“As I begin writing I think of a stained-glass window submitted as a student project for a course in fantasy literature. […] I think of Tolkien’s fantasy world, fabricated out of shattered myths which we, as ‘postmoderns,’ ought no longer to believe in. Like the window, The Lord of the Rings is essentially a re-creation, a synthesis of rejected myths and images into a fragile new composition. Humpty-Dumpty miraculously reassembled, with all the cracks showing. In both the window and the trilogy: art built out of a heap of cultural trash, something new from something used, a sense of wholeness barely removed from absurdity. In both cases the shards held together with borrowed materials and makeshift ingenuity: a crude frame and Elmer’s glue, the worn structure of romance and ponderous philological apparatus. These two artifacts have come to seem to me suggestive emblems of the appeal of fantasy in our time.”
In this 1975 College English article, Robert Crossley sets out to explore the power and value of the fantasy genre, and he begins by criticizing the “hedging” and “avoidance of definition and rational discourse” that he believes characterize many discussions of the genre (even referencing directly Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” for instance). Crossley addresses the presumed childishness of fantasy, citing examples such as Alice in Wonderland, and concludes that adult readers may be afraid of what this represents, leading them to silence or scorn on the subject. He writes:
“Analytical language impedes the adult’s response to fantasy because it threatens to reopen the gap between childhood and adulthood which his imagination has tried to close. The adult fears his language will give him away, that he will not be able to pose a child’s questions without betraying the accents and vocabulary of adult rational consciousness. To achieve the vision he has had to put on a new self; and silence becomes the instrument which allows him to keep his old and new selves in tenuous balance” (Crossley 284).
From here Crossley returns to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” citing the argument that fantasy offers the opportunity to see and discuss human experience in a more fresh way, causing us to “clean our windows” (as Tolkien put it). Crossley claims, “Tolkien’s ethico-aesthetics provides a rationale for the basic convention of fantastic literature: the transference or displacement of familiar human situations and psychology to an
unfamiliar, exotic, or bizarre setting” (285). He continues this thread, citing The Lord of the Rings as an example: “The ‘machinery’ of the Rings–wizards, monsters, elvish runes, talking trees-is not its visionary center. The ostensible marvels have genuine charms of their own, but in the larger aesthetic of fantasy they are so much Windex for clearing the vision to more homely and simple sights” (286). Crossley then draws a connection to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, noting a similar effect.
Here I pause to wonder at the profound cognitive dissonance that has plagued fantasy since well before the beginning of my own academic career: Why do so many regard Kafka’s tale as brilliance, yet dismiss anything reminiscent of Tolkien? Surely, Surgeon’s Law must be considered, here–it’s true that much of anything of any given variety may be regarded as “not the best” of that type. So, perhaps Kafka is respected because he stands out as exceptional, while fantasy’s tendency toward self-emulation has made the genre seem too homogenized, reduced to so much Dungeons & Dragons parody. This is to be forgiven, as it’s true that much of the market-defined “fantasy” genre seems to have neglected the inventive spark that gives the genre life–asking “What if the world were different?” fuels fantasy, not asking “What if the world had elves, dwarves, and wizards?” Cliché is what’s left when a trope has been voided of invention, and fantasy does seem to suffer from that–yet, all the same, I’m not convinced that is all. Is it the spirit of adventure and optimism that much fantasy embodies that has so long been rejected by dominant academia? Is it something else entirely? I cannot be certain, but I’m vastly grateful that such attitudes appear to be on the wane.
As Crossley concludes this section of his essay, he writes, “We have, then, in simplification and subjectivity (via Tolkien, Kafka, and Jesus) an illustration of the concomitant operation of creative and destructive forces in fantasy. The essential educational principle to which these forces contribute is the widening of thought through the abolition of conventional and obstructive categories of thought. Not previous knowledge, but the inertia of previous ways of thinking is discredited. The appeal to fantasy in education makes possible the restoration of the worth of an idea, to which complexity will add a later delight” (288). However, in the next section, he is quick to complicate this idea.
“Put more cynically, the appeal to fantasy may become a pedagogical trick which teachers can safely employ to engage students in a process which will not undermine rational modes of thought and discourse. But there is another view of fantasy with other implications for education. The other view shifts emphasis from the familiar to the unprecedented, from powers of refreshment to powers of revelation, from an alliance with reason to an assault on rational consciousness, and from the secular to the numinous. That other view is adumbrated in the journal of a student who writes that fantasy requires not a willing suspension of disbelief, but ‘a willing expansion of belief.’ When one suspends disbelief one adopts a temporary credulity; it is just a matter of shifting stance to return to disbelief: the mystery is disposed of, the book reverts to artifact, the idea becomes tractable. But if an expansion of belief occurs, the shape and scope of one’s world changes. Mystery is the dominant presence in a world where expanded belief dissolves boundaries between fantasy and actuality. A reader becomes implicated in a book and it cannot become again purely an artifact. A person is less likely to seize and master an idea than to feel seized and mastered by it” (Crossley 288).
Here I believe Crossley comes close to making a real case for the power of fantasy–fantasy need not only be a temporary respite from an unpleasant world. Again I turn to my own emerging theory of fantasy: It can also be an expansion on the world itself, a presentation of new possibilities and concepts. Perhaps any fiction–even any idea at all–can have this power, but it is certainly an end to which fantasy is quite well-suited. However, one must break with what is already known and be willing to ask “What if the world were different?” If one asks, “What if there were elves?” then the resulting answer isn’t–I contend–true fantasy. It’s just dabbling in the result of someone else’s fantasy. To treat fantasy as a thing, as established and contained, is to fail it. Fantasy is, as Tolkien put forth, implicitly an act of creation. Its strength comes from its willingness to complicate the world we know. Even Tolkien, for all his building with the bones of ancient epics, may have given us his greatest gift in the form of Hobbits–in the Shire that was his idealized vision of home.
From here, Crossley seeks to return to the question of education–of how this model of fantasy might inform the role of the teacher.
“Mystery. Belief. Grokking. Outsight. The words suggest very personal educational goals which have to do with establishing a sense of identity, grasping the meaning of one’s relation both to the world outside oneself and to the world within oneself, even pursuing a form of religious fulfillment. In this relation of education to fantasy it seems hard to determine what function the teacher should perform. He can employ pedagogies which will refresh and renew the worth of ideas. He can strive to make the community of his own classroom non-competitive. But what can he do to facilitate self-discovery? Obviously (perhaps more obviously now than six or seven years ago), the teacher can neither establish someone’s identity, nor define someone’s relation to the universe, nor impart religious experience. However, there may be analogues for the teacher in the authors of fantasy” (292).
Indeed, as he draws to a close, Crossley suggests that perhaps the danger for the teacher is romanticism–and to consider the job of a fantasist without excessive romanticism seems, to me, to be an apt way of considering the role of teaching.
“This may sound a rather staid and stingy interpretation of the teacher’s role. But a sub-creating pedagogy is not easy to achieve and often not very gratifying, particularly if a teacher has impulses, conscious or not, to be a hero or oracle. Because he is the designer and technician, not the pilot, of his students’ journeys, the teacher may have to forego what he is liable to think of as his choicest observations and most conclusive conclusions if he is not to rob his students of the value of discovering their own applications to experience, their own formulations of the significance of experience achieved in their own good time. It may be important to displace non-closure from the work of fantasy to the work of teaching. And yet the teacher needs to provide a distinct enough order to the process of responding to the experience of reading that students can perceive its value. This is a difficult posture for the teacher to strike; it entails patient discrimination in deciding when students are engaged in cheap thrills and when they are in the midst of promising voyages which should not be interrupted” (293).
Crossley, Robert. “Education and Fantasy.” College English 37.3 (1975): 281-93. JSTOR. Web. 10 June 2015.