Secondary Worlds in Pre-Tolkienian Fantasy Fiction
Young, Joseph Rex
This thesis provides a survey of four writers who created fictional fantasy worlds as settings for their stories. Before the widespread success of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, there was no obviously commercial motive for them to do so. It is therefore important to examine the literary and philosophical decisions that led them to undertake this onerous feat of the imagination. The thesis opens with an introduction explaining these objectives and defining four subject authors – George MacDonald, ER Eddison, HP Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake – in opposition to the ‘genre fantasy’ of recent decades. A literature review is then provided. Chapter one deals with George MacDonald, who turned to fantasy world-building in order to denude his fiction of rationally comprehensible geographies and ideologies, replacing these with the intuitive emotional truths that he saw as being spiritually valuable. This requires an examination of MacDonald’s role in the emergence of the fairytale as a literary form in Britain, and also of MacDonald’s debt to the German Romantics, whose spiritual and literary ideas he claimed as a central influences. This debt raises the crucial question of exactly how MacDonald defined reality itself, which is addressed with reference to his stories and essays. Heavily influenced by Christian Platonism, MacDonald defined reality as that which exists in the mind of God and can be perceived by its earthly analogy, the human imagination. To his mind, therefore, the imagination is a more reliable judge of reality than the intellect. He used fantasy to inspire this potent capacity of the human mind. Chapter two covers ER Eddison, mostly via investigation of archival holdings relating to him. It opens with a general introduction to Eddison’s first novel, The Worm Ouroboros, and goes on to offer a similar explanation of the tone and content of his later, lesser-known works, the Zimiamvia cycle. With this information in place, the philosophical content of Eddison’s novels is explained: struck by the perceived inadequacies of conventional moral definitions, Eddison used a fantasy world to propose a full-scale revision of moral philosophy. His ideas, and their applicability to the real world, are further illustrated by his correspondence dealing with World War II. Eddison’s views on reality as a whole, which he defined in relation to the purpose of a single, immutable central ideal, are then discussed. Eddison is shown to have had a highly optimistic, rather than escapist, view of the universe, and to have used fantasy to show that perception more clearly than realism could have permitted. Chapter three deals with HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s fantasy fiction is introduced in the context of his deep regard for his own regional (New England) history and his simultaneous secular materialist convictions; he was attempting to build a world in which the two could be constructively combined. His depiction of humanity’s relationship with the universe is then examined. Lovecraft repeatedly claimed he had no interest in humanity, but many of his best and most well-known stories are found to express clear, albeit narrowly and exclusively focused, humanistic morality. This contradiction is explained by revisiting the conflict between intense parochialism and materialism in his stories and essays. Lovecraft wanted New England to survive as an eternal, almost spiritual truth, but could not see how this was possible in a universe that could entertain any such teleology. His fantasy world emerged as part of an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile this tension. Chapter four examines Mervyn Peake, whose fantasy world of Gormenghast is examined in detail and found to be working on entirely different principles to reality, serving to thwart personal identity and reduce individuals to functions of an institution. From there, the controversial question of whether or not Gormenghast can be considered Gothic literature is examined. Gothicism is interpreted broadly as literature concerned with the remoteness of metaphysical truths, and by that definition, Peake’s world clearly falls into the category. This raises the question of the nature of the metaphysical truth missing from Gormenghast, which is answered via reference to Peake’s broader body of work: in Gormenghast, as in reality as Peake saw it, human being suffer potentially insurmountable emotional and spiritual isolation from one another. The fictional castle therefore serves to illustrate what Peake saw as a profound flaw in the real world. A concluding chapter locates a core similarity between these four authors: each one was meditating on the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of reality, an undertaking that required its participants to look at reality from the outside. Hence they created fantasy worlds where the cornerstones of reality, and perceived threats to it, were thrown into high relief. World-building is therefore situated as a conservative form of literature, but one that allows the testing and critiquing of, rather than escape from, reality.
Advisor: Tankard, Paul; Gibson, Colin
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: English
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis