By Charles A. Coulombe


"Get your head out of that book!" "Come back to reality!" "You can't solve the world's problems by ignoring them!" "Just what good is fantasy, anyway?" If you are a lover of fantasy literature, or of its kindred genres of science fiction and/or horror, this is a criticism which you may well have heard over the course of your life. It is an easy one to make. Those of us who from time to time seek sanctuary from the press of every-day life in the confines of our own minds---often in the company of talented writers---are often accused of being escapists, of being unrealistic. For those of us whose ordinary lives are perhaps a tad humdrum, it is declared that we attempt to escape boredom via heroic tales; those whose lives are in fact chaotic or overly agitated receive similar criticism for seeking an interior realm of tranquillity. In either case, those who make such criticisms are of the opinion that we ought to take whatever our lot in life might be and live with it on its own terms. If we do not, they charge, then we are somehow false to our society, to our fellow man, and to ourselves.

The obvious reply to this charge is that of the great Tolkien, for whom this august society is named: "it is easy to debunk escapism; but notice that the ones who do so are usually the gaolers!" Certainly, no one is interested in literature of the three genres who is completely pleased with the current status quo---whether personal or public. "Escapist" fans, it must be admitted, tend to look to the past, the future, or far away places for something they find lacking in the here and now. They are not content. As with Tolkien, those who agree with them find themselves, in a very real sense, "imprisoned"---in a world, in situations, over which they have no control. Is it a crime, in such a predicament, to seek to escape?

Moreover, it must be denied that the gaolers are correct in presuming either that that which they manage is the best of all possible situations, or that they who seek to escape it do so with no further thought than mental self-gratification.

I am fortunate enough to possess a complete set of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, issued in 1910-1911, copyrighted by "the Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge," and "Dedicated by permission to His Majesty George the Fifth, King of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, and to William Howard Taft, President of the United States of America." This set has been a great boon to me in my work as a writer, to no small degree because its articles on literary, historical, folk-loric, and religious topics (the areas in which I write) tend to be better researched and more detailed than those of the present edition (which I also use for everything since 1911!). But it has a higher value than that.

More even than its continuing value as a reference work, this encyclopaedia is a window on a vanished world more evocative than a Merchant and Ivory film. In article after article, the hopes and dreams of the dominant circles in the Anglo-Saxon world before the slaughters of the two World Wars are revealed. In the preface, we are informed that the present edition has been much influenced by the sociology of Herbert Spencer. This Englishman was the foremost promoter of the Manchester School and Social Darwinism in America, of whose philosophy Andrew Carnegie wrote in his autobiography, "Light came as in a flood and all was clear." Professor Clinton Rossiter put it in his Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion, "The greatest of American laissez-faire conservatives was an English Liberal." Something to consider when comparing American and English (or European) political labels. In a nutshell, Spencer was the spokesman for what we call in the States the "Gilded Age."

The dictates of Social Darwinism are exemplified throughout the 1911 Britannica, but never so clearly, perhaps, as in the article on "Civilisation." Written by one Henry Smith Williams, formerly lecturer in the Hartford School of Sociology, it offers some opinions worth considering as those of the dominant mindset of the era. Dr. Williams sketches out the history of Civilisation as an inevitable story of progress, with mankind moving up through nine carefully defined different steps. The last of these, "The Upper Period of Civilisation" is nearing, he suggests, its termination. Along these lines he offers some rather intriguing observations:

Today the thesis that all men are one brotherhood needs no defence. The most primitive aborigines are regarded merely as brethren who, through some defect or neglect of opportunity, have lagged behind in the race. Similarly the defective and criminal classes that make up so significant a part of even our highest present-day civilisations, are no longer regarded with anger or contempt, as beings who are suffering just punishment for wilful transgressions, but are considered as pitiful victims of hereditary and environmental influences they could neither choose nor control.
Were Dr. Williams writing today, of course, he would use less pompous diction and be a bit more Politically Correct. But he would have no need to substantially alter his convictions for a contemporary audience. Further on, however, he launches into a description of a kindred development which has great implications for fantasists:
The essence of the new view is this: to recognise the universality and the invariability of natural law; stated otherwise, to understand that the word "supernatural" involves a contradiction of terms and has in fact no meaning. Whoever has grasped the full impact of this truth is privileged to sweep mental horizons wider by far than ever opened to the view of any thinker of an earlier epoch. He is privileged to forecast, as the sure heritage of the future, a civilisation freed from the last ghost of superstition---an Age of Reason in which mankind shall at last find refuge from the hosts of occult and invisible powers, the fearsome galaxies of deities and demons, which have haunted him thus far at every stage of his long journey through savagery, barbarism and civilisation.
Indeed! And with the banishment of the supernatural (the very stock-in-trade of our three genres, whether or not one believes in everything that goes under that term) goes every scrap of refuge dwellers in the new "Age of Reason" Dr. Williams praises might have from its unrelenting optimism, its insistence on rational explanations. From this attitude comes the Brittanica's verdicts on various fantasy writers of the period. Time and again we read that they were "morbid" or "sickly;" when sheer force of talent, as in Hoffman, for example, compels the author of the article to admit the writer's real genius, then inevitably his greatness lies not in his subject matter, but in his style of execution: with Hoffman, this shows a praiseworthy realism, whereas the gruesome subject matter of his work represents a "descent from the high ideals of the Romantics"---forgetting that the macabre and the bizarre interests of so many of the Romantics were precisely an "escape" from the Rationalism of the 18th century---which Rationalism's basic inhumanity was revealed as much in the Revolutions it inspired as in the Voltairean "benevolent despots" whom they overthrew.

But let us return to Dr. Williams. Putting on his prophet hat, the good doctor goes on to explain away the advanced weaponry which the growth of the technology he extols has made possible:

Formidable as these weapons now seem, however, the developments of the not very distant future will probably make them quite obsolete; and sooner or later, as science develops yet more deadly implements of destruction, the time must come when communal intelligence will rebel at the suicidal folly of the international attitude that characterised, for example, the opening decade of the 20th century.
Must it come indeed? In any case, Dr. Williams assures us that patriotism must inevitably give way to humanitarianism, which will banish all the evils and barbarisms of the past. And just what will be the result of that humanitarianism? Mark well:
Equally obvious must it appear to the cosmopolite of some generation of the future that quality rather than mere numbers must determine the efficiency of any given community. Race suicide will then cease to be a bugbear; and it will no longer be considered rational to keep up the census at the cost of propagating low orders of intelligence, to feed the ranks of paupers, defectives, and criminals. On the contrary it will be thought fitting that man should become the conscious arbiter of his own racial destiny to the extent of applying whatever laws of heredity he knows or may acquire in the interest of his own species, as he has long applied them in the case of domesticated animals. The survival and procreation of the unfit will then cease to be a menace to the progress of civilisation.
Ah, the joys of smugness! It did not occur to the good doctor that the very mindset he espoused was in itself a threat to the "progress of civilisation." He did not predict the horror of the trenches which the governments of Europe, inspired by the principles he espoused, flung a generation of youth into, just four years after he pontificated. Our first great dystopia, Brave New World, extrapolated these same principles, and came up with both fantasy and horror on its hook. Huxley "escaped," but did so with a purpose. "Escapist" literature not being worth one's time, however, his warning was ignored. Eugenics were practised with a vengeance in the Third Reich,and in China to-day. Yet modern despotism cannot be called to account by the world-view incarnated in Dr. Williams, because, having denied the irrational and, as it were, unseen nature of man, it has reduced him to an economic unit, an animal whose masters may use him as they are able and as they choose.

Nor has this view subsided amongst those who dominate in government, learning, or media. Neither World War has taught them anything; nor did the fall of Communism. Communism and Capitalism were at one in looking at man in strictly rational and economic terms---thus it is not surprising that the end of one dictatorship has paved the way for nascent mini-despotisms, as well as ethnic cleansing, economic chaos, and so on. Theodore Roszak described the society this world-view has created rather well back in 1969 in his perceptive The Making of a Counter Culture: the mature product of technological progress and the scientific ethos, the technocracy easily eludes all traditional political categories. Indeed, it is a characteristic of the technocracy to render itself ideologically invisible. Its assumptions about reality and its values become as unobtrusively persuasive as the air we breathe. While daily political argument continues within and between the capitalist and collectivist societies of the world, the technocracy increases and consolidates its power in both as a trans-political phenomenon following the dictates of industrial efficiency, rationality, and necessity (p. 8).
Just as the Romantics rebelled and "escaped" from the Enlightenment and the ensuing Revolutions; as the "Decadents" and "Symbolists" did the same from the Gilded Age produced by the Industrial Revolutions, so too did the Counter-Culture of the 1960s which Roszak describes attempt escape from the Technocracy. It is no great wonder that Tolkien and fantasy in general became wildly popular at that point. Escape betokens freedom, liberation; and that which comes from fantasy literature is a poor relation (but none the less a legitimate relation) to that derived from mystical exaltation. As Valentin Tomberg reminds us:
For vagabonds, gypsies, and nomads [freedom] is the possibility of roaming and moving about without walls and fences; for a resident farmer it is self-government or rule of his own house, household and fields; for the enlightened humanist it is knowing what he does and doing what he knows---autonomy of consciousness and self-responsibility; for the seeker after God it is the fulfilment of his free vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (Covenant of the Heart, p. 13)
But freedom may be abused, as prisoners in a gaol may sometimes riot and kill their fellow-inmates. One cannot help but wonder if the dark and bloody gods of Nationalism which have animated the Balkans once again were called forth by the fact that, forced to live in a dreary present, without any "escape," the young folk who are the instruments of ethnic cleansing there might have been less willing tools had they been permitted wider access to the nobler side of their heritage in peacetime. Man must dream; if not dreams of light, they will be dreams of darkness.

The point to be made is that the "escape into fantasy" so often condemned by so-called "right-thinking people," is not without a real utility in solving problems in the here-and-now, especially the political here and now. Being devoted to the literature of escape does not preclude a deep and abiding interest in reality; quite the contrary. It allows one to meditate, as Huxley did with the ideals of Dr. Williams, on hypothetical questions in a constructive way. Not that fantasists are unanimous in their political or religious views---far from it. Yet they do have a commonality of perspective which transcends mere party labels---even as do the Technocrats. Tolkien was a Catholic, Royalist, Tory (as indeed, am I myself); but the chapter of The Return of the King called "The Scouring of the Shire" would be very pleasing indeed to any self-respecting Green or Anarchist. William Morris was considered a radical in his time, George Wyndham a reactionary; yet their taste in literature mirrored the fact that their politics contained a great deal of mutuality. Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc were in quite opposite camps when it came to the Empire---but as one when it came to England herself, as a comparison of the one's Puck of Pook's Hill with the other's Four Men will show clearly. Not for nothing did our old friend Herbert Spencer call the nascent Labour Party "the New Toryism," and would no doubt have made the same accusation against not just R. H. Tawney, but Tolkien and Henry Massingham as well. I have myself found much more in common in terms of basic values with other lovers of fantasy whose party labels are supposedly opposed to mine than either of us do with those who share those labels---but are committed believers in the truth of the gaol in which we live.

That gaol, I submit, is made up of one part secularised Calvinism, one part Enlightenment Rationalism, and one part Technology (considered in its function not as means but as end). Certainly its first easily agreed upon manifestation in England was Puritanism, continuing as the Whig opposition to the Stuarts. Regardless of one's opinions regarding the specifics of the Stuart programme, one has a hard time denying the truth of the remarks of King Oberon in Poul Anderson's fantasy novel, A Midsummer Tempest, in which the Fairy monarch explains to Prince Rupert why he and his subjects have chosen to ally with King Charles I in his struggle with Cromwell:

"The Christian faith, whatever else it changed, made small discord within that harmony," Oberon went on. "As long as no one worshipped us as gods---a star-cold honour we have never sought---the priests did not deny our right to be, and let the people dwell at peace with us and with the land. Meanwhile, their bells rang sweet." "They did but change the names---" Puck muttered, "the names---the names." Both Rupert and Oberon frowned at him, and the king continued hastily: "When Henry Eighth cast off the rule of Rome, to us 'twas naught but mortal politics. The Church of England did not persecute us, nor care to end the Old Ways in the folk. But then---" "The Puritans arose," said Rupert, for Oberon faltered at the uttering. "They did." The king lifted a fist. No matter his height and handsomeness, it looked strangely frail, almost translucent to moonbeams and encroaching shadows. "That wintry creed where only hell knows warmth; where rites which interceded once for man with Mystery, and comforted, are quelled; where he is set against the living world, for he is now forbidden to revere it in custom, feast, or staying of his hand; where open merriment's condemned as vice and harmless foolery as foolishness; where love of man and woman is obscene---that's Faerie's and Old England's foe and woe!" ... Meanwhile, Rupert said, to those twain who were like swirls and currents in the moonlight that poured around him: "Your Majesties are not of human blood. What have theologies to do with you?" Oberon drew his cloak tight, as if a wind had arisen---in the white wet stillness of the night---from which its gauze could shield. He spoke nearly too low to be heard: "A creed which bears no love for Mother Earth, but rather sees her as an enemy which it is righteous to make booty of, to rape, to wound, to gouge, to gut, to flay, then bury under pavement, slag, and trash, and call machines to howl around the grave...that creed will bring that doom." ... Elven swift, his resolve returned. He straightened and declared aloud: "The Royal cause defends the Old Ways, knowing it or not. Whatever be the faults---the arrogance of King and bishops, squalid greeds of nobles, lump-stodginess of yeomanry and burghers, and gross or petty tyrannies these breed---still, such are found in every human clime; and you'd at least preserve what keeps your kind from turning to a pox upon the globe, and would not scour the Faerie realm from off it."
In Anderson's England, the Puritans already possess tools---like railroads---which their ideological descendants would invent and exploit. But rather than crushing the Cavaliers at Naseby, the Roundheads are themselves defeated at Glastonbury Tor, through the intervention of Faerie.

Part II

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