Review of Fantasies of Time and Death
Maria K. Alberto
Anna Vaninskaya. Fantasies of Time and Death: Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. Hardback. 262 pg. $159.99. ISBN 9781137518378.
Anna Vaninskaya’s Fantasies of Time and Death is nothing short of a remarkable achievement: reading it, I could see immediately why it won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in 2021. In this monograph, Vaninskaya ably draws together three major authors whose works are not often compared at such length, and she explores how each uses fantasy—a complex, retroactive term that she does not take for granted, either—to explore “shared thematic preoccupations” (4) regarding “temporality, mortality and eternity: with process, event and state” (7). Such a project entails in-depth knowledge of three dense, elaborate bodies of work, as well as the capacity to draw, discuss, and compare relevant details from each one, but Vaninskaya does this spectacularly. Moreover, her writing style is richly poetic—and frankly, gorgeous—in ways that academic scholarship does not often allow itself to be, and the end result is a work that feels thematically and technically well-matched with its subjects.
In a move that could have been risky, but that Vaninskaya pulls off very well, Fantasies of Time and Death opens right on the knotty topic of canon creation, reviewing how reader demand and publisher choices both played a critical role in the creation of fantasy as a genre, well after these three authors’ own times. Beginning here offers important historical context and demystification, and further strengthens Vaninskaya’s reasoning to group Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, and J.R.R. Tolkien on the basis of shared textual preoccupations: specifically, their various interests in “cosmopoiesis… the creation myth… [and] a multi-generic universe” (7) rather than the kinds of cohesive narrative more typical among both their predecessors and peers. The remainder of this introduction offers more focused introductions to each author and his oeuvre, then looks briefly to other writers now considered fundamental to the fantasy genre before returning to that shared interest in transience, time, and death.
Following this introduction, Vaninskaya offers a chapter apiece focused on the works, interests, and approaches of Dunsany, Eddison, and Tolkien. With Lord Dunsany, she calls attention to how he saw himself as a poet writing “a species of prose poetry” (25), which led to a “patterning impulse” (26) evident across his shorter works in particular. Subsections in this chapter are devoted to, variously, the ravages of time, the chill of space, and the uncertainty of the universe, as depicted in Dunsany’s fantasy. Across these three axes, Vaninskaya maintains, Dunsany’s fictional worlds are “literally a-gnostic. There are no epiphanies, no ultimate truths, the mythology is an anti-revelation” (44), and divine power may be glimpsed but is never fully explicated or revealed. Oftentimes, she contends, these preoccupations connect Dunsany’s works more than any shared fictional setting or returning cast of characters.
Next, Vaninskaya turns to a chapter on E.R. Eddison, and specifically his complex, unfinished Zimiamvia trilogy, in which multiple characters are incarnations of the male and female parts of God, most unaware of their divine identities. Pointing out how this work is driven by “intertextual and interlingual bricolage” (69), Vaninskaya maintains that—despite the vast universe visible here and the multifaceted pantheon driving it—readers must be willing to wade through reams of uncredited quotations and ideas. These extend well beyond poetic and prose allusions, on into a deep preoccupation with seventeenth-century philosophy: Eddison, Vaninskaya demonstrates, engages with paradoxes of God’s existence and perfection as set out by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz (115). And while the full intricacies of these readings will be at least partly lost upon those not familiar with Eddison’s sprawling work, Vaninskaya does an admirable job of summarizing this complex trilogy and drawing readers’ attention to its most startling features, whether philosophical, theological, or genre-driven.
And from here we come to the chapter that first drew my attention to Vaninskaya’s work: her discussion of Tolkien. Because Fantasies of Time and Death is not a survey, but instead looks to the foundation of each author’s oeuvre, Vaninskaya focuses here not on Tolkien’s most famous work The Lord of the Rings (1954), but instead on the natures and fates of Elves and Men as developed across his entire legendarium. Thus, this chapter deals primarily with the collection of stories, some published posthumously, called The Silmarillion, and draws specifically from the Ainulindalë (creation account of the world that includes Middle-earth), the Athrabeth (philosophical exchange between a human woman and an Elven prince), and the Akallabêth (the story of the island kingdom Númenor). Vaninskaya revisits these particular portions of Tolkien’s legendarium to argue that knowledge of time and death differs according to Elves and Men, and in fact, becomes a sort of “psychological trauma” when the world’s ultimate antagonist Melkor spreads corrupted information about them (164). Some of the connections that Vaninskaya draws outward from Tolkien’s work, such as to Augustine and Aquinas for the Catholic doctrine of mankind’s “happy fault” (173), have been more well-trod in existing scholarship than others, but overall, her discussion here is still fresh and fascinating.
Despite their evocative prose and obvious expertise, there are a few stumbling blocks to these chapters. For one thing, the authors they are dealing with can be challenging in their own right: though each one might, as Vaninskaya suggests, be creating a single, genre-spanning universe in their fiction, the coherency and accessibility of these various universes differ quite widely. Dunsany creates a variety of short works that may or may not reference one another directly; Eddison is author of a grand, sprawling trilogy that remained unfinished at his death; and Tolkien’s work is scattered across several drafts, many of them organized by his son and published posthumously in an attempted semblance of Tolkien’s larger plans. Vaninskaya herself switches between multiple texts with commendable, indeed enviable, ease, but does not always signal her intent when doing so, which could leave readers less familiar with those texts lost in a sea of references. Even this is not entirely a criticism, though, because she has a knack for summarizing and drawing out relevant pieces from these complex writings that will carry readers along regardless. All told, Vaninskaya’s work is a commendable undertaking. It can be a dense read, and one that will be made significantly more difficult without some knowledge of the source works; but it is absolutely worth it all the same.
Maria K. Alberto is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Utah, where she is currently working on her dissertation examining canons in popular culture texts. Her research interests include digital storytelling, transformative fanworks, and genre literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. She has written several pieces on Tolkien and adaptations of his legendarium.