Review of Fantasy

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 4

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Fantasy

Audrey Taylor

Lucie Armitt. Fantasy.Routledge, 2020. The New Critical Idiom. Paperback. 208 pg. $22.95. ISBN 9781138677029.

Fantasy scholarship has developed rapidly over the past half-century, and a well-informed discussion that grapples with the wide range of current research is certainly more than welcome. Lucie Armitt’s attempt at such a discussion in Fantasy, part of The New Critical Idiom series,is unfortunately not quite successful. However, before I begin my review in full, I feel I should give a warning. I opened this book expecting something entirely different, and this colored my reaction to it. Armitt was the first critic I discovered who took fantasy literature seriously, and so it was with delight that I dove into her latest book, over ten years after first encountering her work. The book I was expecting was an overview of the fantasy genre, particularly literature, as it stands two decades into the 21st century. There are probably other books offering such an overview, but this is not that book. This book takes a very broad look at the concept “fantasy” and explores it in a much wider cultural context, far beyond literature, or indeed, the 21st century. If you treat Fantasy as a book about the non-mimetic in a very broad sense, then you will likely have a very different, more positive, experience with this text. Armitt offers keen analyses and makes some interesting points. It is a shame that few of them concern the fantasy genre as it is commonly understood today.

Armitt begins with some of the, today, quite old-fashioned arguments about fantasy the genre as a whole and fantasy literature particularly. She brings up a number of points in her introduction that she follows with “as we will see throughout the book” (9), but I was generally hard pressed to find them more than sporadically hinted at. Her overall argument seems to be that “fantasy” is the driver for narratives and feelings across genres, and is in opposition to the real. The book contains five main chapters and a very brief conclusion. Though loosely bound by theme, the chapters tend to be collections of miniature arguments, but the structure or overarching argument is often fairly vague. This means that good points are sometimes buried in descriptive passages and details rather than holding the argument together.

Armitt’s introduction runs through several, older, definitions of fantasy before she makes her own claim. Her contention that “the key aspect of any fantasy narrative is the mechanism whereby the reader is permitted entry into another world” (10) was extensively argued by Mendlesohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008). Rhetorics is only mentioned after several pages of Armitt’s own argument, but it is never made clear that Mendlesohn argued the same thing more than ten years ago. Mendlesohn is then left behind without real engagement.

In chapter 2, an overview of the fantastic from “Ovid to Game Boy,” Armitt makes a short argument for Ovid as fantasy. Discussions of Ovid quickly make way for Orpheus and his tale (without any explanation for why this particular story and not one of the many others in Ovid’s oeuvre), on to the operas staged from that story, and then to the problem of how to theatricalize fantasyland, all in a couple of pages. Some of the connections she makes are intriguing, while others are tenuous at best. For example, linking Puck’s ability to move quickly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/96) to Harry and Hermione’s trip back in time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) (42) is less than convincing. Connecting The Nutcracker Suite (1892) with the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car (1968) might have been interesting, but the discussion is cut too short for it to be more convincing.

The third chapter concerns animal fantasy. Mickey Mouse is discussed without much notice of his “animalness,” however, and the brisk tour of Fantasia (1940) includes bits of plot and music but little real analysis of the other animal characters found throughout. Places where more research would have been welcome include Armitt’s assertion that “animated animal characters hold a particular attraction for child readers and viewers of film and television fantasy is clear” (62) or when she states that “in their identification with fantasy animals, children are clearly working through their fears in relation to adult humans” (63). She spends far more time “reminding” (63) the reader that not all animal stories are fantastic—Black Beauty (1877) and War Horse (1982) are her cases in point—than on explaining what animal fantasy is.

Chapter 4 is “Fantasy Quests.” This includes a quick dive through various quests—King Arthur’s quests, quests for knowledge, and others— without any detailed examination of any particular quest types. Armitt discusses The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), but only from the point where Edmund and Peter have different perspectives on a greening Narnia, leaving me wondering about the quest connection. Armitt’s point that there are horizontal as well as vertical quests is a valuable contribution to fantasy quest scholarship, but is unfortunately buried among sidelines and minutiae. This could have been the chapter’s central theme, but coming as it does after a meander about Robert Graves’s The Golden Fleece (1944) and King Arthur, it loses much of its impact. She engages here with Freud and Frasier but not with Mendlesohn or other, newer fantasy critics working with portals and quests.

Chapter 5 deals with politics and fantasy, and it was the chapter in which I was the most sorry for Armitt’s broad and vague use of “fantasy.” It begins with a brief look at three texts that have caused controversy, The Water-Babies (1863), Babar (1931), and some of Enid Blyton’s books. It then moves on to comics and a quick comment that superheroes can be tied to the rise of fascism. What troubles me here is that very little of this chapter seems to be about fantasy and its uses to fight for political causes, rather than fantasy as reactionary, conservative, or useless daydreaming, as is often argued outside of fantasy scholarship. I also failed to understand her choice of sub-categories. The same could be argued for Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Her reasoning is that she is discussing what happens within the text to Winston, that he “layers” fantasy around himself (123). It is unfortunate that with the escapist bad press the fantasy genre receives generally Armitt could not have found more titles that are explicitly fantasy, rather than science fiction, anime, or other genres. Her more intriguing claim that political fantasy, as she calls it, “typically operates as much through defamiliarization as invention” (127) is largely buried in pieces of plot and discussions of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist. Other points are similarly buried in examples from texts usually considered science fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale [1985], Oryx and Crake [2003], and more).

“Fantasy and the Erotic” is the rather bold title of Armitt’s last chapter. She argues in the beginning that “whenever critics write ‘seriously’ about sex and the erotic in fantasy, it is surprising how coy or full of obfuscation they become” (140). Armitt begins the chapter with a welcome discussion of her terminology and argument. She contends that all fantasy has an element of the sensual and vice versa, but does not, for this reader at least, convince. She argues that all erotic thought and writing is a form of fantasy, as it takes place in, or is produced by, the mind (142). She admits that sample texts “are recounted through narrative realism and this raises one key difficulty for a book on fantasy,” but her justification that “the relationship between fantasy and narrative realism is complicated by the erotic content” (143) is especially thin. Armitt’s overall points about the erotic, and particularly women’s place both within the erotic (as more than the object of desire) and the critical (as having worthwhile, un-phallocentric things to say), are intriguing; however, I would have liked to have seen them brought to bear on more overtly generic fantasy texts. The fantastic genre, in literature, movies, and more, certainly has texts that bring eroticism to the fantasy (Anne Bishop’s books, or the movie series Twilight [2008-2012] for example), and thus their absence here is doubly disappointing.

Given her lavish use of citations and research in some places, it is obvious that Armitt put a lot of time into research. However, the weaknesses in the text cluster around two main problems. The first is Armitt’s tendency to include everything under her loose definitions, and the second is the curious use of assertions rather than research in some areas, and a concurrent lack of depth in others. It feels as though one has but just landed on an idea or train of thought before being whisked away to the next. The literary and critical sources that Armitt uses are often quite dated. Calling Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children “one of the freshest recent examples of portal fantasy” (15) is especially odd for a book published in 2011, at the point of this review ten years ago. She also continually returns to fantasy as the realm of the child, and the child-like, something that fantasy has been trying to move away from at least since Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories” (1947), if not before.

One of the key challenges that the book is unable to overcome is that almost everything gets its chance to be considered, leaving little room for discussion of that which is usually considered genre fantasy. Armitt includes comics without a qualm, for example, a medium that is usually considered on its own generic terms, or, in the case of superheroes, is almost expressly presented as science fiction, not fantasy.

Unchallenged assumptions abound. For example, in a discussion of the first Gormenghast book, Armitt asserts, “If we, as readers, feel a sense of one-to-one identification with a walking protagonist, how much more closely do we hold our breath as Steerpike ascends slowly, fingertip by fingertip, stone by stone, until safely sitting astride the apex roof” (93). This assumes the reader has any wish to identify with Steerpike, and given his nasty personality, this is not the given Armitt seems to think it.

Fantasy appears uncertain about what it wants to achieve, and for whom. There is little newness there: the critical idiom Armitt outlines is sadly outdated in terms of fantasy scholarship; much of the criticism and theory produced in the last thirty years is missing. A general scholar of literature would gain a strange impression of the fantasy field as a whole, and certainly not a particularly accurate description of how it stands in terms of criticism, or even definitions, in 2021. Armitt certainly makes several thought-provoking and valuable points regarding a range of texts, but regrettably, these points alone are not enough to support the implied claim of the title.

Audrey Isabel Taylor is Assistant Professor of English at Sul Ross State University, Rio Grande College. Her first book, Patricia A. McKillip and the Art of Fantasy World-Building, came out in 2017, and she is at work on a second on science fiction author Anne McCaffrey.

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