Fantasy and the Fantastic
Title: Fantasy and the Fantastic
Institution: Boston University
Dates: Fall 2002, Spring 2003
Instructor: Theodora Goss, Boston University
"Fantasy and the Fantastic" was a composition course taught through the Writing Program at Boston University. The class began by focusing on fantasy, and specifically the fairy tale. We compared Lang's translation of "Beauty and the Beast" with Carter's "The Tiger's Bride," in part to establish that fantasy was a sophisticated genre and that students should expect to be challenged by the readings. To create a theoretical framework for understanding fantasy, I introduced Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," which the students found challenging indeed. Our readings during the first few weeks of the semester included the ballad "True Thomas," Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Yeats' "The Stolen Child," Dick's "The King of the Elves," Mew's "The Changeling," and Dunsany's "The Kith of the Elf-Folk." We noticed that each of these stories and poems contained both a human world and a magical world set apart from it, often geographically. In each, we were given either human characters who cross a boundary into the magical world ("True Thomas," "The Stolen Child," "The King of the Elves"), or magical characters who cross into the human world ("Goblin Market," "The Kith of the Elf-Folk"). Sometimes the story or poem involved multiple crossings, as in "The Changeling" and "The Kith of the Elf-Folk," where magical characters who cannot fit within the human world must return to Faery. Although most of these stories and poems happened in worlds that were distant from ours, worlds that students could comfortably associate with Tolkien's idea of a secondary reality, they were troubled by Dick's "The King of the Elves," which takes place in a typical American town. In each class, certain students insisted that the story was not a fairy tale, and that the gas station attendant who becomes the King of the Elves was actually mad. We discussed the idea that, although Dick's story appeared to be fantasy, we could look at it in a very different way, as a realistic story of mental breakdown. In a sense, then, the story potentially presented us with a different sort of boundary-crossing, one between genres.
Our first novel, Frankenstein, introduced us to boundary-crossing in a different way. In Frankenstein there is no magical world; instead, a creature who should only exist in a magical world, a monster, appears in the ordinary world of scientific rationality. Here, our theoretical framework was provided by Freud's "The Uncanny." Although students found this essay even more challenging than Tolkien's, we came to the conclusion that, for Freud, the uncanny occurs primarily when a magical object or event appears in our common reality. Experiencing an intrusion of the magical makes us question whether our understanding of reality is accurate: perhaps monsters do exist? At this point, I would have liked to introduce a reading from Todorov's The Fantastic. Unfortunately, I suspect that it would have been even more difficult for the class than "The Uncanny." However, I did introduce the fantastic as different from although related to fantasy, a phenomenon that occurs on the border where fantasy and reality meet, and creates in us the sensation of the uncanny that Freud describes. (At this point we recalled "The King of the Elves" and discussed whether Freud's and Todorov's theories helped our reading.) We were then able to discuss many of the novels, stories, and poems presented during the second part of the semester as belonging to the fantastic. For example, we compared Coleridge's "Christabel" with Le Fanu's Carmilla and saw that the novel was clearly influenced by the poem, but that it presented the vampiric relationship between Laura and Carmilla in a way that we would associate with the fantastic, whereas the poem more closely resembled the fantasies we had read at the beginning of the semester.
At this point in the semester we had established that both fantasy and the fantastic are centrally concerned with boundary-crossing, although in different ways, focusing primarily on the boundary between fantasy and reality. During the rest of the semester, we focused on other boundary-crossings that commonly occurred in the readings. We discussed the boundary-crossings between what we would associate with human and less-than-human, such as human and plant (Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"), human and animal (Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau and the versions of "Beauty and the Beast" with which we had begun the semester), and human and a more "primitive" version of humanity (Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, to a certain extent, Wilde's "The Birthday of the Infanta," which is concerned with the boundary between what we perceive as civilized and savage). Carmilla and Poe's "Ligeia" presented us with one of the basic boundary-crossings, between life and death. Machen's The Great God Pan brought a number of these boundary-crossings together, since Helen becomes an embodiment of boundary-crossing and herself crosses a number of these boundaries during her death. These novels and stories also allowed us to discuss the scientist, whom we had first met in Frankenstein, as a boundary-crosser, and the detective (whether professional or amateur) as the establisher of boundaries. We concluded by examining what is perhaps the most basic boundary-crossing of all: between self and other. In Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Poe's "William Wilson," Lovecraft's "The Outsider," and Mary Coleridge's "The Other Side of a Mirror," we saw that the double represents a self the central character does not want to recognize.
Throughout these discussions, I emphasized that the boundary-crossings found in fantasy and the fantastic teach us something important about our own reality. Drawing boundaries seems to be an essential human activity, since bounded categories allow us to understand the world. However, boundaries are often drawn to exclude what we fear, and they can have important consequences for our perception of the world around us, particularly when we are confronted with other cultures, as Shelley and Wells both show. And, finally, as when we look into a mirror and recognize the other as ourself, the boundaries we draw are often provisional, and more tenuous than we believe.
Anonymous, "True Thomas"
Angela Carter, "The Tiger's Bride"
Mary Coleridge, "The Other Side of a Mirror" and "The White Women"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Christabel"
Philip K. Dick, "The King of the Elves"
Lord Dunsany, "The Kith of the Elf-Folk"
Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny"
Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Rappaccini's Daughter"
John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
Andrew Lang (trans.), "Beauty and the Beast"
Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla
H.P. Lovecraft, "The Outsider"
Charlotte Mew, "The Changeling"
Authur Machen, The Great God Pan
Edgar Allan Poe, "Ligeia" and "William Wilson"
Christina Rossetti, "Goblin Market"
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Lady of Shalott"
J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"
H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau
Oscar Wilde, "The Birthday of the Infanta" and The Picture of Dorian Gray
William Butler Yeats, "The Stolen Child"