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Re-enchanted coverIn this interesting but not entirely satisfying addition to scholarly discussions of children’s fantasy in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Maria Sachiko Cecire makes the bold claim that she intends to lay out a “new genealogy for children's medievalist fantasy” (p. 6). Cecire focuses on Oxford as the site of inspiration and ideological foundation both for the work of fantasists who attended the university and of their successors. She argues that landscapes such as that of Oxford—the “British” or perhaps more specifically the “English” landscape—provide “access to premodern experience, opportunities for adventure and, above all, magic” (p. 2).

The genealogy Cecire proposes is founded on the fact that the English curriculum at Oxford was largely established by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who, she argues, wanted to set aside modern progress and return to a pre-modern world, and the medieval literature that they promoted within that curriculum reflects both the landscape of the past that offers enchantment and the moral certitude of the attitudes within those texts. Tolkien and Lewis “led the charge … [against] the disenchantment, relativism, ambiguity, and progressivism that they saw in modernity” (p. 3). The whiteness and privilege of the university is inextricable, Cecire argues, from “the whiteness and privilege of the medievalist children’s fantasy … much of which features elite schools, masculinist norms, and exclusive access to knowledge and power” (p. 8). She uses Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman as exemplars, adding the Harry Potter books as a “touch point” for where medievalist children’s literature ends up by the end of the twentieth century.

Although in her introduction Cecire more or less lumps together her four authors as all in some way reflecting the ideology they absorbed through their exposure to Tolkien and Lewis’s English curriculum, the trajectory of her argument in the course of the book does seem to place Cooper and Crossley-Holland as perhaps the “most” influenced, with Jones being rather more subversive and Pullman still more. The implication is that this trajectory follows a time line, leading—in the twenty-first century—to a production of fantasy that still reflects the influence of the “Oxford School” but does so in a more nuanced way, reflective of a more “realistic” view of the world. The time line is a bit more complicated than Cecire’s argument would suggest: it should be noted that Jones and Cooper were contemporaries, whereas Crossley-Holland attended Oxford a decade later and Pullman later still.

Cecire’s discussion is at its strongest in her discussions of race, class, and gender, and of both Tolkien's and Lewis’s strains of British—or English—nationalism. She makes the interesting point, for example, that Tolkien’s horror of Americanization links his anti-progressivism to a strain of British nationalism and Anglophilia still present today, observable in Brexit propaganda (p. 55). Also very strong are her discussions of American Anglophilia, and the way that English, medievalist fantasy allows white readers to look nostalgically to a “lost realm” of the past (p. 193), perhaps one that never existed.

In the chapter “White Magic,” she argues that medievalist fantasy is raced white: “Popular understanding of the Middle Ages have—like all history—been largely constructed by and through hegemonic power, which has long erased, marginalized, and vilified people of color for its own contemporary reasons” (p. 185). Her focus text in this chapter is Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), which Cecire, convincingly, reads as reflecting a colonial view of travel to new worlds. She also highlights the racialisation of Lewis’s “Saracen” style enemies, which make antagonists of what Ebony Elizabeth Thomas calls “The Dark Other” (p. 194).

I enjoyed her analysis, too, of “Tech-bro” geek culture and fan culture; indeed there is no question of the misogyny and racism in certain sectors there. I’m not sure it is fair or valid, however, to place the blame for this entirely on Tolkien and Lewis, as the influences upon such contemporary fans are multitudinous, including games, movie and television adaptations, and so on, all of which have diluted and reframed their generic forebears.

Indeed, I felt after reading the book that there were really two main parts to Cecire’s argument, and that the most powerful—even the one that she seemed most interested in, although less directly expressed—is the reception of Tolkien- and Lewis-esque fantasy in Anglo-American culture of the twenty-first century. More than half of her book is about something other than her stated topic—twentieth century children’s fantasy—and what is included on that topic is brief and hardly comprehensive. She has a lot of great and interesting things to say about the way Tolkien and Lewis’s work has been absorbed and transformed and about the possible source of its appeal, but her attempt to “hook” this discussion to the Oxford University curriculum and to the so-called “Oxford School” is not successful, nor does she lay out, as she claims, a “new genealogy“ of children’s medievalist fantasy.

For example, in her first chapter, “Relegated to the Nursery,” Cecire presents a fairly unexceptional overview of what she argues is Tolkien and Lewis’s underlying ideology, and their aim in developing a curriculum at Oxford that focused on “pre-modern” texts. This is unexceptional in the sense that much of it is fairly standard to most scholarly discussions of their work in the last twenty or thirty years. Tolkien, she argues, wanted to “reintroduce the fantastical, medieval, and heroic into scholarly and popular discourse” (p. 41). Both Tolkien and Lewis promoted the dominance of white, Christian, English men and they “laid down a canon for the next generation of British fantasy authors” (p. 43), including the so-called “Oxford School.” She notes that childhood is persistently aligned with fairy tale and fantasy (p. 44) and argues that the popularity of the middle ages reflects its status as a kind of “childhood” of human development. In this framework, Lewis and Tolkien are shown to have used academic authority to elevate “popular” discourses such as fairy tale and children’s literature more broadly.

This notion of an “Oxford School” is not new. I learned from a Twitter conversation with Neil Philip, an Alan Garner scholar, that the concept of an “Oxford School” (named “Oxford Group”) was first mooted in a 1987 article by Jessica Yates, for Books for Keeps, entitled “50 Years of Fantasy.” Yates acknowledges the influence of Tolkien, but credits Alan Garner with inspiring his own subset of fantasy, one that she relates to myth and folklore. Incidentally, it should be noted that this short article cites more examples of twentieth-century fantasy, both British and American, than Cecire does in her entire book.

A much more important and comprehensive previous discussion of the “Oxford School” can be found in Catherine Butler’s 2006 work Four British Fantasists, which Cecire mentions only in a one-line, incidental reference. Some recognition and acknowledgement of Butler’s work would have strengthened and deepened Cecire’s, and those familiar with it will know that much of the ground Cecire covers has already been discussed fully in that prior book. Butler’s titular “Four Fantasists” include Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones but also Penelope Lively and Alan Garner, whom Cecire omits because they both studied history. Butler makes the same point about the English curriculum as Cecire, noting that “even those English students who were not acquainted with [Lewis and Tolkien] personally were affected by their long rearguard campaign to restrict the incursions of modern literature into the Oxford English syllabus and ensure a plentiful diet of works in Old Norse, Old English, and Middle English.” Butler continues: “‘They taught us to believe in dragons,’ a friend of [Susan] Cooper’s recalls, and it seems entirely possible that this orientation with the English syllabus had a significant effect on the future literary production of Tolkien’s fsub-and Lewis’s students” (p. 15). Butler mentions the general influence of Tolkien and Lewis on the genre, noting that later fantasy has come to be defined “in terms of the conventions that they established or popularized” adding that the “most enduring of their legacies is surely their ubiquitous medievalism” (p. 18).

It is undeniable that Tolkien and Lewis had a profound influence on the genre of fantasy; Cecire, however, implies that it is their manipulation of the English curriculum at Oxford that is largely responsible for the subject matter and ideology of the work produced by the so-called “Oxford School” of authors and their successors, and in this respect, I think her argument is flawed. The study of influence, as Butler notes in Four British Fantasists, is a complicated matter. In assigning so much power to Lewis and Tolkien’s choice of the Oxford curriculum, it would seem that we are asked first to discount other factors and secondly to accept that these authors might not have chosen to write the way they did without this influence. Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, roughly the same age and at Oxford at the same time, have both written that they were profoundly affected by the Second World War. Cooper acknowledges that her representation of good and evil in The Dark is Rising sequence (1965-77) was much affected by her experiences in the war, although Cecire would have us ascribe it at least in part to the pre-modern ideals promoted by Lewis and Tolkien. Diana Wynne Jones read Malory and retellings of Norse myths as a child, well before the influence of the two Oxford professors.

While to a certain extent I agree with the notion that Lewis and Tolkien present a nostalgic look at an idealized Britain (or England) that never was, one cannot deny the profound influence on all these writers of a very real sense of history, folklore, and a landscape that can at times seem imbued with magic. This sense of the past permeates not just Oxford but much of the United Kingdom, especially in rural areas. And while I agree that some of these works do at times promote an idealized view of the English rural landscape, writers such as Alan Garner in works like Elidor (1965) present a clear-eyed and even “modernist” view of the urban environment. Indeed, I believe strongly that we should not discuss an “Oxford School” without discussing Alan Garner. Neil Philip noted in his Twitter conversation that Garner’s tutor at Oxford, Colin Hardie, was a member of the Inklings; his work reflects (independently of the English curriculum) much the same interests as the authors Cecire discusses. It is founded, as is much of British fantasy, in a long tradition of myth and folklore.

There are other influences beyond the Oxford curriculum. Cecire mentions late Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories and boys’ comics. For girls, comics in the tradition of The Girl’s Own Paper and Schoolfriend were full of similar jingoistic patriotism and stereotypical representations of race; nor should we eliminate the works of the enormously popular Enid Blyton. School stories and comics, such as those mentioned, are generally seen to be the tradition lying behind the Harry Potter books, more than the works of the “Oxford School.” Cecire’s discussion of “Christmas magic” might have been enhanced by mention of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1955). Likewise, the work of E. Nesbit was extremely important to both C.S. Lewis—Lewis acknowledged her influence upon the Queen Jadis incident in The Magician’s Nephew (1955)—and Diana Wynne Jones. Cecire comments on the Romantic, ideal view of childhood that prevails throughout the Victorian and Edwardian periods, but Nesbit was already subversive, with Oswald Bastable scorning “goody books” [1].

However, Cecire’s discussion of the moral clarity of medieval literature, with its message taught through allegory, is at times quite effective. Her third chapter, “Where Are You, Christmas” outlines a convincing and clear case for the way that children’s medievalist fantasy offers moments of transcendence that serve as a bridge between reality and an enchanted otherworld (p. 127). Children and young adults, she argues, have special access to “a timeless pattern in which modernity is still linked to a deep past” (p. 127). She suggests this view of the “otherworld” accessible to children is reflected in works such as The Secret Garden (1911), Peter Pan (1904), and The Wind in the Willows (1908). Importantly, she argues that these sentimental views of childhood are raced and classed. This view of childhood as a source of a kind of secular transcendence is particularly notable, she suggests, at Christmas-time, and the popular notion of the “magic” that surrounds that time of year. She discusses an early scene in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as reflective of the Christmas challenge of Gawain and the Green Knight, and, rather more convincingly, makes a similar claim for an episode in Crossley-Holland’s The Singing Stone.

Because her discussion is at times very general, however, Cecire seems to imply that the “Oxford School” is typical of all children’s fantasy. In this respect, the limitations of her subset of “medievalist” fantasy becomes all the more apparent. The title of the book, with its subheading “The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century,” promises far more than it delivers. Children’s fantasy literature in the twentieth century contains much more than simply “medievalist" fantasy—to limit it in this way is reductive—and even “medievalist” fantasy is represented by far more authors than just the four cited in this book. How about Peter Dickinson, who attended Cambridge? Or Terry Pratchett (who did not attend university at all)? Also, the authors whom Cecire discusses are represented by more than simply the few novels that she chooses to focus on. Diana Wynne Jones, for example, wrote more than forty books for children and young adults, of which I would argue that only a few can be defined as typically “medievalist;” furthermore, the one that depends the most on medieval sources, Hexwood (published in 1993, and not mentioned by Cecire, perhaps because it slides into science fiction territory and thus does not fit her thesis), treats its sources very subversively. Jones’s Dalemark quartet (1975-1993, also not mentioned by Cecire)—which Yates suggests is most “Tolkien”-like, in that it is set in an alternate world unrelated to our own and is a series—seems in fact to have a historical basis much later than the medieval period; the fourth book in the series opens in a clearly “modern” world of trains, automobiles and telephones, and the setting in which much of the series is set, a historical past, is rather one on the cusp of industrial revolution, with steam-engines already invented, than a pre-modern society, despite the trappings of castles and transport by horseback or horse-and-cart.

Even more problematic, the chapter entitled “Alternate Canons” raises what I believe to be a false dichotomy between Oxford and Cambridge. The “Oxford School,” according to Cecire, is founded on an emotional, subjective response to literature, reflected in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s reactions to modernist literature and critics such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Cambridge English, she argues, “went on to become an incubator for the practices and interests that continue to dominate professional literary studies” (p. 84, italics mine). She credits the irreverence and self-awareness of T. H. White’s Arthurian work, The Once and Future King (1958), with White’s association with Cambridge; rewriting Malory is permissible, apparently, as long as it is done through a “modernist” lens. However, Diana Wynne Jones is probably as much influenced by the work of T. S. Eliot as she is by Malory, and, in Hexwood, she is even more irreverent than White, even using references to White to upset our expectations about character and plotlines. Later in the same chapter, Cecire ascribes to the “Oxford School” the trope of a young apprentice with a wise counsellor (as in Gandalf to Bilbo or Frodo), not seeming to remember that Merlin takes on the same role with Wart (the young Arthur) in The Sword in the Stone (1938).

Underlying this discussion and intertwined with it—though perhaps less simplistically than Cecire would suggest—is the history and development of children’s literature scholarship. There is a whole story to be told of the movement from criticism often written by authors—such as John Rowe Townsend and, in North America, Eleanor Cameron—and the institutional housing of children’s literature in departments of education and library science rather than English literature. If there is greater scholarly attention being paid to children’s fantasy now, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it is perhaps more because there is greater opportunity to do scholarly work in that area within literature departments. This is not to say that early professional criticism of children’s literature was less rigorous, as Cecire implies, simply that styles have changed.

Also somewhat problematic is Cecire’s notion of the reception and transmission of ideas of fantasy through what she describes as an “unofficial canon” of children’s fantasy distributed through fantasy fans. She suggests that the “Oxford School” of fantasy became curiously viral in the mid-to-late twentieth century and spread through an “unofficial network” of fans and amateurs. She makes this curious statement: “Oxford School fantasy and its successors achieved little in the way of critical or scholarly acclaim in the twentieth century, but this mode of writing found wide popularity with general audiences,” (pp. 85-6). In terms of popular reception, this is true, but the line is far less direct than Cecire would imply and carries more through adult fantasy than that written for children, certainly in North America [2]. All the members of the so-called “Oxford School,” however, achieved critical acclaim on publication: between them the four authors collected two Guardian Awards, a Newbery Medal, two Carnegie Medals and the Whitbread Award (now the Costa Prize).

In terms of the spread of “medievalist fantasy” (that of the “Oxford School” or otherwise), and its influence on genre fantasy, there was—in the mid twentieth century—another factor that Cecire does not elaborate on: the influence of publishing and marketing, responding to the acknowledged phenomenon of the huge popularity of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), particularly with the (official) paperback publication in North America by Ballantine Books. As Ursula K. Le Guin mentions in her essay on Tolkien, every young university student in the late sixties and early seventies had a copy tucked into their backpack. Ballantine jumped on the adult fantasy bandwagon and, under the editorial leadership of Lin Carter, not only published new works of fantasy such as Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970), but also reissued earlier works by authors such as Hope Mirrlees (Lud-in-the-Mist [1926]) and Lord Dunsany. Other publishers reissued works by William Morris, like The Well at the World’s End (1896), and the novels of Charles Williams, one of the Inklings. All may have provided, in North America at least, a more fertile set of influences for writers of adult fantasy than the works of Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, whose work admittedly began to be published at around the same time but who were not then as widely popular as they have become since the rise of Harry Potter at the end of the twentieth century [2]. Crossley-Holland’s work is a little later and really falls into its own sub-category of “Arthuriana” rather than fantasy per se, and of course Pullman’s is later still—enjoying its own popularity— though it is perhaps less directly influential than Rowling in the area of children’s or YA fantasy. (Indeed, Pullman’s latest additions to his Dust series really bridge the gap between YA and adult fantasy.)

Although Cecire sets out to trace the development of children’s fantasy, then, much of what she has discussed is really more applicable to generic adult fantasy, and I believe that her book would have been stronger if that had been her focus, as in fact it is for much of her later chapters. Generic adult fantasy developed along with the publishing activity mentioned above, especially in the US. Sadly, what was an economic necessity with post-war shortages of paper—to publish Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in three volumes—became a trend, one that has not diminished even today. Many works that directly imitated Tolkien sprang up—usually in trilogies, sometimes in series, sometimes in series of trilogies—of what we on the early email discussion boards referred to as EFP, for “Extruded Fantasy Product.” Far from contributing to this phenomenon, Diana Wynne Jones deplored it. In an essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (2012), Jones writes of her horror at the “rules” she discovered when she was working on Clute and Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1977): “ As for adult fantasy, the Rules have become so detailed and so firm that there really is the same book being written over and over again” (p. 113) [3].

In Cecire’s defense, her chapter “Your Inner Child of the Past” represents the view that Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman set out to disrupt the fantasy genre, albeit “still drawing on source material from medieval and early modern Europe.” She suggests further that twenty-first century fantasy interrogates “the disconnection between the morally stark world of medievalist children’s fantasy and the complexities of modern life” (p. 221). In this way, Jones and Pullman in particular deconstruct norms of gender representation by giving us strong female characters that gain their own agency; the example she chooses from Jones is Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle—whose story, she argues, is a variation on “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”—and its representation of the story of a knight and a loathly lady. This line of descent, however,  is, as I have attempted to demonstrate, much more complicated than Cecire implies, and this impression is given rather more weight by the extremely limited examples she gives.

Cecire’s conclusion emphasises the “pain and division that the genre’s norms inflict on a large segment of its fans” (p. 261) due to their reflection of racist, classist, imperialist, sexist, ableist, and heteronormative institutions. Her ultimate argument is that Tolkien and Lewis’s quest to “re-enchant the world” is successful once fantasy has moved away, in works such as A Game of Thrones and Liv Grossman’s Magician series, from all the baggage that Tolkien and Lewis put into it. There is much here of great interest—in particular her discussions of race and class and of twenty-first century adult fantasy—but I felt that Cecire's treatment of the “Oxford School” and its putative influence ultimately needed more depth [4]. A few more examples of other medievalist fantasies (she mentions only Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, and Neil Gaiman) beyond the limits of the “Oxford School” might have enhanced her overall points about the reception of such fantasy, especially in the USA; these points, driven home later in her book, are valid and potentially of great interest.


[1] Nesbit’s influence is probably much greater on twentieth century fantasy generally than is widely acknowledged. Although it falls outside Cecire’s rubric of “medievalist” fantasy, there is a long tradition of “domestic,” even “cosy,” fantasy that I believe flows from Nesbit. Certainly, much of Jones’s early work falls within that tradition more than the Tolkien- or Lewis-esque. [return]

[2] In the cases of Cooper and Jones, popular reception has been fairly late, more in the way of a “revisiting” in the wake of what could be termed the “Harry Potter Effect”: the enormous success and popularity of the series caused publishers to reissue Jones and Cooper, along with other children’s fantasy that had hitherto been overlooked by the general public except in fairly limited circles. [return]

[3] Jones was inspired by this experience to write A Rough Guide to Fantasyland: a pointed and hilarious parody—to those in the know—of all these fantasy clichés. Her pair of novels, Darklord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin, takes things a step further, speculating what would happen if these clichés were in fact imposed on a world being used as a travel destination in which visitors can have an immersive fantasy experience. Although it has the trappings of medievalist fantasy, Jones’s themes are much more subtle, critiquing to a large extent the colonialism and power imbalance implied in much of so-called “portal quest” fantasy. [return]

[4] A related quibble: this may have been a decision by the publisher, but a bibliography or works cited is always helpful in a scholarly work. [return]

Now happily retired, Debbie Gascoyne taught English literature, composition, and creative writing at Camosun College in Victoria for many years. Her PhD thesis was on intertextuality in Diana Wynne Jones, and she continues to read and write about children’s and young adult fantasy. Follow her on Twitter @debbieg.
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