The self-declared metacritical aim of James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy is “to untangle fantasy from the Marxist paradigm of science fiction and thereby to negotiate a conceptual rapprochement among fantasy, modernism, and anarchism that is useful to all three fields” (p. 10). To this end, he sends forth a fellowship of nine authors—William Morris, Hope Mirrlees, Mervyn Peake, Poul Anderson, John Cowper Powys, Henry Treece, Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, and Samuel Delany—to contest both the critical tyranny of Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson and the ongoing decades-long hegemony of commercial fantasy (Brooks, Eddings, Goodkind, Jordan, Martin, Sanderson) which he dates from the success of the posthumous publication of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in 1977. The series of readings of his chosen writers that form the core of this book are of great value in themselves and the theoretical framework is an important testament to the revised standing of fantasy in the twenty-first century, but the book is also indicative of a wider and more significant change in contemporary culture from a hierarchical and strictly compartmentalised literary criticism to a more creative and polymorphous traversal of all binaries and boundaries. This latter tendency is so strong that it even cuts against one of Gifford’s chief intentions, which is to wrench us away from the Tolkienian high road and instead usher us along grassed-over pathways less trodden. However, even after only reading the book’s enticingly named preface, “Hobgoblin Modernism,” in which Gifford recounts his archival discovery that David Eddings was a tenured literature professor teaching modernism long before he wrote The Belgariad, I already felt like I wanted to read all fantasy as though it were the apogee of western culture and not the guilty pleasure it was until relatively recently. By the end of the book, for all the textual disavowals, I was more, not less, convinced that what he refers to as “commercial fantasy” was an inherent part of this story and that a proper knowledge of it (which Gifford clearly has) is essential for understanding the full significance of the alternative tradition which is so convincingly mapped out here. Or, to put it another way, your pulse doesn’t have to quicken with the ride of the Rohirrim or the dragon flights of Daenerys Stormborn to understand Gifford’s position, but if it does you will feel the force of his arguments all the more keenly.
The conceptual juggling involved in trying to hold his three fields of fantasy, modernism, and anarchism in alignment while focusing on nine distinguished bodies of work requires that A Modernist Fantasy be a complex and intricate argument rooted in rigorous academic scholarship, which by its nature is difficult to summarise in a review. Perhaps one way to situate the book is as part of the ongoing breakup of what Joseph North in Literary History: A Concise Political History (2017) calls the “historicist/contextualist” paradigm that has been hegemonic in literary academia since at least the 1980s. For Gifford, one of the desirable outcomes of this paradigm change is the possibility of anarchist ideas getting a fair hearing without simply being dismissed as ideological constructs of bourgeois individualism. Drawing on George Orwell’s discussion of the work of Henry Miller in “Inside the Whale" (1940), he argues that the benefit of thinking about anarchism in relation to modernism is that it enables a reframing of the “‘inward turn’ that rejects the authoritarian superego and fear-driven stabilization of the ego” characteristic of 1930s leftist intellectuals’ support for communism. A full discussion of that topic would, of course, be a book in itself but here it serves to legitimise a celebration of the anarchism of Le Guin against the attempts of Marxist criticism to get to grips with it. Indeed, the first chapter might as well be called “Le Guin vs. Jameson.” It is not necessary to entirely agree with Gifford’s argument to find it invigorating to see advocacy of the idea that subjectivity determines material conditions rather than the other way round. By going against Western Marxist orthodoxy, he is able to reject the dismissal of fantasy as entailing reactionary and counter-revolutionary aristocratic notions of selfhood and conclude convincingly that “Le Guin’s radical potential rests on the liberation of the subject rather than the radicalization of society” (p. 73). Personally, I don’t think this radical potential is antithetical to Marxism broadly conceived. Marx’s description of communism as the free development of each compatible with the free development of all implies that the liberation of the subject is indeed essential while nevertheless dependent on all subjects being open to others. A similar argument was made by China Miéville in the afterword to the collection he edited with Mark Bould, Red Planets (2009), and readers might profitably consider A Modernist Fantasy alongside that text (which Gifford does reference fairly extensively).
So, on the one hand, anarchism provides an alternative radical framework to Marxism and thereby delegitimizes the latter’s privileging of SF over fantasy. On the other hand, by demonstrating a strong link between anarchist fantasy and modernism, Gifford positions his chosen authors within a pedigreed literary tradition that long predates post-Tolkienian commercial fantasy. Although here, I am perhaps making his argument appear more instrumental than it is. It is not that Gifford has any difficulty establishing that Le Guin, who it should be clear by now is very much the heroine of this book, differs from commercial fantasy writers in her systematic refusal of representing the defeat of a “dark ‘other’” and the elimination of all evil “as the substitute for a revolutionary overcoming” (p. 22). In other words, her fiction does not perform the ideological function of representing the reestablishment of order after the defeat of chaotic evil as a natural state in which everyone can now live happily ever after. However, by describing a late modernist anarchist fantasy tradition as manifest in the works of Powys, Peake, and Treece, who were in turn influenced by Morris and Mirrlees, Gifford is able to argue that “the post-1968 tradition that emerged with Le Guin, Moorcock, Delany, and much later Miéville” is a growth from “this parallel tradition” (p. 64). The implication is not just that there is an ongoing counter-tradition to commercial fantasy but also that these writers represent in some sense the ongoing legacy of the modernist inward-turn. Here, again, Gifford’s deployment of a binary opposition between his writers and commercial fantasy writers is possibly a hindrance to establishing the greater significance of his argument. This is because the idea that fantasy is reactionary is already yesterday’s hegemonic critical paradigm. Over the last few years a new kind of fantasy has emerged in full, as exemplified by the three volumes of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy successively winning three Hugo awards for best novel (at one point very much a preserve of SF), which has much more in common with the authors he lists above than it does with a straw-man concept of commercial fantasy. The real significance of the book is summed up by the title’s implication, as graphically represented in the stunning cover design, that fantasy is modernist; not in the sense of the old “High” modernism of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce—although as Gifford points out such modernism did share a concern with the mythic which overlaps with fantasy—but as part of the “New Modernist Studies.” The NMS (dating from the 1990s) has pluralised modernism to the extent that its subject matter now ranges from pulp fiction to fashion and while the academic work carried out under its aegis often fits the inherently materialist “historicist/contextualist” critical paradigm mentioned above, it is also characterised by an openness to the kind of liberated subjectivity that is so central to Le Guin’s work.
This link between modernism and fantasy is most apparent in Gifford’s brilliant discussion of Hope Mirrlees, whose long modernist Paris: A Poem (1918) predates Eliot’s The Waste Land by four years and whose 1926 novel, Lud-in-the-Mist, combines modernism’s inward focus and exposition of fragmentation with the “use of fantasy to outline the material forces at work in social change and the operations of ideology negotiating between social life and the material world” (p. 108). The novel is concerned with the efforts of Nathaniel Chanticleer, the Mayor of bourgeois Lud, to stem the illegal trade in fairy fruit and recover his son who has been abducted and taken to Fairyland. As Gifford explains, Mirrlees’s fairy fruit disrupts (in ways analogous to queer sexuality) the bourgeois norms grounded in the legal system by “dissolving the stable ideological forms that deny the existence of something possible beyond the confines of law and that reveal the essentially ideological function of law to construct forms of reality” (p. 76). Lud-in-the-Mist thereby refutes Suvin’s claim that political consciousness and cognitive estrangement are the products of SF and not found in fantasy. However, not only does Mirrlees show how Lud has been brought to relative modernity via the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie against an old aristocratic order that has been banished, but she also reveals the new order to be comprised of legal fictions and everyday delusions. The twist is that these processes are not shown as determined by material conditions but rather by subjective and existential concerns about death. There is no world outside ideology because we need everyday delusions to make reality bearable: “we cannot live without consolations or ideological fantasies that sublimate the unbearable, but we can, like Nathaniel, be conscious of it” (p. 115).
At the beginning of A Modernist Fantasy, Gifford plays on the importance of maps for fantasy by arguing that his “quest” for the rapprochement among fantasy, modernism, and anarchism is grounded by the texts of Morris—read as a rejection of forms of power that express domination as authority—and Mirrlees, which do not just provide the “‘home’ (Shire, farm, village, etc.) from which the adventure departs but shape and frame what follows by giving a standard against which the subsequent journey can be compared” (p. 9). This clever conceit recalls John Clute’s four-fold model of fantasy as progressing through the stages of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and return. If wrongness is created by the fragmentation of the tradition of modernist fantasy that Gifford is trying to trace in the book, then thinning is the watering down of this tradition into what he calls “commercial fantasy”,; marked by the stereotypical tropes set out in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996). In passing, Gifford touches on a number of absurdities that could similarly be regarded as the products of a diminished Fantasyland, such as Suvin still feeling confused about Le Guin’s dragons despite “his very late turn to fantasy” (pp. 38-42). Likewise, I found a brief digression on the “famously non-allegorical allegorical fantastic” (p. 80) novels The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down equally amusing but also suggestive. This represents just about the only point in A Modernist Fantasy, where Gifford finds Jameson’s implicit injunction to always historicise useful because clearly both of these texts are completely threaded through with a historical unconscious that their authors denied. It strikes me, as someone who read both of these novels obsessedly and repeatedly during childhood and early teens, that neither could have been written in any other European country than the one which did not ever critically or even consciously self-reflect on the Second World War, but treated it purely as a cause for celebration. Unsurprisingly, both novels have been invoked in support of Brexit, with The Lord of the Rings in particular seen as providing a blueprint for Britain’s departure from the European Union and, more generally, as an influence on conservative thinking. A different understanding of fantasy, such as the one Gifford proposes, would not so easily fit such conservative paradigms. However, as I have argued above, his conception of modernist, radical fantasy cannot be so starkly defined against “commercial fantasy” if it is to have wider influence than simply drawing attention to a particular tradition of authors.
The equation of Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist with the “home” or “Shire” of A Modernist Fantasy suggests that such connections are possible. In Clute’s model of fantasy, successful completion of the final stage of return to the home is demonstrated by the changed consciousness of the main protagonist: a process demonstrated as effectively by Chanticleer in Lud-in-the-Mist as by Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. The changed consciousness we experience after finishing A Modernist Fantasy—including readings of Gifford’s other chosen authors that are of equal substance to his reading of Mirrlees—is that fantasy has the same virtues as SF: “it is concerned with us, our dreams, our anxieties, and our ambitions” (p. 251). However, more than this, our resultant consciousness is also one of dissatisfaction as suggested by the title of Gifford’s conclusion, “Disappointment in Radical Magic” and what he describes specifically as “productive disappointment and a desire for impossibilities” (p.255). This desire is a desire for agency that is rooted in the self and not in material conditions. Gifford gives various suggestions as to how such desire might be furthered by, for example, anarcha-feminist readings of urban fantasy and, indeed, the reorientation of the New Modernist Studies towards a much more sustained and explicit engagement with fantasy. While I have my own ideas (proletarian fantasies, one might say) about how best to follow Gifford’s final plea that we supersede the provocations of A Modernist Fantasy, I agree with his assessment that the book’s magic lies in its valuation of “the decisions its readers come to based on their own views while hoping such readers will value their own responses precisely because they are their own” (p. 255). This is as clear a statement as you will see of the fact that the academic literary-critical “historicist/contextualist” paradigm is dead and that we urgently need a new diverse and pluralistic mode of reading and understanding that is nonetheless centred on the self. Despite the chaotic mess which the world is currently in, one thing has become abundantly clear in the twenty-first century: that we need to abandon the dominant paradigms which we inherited from its predecessor. Back at the beginning of his book, Gifford plays on the alternative translation of the famous opening line of Marx and Engel’s The Manifesto of the Communist Party—“A spectre is haunting Europe”—to tell us that “of course a frightful hobgoblin stalks through modernism” (p. xii), by which he means a magical hobgoblin of fantasy. The truth is that only magical hobgoblins can save us now.