18 February 2017

Review: Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth

Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth by Brian Attebery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good book, not a great one, and there is the measure of my disappointment. Attebery is at his very best -- which is exceptionally good -- when actively analyzing and commenting on individual texts and authors. He is usually quite skilled in integrating such analysis with the opinions of other scholars. Attebery makes many fascinating observations on Charles Williams, Hope Mirlees, George MacDonald, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, as well as on various species of fantasy, angels, and post-colonial fantasy. This book is an excellent education in the history of the genre.

Yet it is not without fault. At times Attebery slips into that self-renewing world in which scholars reference only each other and make pronouncements for which they neither adduce evidence nor produce an argument. Some call this engagement, but elopement might be the better term. True enough, this turning away from evidence is a common enough failing in academic writing over the last couple of generations, but it is the flight of the deserter rather than the escape of the prisoner (and so not to be commended). Mercifully, Attebery never stumbles into the Mirkwood of Jargon, where every utterance is impressive, but only as clear as the lyrics to Close to the Edge.

He seems a bit harder on C.S. Lewis than is necessary, however, and is at times dismissive: the entry of Joy Davidman into Lewis' life is apparently the sole reason that Till We Have Faces is less open to the charge of misogyny than Narnia is. While Joy Davidman surely had a profound effect on him, perhaps Till We Have Faces should suggest the need for a re-examination of the case again Lewis rather than the facile conclusion that he was swept off his feet and into enlightenment.

He also makes the occasional bald assertion, such as claiming that 'in order to avoid direct representation of religious iconography' Shakespeare substituted 'fairies for angels.' Did he? How so? But no proof is offered, no argument made. Since Shakespeare's fairies could not be mistaken for angels, and since Shakespeare's audience knew well that fairies and angels were not the same. this is an odd claim.

In discussing the attempt, specifically of G. P. Taylor, to write fantasy acceptable to literalist Christians, a failed attempt as it turned out, Attebery comments: 'Even the most faithful transcription of faith language into a work of fantasy has the effect of setting religion adrift.' But this one unsuccessful attempt by Taylor doesn't establish this. Perhaps Taylor just did it badly. Moreover, while it only takes one example to prove that something can be done, one example cannot prove that it cannot be done.

So I do recommend this book, but not without reservation. I found much to profit by here, but also some moments that could mislead the unwary.

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