- A Fuzzy Genre:Two Views of Fantasy
It is an indication of how easily books significant to the field of children's literature can escape critical notice that Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy has been unreviewed to date in the standard children's literature journals. And yet Attebery's earlier work, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (1980), is one of the important early works of fantasy scholarship, and most, dare I say almost all, of those who work with children's literature end up teaching and even writing about fantasy in some guise or other. They should welcome Attebery's latest contribution to fantasy scholarship for a number of reasons.
Perhaps the most important one is that in his discussion of fantasy and "science fantasy" Attebery includes a number of children's books, giving them equal status with adult works in terms of complexity and sophistication. As he remarks of Diana Wynne Jones's fire and Hemlock,
This fantasy, so intricately constructed as to defy summary; so full of metafictional devices; so Proustian, one might say, in its transformations of sequence, order, and duration . . . was published for young readers. If such readers are sufficiently well read to recognize its use of the fairy tale structure of quest and qualified happy ending, they should have no trouble in either following the tale to its conclusion or in absorbing its lessons in narrative art. Like Tolkien, Jones is educating her audience.(64)
Attebery is able to bypass much of what troubles those who struggle with the definition of children's literature or canonical questions such as that raised by Peter Hunt when he talks about books that were for children versus books that are for children. That is because Attebery [End Page 202] views genre in general, and the fantasy genre (and its subgenres) in particular, as "fuzzy sets, meaning that they are defined not by boundaries but by a center . . . a book on the fringes may be considered as belonging or not, depending on one's interests. . . . Furthermore, there may be no single quality that links an entire set" (12-13). And children's literature critics who are engaged in the defense of children's literature both as a legitimate academic subject and as a genre that has produced works that deserve inclusion in the canon of great literature can find further arguments for their cause in Attebery's critically sophisticated introduction and first chapter. His defense of fantasy as a genre that deserves serious consideration is based not only on the direction in which recent fantasy seems headed but on theoretical discussions of narrative such as "Gérard Genette's analysis of time, Seymour Chatman's redefinition of character, Bakhtin's . . . theory of the dialogic nature of the novel, Hirsch and Abel's identification of primarily feminine patterns of narrative development, [and] structural and post-structural modes of analysis" (viii).
Attebery's first two chapters appear to be the only ones that have not been reworked from earlier talks and articles, and it is in them that he is at his most theoretical. In the first, "Fantasy as Mode, Genre, Formula," he works at pinning down and defining fantasy both as an evolving fuzzy genre and as a storytelling formula. In the second, "Is Fantasy Literature? Tolkien and the Theorists," Attebery addresses as the fantasy "prototype," the center, or at least the original center, from which fantasy radiates, backwards and forwards in time as well as outward, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Here he looks at critical treatments of the works, positive and negative and representing different schools of thought, such as Rosemary Jackson's Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981), Christine Brooke-Rose's A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Thomas Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth (1983), and Don D. Elgin's "ecological reading" (32), The Comedy of the Fantastic...