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Issue #1761      December 14, 2016

Culture & Life

Book review

Living fantasies

Literary Wonderlands, subtitled a journey through the greatest fictional worlds ever created, is edited by Laura Miller and published by Hardie Grant Books. Its 300-plus pages encompass a concise survey of fantasy literature from all over the world. A book about fantasy may seem an unusual – even frivolous – choice for a Communist newspaper to review. And yet fantasy has been the chosen medium for many social commentators over the years.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

From the earliest times, people told and retold the didactic myths of Aesop, rejoiced in the anti-establishment exploits of Robin Hood and his merry men or sought to emulate the idealised behaviour of King Arthur and his knights. Eventually, this led to works by authors who imagined entirely new forms of society, or who predicted disastrous consequences if perceived social problems were not resolved.

Fantasy as a medium for exploring ideas of how human beings could or should behave when faced with difficult problems is as old as literature itself. The earliest fantasy work dealt with in Literary Wonderlands is The Epic of Gilgamesh which dates to circa 1750 BCE; the most recent is Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights which came out in 2015.

Of necessity, the almost 100 works of fantasy covered in Literary Wonderlands receive only two to four pages each. Some of the entries concentrate on plot, but others, such as the entry for Cervantes’ 17th century classic Don Quixote provide informative – if succinct – background information. “[Quixote’s] predicament not only satirises the impracticality of lofty or extravagant ideals, but his delusions (most famously charging at windmills, mistaking them for giants) can also be interpreted as reactions to the very real and traumatic technological transformations that were being implemented in the Castilian landscape by the ruling Hapsburgs.

“The windmills were not at that time a traditional feature of the Castilian landscape. On the contrary, they were monstrous new machines deployed in the windy Manchegan hills in order to drive the economy of the Hapsburgs’ global war.”

Graced by numerous often thoughtfully derived illustrations, the book is arranged in sections, in roughly chronological order, beginning with “Ancient Myth and Legend”, which covers fantasy written before 1700. “Science and Romanticism” covers the next 200 years while “The Golden Age of Fantasy” covers the shorter period 1901-1945. The post-war explosion of fantasy world-wide is dealt with in an even shorter section four (1946-1980) while “The Computer Age” brings the coverage up to date, with well-known authors like Terry Pratchett, George RR Martin and JK Rowling but also lesser known ones such as Haruki Murakami, Ngügï Wa Thiong’o, Wu Ming-yi and Nnedi Okorafor.

As this indicates, the book’s selection of authors is refreshingly not Euro-centric. The first section for example includes an examination of the 16th century Chinese classic Journey To The West which became the popular television series Monkey in the 1980s.

This section also includes two pages devoted to Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516, a work whose title means “nowhere” and which More wrote – as the introduction to the chapter points out – as a work of “criticism of the failings and corruption he observed in society”. Ironically, it gave its name to any form of society that was beyond criticism, and therefore unattainable.

The second section, “Science and Romanticism”, ranges from 1726 with Swift’s caustic satire on English society, Gulliver’s Travels – which the text makes clear is not a children’s story – through mainly nineteenth century books such as Lewis Carroll’s delightful mix of satire and whimsy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jules Verne’s mix of science and adventure Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and HG Wells’ The Time Machine.

The text notes that one of the themes of Wells’ novel was class conflict (he was a socialist after all, though not a Marxist-Leninist): “Was society in the 1890s polarising rather than coming together?” asks this chapter. “Would the working class, like [Wells’] Morlocks – the exploited ‘many’ as Shelley called them – revenge themselves at some point in the future on the privileged ‘few’? How should a socialist deal with that? Was there a solution?”

The chapter notes that one “solution” of which Wells himself approved was the formation of the Independent Labour Party a couple years before his book was published. The weakness inherent in social democracy does not fall within the book’s brief, however. This section also includes three pages on your extreme right-winger’s favourite opera, Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung (“Whatever Wagner’s intention with The Ring of the Nibelung, its vast world has influenced all later attempts to portray apocalyptic themes in music, literature, art and cinema.”)

One thing the book does show very well is the tremendous and enduring popularity of fantasy. American author Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist work Looking Backward which appeared in 1888 was not only phenomenally successful but it inspired a network of political cubs and ultimately a political party! More recently, the equally phenomenal success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and its sequels led to the bizarre claim by fundamentalist Christians that by putting witches and wizards in such an obviously fictional a work would blunt children’s perception that these agents of the Devil are real!

Fundamentalist Christians were even more outraged by another publishing phenomenon, Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, a full-frontal attack on organised religion, encased in a marvellously imaginative work spanning several parallel universes. Pullman declared uncompromisingly “My books are about killing God” which is almost certainly the real reason the film version of the trilogy never progressed beyond the first film.

So, Literary Wonderlands is at once detailed, lavishly illustrated and very wide-ranging. Inevitably it cannot contain every significant book in such a popular genre: Susan Cooper’s series The Dark Is Rising is not there, for example, nor is Australian author Isobelle Carmody’s series The Obernewtyn Chronicles.

Nevertheless, as a valuable reference work on a major genre of world literature – or if you just want to sound knowledgeable about popular culture at dinner parties – I can recommend Literary Wonderlands.

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