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  • The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story
  • Clyde B. Northrup

There is in fantasy criticism what we might call a "great divide"-a recognizable point where the direction of criticism changes. This is not to say that all criticism before or after this point is strictly the same; rather, we would say that at this particular moment in the criticism of fantasy literature, to use an old metaphor, there is a "fork in the road," and straddling this juncture is the critical work of Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov's structuralist/formalist approach to defining the fantastic ties it directly to the real, or the expectations of both character in the text and reader outside the text toward what is real and what is fantastic. The fantastic, for Todorov, becomes "that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event" (25) or, more simply, a character or reader when confronted by something that appears to come from outside of the character's/reader's normal reality. In other words, is that ghost that I think I see an actual supernatural phenomenon- a product of physical laws not yet understood, or am I simply imagining it? While the character/reader remains in this state of confusion, the fantastic operates, and once the character/reader decides or discovers that the ghost is actually a sheet hanging over a coat rack and stirred by the night breeze, the fantastic moment ends. The other possibility is that the character/reader is somehow deranged or perhaps drugged, thinking that the hallucination he sees is in reality a ghost. Thus, the fantastic is subject to some notion or idea of the real and any sort of violation of this view of reality signals a fantastic moment. [End Page 814]

This description is perhaps an oversimplification of Todorov's idea of the fantastic but will serve for the moment. Critics of fantasy who follow Todorov, for the most part, use his definition of the fantastic as either a foundation for their own examination of fantasy or a touchstone that allows them to move in their own direction. One example should illustrate this idea. Shortly after the translation of Todorov's work into English, fantasy critic Eric Rabkin proposed that things become fantastic from a particular perspective: "The fantastic does more than extend experience; the fantastic contradicts perspectives" (4). The fantastic element occurs when "the perspectives enforced by the ground rules of the narrative world must be diametrically contradicted" (8). This perspective enforced by the ground rules is related to Coleridge's idea of the "willing suspension of disbelief" (2: 6) that allows us, for the moment, to accept the supernatural events presented in a text. Rabkin goes on to call this diametric contradiction of the ground rules the "dis-expected" (9) and later adds that the "fantastic is a direct reversal of ground rules, and therefore is in part determined by those ground rules" (14-15). We can see echoes in Rabkin of the Todorovian fantastic, although the real in Rabkin becomes the real established by the fantastic narrative.

A second, and more important for my purpose, result of this turning point in fantasy criticism is the exclusion of a whole category of fantasy literature. Because the Todorovian fantastic is subject to the real, or perhaps a violation of the real, fantasy that creates its own, independent world, has no place within Todorov's framework. This type of fantasy, called by Colin Manlove "secondary world" fantasy, or as I will call it, Tolkienian fairy-story, after the most important fantasy author and critic of the twentieth century, has for its roots the medieval romance, which may go far to explain its marginalized position in contemporary criticism. From Samuel Johnson's early comments against romance in The Rambler1 to Edmund Wilson's infamous review of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,2 literary critics continue to dismiss these works as juvenile, not worthy of serious critical attention. Owing to Todorov's definition of the fantastic, fantasy critics, generally, continue to ignore secondary world, or Tolkienian, fantasy, excluding from their critical gazes the nineteenth-century pioneers of the genre-George MacDonald...


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