Allegorical narratives

The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century by Maria Sachiko Cecire. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

Mid 20th-century Oxford from a British Railways promotional poster

She begins in Oxford in the interwar years when Tolkien and C S Lewis were writing the English syllabus with an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon and medieval texts as suitable grounding for literature students; in this she makes clear that they were trying to resist modernist movements instigating literary and social changes. What she calls the Oxford School of Children’s Fantasy Literature included not just Lewis and Tolkien but also a later generation of English students who would go on to be formative in fantasy’s development — Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman and, to a lesser extent, Roger Lancelyn Green, another Inkling. The Oxford dons’ influence would also extend to those not in the English department, such as Alan Garner, Richard Adams and Penelope Lively.

What this syllabus did was to invest medieval English literature (Beowulf, Chaucer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and so on) with an importance that fed into fantasy — initially fantasy for children such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The fact that both Tolkien and Lewis wrote influential books for younger readers meant they reinforced the conviction that “modern children’s culture is premised on the child’s supposed capacity to bring enchantment into everyday life and the primeval into the present, often as part of the same process” (18) and, as the opening show of the 2012 London Olympics emphasised, reading this genre provided “formative building blocks in the constitution of the self,” providing a foundation for adult identity.

Cecire acknowledges fantasy as a “literature of desire” (30), identifying “power in triviality and consequence in seeming inconsequence” (35). Moreover it “does not have to contain an intended moral” (as, say, Victorian children’s literature often did) “but its status as knowingly not-real seems to invite interpretive reading to make sense of the gaps between the impossible and the possible” (44).

Having established its origins and its power to enchant, the author outlines the kind of golden age that followed in which authors from the antimodernist Oxford School and their imitators emphasised British — and more particularly, English — culture, history and traditions as foundational for fantasy, tropes which would have huge influence beyond the island’s shores. In her third chapter Cecire follows on from her observation that children feature as “trans-historical travelers” (64) by pointing out their centrality in the invented tradition that is the modern feast of Christmas, a holiday period which has become a mishmash of Dickensian make-believe where everybody becomes child-like, in which an idealised and enthroned childhood is privileged above all. The modern Christmas is accorded an “affective authenticity” (162) which she describes as

“the sensation of something being emotionally true, even if it is not empirically true. These are the truths that Lewis and Tolkien argued are the most important in life, beyond facts and beyond time.”

But all through these three chapters a growing unease becomes increasingly evident: the context is the loosening of what the author identifies as the hegemony of Anglo-American geographical empires and their replacement by what Churchill termed “empires of the mind” (175) based on language and influence, all the time “affirming racial and gender hierarchies”: as medievalist English-language fantasy rushed in to buttress Anglo-American empires of the mind concepts like a multi-racial Europe of the Middle Ages created cognitive dissonance in the minds of those wedded to “the new model of Anglo-American imperial domination in the twilight of empire”, a model which she suggests “laid the groundwork for heroic visions of ‘geek’ masculinity in the information age.”

The heart of Cecire’s critique is a measured and justifiable polemic about how spaces in fiction and culture modelled around childhood are fixated on what she identifies as the image, frozen in time, of the innocent, white Romantic child within a colonialist bildungsroman, an image as misleading as the imaginary, often otherworldly, Middle Ages dominating much the genre. In a postcolonialist world, she intimates, these alternative worlds and times (“outside of real-world time”) allow Anglo-American writers and readers to envision a pretend “trajectory of national growth” (205); often this involves defeating an evil empire, a scenario that unfortunately echoes the neoconservative, ‘neomedievalist’ International Relations (IR) theory that rose to prominence after 9/11, encapsulated by the ill-judged crusading meme from George W Bush’s so-called War on Terror.

From fantasy’s foundational white magic Cecire studies the self-help movement that developed in the late 20th century and which often featured the Inner Child (the “therapeutic child”) sought out in the quest for self-improvement. This search, she suggests, may have arisen from fraying social bonds because of challenges from identity categories (race, ethnicity, worker status, for example) to established communal institutions. While self-help could morph into selfishness and, ultimately, neoliberalism, the Inner Child archetype found its concomitant in children’s fantasy, a genre that could foster allegorical spaces for personal quests and self-realisation.

More recently developments in the genre have exhibited what has been labelled postirony, allowing fantasy to convey enchantment without succumbing to naïveté (Cecire cites the several manifestations of Game of Thrones as a ready example). Even though postironic and postmodern fantasy warns against letting children’s fiction “unduly shape readers’ identities and life expectations” she notes it has the capacity to “convey important affective experiences like enchantment, pleasure, and joy” (256). From a genre that rose against a background of white exceptionalism, post-imperialism and neocolonialism, laden with raced and gendered assumptions, fantasy has embraced diversity, postmodernism and postirony to allow a broad range of readers to feel at home in fictional cultures that are neither (as Lee Konstintinou is quoted, 248-9) “uncritically earnest [nor] naively nostalgic”.

This reader went from recognising the historical context from which modern fantasy arose to feeling guilty about enjoying books which implicitly subscribed to its insular, misogynistic and racially prejudiced roots, and then on to acknowledging the core worth that fictional enchantment represents. Re-Enchanted is, I’d maintain, essential reading for personal and group discourse about not only the genre’s rise but also its future in a world that seems more fragmented despite being more linked up than can have been imagined a century ago. I’ll leave the final words to the author herself, words which seem to me to encapsulate the continued draw and consolation of epic or High Fantasy in its varied manifestations for many of its fans:

“This is the work that fantasy can do: providing in seemingly timeless terms an allegorical narrative that reflects the striving of everyday people […] defeating not only external dangers but also the internal, psychological ones that haunt a society.” (169)

* * * * *

I’m pleased to report that, in a closely argued and well referenced complex text I noted only two slips, and both those curious for being spelling mistakes: ‘Malcom’ for Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage protagonist Malcolm; and ‘Waverly’ for Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels.

16 thoughts on “Allegorical narratives

    1. For me it wasn’t an easy read, not for its language and intellectual content but for its challenge to unthinking assumptions; it mayn’t affect other readers in a similar way, however.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. piotrek

    Sounds interesting. I’m not against challenging the classical interpretation, I quite liked Moorcock’s “Wizardry and Wild Romance”. I’ve been looking for sth that would argue this approach without deteriorating into militancy, and you review suggest this might be it 🙂


    1. I wouldn’t say this was militancy, just doing what scholarship should do, in this case looking critically into the relationship between social history, culture and genre literature. I found it a stimulating study, both realigning my viewpoint whilst affirming Oxford School fantasy’s ability to comfort, console and encourage compassion (among other things). I must look out that Moorcock now!


    1. From my review Piotrek thought it sounded militant but I found it a welcome corrective and ultimately a seal of approval for fantasy’s potential, particularly for psychological wellbeing. Certainly timely!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating. I’m glad that ultimately a case was made for the development of fantasy – for a while I was beginning to worry! I can see that parts of this must make for uncomfortable reading but it does sound worthwhile. The title suggests a focus on children’s fantasy but perhaps the field is wider? Game of Thrones, for example, doesn’t fit into my idea of children’s fantasy. I’ve made a note of the book for when I feel sufficiently focused to do it justice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The field is indeed wider, Sandra: Cecire points out that though Tolkien and Lewis ventured early into children’s fantasy, with the baton taken up eagerly by their immediate successors, but she does discuss many other authors of adult fantasy, with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy coming in for particular mention near the end — and those books are anything but children’s fiction!

      Liked by 1 person

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