“. . . there is no separate mythical or mental “place”: a myth exists only in the instances of its telling. However, it cannot be reduced to the sum of those tellings: it means beyond them.” — Charles Butler in Four British Fantasists
Charles Butler is the author of several fantasies for children (The Fetch of Mardy Watt, The Darkling, Death of A Ghost). He also teaches English literature at the University of the West of England. In Four British Fantasists, he surveys juvenile fantasy through the lens of his professional scholarship, in a detailed analysis of the work of four acclaimed modern writers. He has chosen Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper and Penelope Lively as his subjects, identifying them — with good reason — as shining examples of the modern Golden Age of children’s fantasy: inheritors of the traditions of both E. Nesbitt and J.R.R. Tolkien.
This is a well-written and extremely scholarly work. It appears to be intended for an audience already grounded in both the historical roots of fantasy and classic critical technique. The general reader should not be discouraged from approaching it, however. Good critiques act as magnifying lenses for the enjoyment provided by literature, and Four British Fantasists succeeds in this regard. One’s picture of the authors under review expands in all directions, in a careful geometric progression, and one’s view of their works is thus expanded proportionately.
On the simplest level, Butler examines the personal histories of his subject writers in considerable detail. The reader who has enjoyed their work is invited into their private pasts. This alone can make literary analysis interesting, since it enables us to know the writer more directly — not just what from what they say through the filter of fiction, but through the original material that may have inspired them. Butler deals, as well, with the nature of various filters. He selects the physical landscape, the inherent culture of rural England, the nature of the myths absorbed by a developing writer. These all add depth and detail to one’s picture of the writer, and so inform their fiction more thoroughly.
Butler has chosen to investigate place and culture; in both instances, he examines them as quintessentially British places and cultures. As he points out, Britain has become the exemplar of fantasy worlds: the mythologized medieval landscapes of much modern fantasy are grounded there. This world is a myth, but it defines the modern view of fantasy, and so has achieved a reality. The authors he examines developed their senses of place before this transformative standard came into effect through the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (indeed, most of them began writing before reading either of these eminent gentlemen). Butler analyzes their individual relationships with the land, developed through personal experiences which predate that seminal change. The relative modernity of all four authors is therefore discussed at considerable and revealing length.
All four of “his” writers (as he refers to them throughout the work) were also children during World War II, which gives a dreadful and unique sensibility to their maturation. They are also all products of rural England, just before the major immigration waves of the 20th century began. This gives them a grounding in an homogenous England that no longer exists, except in fantasy itself.
All four of them attended Oxford, as well, and actually encountered both Tolkien and Lewis in various ways. Most of the contacts were fleeting and commonplace, and Butler concurs with the writers that there was no especial inspiration. The synchronicity of their attendance there, at that time, and in that company, serves instead to highlight the commonality of their scholarly roots.
However, it also gives one some of those intimate glimpses into the experiences of writers, that can so enliven critique. Cooper and Jones attended lectures by both men, and found Lewis much the better speaker; Jones, in fact, wonders if Tolkien actually wanted to be heard, or if he mumbled so much because he wanted to go home and work on The Lord of The Rings. Garner, on the other hand, not only did not read or study with them, his only encounter with Lewis was odd in the extreme: carelessly abseiling out of his dormitory window on the Oxford campus one night, he came down on Professor Lewis’ head. The startled Lewis took off without a sound into the night, and Garner scampered in alarm back up the wall. This tells us more about either man than about their respective work, but it is also an image I shall cherish for its delicious absurdity.
The physical structure of the book is well-done. Butler divides his analysis into three sections — “Contexts and Connections,” “Longing and Belonging” and “Myth and Magic.” All four authors’ works are compared in detail in each section. This aids in the accessibility of the material, as one can follow the comparison of each writer to another on specific topics, rather than being obliged to search and re-search through each body of work for points of comparison. The footnotes are appended sensibly to each section in turn, which makes detail and clarification much more immediate and satisfying to the reader. I happen to enjoy good footnotes a great deal, and found Butler’s approach sensible, lucid, and generous to the reader.
The structure of the book, by virtue of its very ease, leads one to wonder if it is, in fact, a textbook. If it is, that does not detract from its value. It would make an excellent one. However, it does detract from the potential strength of the work. Passion runs strongly through the writing of all four authors’ but there is very little examined in Butler’s analysis.
Four British Fantasists is certainly intended more for the academic than the general reader. The prose is frequently opaque, and it does suffer from an over-abundance of academic jargon. Academia is no less given to shop talk than any other discipline, but the best critiques remain accessible without either condescension or confusion. Butler’s love of his subject is clear, but there does remain the faintest tinge of prim amusement and exclusivity throughout the text; the impression that only the cognoscenti can appreciate these writers properly. That is unfortunate.
Much of literary analysis is like the scientific search for the soul: a careful deconstruction of the known in search of the mysterious. When everything we know has been subtracted from the corpus, what is left must be the spirit of the thing, and in that search, the usual result is defeat. The spiritual cannot be dissected out of the physical, and too often the analysts have concluded that what has not been found therefore does not exist. The error, of course, lies in the method of investigation, not its goal. Physical deconstruction or analysis does not reveal the inspiration of the soul. Likewise, Butler’s analyses are doomed to failure, but a great deal may be learned along the way.
While Butler primarily concerns himself with the concrete elements of his writer’s lives, he does ultimately acknowledge the intangible weight of inspiration. He only comes to it in the last few paragraphs, but it is clear he considers it the primary gift from his subject writers to their audience. Perhaps the internal fire that powers a writer’s soul is not, after all, an appropriate topic for a critical analysis; we have little choice but to fall back on the eluctable influence of personal history.
The all-too-common refusal of the critic to admit that there may be an irreducible component of fiction is, for me, a fatal flaw in most works of this kind. However, in my opinion, Butler’s final triumph in this admirable critique is his admission that the dichotomies of what is known and what is unknowable cannot ultimately be separated.
(Children’s Literature Association & The Scarecrow Press, 2002)