Review: The Fantasy Literature of England

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.

Review: Here Be Dragons

Here be DragonsHere Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985.

Summary: The first of the Welsh Princes Trilogy set in the early 13th century, this book explores the conflict between John, the King of England, and Llewelyn, who sought to unify a divided Wales against the English threat. Their lives are intertwined by the daughter of John, Joanna, who becomes the wife of Llewelyn, finding herself torn between loves for father and husband, then husband and son.

From youthful conflicts while in the house of an English lord through the rest of his life Llewelyn knew that the English were a threat. Yet Wales was hopelessly divided in clan warfare. Meanwhile, John, the youngest son of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, through ruthless shrewdness comes to the throne of England and Norman France. He, too, is caught in a continuous battle for survival with rival lords on both sides of the channel and with Philip, the king of France. The wars of John allow young Llewellyn to begin to unite Wales and establish his own power, and it becomes clear that while Llewelyn is under the sovereignty of John, the two must contend with each other.

Into this volatile mix enters Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of John. When her mother dies, she is welcomed into John’s court, finding herself loved and accepted as John’s daughter. Yet to be the daughter of a powerful house is to be a resource for political alliances, which results in her being betrothed at fourteen to Llewelyn, whose first wife has died after giving him a son Gruffydd, as well as daughters. Over time, a political marriage turns into a deep, yet complicated love and results in adding a daughter, Elen, and son, Davydd to the family.

Joanna must wrestle with the conflict between her love for John and Llewelyn and this is sorely tried when the two are at war, nowhere worse than when her intercession for Welsh hostages results in saving only Llewelyn’s son Gruffydd, while over twenty others, some children, are ruthless hanged. The conflict is even more complicated because Gruffydd, the firstborn, is the rival for her own son Davydd, to lead a united Wales when Llewelyn dies. These conflicts will both try Joanna’s soul and her marriage.

Penman has written an absorbing story that teases out of the mists of history a narrative that explores the complexities of loyalty and conflict, of nobility and ruthlessness, that can run through the character of a person. It explores the questions of how far love and loyalties may be tried before they turn to resentment and hate. Perhaps what engaged me most was the rich and nuanced dialogue between various characters, most notably Llewelyn and Joanna, as they threaded their way through the necessities, conflicts, and sometimes broken trusts that occur in human relationships. This made for a great summer read and has me on the lookout for copies of the second and third parts of the trilogy, titled Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning.

Review: The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453

The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453
The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453 by Desmond Seward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you heard of the Hundred Years Wars but don’t have a clue as to when they occurred in history and who fought them? Although written some time ago (1978), this is a readable account of the series of wars, raids, and truces during which England nearly conquered France but ended up with a bankrupt treasury–a salutary tale.

This isn’t just an account of “one damn battle after another” yet it gives good accounts of Crecy, Agincourt, and the final fall of the English in Normandy and Guyenne. We also meet a parade of fascinating figures including Henry V, Charles II, the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Bedford, and Joan of Arc.

Two dominant impressions. One is that the war made a number of English nobles rich at the cost of the French as well as the English treasury. The other is that the rise and fall of the English in France can be traced to weaponry–the use of longbow archers by the English in ascendancy, and the development of artillery by the French before the English that led to their downfall.

This is history in the vein of Barbara Tuchman–not academic history, but history that is a good read and gives one a basic sense of the personalities and the flow of events during this time. This work is still in print in paper and a great introduction.

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