Fantasy Literature and the Mythopoeic Voice of Reason (Grant)

This is the 2010 ISRC-NYiT grant that got this book project off and running.

Fantasy Literature and the Mythopoeic Voice of Reason: Exploring the Ethics of Elfland

Overview of Proposed Project

I am seeking released time for the Spring 2010 and Fall 2010 semesters to begin work on a new scholarly project analyzing ethical theories as expressed in fantasy literature. I teach an upper-level literature course titled “Narnia, Middle Earth, and Beyond: Fantasy Realms in Literature,” and over the years I have compiled a significant amount of primary and secondary sources used for class instruction. A common theme that arises in the course is how various authors integrate different (and often competing and/or contradicting) ethical theories into their fantasy narratives. I am interested in developing a scholarly book that examines these themes and tensions in more detail, a book targeted to upper-level undergraduate and graduate students of literature. However, I am at the very beginning stages of such a project, and thus my goal for this grant period is modest: I plan to focus on two early fantasy novels, Phantastes (1858) by the Victorian theologian and author George MacDonald, and The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) by the Modernist writer Lord Dunsany. I hope to generate rough drafts of two possible chapters for the book project or, in the very least, two papers that could be presented at conferences or published as articles.

Subject of the Project

From theological and philosophical perspectives, the faculty of reason is integral to comprehending, explaining, and defending ethical theories. That is why I intend to study the mythopoeic voice of reason in classical fantasy literature. Yet, the context of traditional academic discourse, it may seem a bit unwarranted to align “fantasy” with “reason,” because, as all educated people know, the fantastic is, well, fantastic, unreal, irrational, illogical, supernatural, imaginative, and we all must be very careful to distinguish it from that which is reasonable.  The imagination, though admittedly fun and helpful or instructive in some narrow sense, is ultimately unreasonable.  Surely, fantasy cannot have a voice of reason, can it?  Could it be that I am aligning two conceptual frames that ought not to be aligned?

These are typical and admittedly understandable reactions to the audacious claim that fantasy is actually literature (an entirely different discussion altogether) and that it has anything reasonable to say about the world as it is and how it ought to be.  However, the important conceptual bridge linking fantasy with reason and thus granting it voice to comment upon such things as truth and morality is the concept of mythopoeia.  According to Rolland Hein, mythopoeic tales are “stories that are composed in time, but which suggest (however dimly) something covert but eternally momentous.  … Successfully done, mythopoeic writing intimates something that cannot be told, but when fully known will be eternally satisfying.  It confronts us imaginatively, if only in flashes, with something that is beyond time, inexplicable but thrilling” (5-6).  At first glance it seems the mythopoeic is the purely imaginative experience of a thrill that is inexplicable.  However, as the reader contemplates the tale and explores what has been imaginatively revealed, the truth delivered to the Imagination can be given over to the Reason and thus articulated as revelation to the mind and soul.  Revealed truth in mythopoeic tales is not merely imaginatively experiential; it is also rationally propositional.

Such is the larger intellectual framework within which my project progresses. My goal is to examine instances of mythopoeic revelation in a variety of classic fantasy works (sometimes referred to as “high fantasy”). I will start with MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, two foundational fantasy novels in which the main characters venture from the real and the natural into the realm of the unreal and the supernatural—the fantastic—and discover various propositional truths revealed through experiencing the fantastic. In short, they engage mythopoeic experience, and readers are narratively encouraged to grapple with these revealed, propositional truths and to apply them to their own experiences of the real world outside the reality of the novel. In this way, I hope to determine what such fantasy novels have to teach readers about the efficacy (and/or lack thereof) of various ethical theories.

Proposed Support and Work Plan

I am seeking released time for two semesters to research these two novels. Using NYiT’s Interlibrary Loan program, I will collect and analyze primary and secondary sources pertaining to these novels. In Spring 2010 I will focus on Phantastes, and in Fall 2010 I will focus on The King of Elfland’s Daughter. I plan to generate one paper on each novel that can be used as conference papers in the very least, or developed further into publishable articles and/or chapters in a larger book project.

Relevance to NYiT Community

Many leading literary scholars have noted that critical theory in literature and literary studies in general are at a crossroads, and some go so far as to express dismay over the apparent inefficacy of literary studies. Fashionable theories like deconstructionism and post-structuralism have rendered the field irrelevant, in the view of such critics as Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton. I see my project as moving from the realm of deconstructive irrelevance into the realm of practical efficacy by grappling with a key human question: what does it mean to be a moral person? Wayne C. Booth, a reader-response and narrative theorist, wrote a fascinating book two decades ago that went largely unnoticed in the frenzy of deconstructionism. His book is titled The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1989), and in hindsight, his book seems rather prescient, for it lays out one possible framework of literary analysis that is the antidote to the current crisis.

I conceptualize my project as seeking a way out of the problems identified by Fish, Eagleton, and others, and my work can highlight NYiT’s English Department as enhancing literary scholarship. Moreover, the project benefits our students. I am developing these ideas and literary concepts as I teach my fantasy literature course (which soon will be a literature seminar in the new NYiT Discovery Core Curriculum), and students are directly participating in that scholarly creative process. Furthermore, as I develop these papers, articles, and chapters, future students can benefit by reading them. Released time for Spring and Fall 2010 will afford me significant research time to initiate and develop this project.

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.

Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. Cambridge: Basic Books, 2003.

Fish, Stanley. Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change. Boston: Harvard UP, 1999.

Hein, Rolland. Christian Mythmakers. 2nd edition. Chicago: Cornerstone P, 2002.