Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Michael Drout: Making Sense of Fantasy Literature.

Charles Gramlich, a Louisiana-based writer of fantasy literature, has wriiten two posts about the exotic in literature, in his blog, Razored Zen. His posts, and the the comments they prompted, have helped me in thinking out a fantasy story which is just in the beginning stages.

Fantasy as a genre has not received a great deal of attention from academics. With the exception of the Center for Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, literary scholars have too often seen popular fiction as beneath them. One major exception is Michael D. C. Drout, professor of English at Wheaton (that's Wheaton in Norton, MA, not the Christian fundamentalist school in Wheaton, IL) College. While Drout's academic specialty is Anglo-Saxon language and literature, he also teaches a class on Tolkien every two years.

Luckily, we don't have to enroll in that elite school to experience Drout's wisdom. He has a course on CD for Recorded Books' Modern Scholar Series, called "Rings, Swords, and Monsters." I was lucky enough to check it out from the public library. While it's available through Recorded Books for about $100, Barnes and Noble has it, titled, "Of Sorcerers and Men," in the Portable Professor series for less than $30.

Drout begins by trying to define fantasy literature, though his initial definition is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." He then looks at some of th Victorian precursors of fantasy: Lewis Carroll, H. Rider Haggard, George MacDonald, and others.

About half the course is on J.R.R. Tolkien, with a brief biography and lectures on The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. The Tolkien sectin concludes with a fascinating lecture on Tolkien's scholarly writings and how they affected his fantasy works.

Drout then looks at Tolkien's imitatators: the Sword of Shanara series by Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever novels. Donaldson's work is especally interesting, as his work is a sort of anti-Tolkien. Thomas Covenant is a modern-day leper, who finds himself in "The Land," a world in which he is welcomed as a liberator and where he no longer suffers from leprosy. Yet he refuses to believe in The Land. He is also very much an antihero. In the madness which overcomes him in his transition from one world to another, he rapes a woman who has taken an interest in him. Even though he's far less appealing than Tolkien's Frodo, Thomas Covenant is still derivative of Tolkien, as the maps in the book and the description of The Land show.

A lecture on "worthy successors" follows, focusing on Ursula La Guin and Robert Holdstock. Drout goes on to discuss children's fantsy, including the Harry Potter books, Arthurian fantasy, and magical realism.

For anyone trying to write fantasy, or just to make sense of the genre, Drout's lectures are well worth the investment.


Lisa said...

This is really good stuff. I'd always thought it odd that nobody in the academic community was teaching any genre fiction, so I'm relieved to know that someone is. Fantasy fiction isn't my genre of choice, but like almost everyone else in the world, I have read Tolkien and probably a few other books by others over the years. This is a great post!

Anonymous said...

Steve, great post. My husband is a fantasy/sci fi reader and he's read both the Sword of Shanara series and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He frequently pushes them at me but alas, my own towering pile of books always comes first.

Anyway, he took a class (years ago) in college that focused on literary-science-fiction. Now I've read your post, I'm curious and I want to go dig up his old readings from the crawl space.