Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mr. Bowman and the fantasists

In a forthcoming issue of The New Atlantis, James Bowman writes:

Tolkien and the other old-time fantasists may have felt themselves to be working within the Western tradition, from which they would cite the gods and heroes of classical literature as their precedents. But to believe that is to overlook the fundamental difference between their fantastical creations and Homer’s: Homer believed in the reality of his gods and heroes and they did not. More importantly, Homer’s audience thought his gods and heroes were, or had been, real; that was why they incurred the censure of Plato. When Milton, two and a half millennia later, proposed to write the English national epic by making use of the legends of King Arthur, he reluctantly abandoned the project because he had come to think that the Arthurian stories weren’t true, weren’t real. Of the Fall of Man, which replaced them as his subject, he naturally had no such doubts.

(Before proceeding, let me pause to note that, while Milton indeed doubted the historicity of the Arthurian tales — in his History of Britain he wrote, “But who Arthur was, and whether ever any such reign'd in Britain, hath been doubted heretofore, and may again with good reason” — he never explained anywhere the reasons for his change of topic. It seems far more likely to me that in the aftermath of the Commonwealth's failure he was scarcely in a patriotic mood. But in any case, Bowman is guessing here, not reporting.)

(While I’m at it, let me also note that Tolkien certainly wouldn't have cited classical literature as his precedent: all of his key models are medieval.)

(And did Homer really believe in the personal, physical existence of Zeus, Hermes, Athena and the rest? How would one know? Okay, that's enough. . . .)

Confronted by howls of outrage from fantasy-lovers, Bowman has further developed his critique: his chief point in mentioning Tolkien et al. is that “the fantasy actually being produced in our culture today, [including] that which is, in one way or another, merely derivative from Tolkien or Lewis . . . represents a break with the Western mimetic tradition to which the fantasies of yesteryear still, more or less, belonged.” I am pretty confused by what Bowman says in elaborating this point. Is The Lord of the Rings one of those “fantasies of yesteryear” that “still, more or less belonged” to “the Western mimetic tradition”? If so, this contradicts what Bowman wrote earlier. If not, at what point do we place the historical line that separates the acceptably fantastic from the unacceptably fantastic?

Again, Bowman writes, “Fairies were believed in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as recently as a hundred years ago, and I would not take my oath that Lewis and Tolkien did not believe in them too.” But in his New Atlantis article he says flatly that Tolkien did not believe in his “fantastical creations.” So which is it?

By the end of this second post Bowman seems to have shifted his critique from Lewis and Tolkien to the people he takes to be their contemporary successors. “What I objected to in our contemporary fantasists — the question of their predecessors was too complicated for me to go into in such a short article — was that they deliberately and as a precondition of their art cut me off from any possibility of belief in the worlds they represent to me because they do not believe in them themselves. And if they don't believe in them, why should I?” But Bowman did indeed “go into” “the question of their predecessors,” as can be seen in my first quote above. So is he withdrawing the charge he made against “Tolkien and the other old-time fantasists” that they only, and erroneously, “felt themselves to be working within the Western tradition”? Or is he prepared to reassert it? If he doesn't address these questions, then he’s not answering many (most?) the people who were angry with his article.


  • I don't see anything wrong with drawing from fantasy writers like Tolkien —lord knows lots of great fantasy computers games and movies and t.v. shows did— but I think Bowman was wrong here, at least for my favorite fantasy writer George R. R. Martin.
    Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series draws largely from the War of the Roses and Greek and Roman history (I think) sure there are (spoilers!) fantastic creatures like Dragons and Direwolves but a lot of the history is based on actual history rather than Tolkienesque worlds. I don't think GRRM is the only one.

  • Wha? He can't enjoy fiction because the authors knew they were writing fiction? It would be more enjoyable if the authors thought their own works were true, historical account? Believing something doesn't make it true, nor does falsity necessarily invalidate some of our cherished beliefs. Lastly, the mimetic tradition is part of a worldview that scarely exists alongside rationalism, though it persists (for a while) in childhood and more generally in fiction. Bowman is overintellectualizing things.

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