The Lands Within
(This article was originally published to coincide with the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007)
Like most readers, I remember the moment when the possibilities of fiction were revealed to me. I was five, or just possibly six, that difficult age when children are too old for picture books but too young to read novels on their own, and so my mother began to read me The Hobbit each night before bed.
No doubt it was still light outside on some of the nights, but in my memory it is dark, my mother’s voice in the pool of lamplight leading me on and on, deeper into the forests and caves of Mirkwood and the Mountains of the Moon, giving breath to the spiders and the elves, to hissing Gollum and finally to the great dragon, Smaug.
In the years that followed I began to read on my own. I’m sure that reading was as disordered as any child’s, but as time passed I found other books that seemed to speak to me in the same way The Hobbit had. Susan Cooper, C.S Lewis, The Odyssey, Joseph Jacobs’ collections of English, Celtic and Indian fairy tales, The Thousand and One Nights, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Penelope Lively, and eventually, inevitably, The Lord of the Rings.
I suppose there’s nothing unusual in this: the worlds of these stories are ones which have provided children with wonder and delight for generations. And yet what I loved about them was more than the escape they offered me. They seemed to offer access to worlds that were in many ways more real than this one, places which made sense in some way reality didn’t, or which made sense of reality in a way other books didn’t. By the time I was sixteen I read fantasy and science fiction exclusively, and to be frank found the attraction others found in books set in the here and now a little baffling.
But about the time I started university I stopped reading fantasy. The easy answer as to why would be to say my tastes matured, became more adult, but that wasn’t quite it. Rather I found there were other kinds of writing – literary fiction, poetry, historical fiction – which offered me things I wasn’t finding in the fantasy and science fiction I’d read almost exclusively until then.
All the same, certain of the books I had loved as a child or a teenager continued to exercise a powerful hold over my imagination. Some, like the Earthsea novels are books I have read and reread many times, both as a child and as an adult, each time with renewed pleasure. Others – Tolkien in particular – I have become increasingly unwilling to go back to, not because I am embarrassed by my former infatuation with them, but for fear of not finding in them the wonder they once held, of breaking something I have no desire to lose.
None of this, I suppose, is unusual. One only has to look past the media circus surrounding the Harry Potter books to see both children and adults losing themselves in Rowling’s imaginary world, and – despite my reservations about them – finding the same sense of possibility in giving rein to their imaginations; or to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to see once more the way these imagined worlds seem to speak to some older part of ourselves, something stark, and wild, and strange.
And yet for all their allure there is something strangely inadequate about these sorts of explanations, some sense they beg a deeper question, one about what precisely it is we respond to in these stories, whether it is as children, or perhaps more crucially, as adults. Stories don’t happen in a vacuum, after all. Creatures of the cultures that make them, they hold within themselves that culture’s reflection, speak to its anxieties and aspirations. Understanding where they come from, why they speak to us, requires more than the invocation of seemingly magical notions of imagination and story.
Perhaps not surprisingly much discussion of fantasy begins in that of the myths and folklores it outwardly resembles, and from which so many of its elements are drawn. The connection is a tempting one, and one that has been made many times, but as with science fiction’s endless search for a foundational text in the works of the seventeenth and eighteenth century it is ultimately a misguided quest.
Rather fantasy begins – and in some sense ends – in The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia might have preceded it in a chronological sense, but Tolkien’s opus draws a line under the various forms and works which came before it, even as it threads them into itself, and it is Tolkien’s creation which informs all that comes after it. Part fairy tale, part creation myth for a world which never really existed outside of Tolkien’s own imagination, part something so strange and unwieldy and improbable that even now we have difficulty assimilating it into our sense of what literature is, it is at once wonderful, terrible and hugely problematic.
As a teenager I reread The Lord of the Rings more times than I care to remember, and so did most of my friends. There was then – as there plainly is now – some consuming quality to it, like wandering into a maze and finding oneself lost inside of it. I had a poster of the map from the frontispiece on my wall, and I still remember the way I would lie on my bed and stare at it, tantalized by the way it echoed the map of Europe and yet stubbornly refused to resolve into it. Sometimes I would try and construct scenarios to explain the differences, Lyellesque fantasies of passing ice ages and geological transformation.
In retrospect there seems something curiously telling in my inability to accept the world I found in the novels was merely imaginary, in the seemingly inescapable sense that Tolkien’s world drew its sustenance, its very reality from our own. In part it was a function of its completeness. Tolkien, like some literary (or indeed literal) obsessive-compulsive set out to explain the world of the books in minute detail, granting it a verity other, less coherently imagined worlds lack. But more important was the way Tolkien’s novels, his languages, the very textures of Middle Earth have the feel of half-remembered myth, of stories drawn from some deep well of memory.
It’s this sense of reaching back, into deeper meanings and older stories, into the archetypal and inchoate shapes of myth and fairy tale which distinguishes fantasy from its similarly disreputable stablemate, science fiction. For despite the obvious commercial and thematic blurring between the two they are at root concerned with very different things. Where fantasy seeks the wellsprings of the human imagination, offering us creation myths, seeking to reunite us with an idea of ourselves and the world which technology has taken from us, science fiction is preoccupied with the idea of the human condition, of exploring the present by refracting it through possible futures, and with the possibilities of the technology fantasy seeks to slip free of.
And yet the two are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin. Writing at about the time of the release of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, the critic Jenny Turner argued that it is possible to see Tolkiens’ opus as standing in opposition to the entire project of twentieth century literature, a weird, slightly compulsive response to the same pressures of modernity which gave rise to Joyce, Woolf and Eliot. In its retreat into the enclosing, occultish hermeticism of its languages and histories it is an expression of the same terrors of total war, rapid industrialization and social change that Joyce turned the novel inside out to try and make comprehensible in words, an equal and opposite reaction to the same condition.
There’s something curiously persuasive about this idea of fantasy as the mirror image of modernism. Profoundly and irretrievably traumatised by his experiences on the Western Front, it’s easy to see how Tolkien might have sought to retreat from the world of his time, to seek safety in another, older world, one which drew upon the reservoirs of folklore in which he was steeped. Nor would he have been alone in trying to find shape for the present’s capacity to exceed its own representation in the stories of the past: Joyce did the same with Greek myth, Pound drew upon Chinese ideograms, and elsewhere Picasso and Modigliani sought new forms in what they perceived as the primitive and timeless forms of tribal art.
But to speak about fantasy in this way is to understand not just something about the social conditions that give rise to it as a literary mode, but to glimpse why it remains so immune to meaningful discussion. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that there is little critical writing concerned with fantasy which succeeds at giving voice to what is so enthralling about it. Tracing out the origins of the languages in Tolkien, mapping the theology in C.S. Lewis, pinning down the koan-like dualities and verities in Le Guin, all have their pleasures for the slightly-too-involved, but they tell us little about what it is which is magical, what it is that resonates so powerfully with readers of all ages in these often awkwardly written tales of sword and sorcery.
Freud of course wrote that because the writer is themselves often drawing upon unconscious fantasies and terrors, so the stories they create provide us with places in which we might experience our own, yet similar fantasies without fear of shame or self-reproach. And indeed seen through a Freudian lens, the appeal of fantasy somehow seems less opaque. We give ourselves over to it because by doing so we are able to live out fantasies, often rooted in childhood, that would otherwise be forbidden. Its weirdness is our weirdness, the shapes of the stories it recycles embody fantasies we want in our most darkest and most secret places to be true.
But this is only half the story. Harold Bloom once observed that The Lord of the Rings put him in mind of The Book of Mormon, and though it was its cultish weirdness he had in mind his remark is insightful in another way. Stories serve functions, they give shape to our world, their words making comprehensible things we all need answers for. Irrespective of their basis in fact, they speak to the same eternal questions in every culture, whether the story is Adam and Eve, the Dreaming or modern science’s creation myths about big bangs and broken symmetries. They tell us who we are, where we come from, where we will go.
In a culture which seems increasingly disconnected from the idea of the past, one where the systems of belief which once made sense of the eternal questions of human nature seem ever less relevant, fantasy offers us ways of approaching these questions imaginatively, of understanding what the answers to them might be. At its best fantasy has a capacity to connect us to things we too often seem to have lost, to make these deep questions somehow comprehensible, making us feel as if we are somehow connected to the past, to a way of being which might, like the outlines of the map of Middle Earth that once hung on my bedroom wall, reside somewhere in the shadow of our own past.
It’s possible the millions of readers who will spend the weeks ahead reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows aren’t seeking answers of this sort. And indeed I’m not sure they would find them if they were. Rowling is not Le Guin, nor even Pullman, but neither do I think she seeks to be. Despite their gestures towards seriousness her books remain essentially diversions. Their terrors are not real, there are no depths to plumb, no shocks of recognition. There is no desire to create an alternative cosmogony, as in Tolkien’s work, no argument with God, nor exaltation of the human as in His Dark Materials.
A cynic might suggest that in this they are a brand of fiction tailor-made for the contemporary world, but to me that seems only half the truth. Readers respond to them, and their response is genuine. Instead I suspect they are experiencing that same thing I experienced when my mother read The Hobbit aloud to me so many years ago, that sense of stepping outside themselves, into another place. And in so doing they are following fiction back to its source, its source in our capacity to make sense of the world and of the human through the exercise of the imagination. For as Ursula Le Guin has observed, “The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases. And some are more enduring.”
© James Bradley, 2009. A version of this article was originally published in The Australian Literary Review.