If you arrived at a crossroads, would you take the right or the left fork? We are faced every day of our lives with choosing a path. Once our decision takes us onward, we cannot return. The past that once was–and the path we might have chosen instead–grows more and more distant with each ‘Y’ junction we pass.
The courses of history and personal lives divide at such moments. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 on Y-Tag, or Y-Day, the same day that New York City’s World’s Fair expressed a utopian optimism. Barbarism or civilization: which path did history take at that moment, and where did it go after?
Endless Things by John Crowley is the final book in his Aegypt Cycle. It is the culmination of thirty years of thinking, research, and writing on the part of the author, and an ending to a series that is thematically preoccupied with endings. Endless Things is a completion without an ending per se. After all, the thousands of possible futures that might come into existence at any moment are as endless and infinite as the universe itself.
Pierce Moffet has left the Blackbury Jambs for Old Europe on what sounds like an epic quest–to find the Holy Grail, or the Philosopher’s Stone, in either case an artefact that can prove once and for all that the world has more than one history, that its laws are mutable. Alchemy, once briefly possible for John Dee and Edward Kelley, is in our modern world no long possible–at least, Fellowes Kraft’s last unpublished novel claims so, which Pierce is supposed to copy and rework into a book. He follows Kraft’s old notebook through cities such as Rome, Florence, and Prague, which was once the centre of European civilization and scientific experimentation, circa 1588.
The setting of Prague, Pierce’s destination, is a central setting of the Aegypt Cycle, given its historical relevance. Once long ago, two diplomatic officials were thrown out of a window in that city, an event that led to the Thirty Years’ War, which tore apart Europe and the metaphysical certainties that bound it. Catholic fought Protestant for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Like Y-Tag, this is another juncture in history, and it forever changes the face of religion, diminishing its epistemological importance while the scientific method becomes, gradually, the new paradigm for truth.
All this is preceded by an ideal royal wedding that for all its purity, becomes the reason for strife. Traveling players perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest to celebrate the union. At the play’s end the sorcerer Prospero vows to drown his books and end his magical career, just as magic has come to an end in the wider world.
Prague, now part of the Czech Republic, is behind the Iron Curtain when Pierce goes on his quest. The author’s bio at the back of the book shows John Crowley’s own passport that he used on a research trip to Prague earlier in his life (photo undated), suggesting a certain level of identification between the author and Pierce. Combined with the author’s metafictional reflections through the character of Kraft himself, this autobiographical suggestion makes Endless Things into a novel about writing novels–and about narratives, especially endings.
The story of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom is one example of a tale that doesn’t end when history suggests it did. The heretic philosopher, who was the first to suggest that the universe was infinite and the earth not at its centre, was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori for his crimes of belief–but at the last moment, his soul transferred, by metempsychosis, into the body of an Ass, a sacred donkey. This Ass, living as the metamorphosed Lucius does in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, that is, as a human in a donkey’s body, in turn transforms into the mysterious originator of the Rosicrucians, Philip à Gabala, who claimed to possess the deepest secrets of the universe’s meaning, but who never revealed them.
There are many surprises in Endless Things, the story of which substantially departs, in its first half, from the familiar settings and characters that direct the first three books. My biggest shock was that in one scene, Pierce appears to hold conversation with Dame Frances Yates, whose study, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, is one of the central research texts that Crowley consulted when writing Aegypt. Crowley’s identification with Pierce, which is implicit throughout the cycle, was made here nearly explicit, though never untactful. If there was any doubt the Aegypt Cycles’s earlier books are postmodern metafictions, Endless Things puts those doubts to rest.
The final chapters of Endless Things move towards an ending with graceful meditation–and it is an ending in a changed world, yet a world that we can all recognize. We see the advent of computers and the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the it leaves off some time in the 1990s–connecting events that happened as far back as the sixteenth century to the years of my own childhood. Prague once again becomes the locus of a revolution–the Velvet Revolution–that quietly forges a new world. With the fall of Communism comes the beginning of an increasingly globalized and history-less Western society. And in the midst of this, Pierce, with his rocky romance with Rosie in his past, has, upon his return from Europe, one last chance to find true love.
Endless Things ends my first reading of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, but it will not likely end my involvement with it. I plan to include some kind of discussion of Crowley’s work in my MA thesis, if I can, and I could think of no worthier object of study.
Brian Attebery in his 1996 essay “Tolkien, Crowley, and Postmodernism” argues that Crowley’s previous novel Little, Big makes the “fantasy tradition descending from George MacDonald, William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis … formally indistinguishable from postmodernist uses of the fantastic” (21). I would gladly extend Attebery’s observation to the entire Aegypt Cycle, although I note that Little, Big has much more to do with the tradition of Tolkien and MacDonald than Aegypt does. Gnostic allegory and Renaissance philosophy are closer to the real tradition behind Endless Things.
Bringing New Left theorist Fredric Jameson into the conversation, I would like to quote the introduction to his study Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which he says that the postmodern “looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instance after which it is no longer the same” (ix). If fantasy is a genre in which new worlds are built, then the Aegypt Cycle looks, rather, for events, these breaks that alter history.
These are the Y-junctures that result in changes we cannot go back on, the decisive moments in a society that alter even our ontological perceptions. The change from medieval animism and superstition into Enlightened science comes as a result of just such a break. Crowley accomplishes a dramatization of exactly how the former metamorphoses into the latter, how the world became what it is today and why it is no longer what it once was, explicitly addressing that age-old question, “Why is the world the way it is and not some other way?”
The sequel to John Crowley’s Aegypt (The Solitudes), Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffet’s quest to write his history of histories, a book that in which he will propose that there is more than one history of the world.
He must decide what to do with the posthumous, unfinished manuscript of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft. The novel still sits at the famed writer’s office desk, a book that Pierce believes his entire past has prepared him to find.
I feel that my labour over the last several years has prepared me to read Crowley’s Love & Sleep. Researching the philosopher Giordano Bruno and studying the life of John Dee for my historical novel Intelligence has given me the tools I need to appreciate Crowley’s series in a way I would not have otherwise. It is like Pierce and I are mirrors of each other. I can only hope to impart some of my awe-inspired appreciation of this novel’s beauty to my readers.
If you are looking for an Appalachian novel (that’s right, there are hillbillies) that includes not only a parallel story set in England during Elizabethan age, but also an account of small town life during the 1970s New Age movement, and, among other antique delights, an alchemist’s allegorical romance, then you have no other choice than to read Love & Sleep, because there is no other novel that offers those elements in conjunction, trust me.
In 1952, when he is still a boy, Pierce accidentally sets a forest on fire while burning a trash heap at his uncle’s house. This fire links his life to that of a mountain girl, who he comes to shelter from her abusive mother, their babysitter for the summer. With his cousins, he makes a secret club called the Invisible College, which swears to protect her. By the end of the summer, Pierce loses his innocence and makes the fall towards adulthood.
Switch around the numbers of this fateful year buried deep in Pierce’s past, and you get 1592, the year the Inquisition arrested the heretic Giordano Bruno in Venice.
Suddenly the story switches from the past to the historical past, and we see, as if from an excerpt of Fellowes Kraft’s masterpiece, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who wishes to announce a new age of the earth, arriving at the Elizabethan court during the 80s–the 1580s, that is.
Thrown out of Oxford as a lecturer for his controversial Copernican ideas, which not only postulate the sun as center of the solar system, but imply there is no center of the universe itself, Bruno seems destined to meet the other great polymath of the age, John Dee. Sworn to an occult quest with his companion Edward Kelley, Dee comes under the spell of the angel Madimi, who appears as a seven-year-old girl to Kelley, his scrier, in a seeing-stone. Their devotion to finding out the secrets of the universe from the angels will take them to Prague, and the Holy Roman Emperor Emperor Rudolph II’s court, where an ailing Emperor is searching for the Work.
In the 1970s, the adult Pierce is without driver’s license, labouring to compile a book for his agent. It will tell the history of histories, arguing that the world has not always been what it has since become. History can be divided into cycles, where different ideas and philosophies of defining reality come and eventually go, in sudden paradigm shifts that leave those in the present looking back wondering. In the new age, the future is different too and the past is no longer the same past. The late sixteenth century, a time of religious strife and warfare and desperate uncertainty, was one age of transition, an time that saw the abandoning of magical ways of thinking and the rise modern science. Though gemstones and amulets in the old world may have been able to cure sickness or even sink the Spanish Armada, in this world, the world we live in, their powers are lost.
The 1970s is another age of transition. Modernity finds itself struggling with its own liberation from the past. All the presumably dubious developments of the New Age movement–climacterics, astrology, miracle cures, auras–find a fresh popularity. However, this New Age is not new in any sense, for these alternative sciences were standard fare in the Renaissance.
While Pierce labours under the debilitating pall of melancholy, a medieval disease afflicting academics, in the picturesque New York State town of Blackbury Jambs, old Boney Rasmussen is after the secret for immortal life. Kraft’s only real friend, Boney is obsessed with using the resources of the Rasmussen Foundation to locate an object of exceptional value. A Holy Grail, a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts, it is also, perhaps, the one thing Pierce needs in order to tie his project together: an object that has maintained its magical virtue from the passing of one age to the other. It could be a powder, a crystal, a stone, a liquid–anything. But it could be anywhere–or everywhere.
While the premise of Love & Sleep sounds like it appeals to those interested in yet another Illuminati thriller of the Dan Brown tradition, Crowley’s mastery as a novelist sets him in a higher sphere. I rank him among the great literary novelists. His style is so rich and multi-layered, every scene and image finding layers of allegorical or symbolic meaning whether through coincidence, conjunction, or parallels with the sixteenth century, that you cannot read Love & Sleep fast, but contemplatively, tasting the implications of each sentence.
Life moves in the quiet rhythms of rural life. Any big, celestial revelations which mark the shocking but cheap ends of scenes in The DaVinci Code do not draw cries of exclamation in Love & Sleep, so much as produce smooth ripples on the surface. Crowley’s style is fluid, the dialogue realistic; how he captures the stilted feel of real conversations is a magic in itself. I cannot fathom his process of plotting these books or how he plans them at all, but somehow, every note is there, each scene a verse of poetry.
I find myself nodding in recognition at all the things the characters notice in their world, things as ordinary as the pink bubblegum medicine Rosie Rasmussen gives her daughter Sam to cure her earache and the joy of what it’s like to sit in bed and pull down an encyclopedia on magical phenomena to read an entry on werewolves. Pierce takes such a book down when he was young, called A Dictionary of Deities, Devils and Daemons of Mankind, by Alexis Payne de St.-Phalle. (Whose name, by the way, is hilarious.) For me, this book was The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. While the latter book led me to an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, and then eventually to my novel Intelligence, Pierce’s Dictionary leads him to discover the land of Aegypt. And I think that John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence will form the inspiration for my Master’s thesis.
Love & Sleep is impossible to faithfully sum up in so short a space, but I have done the best I can to explain how astonishing it is. It goes far beyond typical historical fantasy, into the realms of magic realism and literary fiction, yet it never drops the ball on historical fantasy. Aegypt shows how ‘Fallen’ modern humanity can nonetheless glimpse another world that once existed, a world entirely separate from our own shopping mall-ridden, consumerist, parking lot-favouring, entertaining-ourselves-to-death, hyperreal, media-saturated society, a world that was just as much of a fluke as ours is today, to gently paraphrase Brian Attebery. John Crowley weaves a story that stands apart from every other novel I know, accomplishing what many writers of the fantastic have only attempted to do: he shows the mythic resonances of our own twenty-first century lives.
This question, and the ideas that stem from it, form the backbone of what might be called the definitive historical fantasy novel.
Pierce Moffet wants to find a compelling book idea for a nonfiction history book. He discovers that the reason we think gypsies can tell fortunes is not because they came from Egypt (or even India for that matter), but because our ancestors thought gypsies came from Aegypt, a dream-Egypt sprung from the European imagination. In the Renaissance, before hieroglyphs were interpreted, Egypt was Aegypt to the Greeks, and the inscriptions on the temples of that far-off country were suspected of hiding all manner of ancient magical incantations and occult lore given by the Father of Magic, Hermes Trismegistus.
In one sense, Aegypt: The Solitudes is literary fiction, with the bulk of the action happening among the fictitious Faraway Hills region of rural Kentucky in the 1970s. Yet, it is also a historical novel with elements of fantasy. A couple of scenes happen in Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, and it even has a Goethian “Prologue in Heaven.” Except for one scene, in which a minor character named Beau imagines (with the help of drugs?) that he soars through the heavenly spheres, each of these “historical” scenes are chapters written by the fictitious historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, John Crowley’s alter ego. The result is an alchemy that gives “real” modern, American life a glowing significance in light of the “fictitious” historical past.
Winning the Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, Crowley has made quite the contribution to American letters. His style feels casual and genuine, a smooth voice that puts you at ease in the pastoral setting of the Faraways.
After a fateful bus trip away from an anonymous life in the city, Pierce finds himself in the rural region, near the town of Blackbury Jams. We learn he is the sort of man who spends an inordinate amount of time coming up with thorough, even scientific answers to fanciful questions, such as what he would do if a djini granted him three wishes. But one question in particular begins to tantalize him: why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes? Little does he suspect that his scientific historicism and fascination with fairy tales will come together to form an intellectual synthesis.
Meanwhile, Rosie Rasmussen is trying to finalize her divorce with her husband Mike Mucho, and look over her three-year-old daughter Sam. She has trouble understanding her own lack of a desire to love Mike any more, wondering what she will do with her life as she consults with her divorce lawyer. Her escape during these emotionally troubling times is to read Bitten Apples by Kraft, a novel about a young William Shakespeare written in a realistic style. Crowley makes us read scenes from Kraft “over her shoulder,” writing certain scenes from BittenApples as scenes in The Solitudes. The historical-fictitious world of Kraft’s novels thus run parallel to the main, twentieth-century narrative. The result is that we inevitably compare the main plot to Kraft’s plots, noticing parallels between the past and present.
The disaffected, modern characters who search for meaning in rural Kentucky contrasts with the Renaissance setting of Kraft’s novels, subtly suggesting that the characters repeat mythic patterns in their day-to-day thoughts and actions. The way Crowley weaves these parallels seems almost accidental, but given Crowley’s sophistication as a writer, it is clear he intends readers to pick up on these “accidents.” Whether they have deeper significance is up to the reader to decide.
Since the novel is about Rosie and Pierce’s relationship to Fellowes Kraft, an author who they’ve never met, and his oeuvre, it becomes significant for past and present when, in Bitten Apples, a young William Shakespeare enters the house of Doctor John Dee on an errand. (To read more on what I wrote on Dee, click here and here.)
During his visit to the old Doctor, Will gets a primitive photograph taken of himself from the camera obscura in Dee’s garden. He is then invited inside his home where he comes face-to-face with Dee’s famous “crystal ball,” a smoky quartz stone the colour of moleskin. Dee uses it to scry for spirits. Will says he sees something in the smoke, a portent warning of fateful visit from a stranger—but whether he really saw anything, or only wanted Dee to think he saw something, remains ambiguous.
An innocent enough reply, Will’s “prediction” comes true when Dee makes the acquaintance of Talbot, or Edward Kelley, a con man who claims to be able to communicate with angels. While he deceives Doctor Dee on his desperate quest for spiritual meaning, Pierce and Rosie, in the twentieth century, ponder their own searches for significance and love.
But what changes the game for Dee—and Pierce—is the (re)appearance of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a heretic Dominican monk in Renaissance Italy who develops a theory about an infinite universe while challenging the Ptolemaic world system. The heretic’s story is one that Pierce was familiar with since childhood. But never has Kraft delved into Bruno’s life in quite the way he does in the unfinished, untitled manuscript Pierce finds in the abandoned house of the late author of Bitten Apples
Pierce discovers that his whole life has been preparing him to read this one manuscript, a book that uncannily echoes his own intellectual journey to write a nonfiction book on the history of histories. The manuscript opens as follows:
“Once the world was not as it has since become.
It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.”
As Pierce reacts to this stimulating subject material, Dee sees Bruno sailing for England in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Aegypt: The Solitudes leaves us off with the sense that the meeting between Dee and Bruno will be an epic meeting that could change the fabric of history itself. The first book of the Aegypt Cycle ends, as does Bitten Apples, with “THE BEGINNING.”
My personal reaction to Aegypt was not unlike Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt researching the historical fantasy genre. The personal research I conducted for my novel Intelligence—research into Giordano Bruno, John Dee, hermeticism, and the Elizabethan era, for example—also found echoes in Aegypt: The Solitudes. It was rather like looking in a strange mirror, seeing myself reflected in Pierce and Kraft’s endeavours. While I cannot say with certainty that Aegypt will form the subject of my MA thesis, I believe I must reckon with it if I wish to continue studying historical fantasy.
The worst praise I could give for Aegypt: The Solitudes is that it is like reading a classier, finer, more intellectual DaVinci Code, if you leave out the thriller elements. Comparing Crowley to Dan Brown is unfair for a number of reasons, but if you like Brown’s thrillers of hidden histories and secret societies, you will have a natural affinity to Crowley, who is undoubtedly the better artist.
For those of you who love literary fiction and are thinking about dipping into historical fantasy, but are afraid you might not enjoy it, reading Aegypt will familiarize you with the ideas behind the best historical fantasy, while not obligating you to leave the confines of literary fiction. For those of you who love fantasy or historical fiction, then Aegypt‘s blend of history and fantasy offers a rewarding literary reading experience.
In the novel I am presently reading, Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley, the main character, a historian academic named Pierce Moffet, comes across the realization that “there is more than one history of the world.” Furthermore, the “world is not the same as it once was.” This radical change in human history supposedly occurred some time in the sixteenth century as it transitioned into the seventeenth. Specifically, it revolves around the historical person of Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, whose scientific accomplishments were rivaled only by his interest in the occult. For Dee, science and magic were one. In his intellectual corpus, the modern, rational, scientific worldview coexisted with the traditional worldview Europe would slowly, gradually leave behind. In John Dee, mathematics was both a tool to explore modern science and a basis for summoning angels.
The Renaissance is sometimes viewed as the adolescence or young adulthood of European culture, as it left the intellectually barren Middle Ages behind. This shift of the pendulum between worldviews is known was coined by Stephen Greenblatt as “The Swerve.” A shorthand for describing the multifaceted history that the Renaissance actually was, the assumption that such a Swerve occurred is taught in classrooms worldwide.
However, could the Swerve be a mere historical fantasy?
In my post “Wonders in Wood,” I demonstrate how humans often strive to to see shapes that they can relate to in natural objects. Those forms, however, are only really shaped by a series of causes and effects that are distinct and separate from human desire. Often the shapes we see in wood grain are reflections of ourselves. We often see “faces,” for example.
History, like wood, is formed according to a flow of cause and effect. Imagine the narrative of time growing organically from a set of roots buried in the past. The Renaissance is like a particular knot in that tree where two of the major boughs branch. Historians, only human, see their own faces in that knot, matching the growing intellectual self-consciousness of European philosophy and science with their own coming of age, their own rites of passage.
But can it really be said the Europe “came of age” during the Renaissance? Or is this only a historian’s fantasy?
I do not have an ultimate answer to this question, or the space in a single blog post to even scratch the surface of this enormous problem. I will say this, however: I believe the Swerve is a fascinating concept that can generate a lot of excitement about learning history, even though I believe it to be scientifically inaccurate and a problematic term. I have four reasons for believing this, and there are other reasons out there I may not have heard of:
1. The Swerve devalues the medieval learning that gave birth to the Renaissance. That any significant intellectuals existed during the Dark Ages seems to be a fact some teachers repress, knowingly or unknowingly. I do not believe the Renaissance could have happened without the likes of medieval intellectuals like Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and the like. Later Renaissance thinkers borrow from their ideas. The Middle Ages were not an void, but the fertile soil from which the Renaissance spawned–it was not only ancient Greeks and Romans who formed the inspiration for the Renaissance.
2. The Swerve only accounts for the writings of ‘Great Thinkers’ and bears nothing on socio-economic, everyday realities. Descartes, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo may all have been geniuses of their time, but men and women still died horrendously of plague in 1600 as they did in 1300, at least for the most part. Great intellectual progress failed to impress the vast majority of the population, many of whom could not read. Theories about the sun’s closeness to the earth and challenging the church’s doctrinal authority matters a whole lot less when famine strikes.
3. The Swerve is a Grand Narrative which excludes other discourses when it is used to describe the era. Since the story we all tell of the Renaissance is of its glory, the darker side of history is ignored. The Renaissance is a dark period, from a certain perspective. For starters, it is filled to the brim with religious persecutions, massacres, and even genocide. Why Cortez’s ethnic cleansing of the Aztecs should be considered more civilized than the Viking raids simply because it happened 500 years later is beyond me. Must civilized times be defined according to when advanced weaponry, like gunpowder, becomes available, enabling countries to spread violence across the globe? Or should such times be considered more barbaric? Also, what would have the Native Americans in King James’ court have thought of the Renaissance period when they were dying of a common disease caught from a European?
4. The Swerve can be used to misconstrue discoveries and treatises of the Renaissance as leading to an inevitable Scientific Revolution, which almost no scholars consciously saw happening. It is likely that Copernicus primarily saw himself as part of a tradition of scholars stretching back to the heliocentric Aristarchus, and only secondarily as the bold pioneer of a new model of the solar system. He had to reach into the past as well as reach to the future, but framing Copernicus in terms of the Swerve threatens to shortchange the importance of the intellectual history to which Copernicus returned. Furthermore, scientists often take Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus’ ideas, as a martyr for modern science since he was burned for heresy in Rome. However, Bruno was the farthest thing from a scientist. Rather, he was in many ways an impractical philosopher who developed a magic system based on the concept of artificial memory, considering himself a follower of the sun-centered “Egyptian” religion. In other words, he sacrificed himself for heliocentrism not as a scientist, but as an occultist.
Since the Swerve is inaccurate historically in these and other ways, I propose that it is a historical fantasy. Stephen Greenblatt might have needed the concept to sell a book and express what he was going to write about in simple terms, but the term itself should not be taken without irony. I am not arguing that Greenblatt is unaware of the problems connected to the idea of the Swerve. I only mean to remind people who are used to the Grand Narrative to rethink what they know about the Renaissance.
Poststructuralism claims that all histories are written in history and can never be freed from the context in which they are written. I would add that so long as a historian sees the human experience of his/her adolescence in the Renaissance, history will be written according to a human bias. We cannot escape this bias easily, since it is so natural to write a history that we can relate to. But turning history into story is part of what historical fantasy is all about.
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.