In Defence of the Dark Arts: Academic Resistance to the Fantastic

November 10, 2015 | Anahit Behrooz.

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”

– Dr Seuss

Read any review of the Western canon and the absence of one particular genre becomes immediately obvious. Despite being one of the most dynamic and commercially successful genres in literature, fantasy is rarely taken seriously in the academic world. Iconic works such as C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are frequently swept aside in favour of ‘serious’ works which are considered more suitable for literary, artistic and socio-political analysis. Why, however, does this tension between fantastic and ‘high-brow’ literature even exist? What is it that makes us feel faintly embarrassed whenever we read something that talks unapologetically of monsters, witches, dragons, and magic?

This anti-fantasy snobbery has long existed in the academy, and has frequently been addressed. C.S. Lewis famously spoke out against those who considered children’s literature and fantasy examples of ‘juvenile taste’, arguing that there is no inferiority implicit in these types of writing. Daniel Timmons further points out that works of fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings or even Star Trek “are not always trivial or superficial” [1], rather containing an artistic depth which most academics choose to ignore. Yet, despite these pleas, fantasy remains a marginalised genre. Like other overlooked authors and works, such as postcolonial writers and feminist texts, it is excluded from the main canon and remains unintegrated within its contemporary context.

Far from being a juvenile and childish literature, however, fantasy contains highly complex and profound ideas, in particular as a genre of the marginalised. As a genre that relies heavily on subverting established notions of reality and familiarity, fantasy literature provides an ideal platform for vocalising often excluded perspectives. In His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman’s argument against the perceived corruption of sexual awakening, which runs throughout his narrative, opens the texts up to depictions of sexuality that may previously have been considered transgressive. The overtly homosexual relationship between the angels Balthamos and Baruch foreshadows the end of an authoritarian, heteronormative society run by the church and Heaven, and signals the coming of a brave new world.

Meanwhile, the depiction of witches in works of fantasy is an expression of freedom from oppression, and can be viewed as an example of feminist discourse. Rowling’s anecdote in Harry Potter’s textbook of the witch who freezes the flames as she burns at the stake, resulting in a pleasant “tickling sensation”[2] is not only amusing, but is also a wistful rewriting of history in order to empower women at a time when they were most vulnerable. Similarly, Ursula Le Guin’s depiction of a sexless, androgynous society in her Hainish Cycle is an ideal platform for rewriting society’s perception of gender, and challenging new ideas on sexuality. Turning to comic books, the parallels between Marvel’s X-Men and arguments surrounding disability and the Other are all too obvious. The X-Men are a defiant answer to outdated ideas of ‘transgressions’ of the body equating to moral and personal transgressions.

For far too long, fantasy has been seen as a literature of the juvenile by many in the academy. Not only is this attitude reductive, but it ignores fantasy literature’s unique and powerful platform for depicting and discussing marginalised discourses. It is time to recognise that, far from being childish, these texts provide some of the most profound insights into society that we have.

About Anahit

I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, by way of Oxford and St Andrews. My research explores representations of medieval literary tradition and manuscript culture in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. When not in Middle-earth, I’m interested in depictions of the monstrous and supernatural in literature and art, from marginalia to Marvel and everything in between.

Edited by Adam Clay, Danielle Howarth, Alice Kelly, and Sarah Stewart.


[1] Clark, George, and Daniel Timmons. J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-Earth. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2000. Print.

[2] Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999. Print.

One response to “In Defence of the Dark Arts: Academic Resistance to the Fantastic

  1. Pingback: i don’t know how this fits in either – (2+2) equals the wind·

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