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Folklore and literature…

September 15, 2011

In an interesting argument for the role of folklore within fantastic literature, C.W. Sullivan argues that “Fantastic literature depends upon traditional materials in ways that perhaps no other fiction does to provide the reader with access to the text.” (p292)

Sullivan acknowledges that, “joining a term like ‘folklore,’ which has its roots deep in traditions traceable back through generations, with terms like ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction,‘ which seem to have less to do with the past than with alternate realities or projected futures, may seem like a juxtaposition of dubious value.” (p279)

However, the key to such a juxtaposition, according to Sullivan, stems from the reader’s ready use of folklore materials to decode authors of old. This use has been adopted by writers of fantasy as a means of directing the reader through the text.  Fantasy writers, Sullivan writes, borrow folklore to create the familiar in what is unfamiliar.  

Defining Fantasy:

In a bid to give some definition to the term ‘fantasy’, Sullivan observes first that “The word ‘impossible’ appears in many of the leading critical definitions of fantastic literature.” (p279) However, Sullivan continues: while definitions that focus on the ‘impossible’ in fantasy may appear “to set fantastic literature in opposition to realistic literature, critic Kathryn Hume suggests that we should see the real and the impossible as separate ends of a continuum that includes all fiction. She argues that

‘literature is the product of two impulses.  These are mimesis, felt as the desire to imitate, to describe events, people and objects with such verisimilitude that others can share your experience; and fantasy, the desire to change givens and alter reality – out of boredom, play, vision, longing for something lacking, or need for metaphoric images that will bypass the audience’s verbal defenses.’

And fantasy, Hume continues, ‘is any departure from consensus reality‘ (21, italics in the original).” (Sullivan, 280)

A second principle of fantasy is “the criterion of the logically-created or cohesive Secondary World” (p281), in which “There must be enough of the familiar, the mimetic, within the story so that the reader can understand the nature of the unfamiliar, the fantastic.” (p281)

Understanding the unfamiliar and fantastic:

“Science fiction and fantasy require the author to create a world that makes sense in and of itself.  J.R.R. Tolkien may have been the first to articulate the principle of the Secondary World. ‘What really happens [Tolkien writes] is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.’ (37)” (Sullivan, 280)

Folklore, Sullivan states, helps “connect the reader with the text” through both “more complex uses, which operate on the level of cultural worldview, and simpler uses, which employ specific motifs and other individual elements of folklore to make the Secondary World a more homey place for the reader.  This Secondary World, whether set in an imagined future or re-imagined past, needs to have within it material such that the world ‘makes sense,’ to the reader; in this regard, recognizable folklore (and materials modeled on that folklore) are central to the creation of that world.” (p281)  

Folk expressions and traditional sayings – as well as variations on and mock-ups of these  – fit the latter category as easily as do various folktale motifs, such as the ‘fire-breathing dragon’ or the ‘magic sword’. “motifs that are common to both fantastic literature and traditional stories,” Sullivan writes, “along with such things as proverbs and other sayings, riddles, rhymes, and the like – become the initial building blocks upon which the reality of the Secondary World is constructed and through which the reader is connected to that Secondary World.” (p284)

Throughout the article, Sullivan comments on authors who “have drawn on ancient myth for the patterns of their stories” (p286) looking at Welsh myth, the Arthurian legends, Christian mythologies, etc., with particular reference to Tolkien.

The most complex level on which fantastic literature operates and depends upon traditional materials for that operation is the level of cultural worldview,” Sullivan states; “Generally, fantasy and science fiction have supported western cultural values and worldview. Fantasy has upheld general notions of good and evil and, again drawing on traditional tales, has shown the good being rewarded and the evil punished. Science fiction, while not always so clear about good and evil as it is constructed by Western culture has generally supported the western attitudes toward industrialization, capitalism, and expansion” (pp287-288) The themes of ‘having a better life’, ‘spreading that worldview’, etc. have been evident, Sullivan argues, but “increasing numbers of voices in the field [are] asking the readers to examine their cultural values” (p288)

With regards to science fiction…

Sullivan does discuss both fantasy and science fiction, noting that “science fiction’s roots lie in social criticism, but science fiction’s brand of social criticism is more complex than merely pointing out the damage pollution or littering can do; if that was all there was to it, it would not be fiction. Science fiction, and occasionally fantasy, challenges and ask the reader to examine the attitudes behind the behaviors it is criticizing; that is, these authors are not merely pointing out bad behavior and telling the reader to stop doing that, they are asking the reader to examine the long-held traditional attitudes or beliefs which have made that behavior seem, at least at one time, perfectly acceptable. Although much science fiction and fantasy represent dominant western cultural attitudes, there is a large body of writing, most of it science fiction, which recognizes that those attitudes are only attitudes and asks the reader to examine their validity and viability.” (p291)



Note: some of the fictional books studied in Sullivan’s article are ‘listed’ among the images displayed above.

(NB all ‘blue bold’ emphases mine) C.W. Sullivan (2001) ‘Folklore and Fantastic Literature’ Western Folklore 60(4) Fall; 279-296

NB. Also quoted are: Hume, Kathryn (1984) Fantasy and Mimesis. New York: Methuen.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1996) ‘On Fairy Stories’ 1947. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine.3-84


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