A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment
by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009)
from Chapter 5: “Fantastic Places”
To take us “there and back again” [the subtitle of Tolkien’s The Hobbit], places in fantasy often mix the sacred and the familiar, the mythic and the concrete. Specific details serve to convince us of the reality of the imaginary world.
Dorothy Sayers, mystery novelist, translator of medieval poetry, and a friend of C.S. Lewis, wrote about Dante’s technique for creating plausible imaginary places. She called it: “the trick of particularity.”
We believe in Dante’s Three Kingdoms. . . . because we have trudged on our own two feet from end to end of it. We are convinced it is there, independently of the poet; if necessary, we could find our way through it without him. We know the landmarks and should recognize them. . . .
If we were led through Hell blindfold, the familiar sounds would tell us where we were: the sighs and wailings, and the wuthering of the bufera infernal, the splashing and bubbling of the streams, the shrieks of the Furies, the silibant voices of the Suicides “sizzling like green wood on the fire” . . .
– from “. . . And Telling You a Story,” Dorothy Sayers, in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (ed. C.S. Lewis, 1947)
Modern Italian scholar and fantasist Italo Calvino put his finger on the same when he noted, “Fantasy is a place where it rains.” In other words, as writers create points of familiarity, they persuade readers of the reality of the entire story.
C.S. Lewis is one of those writers able to draw us into a story with small but familiar details. He is the master of the “aside,” the offhand remark directly to the reader, lightly tossed into the story, which reminds us of some similar experience of our own. For instance, here’s how he introduces the re-entry into Narnia by the four children (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy), in Prince Caspian, as they walk across the sand on a beach, exactly like any beach that kids anywhere would have experienced.
They all now waded back and went first across the smooth, wet sand and then up to the dry, crumbly sand that sticks to one’s toes, and began putting on their shoes and socks. . . .
– from Prince Caspian (1951), C.S. Lewis
We recognize that small casual detail, so important to a person on a beach: the line between wet sand and dry sand, and how crossing it feels on the feet. Such details convince us that the beach is real. We know that demarcation line, and as we cross it, we enter the story. We are pulled into it by our own memories.
In Lewis’s first book, as the children climb through the wardrobe, and enter the world of Narnia in a wonderful snow scene, there is a lamp-post standing oddly in the woods. The image is surprising but exquisitely concrete.
We sense we are in a “real” place. As Calvino noted in Six Memos for the New Millennium, in an essay “On Exactitude,” good writing needs “clear, incisive, memorable images.” Fantasy is indeed a place where it rains, and so the faun, Mr. Tumnus, the first creature met in Narnia, carries an umbrella (although it is eccentric to use one in winter). Good imagination has definite details, from commonplace weather to odd but tangible objects like a lamp-post in a woods.
As Jane Yolen, winner of many awards including the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Society’s Aslan Award, said in her classic book, Writing Books for Children (1983).
If, as Henry James says about the novel, its supreme virtue is its “solidity of specification,” that must be twice as true about a work of fantasy. . . . It all has to be done very solidly, and it has to be very real.
Lloyd Alexander, in talking about his own work in the Prydain books, wrote: “What appears gossamer is underneath as solid as pre-stressed concrete.”
– from Writing Books for Children (1983), Jane Yolen
– Excerpted from A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment, by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, copyright 2009)