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Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn
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's review
Oct 30, 08

bookshelves: wpf-masters-reading
Read in October, 2008

Ms. Mendlesohn's book is based on a question: What happens if we consider fantasy from the way the fantastic enters the text? From this question, and a plethora of reading, she formulates an answer based on several other questions: What is the structure of types of fantasy? Where is the reader positioned? How do we meet the fantastic? How does this affect the choice of language? ect. She makes it very clear that it's not the answer, but rather what she sees from what she has studied in the genre. It's not supposed to be a template on how to write a certain kind of fantasy.

But it does bring up good points to think about when writing fantasy.

Fantasy, she says, can be broken into four categories:

Portal/Quest fantasies
Immersive fantasies
Intrusion fantasies
Liminal fantasies

She also points out a few novels that fall outside of these categories (as is to be expected, since genre is not rubric, it's dialectic).

Portal/Quest fantasies are really two similar types of fantasy that end up following the same rhetorical structures. The Portal fantasy is one where the protagonist is transported out of their "real" world into a "magical" one. The most obvious example of this is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Quest fantasies are similar in that the protagonist leaves the known world (which is often far removed from magic, even if there is magic in the world) and travels into the unknown on, well, a quest. The most obvious example of this is The Lord of the Rings (despite it's immersive qualities).

The reader is positioned as a companion/audience and we're tied to the protagonist for our understanding and decoding of the world. We accept the narrative of the protagonist. What he/she learns (from others) in traveling is the truth. The rhetoric is one of denying what should be taken for granted. It positions the reader and the protagonist as naive (which makes some sense, given the preponderance of children/naive, unlearned people who end up becoming the heroes of these kinds of tales). The tales often deal with the thinning of the land and end with the restoration of the land, the return to the grandeur of old. There is also, many times, there is an association with the King and the well-being of the Land (very Arthurian). Portal/quest fantasies are closed narratives. The information we learned is not questioned. History is fixed. When Gandalf speaks of elder times, we know it to be true.

While the world of a portal/quest novel can be immersive, it is not the world, but the journey that matters, and what of the world we see, we see as a tourist on that journey, not as a native of the land. In LoTR, Frodo is only ever native to the Shire at the beginning of the novel. There we are not tourists, but rather immersed in Frodo's everyday life. Once we pass beyond the boundries of the Shire, we, like Frodo, are in unfamiliar territory. We, like Frodo (or the children in LWW), are astonished at it, wonder and marvel at the sights (or quiver).

In contrast, the Immersive fantasy assumes the reader is as much a part of the world as the protagonist. The world must be complete and fully formed. We must share the assumptions of the world just as we would if we were reading about another period in history or place in our own, very real, world. We sit in the heads of the protagonist and interpret the world based on what they do and do not notice (i.e., we are not told, the world is described).

There is no astonishment when it comes to the fantastic... it is taken for granted by the protagonist, and therefore must also be by the reader. Immersive fantasies are not so much about restoration as they are about entropy, watching the world decline. It not about building back up. The protagonist is engaged in a struggle with the world, must challenge what is known. History is not always reliable. Mendlesohn points to Perdido Street Station as an immersive fantasy... which brings up an interesting point. Some immersive fantasies are nearly indistinguishable from science fiction.

Another immersive fantasy would be the Silmarilian. It's a good contrast to use between the immersive qualities of LoTR and the true immersion of the reader in the world. Much of what we learn in the Silmarillion is through characters fully living in their world, rather than through the eyes of a character who is on a journey through it. Immersive fantasies tend to take place (though not always) in cities. I would personally say that many of the Urban fantasies are immersive.

Intrusion fantasies are fantasies where the fantastic intrudes on the "real" word. In an intrusion fantasy, the world is ruptured by the intrusion. It disrupts normality and must either be sent back to whence it came, or negotiated and normalized. But the normalization is not restoration. The world or the protagonist is fundamentally changed by the intrusion.

An interesting rhetorical device of the intrusion fantasy is that the protagonist relies on senses over over what is known. There's an inherent distrust built up around what is known and in inherent trust in the senses. What is felt is true. What is known is circumspect. The protagonist moves from denial of the fantastic to the acceptance, during which there is a kind of push/pull between what is known and what is sensed with the senses winning out into what is true. There are times when the senses are couched in pseudo-scientific terms, but still end up as feelings clothed in faux-analysis. (See also Lovecraft.)

Quite often the intruder renders the fantasy world more real than the mundane world of the character. The protagonist is sliced from the world, but also does not view themselves as entirely part of their world (or of the common man). It moves between latency and expectation, building until the end. Quite often the ending is somewhat of a let-down... it is the tension of the impending intrusion, the fantastic breathing on the back of the protagonists neck, that often is the heart of the tale. Intrusion fantasy is about entropy and the resistance to entropy.

I'm going to stop here and state that I'm not sure I fully understand the next category, the liminal Fantasy. Mendlesohn originally conceived it as a form of fantasy that estranges the reader from the fantastic as it is seen and described by the protagonist. In the end, I think she comes to define liminal fantasy as fantasy which presents two worlds, two "truths" but which denies choosing between them. They are written in such a way that the mundane is described as fantastic (using the descriptive and baroque language fantasy readers are used to) and the fantastic is rendered more mundane or real, but no indication is given as to which is really "real." It is a form that plays on the expectation of the fantasy reader. It depends on the knowingness of the reader, the tendency to suspend disbelief and the knowledge the reader has about how these kinds of stories usually play out. Then it turns it on its head and the reader is left wondering just where the fantasy is, and just which of the truths presented is true. They deny the reader coded interpretation. They are not closed stories and much, at the end, is left open for the reader to decide.

Mendlesohn then talks about some of the texts that don't neatly fit into her taxonomy, usually by shifting seamlessly between her different types of fantasy. I found this section the hardest to follow, and I think it requires a better understanding of the text she sights in the chapter.

This is a dense book. Part of that density comes from the detail the author provides about the novels she read. Many of them are summarized in detail and excerpted heavily. There were times when I started to skim the retelling of the books Mendlesohn referred to, simply because I wanted to read about what she concluded from her, not get a summary of a novel. It was useful to know about the details of the novels, to a point, but there were times when I felt like the point was being dragged over and over again.

In the end, it was a useful read, and an interesting one.
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