Lewis and Tolkien Have Some Explaining To Do

I adore fantasy books!  I read at least one or more fantasy books a month.  As much as I love the stories themselves, I enjoy learning about the history behind literary fantasy.  Children’s fantasy books are particularly interesting to me, because it’s a genre where I plan to eventually publish books.  (Notice the plural there.  I’m ambitious.)  

Classic children’s literature is dominated by books written by primarily British authors.  Think about it.  There’s Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Lord of the Rings, Peter Rabbit, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter.  The only non-British writer to leave a huge impact on English children’s literature is L. Frank Baum with his The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Slate recently published an article: “The Enchantments of Escape” where children’s literature expert Maria Sachiko Cecire explores a unique side of children’s fantasy history.

Cecire wrote a new book called Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, where she:

“The professor of literature at Bard College steps back to put the genre in context, looking at the way 20th century authors of what she calls the “Oxford School” used children’s fantasy as a means to preserve a sense of magic inside a modern world they saw as increasingly hostile to belief.”

The Oxford School is a reference to famous fantasy authors C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their brethren when they all worked at the University of Oxford.  During their tenure at Oxford, they were concerned with reforming the school’s English curriculum and writing fantasy books.  Lewis and Tolkien were of the firm belief that fantasy was beneficial for students to learn, but they also wanted modern literature, including fantasy, to receive the same respect as classical and medieval literature.  

Like all people, Lewis and Tolkien were products of their time, but they were also forward-thinking in their writing.  The idea that fantasy is beneficial has been preached by both creative and scientific individuals.  Albert Einstein has the best quote related to fantasy through the venue of fairytales: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 

For a man who changed the foundation of modern physics and promoted logic and reason, he understood that imagination was the key to creating new ideas and theories.  As brilliant as Einstein was, he also cheated on and abandoned his wife and children.  On top of that, he never felt remorse for the death of his first child, who was born out of wedlock.  

We hardly hear about Einstein’s promiscuous relationships; his positive accomplishments outweigh his faults in the zeitgeist.  While Einstein was a genius, he was also a human with faults.  Cecire investigated Tolkien and Lewis’s’ faults as well, exposing little known facts about these pillars of fantasy.  The negative aspects of Tolkien and Lewis have been also been published, but like Einstein, weren’t discussed much.  As with many people in history, these negative aspects refer to racism:

“There’s a big discourse around Tolkien and Lewis, a lot of discussion about whether Tolkien was anti-Nazi—which he was, but in large part, because he was mad at what they did with his beloved Teutonic mythology! [Laughs] Well, I’m joking about that, but in part. … And the discussion about Lewis, about whether he’s against colonialism—which he certainly was, explicitly, but he also wrote pretty profoundly racist things like the quote you just read, about non-Western people.”

Tolkien’s and Lewis’s views are definitely a facepalm and sweat drop moment.  It’s like dealing with old, racist relatives who are well beyond caring what they say and others think.  Cecire acknowledges that Lewis and Tolkien were men of their times, the nineteenth century.  These thoughts were common amongst people in those days, it’s not an excuse for ignorance, but an explanation.

As these fantasy authors are beloved around the globe, Cecire has difficulty teaching her students to objectively critique them.  One approach to critique is seeing it through the racism lens.  The interviewer brought up an interesting perspective: 

“But I have this feeling that some—not all, but some—people who virulently defend fantasy narratives like Lord of the Rings from any critique do it because they crave that feeling of “racial innocence,” as Robin Bernstein calls it. Like, the stories’ background whiteness is part and parcel, for them, of that childlike feeling of being totally enchanted by a tale—losing yourself in it.”

Cecire responded with this:

“There’re so many levels to enchantment in reading these texts. A lot of it has to do with sublime experiences, and this feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself, but also being special within that framework. But often that specialness is a form of privilege, and that privilege comes at the expense of other people, and if you pause and think about it, it’s really uncomfortable really quickly—or if you don’t come from that background and you’re reading these kinds of texts, maybe you figure it out with a shock at a certain point, or you detect it early on and are not interested in these texts at all.”

Now that is a thought-provoking and critical way to read children’s fantasy books.  These books are meant to entertain, offer escapism, and wonder. Being as Lewis and Tolkien are more modern than other fantasy writers, such as Barrie, Milne, Carroll, Baum, etc., and still have stereotypical racial portrayals of non-European.  Does that make it excusable, though?  No, it only shows these esteemed authors are as human as Einstein and the rest of us.

I also interpret this statement as saying that non-European ethnic readers would not identify with these characters and believe they lack that specialness to belong or even visit these worlds.  That is definitely true in part, but I also disagree.  British children’s fantasy literature somehow transcends so many negative barriers.  At the same time, these barriers provoke discussion and inspiration for new interpretations of these same stories.  How many times has Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan been retold all over the world?  Harry Potter has inspired many knockoffs written in various non-European languages and if Rowling’s work was in the public domain, there would be a lot more.

Cecire is exactly right, but also wrong.  The experience of the individual reader does not speak for the entire group and vice versa.  She did follow up that statement about ethnicity with another eye-opening thought:

“And I think that’s one of the big challenges around this material—to recognize how often hierarchies play into the kinds of pleasure that comes out of these texts. I guess every person has to figure out how they relate to it. You know, eventually, I realized I do not want feudalism to return to this land!”

WOW!  Now that thought is something I never considered!  Cecire is making a poignant argument that fantasy heroes often become rulers or leaders and/or support monarchies/feudalism.  Being fed a steady diet of fairytales and Disney, I’m unfazed by the idea of monarchies in fantasy worlds. Without guilt, I also admit that I’ve written many stories with monarchies as the predominant form of government.  It’s the romanticism of the old days, which  is what Cecire says Lewis and Tolkien did with their writings.

Exploring Lewis’s and Tolkien’s works, their main characters are ordinary people, but their heroes’ journeys make them royalty or “the chosen one.”  The kingdoms or peasants bow to their newly crowned rulers or the hero.  The subjects are written to love the specialness of the heroes, but it gives the illusion that in order to be a hero or “save the world” you need to enact a monarchy or be a leader.  It reinforces the old-fashioned hierarchal systems that many fantasy readers are victimized by and turn to fantasy to escape.  

That’s why we need to press forward.  We respect the classics, thank them for the inspiration, and hail the new fantasy writers.  They are working with new ideas to break with old ways of thinking and continuing the traditions of Lewis and Tolkien, but without the embarrassing bits (hopefully, fifty years from now the zeitgeist will change as will the definition of political correctness).

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