Fantasy: How it Works, by Brian Attebery

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Review by Helen Parry

Over the last thirty years, the genre of fantasy has become more ‘respectable’. Although it has never been simply an excuse for plodding, Lord-of-the-Rings, Sword-and-Sorcery knock-offs, that is how it generally used to be perceived. Increasingly, however, fantasy has acquired literary status and now inflects much of mainstream fiction. But what is the point of it? Since dragons and wizards do not exist, how can writing about them be anything other than childish escapism?

Brian Attebery was until last year a professor of English and philosophy at Idaho State University and has devoted much of his scholarly life to studying fantasy fiction (in the English language, principally). Fantasy: How It Works is, perhaps, a distillation of his thoughts for the non-academic; it is a short and friendly book that eschews jargon and is very firmly based on Attebery’s phenomenonally wide reading within the genre, dipping into a rich array of examples to support his arguments. This is his starting point:

Fantasy in any era presents some of the same challenges: to go outside conventional notions of the real, to trace connections that evade common-sense thought, and to tell lies that ring true. The answers keep shifting but the questions are pretty much inescapable. I believe that they all come down to variations on two central lines of inquiry. First, how does fantasy mean? How can a form of storytelling based on altering physical laws and denying facts about the past be at the same time a source of insight into human nature and the workings of the world? Second, what does fantasy do? What kind of social, political, cultural, intellectual work does it perform in the world – the world of the reader, that is, not that of the characters?

The book is structured as ten reasonably short and distinct chapters. In the first two, Attebery examines ‘how fantasy means’ – how it works to present meaning. The following seven chapters focus on different sorts of meaning that fantasy novels can explore: gender, politics, cultural difference; he traces the form’s roots in fairy tale and folklore; he distinguishes it from horror fiction. The final chapter is a summary of his arguments as a numbered list which acts as a sort of map of the book.

How, then, does fantasy mean? Attebery argues there are three ways that it can tell truth, despite the dragons and wizards. The first is mythically, by drawing on and re-imagining traditional stories and myths to explain the world to us (the re-imagining part is important and what prevents fantasy from becoming dusty and tired), and adopting and adapting their motifs.

The second is metaphorically: ‘A dragon might not be a dragon but a human tyrant, or a desire to talk with animals, or an uncontrollable force of nature like a tidal wave or a volcano. Or all of these things at once’. The metaphors bring a richness beyond mere allegorical meaning; Attebery gives the example of ‘The Light Princess’, by George MacDonald: ‘in which the title character lacks gravity, both literally and figuratively. […] Lightness and weight, levity and gravity, restriction and freedom are running themes throughout, as MacDonald reminds us that the linkage is already there in the language but that we forget to imagine it concretely’. Not only does MacDonald give us back the ‘living metaphor’, Attebery tells us, he also reminds us that ‘the claim “Love is Gravity” is as untrue as it is true…’ Fantasy can allow a ‘playful ambiguity’ through this metaphorical use that other genres cannot.

The third way is structurally. ‘Though the imagined world and its story are unbelievable in themselves, their component parts and the way they are articulated tell us something valid about the real world. The invented world and the story are not two separate things but a single working mechanism’. In other words, a fantasy novel constructs its meaning in a different way from a novel that ostensibly reproduces the ‘real’ world. In its strangeness, it compels us to view our own world differently.

In the second chapter of the book, Attebery takes up the argument that realist and fantasy fiction are not opposed to each other but are on a spectrum. All fiction asks ‘what if?’ and invents an answer; fantasy just pushes the ‘what if?’ a bit further. Attebery compares two children’s books about a family: Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays and Edward Eager’s Half Magic. Both novels offer carefully edited fictions about ‘real’ children, thus performing a similar task, but by dispensing with the pretence that it is telling you about the ‘real’ world, Half Magic makes its fictionality obvious. ‘One is presented seams out, the other seams in […] Both are the same enchanted cloak’. 

The rest of the book addresses the question, ‘What does fantasy do?’ In it, Attebery argues that fantasy moves to transcendence. In it, an entire society may be redeemed, not just an individual, since protagonist and world are so inextricably intertwined. Unlike horror fiction, which presents something weird and frightening and leaves us staring into the void, fantasy fiction seeks resolution and harmony. It can be political. While the genre is intrinsically backward-looking and can thus favour conservative ideologies, it is also currently being refreshed by writers of diverse backgrounds to interrogate ideas about gender, power and race.

Attebery makes a convincing case for the importance of fantasy fiction in our culture, as a means of dreaming and exploring alternative ways of being. More than this, in Fantasy: How It Works he shows readers how to experience fantasy fiction in ways we might not have found or thought about ourselves. If you haven’t read much fantasy fiction, this book is a wonderful introduction. If you have, you will still come away with a to-read list as long as your arm, a new appreciation of the novels you love, and plenty of food for thought. 

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Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.

Brian Attebery, Fantasy: How It Works (Oxford University Press, 2022). 978-0192856234, 208pp., hardback.

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5 comments

  1. Lovely review, and I totally agree with what he says in this, your distillation of his thesis. That fantasy and realist fiction are merely broad points on a continuum or spectrum of imagintive writing seems to me to be so self-evident that I can only put prejudice against fantasy as either prejudice or ignorance, or possibly both – perhaps, if one is being generous, after unfortunate brushes with sub-par fantasy! I’ll look out for a copy of this, thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think you would enjoy this a lot. The breadth of his reading is astonishing (though I would say it’s very American-British focused) and there’s lots of food for thought. The fact that much of it based on lectures (if I’m remembering correctly) is a real strength as an introduction, he really takes the trouble to explain and illustrate his ideas and arguments very clearly, and you can dip in and out of it and mull it over.

      Yes, I think there was a fair old amount of sub-par fantasy sloshing about, especially in the 1980s, and it definitely put me off. However, it’s been having a renaissance for a while now, so there’s less and less excuse for prejudice against it.

      1. Thank you – I’ll keep this title in mind, especially as I liked Attebery’s notes and commentary for the Library of America edition of Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia. By the way, apologies for the complete pig’s ear of a comment I posted above, the result of drafting when I wasn’t fully focused…

  2. I ordered this book – although I read little fantasy these days, I shall really look forward to reading it.

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