- The Cultural Geography of Fantasy Britain
The four British fantasists of this study—Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper—have all made tremendous contributions to what Tolkien called the "cauldron of story." Charles Butler's study is worthy of his subject. Four British Fantasists explores in illuminating detail, and with an acute and appreciative critical eye, the role history and culture have played in shaping each writer's sensibility, not in order to make bald claims about "influence," but to consider the situatedness of fantasy in its historical, cultural, and geographical context.
Fantasy is always in part about setting—much of the pleasure of The Lord of the Rings for the true fan, for example, is wandering the paths and exploring the groves of Middle Earth; part of the success of Peter Jackson's films is attributable to their rich rendering of those landscapes and dwellings. It is fitting, therefore, that Charles Butler highlights the importance of place in the works of Lively, Garner, Jones, and Cooper. For them, as Butler shows, geography is even more crucial than it is in the average fantasy novel. For each novelist is inspired by the geography of Britain in particular, and each uses its man-made and natural land-scape features to reflect on the presence of the past, and to consider the relation of human beings to their environments.
The book is organized thematically. The first chapter, "Contexts and Connections: Four Fantasists," details the reasons these authors should be considered together, although they didn't necessarily know one another, they read different subjects at university, and some made efforts not to read one another's work until their own was completed. Butler makes a convincing case that in spite of these differences these authors' similarities allow us to understand their work more intelligently, appreciatively. Rather than seeking to establish reductive causal relationships, Butler asserts that "through cultivating a sensitivity to the cultural, historical, social, and even personal contexts within which these authors have worked we can provide illuminating ways of reading them, [End Page 251] individually and as a group" (31). Coincidences of birth, education, and orientation draw these writers together: they were all children during World War II, they were all at Oxford during the 1950s when C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien taught there, and they "share a profound concern with time, myth, magic, the nature of personal identity, and the potency of place" (7). Wartime childhood is always traumatic; Garner, Jones, and Cooper have all said that the war made them writers concerned with themes such as the struggle between good and evil, the instability of life, and the fragility of trust. Butler's extensive reading and research into each author's autobiographical, nonfiction, and adult writings richly establishes the connections and demonstrates each author's awareness of her or his inspiration. As well, he considers autobiographical accounts of their experiences and traces how those experiences are translated, through imagery and event, into the stuff of fantasy.
Butler's very useful discussion of the influence of Oxford as a place and a university reinforces the notion that all these fantasists are "heirs," in a limited sense, to Tolkien and Lewis, but that they are also independent and aesthetically quite distinct. Oxford's "history, its architecture, its inexplicable but jealously-upheld customs, its hidden courts and walled gardens, its combination of industrial town and ivory tower" (15) clearly influence the construction of these authors' secondary worlds. But the direct influence of Tolkien and Lewis is not so clearcut as many have assumed. Jones attended lectures by both professors and acknowledges that "they taught us to believe in dragons" (15). Oxford's English Literature reading list emphasized Old Norse, Old English, and Middle English texts, whose bestiaries, social structures, and language have provided inspiration for countless fantasies. However, as Butler shows, despite the surface similarities between Tolkien's Middle Earth and the allusions to Norse and Welsh...