Fantasy and The Believing Reader
Science Fiction Review - Fall 1982
For the last half-century English-language literary criticism has been captured by
a system of belief called Modernism or, in its later permutations, New Criticism.
If literary criticism were merely a club for people who think they understand Ezra
Pound, there would be no reason for fantasy writers and readers to take it into
account. Unfortunately, however, this particular school of literary criticism has
acquired the status, in too many minds, of Truth. Too many writers, eager to
understand what it is that makes their stories happen, have learned to say
"Classicism" and "Romanticism" as if Hulme's use of the words made any sense;
to speak contemptuously of "naive identification" and the "pathetic fallacy";
and to discuss their own work as if the reason for writing stories were to convey
meanings in such a way that only a trained reader can receive them -- and the
untrained reader can receive nothing at all. With more and more fantasy writers
being affected by this critical movement, and more and more critics turning their
techniques to fantasy, it is time that this school of literary criticism were put in
perspective in relation to fantasy stories.
AUTHORITY FOR BELIEF
Literary criticism is the stories we tell ourselves about our stories. When we
speak of a literary work's "meaning" we may be telling a story about how the
author intended the work to be read, how the proper audience of the work would
have understood it, how the work is received by a modern audience, what the
work tells us about the author and his community or even how we think the
work should have been written and how it compares to that standard of
measurement. In all cases, however, we are telling a story -- that is, we are
giving an ordered account of causally related events.
By tacit agreement we believe our literary stories in one way, as fiction and our
critical stories another way, as history. No one would attempt to prove that, say
HAMLET is "true" or "false", though we regard it as being a truthful play. No
one would dream of criticizing Shakespeare's writing of the play because
Claudius didn't "really" kill Hamlet's father. The center of belief in fiction is in
the author's assertions of causal relationships -- from this there is no appeal. On
the other hand, when Stephen Dedalus argues that HAMLET is Shakespeare's
working out of his own psychological problems caused by the death of his son
Hamnet, we can protest that this argument is false or invalid or not justified by
the evidence. The center of belief in criticism is historical -- the ultimate
authority from which there is no appeal is the "real" event. Since, of course, the
"real" event is forever unascertainable, we can quarrel forever about proof in
criticism (and all history). What does HAMLET really mean? Is the story we
tell about HAMLET true or false? In the meantime, however, while we may
assert that Stephen Dedalus's account of HAMLET is false, we cannot say
meaningfully that it is "true" or "false" that Dedalus said it, for Dedalus exists as
a character in fiction and if Joyce tells us Dedalus said it, we must accept this
without appeal, unless Joyce himself gives us reason within the text to doubt his
The distinction between fictional and historical centers of belief is rarely
clearcut, however. Historical and realistic fiction both imply some appeal to the
historical center of belief, for example. In earlier times, writers and readers were
not so fussy about what must be justified by "reality" and what might be
authoritatively invented by the writer. Where an individual writer and his
audience place themselves on that continuum varies from work to work, even
from paragraph to paragraph and individual readers, too, will bestow or withdraw
authority from a story on a historical or fictional basis depending on their own
expectations and experience.
WAYS OF BELIEVING
When a writer tells a story to his community, he will, consciously or not, assume
that the community will define itself in relation to the story. I have noticed
differences in the way I believe stories, whether fictional or historical, and for
clarity I distinguish three general types of belief: epic, mythic and critical. These
names are not arbitrarily chosen -- I mean them to resonate with many old
intentions and contrast with many old extensions of the words. However, they
are not parallel terms, and I wish them to be; and since I will use them in a
restricted and in some ways arbitrary way, right alongside the more traditional
meanings, I will risk annoying you with affectation and will distinguish these
special senses and odd grammatical uses of the words with etymologically
unjustifiable but visually parallel spelling changes.
Epick is all story that is received by a group as its own story -- as true of that
group. It is all story that tells who we are as opposed to who they are. Most of
the Old Testament was originally written and read epickly, because the audience
was the people of the book. They received it as an account of how we came out
of Egypt, how we prospered or declined in accordance with our obedience to or
rebellion against God.
Mythick is all story that is received by readers as true of all human beings, and
therefore lets each reader define himself as like or unlike the characters in the
book. It is believed on a personal, not group level.
Epick and mythick are alike, however, in this: The decision about whether or
not to believe is not consciously made. The story simply is or is not true. The
self is named by the story, and so to doubt the story is to rename the self.
Critick is all story that is received by readers as being detached from them. It
defines the reader neither as a human being nor as a member of a group. Rather,
critickal readers evaluate the meaning or truth of the story consciously, usually
detaching the meaning from the story itself.
Because critical readers read, not believing, but instead identifying and detaching
meanings from the story, they are incapable of properly receiving a story that was
written mythickly or epickly: They cannot receive a story that was written from
belief. Likewise, mythick and epick readers, because they believe as they read,
do not usually discern and detach meanings. The two methods are not
compatible. Once I have treated a story critickly, I am no longer capable of
treating it mythickly or epickly; I can only pretend to do so, or tell myself a story
about what it was like when I was capable of participatory reading.
CRITICISM AS STORY
Because criticism is also telling stories, however, it is important to remember
that a critic can be treating a literary work one way and treating his own story
about that work in another. Critics generally read all literary works critickly,
which leads to attempts to decode FAERIE QUEENE, map ULYSSES, patronize
the naivete of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or despise the superficiality of Pope. The
critic almost invariably believes his own story about these works. Only a few
critics in each generation are able to write their criticism critickly, to detach
themselves from their own stories about stories.
At that moment I seem to be functioning as a critickal critic, for I am aware that
my definitions, my naming, my stories about stories about stories are all artificial
constructs and not "true", but merely useful. However, this account of my own
attitude is also a story and to be critickal I must call it into question, because in
fact I would not write these ideas if I did not, at some point along the way,
believe in them. I at least believe in my unbelief, which certainly names me as a
believer. Which could bring me to paradox if it were not for the fact that part of
the story that I tell in that belief is, at some point, inescapable. Whoever
detaches himself from one story and ceases to name himself in relation to it
invariably attaches to another story, if only the story that he is now detached.
Of course you see where this leads. Coleridge and Wordsworth must define
themselves as different from their predecessors and yet identify themselves as
belonging in the same company. They are Milton, but they are not-Milton, just
as a child names himself as Mother and not-Mother. They treat their
predecessors' stories critickly, detaching themselves from those stories. They
replace it with their own epick story, which they believe and which accounts for
their predecessors and themselves and sets the world in order. T.S. Eliot and
others must repeat the task, endlessly redefining themselves. It is the universal
pattern of all writers that they must both identify themselves with and
distinguish themselves from their predecessors.
Yet this account (an oversimplification of Bloom) is also a story. It is epick to
those who believe it as a true account of how we (literateurs) work. It is mythic
to those who believe that this process of naming through doubting old stories
and telling new ones is universal.
Those who tell themselves the story that naive (mythickal or epickal) belief is
primitive, while detached, critickal understanding is more advanced, are
inevitably disturbed by this circularity, for if the critickal view is "better" or
more elevated, this account of it makes true critick forever as unapproachable as
true reality. The fully detached stance is impossible, because the detached
stance itself requires belief in detachment.
But this is not disturbing to those who believe that only a small number of our
stories can be received critickly. We could not live if we were critickal about
even a small fraction of the stories we are told. The critic who no longer
believes the capitalist story probably still believes the mythick stories of gravity,
humanity and fair play. The critic who no longer believes in the Bible epickly
or mythickly probably still believes in the objective reality of bread and the
causal relationship between chewing, swallowing and surviving. Because the
critickal view is only possible to the unbeliever, and all thought and language
depend ultimately upon unquestioned belief in something at some point, to
regard the critickal view as divine is to consign oneself forever to hell.
THE CRITIC'S TALE
The novel began as a rebellion against romance. Romance, which had been the
soul of an age in which real knights shed real blood, no longer satisfied uncourtly
writers, who turned to writing romances about their contemporaries and called
them "new" romances, or novels. The novel caught on, not because it appealed
to intellectuals, but because ordinary readers loved it.
Since then, however, the novel has been captured by another story, a critical
tale of self-existing texts, in which it is praiseworthy to put distance between the
reader and the story, in which it is forbidden for a "good" reader to identify with
a character or consider his own experience of the novel as anything more than
the "pathetic fallacy". All that was valuable in novels was that which was
publicly verifiable. In this way criticism could approach the absolute correctness
of science, in which only repeatable public experience is regarded as valid.
Literateurs found this method exciting and productive, and so they believed it
and started acting it out. They kept their distance from the texts they read, and
instead analyzed, breaking stories into pieces, discovering connections between
them, and then writing elaborate discursive paraphrases of the "meaning" of this
or that great work of literature. The result was the creation of a special
priesthood of correct readers, together building a tower of stories about stories
which, presumably, would take them to heaven.
The result was sometimes absurdity, as when scholars did not believe in Milton's
God though they could understand Milton's work. And as these priests of
detached and transcendental reading told each other more and more stories
about stories, writers began to believe them and write fiction for them. Such
fiction was no longer written to be believed. It was written to be analyzed and
translated into discourse, and the only story that was believed anymore was the
epick tale of the pure-minded critic, who, using absolute standards, officially
given him by observation but actually given him by God, decided what was good
and what was bad in fiction. Trembling, the writers who believed in this story
awaited the verdict of the critics, who sometimes turned their thumbs upward,
but more often proved their power by destroying the poor supplicant with his
Unfortunately, the majority of literature in the world does not fit this critical
method. When most stories are analyzed, they break down into a jumble of
meaningless fragments that seem almost interchangeable with the fragments of
every other such story. To the critic who guards the temple doors, such tales are
plainly unworthy offerings at the altar, for they cannot be consumed by the
hungry horde of priests behind the curtain. It is dust on their tongues.
Fantasy is one such sort of writing. Critics examine it and find strong-thewed
heroes saving damsels in distress, magic rings and prophecies, dark forces
opposing the bright light of goodness, and the critics say, "Cardboard characters.
Endless repetition of meaningless conventions. Hack writing. Childish
oversimplification of good and evil. Obviously written for the adolescent mind.
Wish-fulfillment. Bourgeois and fascist and sexist and racist. Pure trash." And
ah! the most damning epithet of all: "Escapist".
The bourgeois, unpriestly reader leaves his dull world of work and worry and
escapes to a land of magic, where good and evil are clearly separated, where he
can pretend that he is the strong and fearless hero, where he doesn't have to
cope with reality. And since this reader does not read deciphering meanings
from the text, he is obviously not seeking truth, bur rather avoiding thought.
Only the stupid or the lazy read it.
Thus the critic-priests tell a story about fantasy that explains away their inability
to apply their method to it. Any work that cannot be coped with is disposed of.
And so the critics have created their epick tale of good literature clearly
separated from bad literature, in which a few strong, heroic writers and critics
stand against the evil, swarming masses of subhuman intellect, hewing the
monsters Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Gothic, Historical, in order to
rescue the virgin damsel Truth and take her safely home, where she may be
raped at will.
The tragedy is not that so many critics believe this story and act it out, dressing
up in their tweeds and sweaters to go quarrel about minor points of doctrine at
MLA and other conferences. The tragedy is that those who are condemned by
them, excluded by them, also tend to believe this story, and regard themselves as
second-class citizens. The result is that they either apologize for the stories they
love, deny those stories, or try pathetically to make those stories fit the standards
of the critic-priests, who occasionally, grudgingly, admit such works into the
canon of minor works. But only after the "meaning" of the work has safely been
detached and translated into discourse. And occasionally a work of fantasy is so
important that it cannot be ignored. Then the critics must work over the story
unbidden, getting it under control as quickly and thoroughly as possible, lest too
many readers discover that they have a powerful experience that was far better
than anything the critic-priests ever gave them.
We can see this process at work with THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The book
was written by a formidable scholar, but he was not a critic-priest. He was a
lover of old stories that were told back when people willingly sat open-mouthed
listening to tales of heroes. Saga, epic, myth, fairy tale -- and Tolkien set out to
write just such a story. He declared again and again that he detested allegory in
all its forms, including modern symbolism. He was not writing meanings. He
was telling a story. Of course, the critic-priests already have an answer to that.
Never listen to the writer, they say. Only examine the text. Writers have an
embarrassing way of scoffing at the critic's interpretations. The text, however,
submits silently to torture and dismemberment.
In LORD OF THE RINGS, the three characters of Frodo, Sam and Gollum are
really three aspects of a single character. Frodo is the superego, Sam the ego,
and Gollum the id. We have the story firmly under control, for we have
renamed the characters to place them within a non-threatening tale.
Or try this: The scene at the Cracks of Doom is the temptation of Christ. The
ring is Satan. Frodo is the sin of pride, succumbing to Satan's offer of all the
kingdoms of the world. Gollum is the sins of the flesh, who used the ring for
murder, theft and catching fish, and finally, in the scene at the Cracks of Doom,
it is no accident that Gollum bites off Frodo's finger and then, in his triumph,
dances his way backward into the fires of hell. Gluttony destroyed itself and
Frodo, as the will to power survived only because he was broken and maimed.
Only Samwise, the person who was, significantly, untouched by the power of the
ring, emerges unscathed. And so we have an allegorical reading which can be
extended quite interestingly throughout the work.
We can search the LORD OF THE RINGS for patterns of imagery; we can
decipher the meaning of the different races; we can talk at great length about the
bourgeois virtues affirmed by the scouring of the Shire, and argue about whether
Sam or Frodo was the figure most rewarded. Yet is any of this what made LORD
OF THE RINGS a powerful experience to millions of readers?
Already, however, albeit with the best intentions in the world, LORD OF THE
RINGS is being required in college courses and is undergoing just such critical
treatments. I do not resent this because there is something inherently bad about
critickal reading. On the contrary, there is an excitement to the ritual of
criticism. It is an emotional experience to take pieces of the broken-up text and
assemble them in a meaningful pattern. It is, in fact, a valid creative act to tell
such stories about stories, and I think that is much of the reason why the critic-priests have survived so long. Anyone who has read the rhapsodies of Frank
Kermode or the great sagas of Northrop Frye knows that within the community
of critic-priests there are powerful, true-seeming tales.
The danger is not in the fashionable critics' tale-telling, but in their insistence
that these stories about stories be believed, not as fictions, but as objectively true
history. And most critical commentary is as helpful in understanding stories as
Genesis is in understanding the origins of life. It is very lovely, but it doesn't
account very well for all those fossils. The epickal stories of the critic-priests
however exciting they are in their own right, do not even begin to explain what
really happens in the experience of participatory reading.
Fantasy cannot be read critickly. It cannot be translated into discourse. Its fit
reader cannot remain aloof and detached from the story, searching for meanings
in the interstices of the tale. The fit reader of fantasy is not a spectator but a
participant. Mythickly or epickly, the fit reader of fantasy attempts to believe,
and if he does not believe, it is because he and the writer cannot comfortably
dwell in the same unconscious world, not because fantasy itself is by nature
THE ACT OF READING
In a sense, all reading is participatory in that it requires the reader to follow
along the sentences and apprehend the words. Readers are trained to recognize
discrete symbols as letters, and discrete groups of symbols as words. The very fact
that words are separated by neat little spaces, and sentences by universally
agreed-upon marks, carries its own meaning. But readers do not think about the
symbols they are reading while they are reading. They simply receive them, and
unconsciously sort them out. Each symbol-group arouses its own set of responses
in the reader; but even then, it is not the word we read, but the relationships
between the words. Of means nothing by itself. But add more and more words,
and of becomes ripe; a reader receives of differently because of its context, and
receives everything else in the sentence differently because of is there.
In receiving stories, we go through a similar process. We are told of certain
events, with a certain pattern of causal relationships among those events. Each
event changes our view of all other events. And, as with reading letters and
words, the overwhelming majority of those changes, those relationships among
events, are conceived unconsciously, uncontrolledly, and we never notice them
This model of how we receive stories is remarkably similar to how we receive the
events of our own lives. Things happen; we act, others act. Each event is
unconsciously assigned a causal relationship -- either intentional, mechanical or
random -- to all other events. And from all this we develop the unconscious but
unquestioningly believed story of the world that makes us who we are. We call
this "real life" as opposed to fiction, but in fact our own lives are merely stories
we have unconsciously told ourselves about events. Our self exists only in our
But it is more complex than this. We also hear the stories other people tell us
about ourselves and about themselves. A child, engrossed in play, performs a
socially unacceptable behavior in his pants; his mother, who believes certain
tales about such things, says, "That's so filthy", and the child believes. "You are
so dumb", and we believe. "You are so beautiful", and we believe. Our very self
is constantly being revised according to our experience and the stories others tell
This works in the other direction too. We are constantly revising our
experiences according to that set of unconscious beliefs we call our "self". We
believe some stories, we doubt others; we unconsciously decide some experiences
are important and remember them, and decide others are trivial and forget them.
Thus ourself edits our experience of the world, and our experience of the world
revises ourself in unmeasurable unaccountable ways.
This is how we read, except that the events of the story have already been edited
by another person. The author's absolute control over the written text translates
into a great deal of control over our ordering of the events in the story. We edit
the story unconsciously as we read, deciding what is important and what is
trivial, what is true and what is false, but to a considerable degree we will still be
influenced by the shapes the writer has imposed on the tale.
Furthermore, the writer's shaping of the work is also unconscious to a greater
degree than critical theorists would like to admit. Even writers who follow a
tight plan, controlling, as they think, every word, every gesture of a character,
every meaning of a line -- even they are still, as human beings, trapped within
that set of beliefs that is themself. For their decisions about what is true and
important, their selection of events, eventually comes down to what feels
important and what feels true.
In this unsortable storm of belief, there is no such thing as publicly verifiable
truth, because there is no such thing as perfect communication, and without
perfect communication there is verification. The doctrines of the critic-priests
are really an attempt to surmount this problem by cutting story down to a more
manageable thing: discourse. Detached reading gives the reader the illusion of
control -- the illusion that "good" writers are in control of their stories, the
illusion that "good" readers can receive the meanings of those works. In fact,
however, a detached reading is not a reading of the story at all. The detached
reader is not allowing the writer to give him vicarious memory of events that
were ordered by another hand. Instead, the detached reader is continually
rebuilding the events and language of the story into his own safe and comfortable
discourse, which he knows he can deal with because it is his almost unchanged
This method works. But it is, if you will forgive the term, escapist. The
detached reader is escaping, not from that set of fictions called reality, but from
that most dangerous and fearful of all things, the true story. The closest thing to
true communication between two human beings is story-telling, for despite his
best efforts at concealment, a writer will inevitably reveal in his story the world
he believes he lives in, and the participatory reader will forever after carry
around in himself and as himself a memory that was partly controlled by that
other human being. Such memories are not neatly sorted into fiction and real
life in our minds. I know, of course, that I never stood at the Cracks of Doom
and watched Gollum die. But that faith in the distinction between my own
actions and the actions of fictional characters is merely another story I tell
myself. In fact, my memory of that event is much clearer and more powerful
than my memory of my fifth birthday.
You see why the critic-priests must shun participatory reading, must deny it, must
refuse it. Participatory reading puts your very self at risk. It will and must
change who you are. This may be much of the reason why most people never
read stories at all after they leave adolescence. Consciously or not, they do not
wish to change, and so they avoid an experience that will unavoidably change
them. The critic-priest, with his detached reading, does precisely the same
thing. He avoids the experience of reading a story, in exchange for the
experience of affirming the story that he is a superior, elevated, fit and above all
non-bourgeois reader. It is a story that is not dissimilar to the story of the divine
right of kings or the infallibility of popes: It bestows power and privilege,
provided that enough other people believe it.
Of course, no one, not even a critic-priest, really reads everything critickly. The
emotional impact of believed stories is at the heart of even the most detached of
formal criticism. Canonical texts are all right to believe. The bludgeon of
detached reading is only used with full force against non-canonical stories -- that
is, against those very stories which cannot possibly be comprehended by a
critickal reader. It is a catch-22. To be read with belief, a story must be
admitted to the canon of great or good works; to be admitted to the canon, a
story must be designed for critickal reading or already have such a strong claim to
greatness that critickal interpretations have been forced upon it.
In the critic-priest's epick story of stories, fantasy is by definition unworthy of
serious attention because it must be believed mythickly to have any value at all.
But fantasy is hardly alone in that exclusion. All art that is, in Hulme's term,
Romantic, and all fiction that is Romance, belongs outside the courts of the
temple. Fantasy is certainly not identical with other sorts of romance, or we
would not be able to name the genre and believe the name.
We do not start out believing whatever the writer throws at us in a story. Each
genre and subgenre has its own way of inducing us -- or seducing us -- to keep
reading long enough to believe. Importance and truth -- that is what we look
for in all our reading of stories. When we reject a story we usually do it because
we do not believe it or because we are bored. In coarser terms we either say,
"Oh, yeah?" or "So what?"
The writer, because he is telling a story that feels important and true to him,
does not ask those questions of himself. But the reader does not, a priori, agree
with the writer's assessment of what is important and true. Therefore the writer
uses tricks to keep readers paying attention for a while. Eventually the tricks
break down, because they are only illusions. Eventually the reader will decide,
consciously or not, whether the story itself is true or important. But in the
meantime, the tricks can keep working for a long time.
In each genre there are ways of creating the illusion of importance and the
illusion of truth. The critic-priests, in fact, provide one of the most powerful
machineries for sustaining an illusion of importance. How many people would
chose to read Henry James or Virginia Woolf if no one told them that THE
AMBASSADORS and TO THE LIGHTHOUSE were pivotal or seminal works?
This is not to say that these novels are not really important or true, merely that
they depend on the critical story about them for most of their readers. Without
the critical buttressing, most readers would give up in despair by the time they
reached James's thousandth comma or the second page, whichever comes first.
In the genre of literary stories, the writers openly call for that same critical
approval. And to attract it, they create the illusion of importance primarily
through imitating the vice of the "great" novels. They make their works
deliberately boring, put as much introspection between events as possible, and in
short imitate the conventions and forms of their genre to signal to the reader
that this is a work which may well meet with approval from the oracle. Also,
the literary genre writer often tries for obscurity, forcing the reader to probe for
hidden meanings because there is no detectable surface sense. In short, such
works seduce the reader into the rituals of critickal reading.
The literary genre also sets up the illusion of truth. In the realistic novel, the
writer spins a web of detail that corresponds with verifiable contemporary
experience. The reader recognizes these details and they keep him believing that
what is going on here could happen in the real world, that it is true. In the self-conscious novel, the narrative voice is either mocking or mocked, undercutting
belief by drawing the reader to an ironic platform from which author and reader
together can despise error. This, too, draws the reader into believing the author
by accepting his choice of what to disbelieve.
How are the illusions of importance and the illusions of truth created in fantasy?
Where the realistic novel depends upon recognition of details of contemporary
life, the fantasy writer has long depended on recognition of conventional
devices. Because the writer is invoking events that the reader has believed
before, the reader is induced to believe again. However, competition with the
novel has forced the fantasy writer to use both methods.
The conventions are still there, but a wealth of detail is also provided. The
detail in fantasy, however, does not correspond with the contemporary
experience. While the causal relationships among events are recognizable, the
details create a world that is changed in certain important respects -- the
possibility of magic, the distance from the present time. Yet, in the best realistic
fashion, the modern fantasy writer gives us so much detail that the story seems to
be taking place in a real world. This works only because the realistic novelist
has taught readers to believe in detailed realities; but then, it was only necessary
in fantasy because the realistic novelist taught readers to expect detail and doubt
whatever did not have it.
The illusion of truth, however, is not so important to the fantasy reader as the
illusion of importance. The critickal reader, in ridiculing fantasy, usually makes
much of the fact that the stories seem so pretentious. The characters and the
narrator so often speak in a formal, elevated language -- Ursula LeGuin even
considers this essential. The stories always seem to be about a world-changing
struggle between good and evil. All of civilization as we know it seems to hang
in the balance.
But those elements are not universal in recent fantasy. Most modern fantasy
sustains the illusion of importance in other ways. One useful device, perhaps
most effective because this is a generally irreligious age, is ritual -- not just for
magical purposes, but for purposes than can only be called worship or
celebration. The ceremonial honoring of Frodo and Sam before King Aragorn is
one such ritual, in which each of them, given a new name and a new story, is
presented formally to the people of the land for public honor. One thinks also of
the parallel scene in STAR WARS and the honoring of Thomas Covenant as a
hero in his own world after his return from the Land.
Another device that sustains the illusion of importance is one that troubles many
critics -- the almost inevitable cruelty of fantasy. Violence alone is, indeed, an
attention-getting device. But the cruelty of the most powerful fantasies goes
beyond mere blood and thunder. In Gene Wolfe's SHADOW OF THE
TORTURER, the scenes of death are all ritualized, and pain is a sacrament; in
LORD OF THE RINGS, too, Frodo is made holy by his suffering, and his
dismemberment becomes part of his name. Stephen Donaldson's leper, Thomas
Covenant, lives in a ritual of self-protection, in constant fear of unspeakable,
insidious decay. There is something about the ritualizing of suffering that makes
it seem more important. In the story of Christ, it matters less that Jesus died
than that he chose to die, that his death was important to other people, that it
was excruciating and slow, that it followed certain forms and certain words were
said. A common form of execution was turned into a holy and important thing
because of the way the story of it is given to us. These same elements of
ritualized cruelty are no less powerful in fantasy, and so they are frequently
Behind the illusion of importance, however, fantasy really is important to the
believing reader. The point of fantasy is not its novelty -- the same conventions
can be endlessly repeated because what matters is not the event, but the way the
events are fit together and the importance that is given to them by the
characters. Losing a finger is unfortunate; Frodo's losing a finger is his personal
redemption and the redemption of the world. And yet as soon as I express it in
words like that, I have paraphrased and turned it to discourse, and therefore
removed its effect. The power of fantasy is not in the fact that a sacrifice has
taken place, but that the participatory reader remembers the experience of
sacrificing. What makes the Riddlemaster of Hed important is not that there is
an identity crisis when God turns out to be the Devil, but that I the reader
remember experiencing the terror of that moment, without comfortably naming
it "identity crisis". It was myself at risk, myself who suffered. And the very
subjectivity of the experience makes it resist the fashionable language of criticism
Does this mean that all criticism of fantasy is futile? Of course not. What it
means is that we must be aware that the fashionable critical paradigms are
completely inappropriate to fantasy -- and to most fiction that real people like to
read. The Modernist epick is an assertion of power over all story-telling, and it
must not be just doubted but destroyed, and not just destroyed but replaced. It
would be foolish to replace it with another map to be laid over stories to "make
sense" of them. It is the idea that one must make sense of stories at all that is
harmful. Stories are sense, and do not need to have anything made of them at
all. Critickal reading of most stories is unintelligent unless it follows a genuine
mythick or epick reading: It is time to stop crediting the criticism of those who
have not read with belief. It is time to propose new canons of great literature,
new methods of critical approach, and new purposes to be accomplished in the
examination of a text. The elitists have sneered at good stories without any
answering scorn quite long enough.
What sort of criticism is valid? Since every story is, in a way, a revolutionary
act, and since stories can be powerful forces for changing individuals, they
inevitably have moral force and can be dangerous. Any critic who reads a story
that is morally detestable to him has a perfect right to answer the story on those
grounds. Since every writer has different strategies for handling the illusions of
truth and of importance, it is also appropriate for a critic to call attention to that
stories offend his personal taste. That is, after all, what I am doing right now.
There is always room for critical response to stories, as long as it is understood
that such responses are eccentric and we do not allow any one school of thought
to have a privileged position -- especially not a school of thought stupid and
arrogant enough to consign an exceptionally vital and powerful literature to