Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Via Fantasy - Oxford Sought To Capture And Control Young Minds

aeon  |  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.

Oxford for nearly 40 years officially sanctioned magic-filled medieval works as exemplars of English literature

Students had to analyse these texts as literature rather than only as linguistic extracts, a notable difference from the more common approach to medieval literature at the time. Tolkien and Lewis identified concrete moral lessons and ‘patriotic’ insights into the national character in these magical tales of long ago. The past they depicted was not, of course, England as it actually was in the Middle Ages, but England as poets had imagined it to be: the enchanted realm of heroism, righteousness and romance where 19th-century nationalists had identified the moral and racial heart of the nation. (The Oxford curriculum was, in this sense, a throwback to English studies’ roots in colonial education, which – as the literary scholar Gauri Viswanathan has shown in Masks of Conquest (2014) – often looked to prove English right to rule through the glory of its national literature.

The unique educational programme that dominated English at Oxford for nearly 40 years officially sanctioned magic-filled medieval works as exemplars of English literature for generations of students that passed through the university’s power-filled halls. And a number of these students went on to write their own popular children’s fantasy, some to great acclaim. Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Philip Pullman in particular, who each received their English degrees between 1956 and 1968, draw on medieval and early modern literary sources, many directly taken from the Oxford syllabus, to create new, self-reflectively serious fantasy for young readers. Together with Tolkien and Lewis, this group forms the Oxford School of children’s fantasy literature. Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising quintet (1965-77) and Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy (2000-03) give King Arthur’s story fresh context and resonance for understanding contemporary Britain in their times; meanwhile, the works of Jones and Pullman delight in subverting fantasy expectations while introducing early English literature to new generations of readers. They all celebrate the purported wisdom of old stories, and follow the central tenet that Tolkien set out for fairy-stories: ‘one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in the story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.’

The Oxford School’s reimagining of medieval tales for modern audiences injected these fantastical narratives into the public consciousness, largely eluding elite and scholarly notice because their works were branded as children’s literature. At the same time, taking ancient, canonical texts as the foundations for new stories helped to give their fantasy the historical depth and cultural weight to resist derisive laughter and make claims about the present. For instance, the dragon episode at the end of The Hobbit is full of parallels to the one in Beowulf, from the cup-theft that wakes the worm to its destructive expressions of rage. But The Hobbit uses this narrative to pit a traditionalist and noble-born hero (Bard, whose name means ‘poet’, ‘storyteller’) against an untrustworthy elected official, hammering home the significance of conservative traditions over the whims of easily swayed masses. Tolkien’s novel ends with the protagonist Bilbo’s delighted discovery of this barely veiled moral: ‘the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!’