Skip to content

Literature of Fantasy

CWL 119

Same as ENGL 119. See ENGL 119.

Harry Potter and More - When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in June of 1997, it was largely regarded as a piece of children’s fiction about a ten-year-old orphan boy who discovers he has supernatural powers and goes off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It seemed nothing more than a charming piece of fantasy lit destined for the shelves of the young adult sections of bookstores and libraries. What then made the Harry Potter novels suddenly transform into a cultural phenomenon that captured the imaginations of both children and adults? Why have these novels become the backbone of a global literary empire? What is the magic behind Harry Potter? In this course, we’ll explore the mythos of the Harry Potter novels and how they’re steeped in a rich tradition of both canonical British literature. We’ll focus on social justice and examine the political forces that led to the formation of fantasy literature as a separate genre in the UK and what makes British fantasy novels unique. Our excursion into fantasy literature will reveal how these tales became a covert way to explore the inequalities that the Industrial Revolution ignited; a rising entrepreneurial middle class and a permanent urban underclass held in place by rigid policies guided by genetic superiority. We’ll examine fantasy novels as discrete organic political entities that grew into a vast literary network of interlinking commentaries on British social issues such as class, education, social welfare, disability, gender rights, and racial equality. Ultimately, we’ll explore how the Potter novels explore the rise of the Alt-Right and a dark speculative vision of the Brexit vote. Students will be expected to engage actively in in the classroom and to write three papers and give oral reports on the historical and political history of the novels we’re studying. Novels include: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. This section is restricted to English/CWL majors/minors.

From Mordor to Gormenghast: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peake’s Gormenghast If J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955, rev. 1966) established the dominant paradigm for the genre of secondary-world fantasy fiction, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-1959) established a rival paradigm that, while less influential, has been all the more important for defining an alternative to hobbitry—so much so that Peake has sometimes been described as “the anti-Tolkien.” Among contemporary fantasy writers who have preferred Peake’s vision, China Miéville has gone so far as to say that “The nicest thing anyone ever said about [his novel] was that it read like a fantasy book written in an alternate world where the Gormenghast trilogy rather than Lord of the Rings was the most influential work in the genre.” In contrast to Tolkien’s enchanted and multi-peopled Middle Earth, Peake’s grimmer and grimier Gormenghast has no magic and no non-human races, while Peake’s eccentrically ironizing modernist prose style is nothing like Tolkien’s sympathetically archaizing neo-medievalism. Compare Peake’s “The Tower of Flints, … patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven” with Tolkien’s “the Tower of Ecthelion … shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals …” While some admirers of either trilogy can’t abide the other, there have also been many readers (among them C. S. Lewis) for whom the secondary worlds of Tolkien and Peake represent equally absorbing if utterly different and even antithetical visions. In this class we’ll try to read and enjoy each trilogy on its own terms while at the same time reading them against each other as the antipodes of secondary-world fantasy fiction. To facilitate that we’ll alternate volumes from each trilogy through the semester. We will also watch and discuss the film adaptations made of each (Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the BBC mini-series Gormenghast).