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"Reality is traditionally a protean concept," write the editors of The Scope of the Fantastic, posing the crucial question of these studies, the relations of fantasy to realism and its assumed object. The ambiguity of the sentence—is reality a concept, and why do we feel free to ignore the distinction?—suggests that realism is out of the race from the start. But if "literature equals realism" leaves fantasy without a critical place, "literature equals fantasy" does the same. If reality is protean, then coherent sentences, this review itself, are fantastic. Escape becomes the inescapable move.
The essays in The Scope of the Fantastic, thirty-two in all, make up a major discussion of the nature and uses of fantasy. Several critical approaches come into play, as do many levels of competence, many authors beyond the usual names of Tolkien and company—Hoffmann, Cortázar, Martín Gaite, Schnitzler, Potocki. Fantasy, realism, and reality run in tension, like guy wires, throughout. Eric Rabkin's Introduction, the conference keynote paper, makes the wholly sensible point that fantasy resurrects old patterns of writing and experience. It "creates an illusion" of the absolutely new and "shows it . . . to be the old world," thus containing our fear of the unknown. Realism, one might respond, creates the illusion of familiarity and unearths the unexpected novelty of the everyday. Stephen Prickett makes a point complementary to Rabkin's: fantasy shows other worlds in order to show the strangeness of this one. The problem with allegory, as Macdonald and Tolkien complained, is that it is "not fantastic enough to be true."
Peter Cersowsky suggests that modern fantasy is in principle different from traditional works in the genre, and in this notion of a "Copernican Revolution" he is joined by James D. Ziegler and John M. Lipski. Ziegler sees the change as caused by a change in "worldview"—primitive, Newtonian, Einsteinian. Lipski suggests that modern physics prepares us for a literature of the "unknowable." He does not consider, perhaps, that language, not science, is the general sign of cognitive change and that any true literature of the unknowable would be first [End Page 848] of all unsayable. William G. Plank maintains that along with science and philosophy, fantasy is merely a political validation of certain kinds of image. Here is fantasy devouring reality with a vengeance.
Plank's suggestion is tinged with the recurrent naiveté of the collection, an inclination to take the language of writing at its face value, on its own assertions about itself. Laurie Edson remarks that Michaux's fantasy travel story is as believable as his real one because in both Michaux uses an authoritative narrator. Surely this is surrendering too much to credulity. We read one as fantasy and one as real because we are reading both in a social world full of geographical facts and real anthropologies.
This naiveté is related to the constant presence of Todorov and his definition of fantasy as a hesitation among reading codes. Some writers, such as Jan Hokenson and Hans Ternes, modify or reject Todorov's formula. Many seem to feel that it is inevitable and pay obeisance. But though reading codes help to explain how we catch on that a text...