Brian Attebery’s The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin

UnknownThe American fantasy tradition is important because fantasy is conservative. It holds ancient beliefs and insights safe within a shell of seeming inconsequence. Its roots go back beyond writing and beyond recall, but it also continues to alter as our lives change. American fantasy retells the oldest stories in new and pertinent forms and examines our national experience in a timeless context. (p. 186)

Brian Attebery begins this book with some questions you may have asked yourself. I know I have. How can there possibly be a fantasy “tradition” in America? It certainly can’t arise out of American folklore, which reflects “the national faith in ‘things as they are.'” If anything, it’s a “resistance movement” to that faith, that pragmatism Americans have been so proud of. If our native folklore cuts the fantasy writer off from the ancient roots of magical creatures, tales, and places that grow deep in the older cultures from whence Americans came, then he or she must somehow find another “archetypal analog” for America. Attebery suggests that America’s fantasy tradition is one long, slow attempt to create an “American fairyland.”

Attebery divides his survey of America’s fantasy tradition into eight sections. In the first, Chapter One, entitled “Locating Fantasy,” he begins by setting out exactly what fantasy is. What sets it apart from other kinds of fiction? Attebery offers this definition for fantasy: “prose narratives evoking wonder through the consistent treatment of the impossible as though it were possible.” In this way, fantasy differs from science fiction, which works to persuade the reader that things which seem impossible are actually scientifically explainable; i.e. they really are subject to natural law, once we understand them correctly. Surreal fiction, on the other hand, plays freely with natural law, obeying or stepping outside it at will. It lacks the component of “consistency” that is essential to fantasy; fantasy stories have their own internal laws which cannot be broken.

In Chapter Two, “Fantasy and the Folk Tradition,” Attebery demonstrates clearly that America’s folk tradition, contrary to those of other countries, has worked to eradicate any trace of the “magical.” He says,

“A general trend, since the landing of the Puritans, has been a paring away of the supernatural in those folk genres most amenable to its presence: ballads, tales, and legends. A writer who wishes to produce something both American and fantastic, and who would root his creation, as did the British fantasists, in his native lore, must move against the current, restoring what has been lost over the years or finding eddies of tradition that have resisted the general erosion of the marvelous.”

Attebery offers as examples ancient ballads which, when they came to America, were transformed. “The Marriage of Sir Gawain” evolves into a comic ballad called “The Half Hitch.” The bride in “Sir Gawain” is magically transformed. In “The Half Hitch,” she simply disguises herself with soot and rags. With rare exceptions, ballads and folk tales original to America follow the same pattern. Even “tall tales,” such as those of Paul Bunyan, are told using the tongue-in-cheek motifs of “the great local liar.”

However, in the early nineteenth century, Attebery identifies some American writers who were exploring the boundaries of the marvelous and adapting fantasy themes to their stories, which they at that time called “romances.” Chapter Three, “Belief, Legend, and Romance,” covers the work of Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, who were major writers in this early, exploratory period. Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” while it contains echoes of older European tales, takes place in a uniquely American setting. Poe does not write of fairies, but instead of monstrous people who are somehow clearly not human, and speaking crows, set in unearthly, “nightmare landscapes.” Hawthorne’s characters are tormented by unexplainable marvelous events, which pursue them until their sins find them out. Or else he tells fairy tales with a moral, such as “Feathertop” (in which a witch animates a scarecrow, who goes out into the world to seek his fortune, and returns disillusioned). Melville, while perhaps the least obvious fantasist of the four, at the same time does some truly original work in building an American tradition of the marvelous. He situates his “fairyland” in the “watery deep.” Even while Americans were busy conquering the West, they still feared the sea as an unknown quantity. Melville expanded on this fear of the unknown to create marvels.

Chapter Four, “Fantasy for American Children,” discusses Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales and A Wonder Book, Lydia M. Child’s Rainbows for Children, Frank Stockton’s Ting-a-Ling Tales, and the works of Howard Pyle, among others. Attebery sees the authors of these stories for children as developing another very important aspect of the fantasy tradition — they created a fondness for and understanding of “fairy stories” in a wider audience than previously. Even though they did not consistently contain specifically American magic, they prepared the way for an author of genius to present that magic fullblown.

The genius, in Attebery’s opinion, was L. Frank Baum. In Chapter Five, simply entitled “Oz,” Attebery shows how Baum’s Oz is, in a way, America itself, an America of “alabaster cities.” It is an idealized America, which Americans in Baum’s era were finally ready for. America had been a country long enough by that point for some of the polish to have been scraped off the American Dream. For those Americans, Oz became the mirage of America that hangs on the horizon. And Dorothy is Oz’s Cristopher Columbus. For the first time, an American fantasist drew on images and themes that are uniquely American in flavor. “Oz is at the turning point,” says Attebery. “It could only have been invented by someone who, like Baum, personally felt the gap between American ideals and American life.”

After this turning point, American fantasy began to truly develop. In Chapter Six, “Fantasy and Escape,” Attebery discusses the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Branch Cabell, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who wrote during the beginning of the twentieth century. At first glance, one might think that Burroughs’ John Carter books are science fiction, but Attebery demonstrates that Burroughs’ Mars is truly a Wonder World, one reached by magic, not science. Cabell, on the other hand, set about to “complexly and self-consciously … create a fairy world for mature Americans.” His Poictesme is a setting in which he can explore social commentary of the darker sort. Lovecraft rejoiced in the horrific element of the fantastic, and gleefully explored it in his stories, skillfully combining wonder and horror, most notably in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Chapter Seven, “The Baum Tradition,” explores the fantasy writing of Ray Bradbury, Edward Eager, and James Thurber, who clearly relied on Baum’s groundwork to give their fantasy worlds a particularly American solidity. In Chapter Eight, however, a new genius has entered the scene. He’s not American, but he so thoroughly impacts the entire world of fantasy that all American fantasy after him looks to him as well. This genius is J.R.R. Tolkien, of course. “After Tolkien” is Attebery’s exploration of the work of writers who did not merely imitate Tolkien (as the much-abused Terry Brooks’ Shannara series does), but who were influenced by Tolkien to create worlds as wide in scope and rich in detail as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, yet in unique ways. He mentions Lloyd Alexander and Andre Norton as minor players on this field, and Peter Beagle as someone who attempts the grandeur of Tolkien’s vision, but falls short through lack of faith. Stephen Donaldson, of course, does not even attempt faith. His Thomas Covenant steadfastly refuses to believe in the beautiful Land to which he is magically transported. Roger Zelazny has produced a body of “science fantasy” with a devoted following.

However, in Attebery’s mind the giant in post-Tolkien American fantasy is Ursula K. Le Guin, with her Earthsea books. Like Tolkien, who drew on his experience in World War I to envision a hero who is heroic by choosing to do good even when he will surely fail, Le Guin’s heroes reflect America’s own developing introspection, our retreat from the brash arrogance of Manifest Destiny. “The kind of heroism Le Guin has in mind,” says Attebery, “is the courage to understand and accept the universe.”

If it has been the dimming of the American dream that has caused a subsequent rise in the brilliance of our fantasy, we can at least be glad that we now have stories to light our real world, dark and troubled though it may be. We can hope, with Ian McDonald, that there are authors who are looking for answers to the questions that frighten us. “Where is the mythic archetype who will save us from ecological catastrophe, or credit card debt? Where are the Sagas and Eddas of the Great Cities? Where are our Cuchulains and Rolands and Arthurs?… Where are the Translators who can shape our dreams and dreads, our hopes and fears, into the heroes and villains of the Oil Age?”

Brian Attebery has provided an invaluable resource in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature. Granted, twenty years of fantasy have been written between the publication of this book and today. In those years many things have evolved, and there now exist numerous authors and scholars who would dispute the narrowness or specificity of his definition of fantasy. As well, there has developed a strain in our fantasy that draws on the myths and lore of American Indians, a lore which could be said to be the earliest native folk tradition of the marvelous that we have. Attebery does not satisfactorily discuss this development.

However, his overview of the development of America’s fantasy tradition, particularly his insistence of focus on the things which make our fantasy particularly American, provides timeless insight. And his twenty-five pages of notes, bibliography, and index are a gold mine all by themselves.

Although it’s clear that this book is written for a primarily academic readership, the writing style is smooth and not ponderous. It’s a little dry, but dry like a pleasant white wine, not like a mouthful of saltine crackers. Attebery gives plenty of examples to illustrate his points, but not too many examples. Occasional readers of fantasy could give it a miss, but those who read fantasy devotedly or have an interest in the genre as a whole will want it for their reference shelf.

(Indiana University Press, 1980)

About Grey Walker

Grey Walker is a Narrative American (with thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin for coining that term). Although she makes money as a librarian, she makes her life as a reader and writer of stories and reviews of stories. She has a growing interest in the interstitial arts. The album she listens to most often is Morning Walk by Metamora. The book she re-reads most often (and she never owns a book unless she intends to read it more than once) is The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien.