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Much has changed in the fantasy genre in recent decades, but the word ‘fantasy’ still conjures images of dragons, castles, sword-wielding heroes and premodern wildernesses brimming with magic. Major media phenomena such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have helped to make medievalist fantasy mainstream, and if you look in the kids’ section of nearly any kind of store today you’ll see sanitised versions of the magical Middle Ages packaged for youth of every age. How did fantasy set in pseudo-medieval, roughly British worlds achieve such a cultural status? Ironically, the modern form of this wildly popular genre, so often associated with escapism and childishness, took root in one of the most elite spaces in the academic world.
The heart of fantasy literature grows out of the fiction and scholarly legacy of two University of Oxford medievalists: J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. It is well known that Tolkien and Lewis were friends and colleagues who belonged to a writing group called the Inklings where they shared drafts of their poetry and fiction at Oxford. There they workshopped what would become Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, beginning with the children’s novel The Hobbit (1937), and followed in the 1950s with The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, which was explicitly aimed at children. Tolkien’s influence on fantasy is so important that in the 1990s the American scholar Brian Attebery defined the genre ‘not by boundaries but by a centre’: Tolkien’s Middle-earth. ‘Tolkien’s form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template’ for all fantasy, he suggests in Strategies of Fantasy (1992). Lewis’s books, meanwhile, are iconic as both children’s literature and fantasy. Their recurring plot structure of modern-day children slipping out of this world to save a magical, medieval otherworld has become one of the most common approaches to the genre, identified in Farah Mendlesohn’s taxonomy of fantasy as the ‘portal-quest’.
What is less known is that Tolkien and Lewis also designed and established the curriculum for Oxford’s developing English School, and through it educated a second generation of important children’s fantasy authors in their own intellectual image. Put in place in 1931, this curriculum focused on the medieval period to the near-exclusion of other eras; it guided students’ reading and examinations until 1970, and some aspects of it remain today. Though there has been relatively little attention paid to the connection until now, these activities – fantasy-writing, often for children, and curricular design in England’s oldest and most prestigious university – were intimately related. Tolkien and Lewis’s fiction regularly alludes to works in the syllabus that they created, and their Oxford-educated successors likewise draw upon these medieval sources when they set out to write their own children’s fantasy in later decades. In this way, Tolkien and Lewis were able to make a two-pronged attack, both within and outside the academy, on the disenchantment, relativism, ambiguity and progressivism that they saw and detested in 20th-century modernity.
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Tolkien articulated his anxieties about the cultural changes sweeping across Britain in terms of ‘American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production’, calling ‘this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying’ and suggesting in a 1943 letter to his son Christopher that, if this was to be the outcome of an Allied Second World War win, he wasn’t sure that victory would be better for the ‘mind and spirit’ – and for England – than a loss to Nazi forces.
Lewis shared this abhorrence for ‘modern’ technologisation, secularisation and the swiftly dismantling hierarchies of race, gender and class. He and Tolkien saw such broader shifts reflected in changing (and in their estimation dangerously faddish) literary norms. Writing in the 1930s, Tolkien skewered ‘the critics’ for disregarding the fantastical dragon and ogres in Beowulf as ‘unfashionable creatures’ in a widely read essay about that Old English poem. Lewis disparaged modernist literati in his Experiment in Criticism (1961), mocking devotees of contemporary darlings such as T S Eliot and claiming that ‘while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bed-clothes by the light of an electric torch.’ If the new literary culture was accelerating the slide to moral decay, Tolkien and Lewis identified salvation in the authentic, childlike enjoyment of adventure and fairy stories, especially ones set in medieval lands. And so, armed with the unlikely weapons of medievalism and childhood, they waged a campaign that hinged on spreading the fantastic in both popular and scholarly spheres. Improbably, they were extraordinarily successful in leaving far-reaching marks on the global imagination by launching an alternative strand of writing that first circulated amongst child readers.
These readers devoured The Hobbit and, later, The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Chronicles of Narnia series. But they also read fantasy by later authors who began to write in this vein – including several major British children’s writers who studied the English curriculum that Tolkien and Lewis established at Oxford as undergraduates. This curriculum flew in the face of the directions that other universities were taking in the early years of the field. As modernism became canon and critical theory was on the rise, Oxford instead required undergraduates to read and comment on fantastical early English works such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo, Le Morte d’Arthur and John Mandeville’s Travels in their original medieval languages.
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