Conservative Tastes

Touchy Fantasists

If only James Cameron were a worthy successor to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

By 3.15.10

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Goodness! How touchy are the devotees of fantasy lit, how quick to assume that they and their joy have been disrespected. One such is Daniel Crandall who has taken exception to a piece that I wrote about Avatar for the forthcoming number of the New Atlantis and that has already been posted on the magazine's website.

According to Mr. Crandall, I think that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are not "real artists." Golly! You can imagine the reaction in the blogosphere -- which, as you may or may not know, has way more Lewis and Tolkien fans in it than the population at large. I wonder why that is, by the way? Anyway, most of them seem to have taken to their keyboards to register a protest about my scandalous views, as Mr. Crandall has reported them, and you can imagine the kind of disparagement that my taste, scholarship, intelligence, morals and general character have been subjected to.

So much so, indeed, that I wonder if it is too late to protest that I did not say what Mr. Crandall says I said. What I did say was that fantasy -- by which I meant the fantasy actually being produced in our culture today, the fantasy of Avatar or The Dark Knight or that which is, in one way or another, merely derivative from Tolkien or Lewis -- represents a break with the Western mimetic tradition to which the fantasies of yesteryear still, more or less, belonged. I would indeed have been guilty of the absurdity I am accused of by Mr. Crandall and his supporters on The American Culture website -- and all the commentators on his piece there appear to be his supporters -- if I had attempted to claim that Lewis or Tolkien or anybody else, for that matter was not a "real" artist. But I didn't. I don't even know what it means to be a real artist -- as opposed, presumably, to an unreal one. I believe the question to be an unprofitable one, even if I knew how to answer it.

Nor would I ever make such a crude generalization as to say that anything fantastical in a work of art disqualifies it as art, as Mr. Crandall seems to suggest by citing the example of Shakespeare. His American Culture claque helpfully provides many more examples of art which I have presumptively made a fool of myself by proclaiming to be not "real." But I had no purpose in writing the piece to go on the fool's errand of deciding what is or is not "real" art. I have nothing against Lewis or Tolkien and am perfectly prepared to call them or anybody else Mr. Crandall likes "real artists." The trouble is not that they or any other particular artists write children's fantasies but that children's fantasies have now become such standard fare for children and grown-ups alike that it is getting increasingly hard to find anything, particularly at the movies, that is not children's fantasy.

The point is that the meaning of "fantasy" has changed with the cultural context in which it is now the predominant art form. When Lewis and Tolkien were writing, fantasy literature was a largely unvalued cultural sideline, an out-of-the-way corner of literature that, if it was recognized at all, was quite likely to be despised or condescended to. It existed in a ghetto and was assessed not with respect to "serious" literature but with respect to other S-F and fantasy lit. The situation today is completely different. As we have approached the point where we have nothing but S-F and fantasy, even when it is ostensibly realistic, the mimetic principle to which earlier fantasies still bore some relation has been abandoned. It is a sort of standing joke of the culture, roadkill on the superhighway to what we imagine to be a new and better reality than anything it could ever have represented to us.

That's where what used to be called "the suspension of disbelief" comes in. In today's fantastical and post-modern milieu, the question of belief and disbelief simply does not arise. Everything is equally disbelieved, which is another way of saying that everything is equally believed. Mr. Crandall derisively inquires as to "what Mr. Bowman makes of Shakespeare's Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I guess that's not Art either. Unless, of course, the Great Bard actually believed in magicians, faeries and donkey-headed men." The answer is that we can't possibly know what Shakespeare himself believed in or didn't believe in, but we can know that he wrote in a cultural context that was characterized by belief in many more fantastical things -- as they now seem -- than these, and that this fact cannot be irrelevant to the meanings of these and others of his plays.

Thus, Homer's and other pagan gods were identified in the Christian era with the fallen angels cast out of heaven in the Bible. In art they were representations of what people believed were real beings. This was a world in which magic was only beginning to be distinguished from science. Fairies were believed in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as recently as a hundred years ago, and I would not take my oath that Lewis and Tolkien did not believe in them too. The popular literature of Shakespeare's day included many books like Mandeville's Travels or Lycosthenes's, Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, which were full of fantasies that educated people were prepared to accept as truths in the same spirit in which Desdemona listens rapt to Othello's tales

of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders,

an account of which latter he found in Lycosthenes. When Hamlet says, a propos of the ghost he has just seen, that

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,

he is making a statement about reality -- and heaven was as real to his audience as earth -- not fantasy. To distinguish between reality and fantasy in the first place is itself an affirmation of reality, which is why our contemporary fantasists don't do it and Shakespeare does -- for example in satirizing the credulity of the common folk in The Winter's Tale. In Act IV of that play, at the sheep-shearing feast, the rogue and thief Autolycus appears with a collection of fantastical ballads for sale: 

Here's one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer's wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a burthen, and how she long'd to eat adders' heads, and toads carbonado'd.… Here's the midwive's name to't, one Mistress Tale-porter, and five or six honest wives that were present. Why should I carry lies abroad? 

Why indeed! But there would have been no joke if there were not lots of people prepared to believe his lies and other stuff nearly as fantastical as they are. As I'm sure Mr. Crandall and his friends know very well, there are a lot of people today who would claim that religious belief itself is nothing but a lingering monument to just such popular credulity. I don't think so, but then I'm rather credulous myself. What I objected to in our contemporary fantasists -- the question of their predecessors was too complicated for me to go into in such a short article -- was that they deliberately and as a precondition of their art cut me off from any possibility of belief in the worlds they represent to me because they do not believe in them themselves. And if they don't believe in them, why should I? And if I can't believe in them, why should I care about them? That is the question the fantasists need to answer and that appeals to Lewis or Tolkien are designed to circumvent.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.