Fantastica Daily Review of Victorian Fantasy Literature

This review originally appeared in the now defunct Fantastica Daily on December 14, 2001. It is posted here by kind permission of Eva Wojcik-Obert.

Victorian Fantasy Literature: Literary Battles with Church and Empire
by Karen Michalson
Reviewed by Eva Wojcik-Obert

For all of you who’ve ever wondered why fantasy and science fiction are treated like red-headed stepchildren by the likes of English faculty, book store managers, and literary critics, Karen Michalson’s immensely accessible Victorian Fantasy Literature: Literary Battles with Church and Empire offers some excellent explanations regarding this continuing attitude. In part, Michalson explores how the mindsets of British clergymen and imperialists influenced the criteria of what became acceptable literature in the education system and the home. The chapter “Fantasy and Victorian Education” should be required reading for all education majors. Anyone harboring grand ideals about the supposed altruistic nature of education might be just a touch disenchanted. The British canon of literature continues to set the standard in both British and American literary arenas. It is a standard that generally strives to keep non-realistic fiction on the fringes of literary acceptability. Michalson provides a comparatively brief yet quite deft overview of the establishment of the still revered canon. Well, while fantasy and science fiction haven’t exactly taken the institutions of the literary elite by storm, neither has been driven down the rabbit hole. Also, there’s a delicious irony in the air even as I write. J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature. And you must be living in a rabbit hole if you don’t know that The Lord of the Rings is about to hit the big screen just in time for Christmas. I for one am curious if the movie will set off a fresh wave of demand for fantasy fiction once the movie fans have devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and demand more, please!

Then who knows what fantasy author they’ll discover next in the quest to satisfy the appetites of their imaginations: Charles de Lint? Elizabeth Haydon? Tanith Lee? Piers Anthony? Emma Bull? Karen Michalson?

Or new fantasy fans might even dig into the nooks and crannies for the likes of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. MacDonald is one of the authors Karen Michalson puts under her critical microscope in Victorian Fantasy Literature. Her other specimens include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Ruskin (a prime candidate for a bi-polar disorder if there ever was one), Charles Kingsley (o what a naughty, naughty fellow!), Henry Rider Haggard (a fellow quite in touch with the softer sex) and Rudyard Kipling (talk about childhood training for nonconformity!). Michalson presents the often contradictory formative forces at work in the intellectual and imaginative formation of each writer and how their respective fantasy works are far from children’s reading fare, as they deal with such issues of the adult world regarding imperialism, gender, law, religion, and social politics. Distillations of Kingsley’s Water Babies not withstanding. Now this all might sound a bit dry for fantasy fans, but Michalson’s engaging tone and the atypical, eccentric natures of her subjects make this tome anything but dry kindling. The combination of historical and biographical information to create contexts for the mental workings of each writer are presented in a tone meant to engage rather than intimidate the reader. Clearly Michalson enjoys her subject, and she wants her audience to share that enjoyment — a rare quality indeed for an academic. Many of the institutional topics Michalson wrestles with in her own fantasy work Enemy Glory are present in Victorian Fantasy Literature, such as stifling academic, political, and religious institutions. So much so that one has to wonder just how instrumental this academic work was in leading her astray into not just finding a credible field of study in fantasy but a genre worth contributing fiction to. Hmm, someday an industrious graduate student researching the relationship between academics and the fantasy genre just might point out the subversive nature of George MacDonald’s Phantastes and fantasy at large upon the workings of Karen Michalson’s imaginative powers.

Subversive you say? Well, of course the fantasy written by Michalson’s authors is subversive or at the very least nonconformist in one form or another:

Although there is no such thing as one unified Victorian worldview… the nineteenth century was, in very broad terms, an age of absolutes. Christian evangelicals did not read imaginative fiction. Respectable preachers did not publicly preach about a chaotic God. Christian socialists did not denigrate the working class. Men of Empire did not acknowledge their feminine side. Champions of the Law did not criticize the institutions that made Law possible. That is, these activities were not generally publicly acknowledged or validated. Yet Ruskin, MacDonald, Kingsley, Haggard, and Kipling did these things in their lives and in their writings, respectively. They managed to negotiate between mutually exclusive categories of thought and vision. By alienating people on various sides of these categories they had no choice but to fight their literary battles alone.

In my review of Meditations on Middle-Earth, I said something to the effect that it was a collection of essays about falling in love with Tolkien’s work. Well, in a similar sense, Victorian Fantasy Literature is Karen Michalson’s book about discovering that fantasy is a genre worthy not only of study but of reading — and it might be about an academic falling in love with a genre. In her conclusion Michalson states, “I look forward to the day when great literary works of fantasy are accorded the same status as great literary works of other, more academically acceptable genres.” Hmm, perhaps if we call it the literature of subversive tendencies…? No? At any rate, if you endure the grumblings of an anti-fantasy academic, or some other such individual, you might want to make an investment in their education by making them a gift of Victorian Fantasy Literature: Literary Battles with Church and Empire. Of course you should read it before presenting it as a gift. After all, what better way to confront your enemy than to know what they know and more? Or you can suggest the tome to your local library so that it will be available for the perusal of the public at large. Who knows who else might follow Michalson into Kipling’s “fourth dimension?” Don’t for a minute think that Kipling’s Jungle Books are on the same shelf as Pat Murphy’s Wild Angel. As fun as the latter might be, it has nowhere near the intellectual substance as the former. And don’t think children won’t notice. At the age of about 10 my son looked up from reading Kipling and said, “This isn’t just about a boy living in a jungle, is it?” No it’s not. A great deal of fantasy is about much more than it appears on the surface. It’s often a forum for all sorts of serious discourse. As Kipling and Haggard and their cohorts well knew. Eventually the academic institutions at large will catch on. There must be more Karen Michalsons. There must. But we’ll keep on reading in the meantime. And writers will keep on writing fantasy to suit their own ends.

Karen Michalson’s reflections on this work, 11 years later:

“From my observations, fantasy literature has not become any more acceptable to academic critics en masse than it was when I wrote Victorian Fantasy, although I also sense that is slowly changing. Last spring I attended the Science Fiction Research Association’s annual conference, and the scholars I met there — who did consider fantasy and SF as literature worthy of study — all conveyed an air of having to sneak around with this interest outside of their respective departments. All of the scholars I talked to had done the bulk of their work in acceptable mainstream literary fields, and were not in a position to be able to consider fantasy literature as more than a side interest to their other scholarly pursuits. Many of them would have liked to have made fantasy criticism more central to their professional lives, and some taught courses in fantasy literature, but their departments back home usually insisted that they focus most of their work on more mainstream areas.

“But I sensed a great deal more enthusiasm and interest among literary scholars for fantasy literature than there was ten years ago, so I believe that it’s not unreasonable to expect that one day the canon will include the best works of fantasy as well as realism. My candidates for canonization include George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.”