The Fantasy Literature of England, Colin Manlove. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2020 (first published in 1999).
Summary: A study focusing on and surveying the fantasy literature of England, distinguishing it from that of other countries, identifying six types, and discussing a tremendous variety of writers.
For most of us, when we hear of English fantasy, we think of J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or Charles Williams. If we think further, we might include Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne and George MacDonald (actually Scottish). Also, we tend not to think of English fantasy having a particular character. This book opens up our bibliography of English authors far beyond the few I’ve mentioned. And the author maintains that there is a particular character to English fantasy distinguishing it from other countries.
To begin, Manlove defines fantasy as “a fiction involving the supernatural or impossible,” fitting what he sees as an English preoccupation with the supernatural. Beyond this simple definition, Manlove identifies six types that define the structure of the book, one chapter on each. First of all, there is second world fantasy, the outstanding example of which is The Lord of the Rings. Metaphysical fantasy involves the presence of the supernatural. Charles Williams novels are a good example. The third type is emotive fantasy is characterized as works that evoke feelings from wonder to horror, from Kenneth Grahame to M.R. James (who wrote ghost stories). Comic fantasy involves “parody, satire, nonsense or play. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is a recent example. The fifth follows, subversive fantasy, reflects the rise of postmodernism and the fixities of reason, morality, or reality. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is an example of this type. Children’s fantasy is his last type. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
For each type, Manlove surveys the literature from its earliest examples to the most contemporary (in his case, the late 1990’s). He explores both themes under each type and offers brief descriptions of a number of the works. With many authors, there is overlap, and they will turn up in the discussion of several types. This can be dizzying at times, keeping track of the various authors and themes. I was unfamiliar with many of the works, which I think would help in following the discussion.
Manlove draws together the threads of these different types and summarizes the distinctives of English fantasy. His first conclusion is the sheer diversity of material, a fact not appreciated by many readers including this one. There is an expansiveness to this literature, an emphasis on the social circle (the fellowship of the ring), a general inclination away from ambiguity, the conquest of chaos by order, and an ultimately conservative character.
There are several things I wish the author would have done. Some subheadings in chapters might have made following the thread of his discussion easier amid the avalanche of authors discussed. While authors are listed in the text and index, a bibliography of authors, perhaps by the types would be very useful to readers. Finally, the book could no doubt use an updating, for Harry Potter alone!
Nevertheless, I came away with a number of new ideas for authors to explore. I appreciated the distinctions of type, and Manlove opened my eyes to the national character of fantasy literature. This is a good resource both for scholars and readers of fantasy literature wanting to go deeper in reading the literature of England.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.