Brian Attebery aims to explore the "strategies of presentation and development" in fantasy, the strategies whereby fantasy can "reinvent narrative and all of its components," and the "strategies for reading fantasy." In many ways, usually illuminating and ever thoughtful, he succeeds.
The first chapter, "Fantasy as Mode, Genre, and Formula," situates the inquiry. Between fantasy as a broad mode touching all art to some degree and fantasy as rigid formula, Attebery sees fantasy as the genre whose history "may be viewed as the story of the imposition of one particular set of restrictions on the mode of the fantastic." The prototype of this "fuzzy set" is the work of Tolkien. While this focus is narrower than some might wish, one must admire the grace with which the argument flows through excellent but often slighted novels and much modern theory, demonstrating how the challenges this genre raises create new opportunities for understanding art and its uses.
In "Is Fantasy Literature? Tolkien and the Theorists," Attebery suggests that the modern critical privileging of reportage over romance devalues fantasy. In close analyses of other critics' work, he offers ways of enriching their theories by revaluing the artistic uses of a traditional discourse and structure, that of the fairy tale.
"Fantasy and Postmodernism" posits a natural alliance between these equally inventive urges. While this is not news, it does suggest that the current theoretical ferment includes consideration of self-reflexive and self-destructive works by affinity rather than accident. Attebery then reminds us, however, that the fairy tale's required comic resolution distinguishes much Postmodern art from his fantasy genre.
"Fantasy and Narrative Conventions: Story" and "Fantasy and Narrative Conventions: Character" suggest what we can learn in general about the [End Page 999] handling of time and character development by including fantasy in our critical purview. Time is revealed as the pattern of narrative itself, rather than an external chronology, and the richest character development embodies a tension, using Greimas' terms, between character as actant, interesting only for its narrative role, and character as actor, interesting only for its individuality.
"Women's Coming of Age in Fantasy" shows how that developmental tension parallels the problem of inventing initiation stories for women in a society that traditionally denies them transformative rites. This insight goes far toward explaining the attraction of fantasy for female authors.
"Science Fantasy" shows how the inherent tension between material and psychological concerns in this hybrid of science fiction and fantasy both typically produces humor and has come to challenge the dominance of science as a "megatext" for writing and functioning in our world.
Finally, "Recapturing the Modern World for the Imagination" discusses "indigenous fantasies" that bring myth and story back into our lives, works like John Crowley's Little, Big, crafted at once from the traditions of fantasy and of realism. Such fantasies, Attebery argues, offer us rejuvenation and growth beyond the capability of realism alone. His joyful, logical arrival at this conclusion is the sort of "eucatastrophe," redemptive outcome, that Tolkien would applaud.