, but is so much more evident in the fantastic: I’d call it imagination, or perhaps invention, but perhaps ‘wonder’ is the best word for it, here. Great fantasy has, at its heart, a sort of poetry that’s not grounded in character, or plot, or style — it’s what those elements are grounded in. To ‘get’ fantasy, you have to get the wonder, and that is something you can’t get by taking a critical, analytical perspective. You have to give yourself over to it, and then it either works or it doesn’t. With Peake, it’s Gormenghast — the whole gloom-shadowed, oppressive grotesquery of it, and the way it embodies itself in the various characters who inhabit it; with Tolkien, it’s the majesty of the quest, the heroism of the struggle (not the ultimate success, but how harrowing the journey is), and the whole legend-soaked background of Middle Earth, with its melancholy air of fading elvish magic. These are the central points from which all appreciation of these works must come. To me, both of these works work, and any criticism can only ask why they work. Which isn’t to say that all fantasy works, but I think if you’re not open to that key quality of fantasy, you’re just never going to get the works that do. Certainly, diving straight down into details, as Manlove does, is fatal — it’s the old idea of dissecting a frog to find out which part makes it alive. All you end up with is dead, messy frog parts, and no answers; then you start convincing yourself the frog was never really alive in the first place. Poor frog.