- Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth by Brian Attebery
Even a quick glance at the fantasy literature that has been written over the past century and a half is enough to realize how much the genre owes to various myths and mythologies. In his most recent book, Brian Attebery takes a more than cursory look at this relationship between myth and fantasy, exploring in detail how “fantasy, as a literary form, is a way of reconnecting to traditional myths and the worlds they generate” (9). The overall structure of the book is largely chronological, with eight chapters exploring a number of junctures on the timeline between the late eighteenth century and today. Each point offers a particular social and scholarly relation to myths and illustrates the shifts in how myths are incorporated into fantasy stories. Chapters include analytical tools and theoretical background, personal reflections, and illustrative readings of a wide range of works, mixed differently in each chapter. To some readers, this may feel jumbled or even confusing; personally, I found the variety refreshing and a useful way to draw attention to salient features of the discussion while maintaining a measure of unity between chapters.
After an introduction that sets the stage for the discussion, the opening chapter provides an illuminating overview of how the rise of fantasy literature is intertwined with the emergence of the scholarly [End Page 367] discovery of myth. The chapter explores how myths are used in fantasy’s literary precursors, looking at classical texts as well as works, for instance, by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Milton. The next chapter argues convincingly in favor of fantasy as an alternative modernist project. Its “kings, countryside, and spirituality” notwithstanding, Attebery argues, early twentieth-century fantasy should not be seen as “an anachronistic alternative to Modernism but as one of its important manifestations” (42). He illustrates his argument by relating readings of Charles Williams’s War in Heaven and Hope Mirrlee’s Lud-in-the-Mist to the work of T. S. Eliot (in particular The Waste Land) and Virginia Woolf. The third chapter discusses how George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis brought Christian motifs and symbols into their fantasy stories. Attebery draws on their works and lives to demonstrate how they reinterpret biblical narratives in fantasy form.
The following chapter presents two analytical tools that will no doubt see their way into the broader scholarly discourse around fantasy. Attebery subdivides romance into three categories with distinct story structures and audiences: the Romance of Erotic Fulfillment taps into “the desire for erotic satisfaction with a perfect mate,” the Romance of Adventure takes advantage of “the desire to perform great deeds in exotic places,” and the Romance of Hidden Identity fulfills “the desire to exchange one’s identity for a more interesting and important version of the self” (99). The second tool is the folklorist Carl Wilhelm von Sydow’s concept of the memorate, a story about a personal experience of “extraordinary or numinous forces” (5). This concept proves to be highly effective in discussing fantasy stories and it will probably see much use in future fantasy scholarship. This chapter also mounts a spirited defense of formula fiction. Observing that “critics did not know how to deal with formula, except to deplore it,” Attebery explains how good writers of formula fiction know “how to create variation within predictability and how to turn traditional structures to new purposes” (97). Although this is not a book that focuses on the analysis of formula fantasy, Attebery’s main point, that the critical distinction should be between good and sloppy use of formula rather than between formula and nonformula, is well made. That fantasy, drawing as it does on oral narratives and romance, is by necessity formulaic does not mean that it is by necessity unimaginative or predictable.
Two related chapters (5 and 7) explore the complicated issues that arise when authors take myths that belong to other cultures and use them in fantasy stories—whether authors have any right to use other cultures’ myths for entertainment and, if so, how...