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High Fantasy and Heroic Romance*

by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd_AlexanderThe White Queen proudly told Alice she had learned to believe six impossible things before breakfast. We do much  better. Science appears on the verge of discoveries that may let us live forever, at the same time perfecting ways to get rid of us altogether. We can fly to any place in the world in a matter of hours, if we can find a parking space at the airport. We have a beachhead on the moon — for the moment free of beer cans and oil slick. We have the material benefits of labor-saving machines, along with the cultural benefits of Jacqueline Susann and her Love Machine. As time goes on, Lewis Carroll seems more of a realist than ever.

When our own world is so fantastic, I am amazed and thankful we can still be deeply moved by worlds that never existed and touched by the fate of people who are figments of our imagina­tion. Perhaps our daily diet of impossibilities and incongruities is lacking some essential ingredient. Our systems of information retrieval still have not retrieved the one vital bit of information: How shall we live as human beings? The same questions that preoccupied the ancient Greeks preoccupy us today. Shakespeare is truly our contemporary. Or we, perhaps, are not as modern as we like to think we are.

The arts, surely, are not as modem as we might believe — despite Oh! Calcutta! If not quite sisters, Lysistrata and Lena of I Am Curious (Yellow), are distant cousins under the skin. How­ ever much their forms and functions have changed, the arts show a line of organic growth from a common ancestry. Poetry, dance, theatre, comedy, and tragedy have roots in the most ancient religious rituals. The first language of art was the language of magic and mythology. And decoding this language has long been a study — for poets, philosophers, philologists, and psy­chiatrists.

Most recently, the structural anthropologist Claude Levi­ Strauss in The Savage Mind and in The Raw and the Cooked has tried to analyze man’s capacity for myth-making and the proc­esses at work in primitive thought. Despite speculations and in­sights, the original meanings of a great many, perhaps most, of our earliest legends are still as shadowy as the ancient ceremonies they mirror. We glimpse the seasonal progress of sacred kings in a calendar of birth, death, and resurrection. But the substance of these mysteries is long lost, or preserved only in fragments: A fairy tale may hint at figures in forgotten dramas, or a child’s game of hopscotch pattern the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

While its full meaning remains tantalizingly unknown, we can still trace mythology’s historical growth into an art form: through epic poetry, the chansons de geste, the Icelandic sagas, the medi­eval romances and works of prose in the Romance languages. Its family tree includes Beowulf, the Eddas, The Song of Roland, Amadís de Gaule, the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes, and The Faerie Queene.

In modern literature, one form that draws most directly from the fountainhead of mythology, and does it consciously and deliberately, is the heroic romance, which is a form of high fantasy. The world of heroic romance is, as Professor Northrop Frye defines the whole world of literature in The Educated Imagination, “the world of heroes and gods and titans…, a world of powers and passions and moments of ecstasy far greater than anything we meet outside the imagination.”†

If anyone can be credited with inventing the heroic romance as we know it today — that is, in the form of a novel using epic, saga, and chanson de geste as some of its raw materials — it must be William Morris, in such books as The Wood Beyond the World and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Certainly Morris showed the tremendous strength and potential of the heroic romance as an artistic vehicle, which was later to be used by Lord Dunsany, Eric Eddison, James Branch Cabell; by C. S. Lewis and T. H. White. Of course, heroic romance is the basis of the superb achievements of J. R.R. Tolkien.

Writers of heroic romance, who work directly in the tradition and within the conventions of an earlier body of literature and legend, draw from a common source: the “Pot of Soup,” as Tol­kien calls it, the “Cauldron of Story,” which has been simmering away since time immemorial.‡

The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history — spiced­ and spliced — with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied.

Among the most nourishing bits and pieces we can scoop out of the pot are whole assortments of characters, events, and situa­tions that occur again and again in one form or another through­ out much of the world’s mythology: heroes and villains, fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers, princesses and pig-keepers, prisoners and rescuers; ordeals and temptations, the quest for the magical object, the set of tasks to be accomplished. And a whole arsenal of cognominal swords, enchanted weapons; a wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility, seven-league boots; a whole zoo of dragons, helpful animals, birds, and fish.

But — in accordance with one of fantasy’s own conventions — nothing is given for nothing. Although we are free and welcome to ladle up whatever suits our taste, and fill ourselves with any mixture we please, nevertheless, we have to digest it, assimilate it as thoroughly as we assimilate the objective experiences of real life. As conscious artists, we have to process it on the most per­sonal levels; let it work on our personalities and, above all, let our personalities work on it. Otherwise we have what the com­puter people delicately call GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

Because these conventional characters — these personae of myth and fairy tale, though gorgeously costumed and capari­soned — are faceless, the writer must fill in their expressions. Colorful figures in a pantomime, the writer must give them a voice.

alexander_black cauldronSince I have been talking about the “Cauldron of Story,” I am now reminded of the Crochan, the Black Cauldron that figured in one of the books of Prydain. Now, cauldrons of one sort or another are common household appliances in the realm of fan­tasy. Sometimes they appear, very practically, as inexhaustible sources of food, or, on a more symbolic level, as a lifegiving source or as a means of regeneration. Some cauldrons bestow wisdom on the one who tastes their brew. In Celtic mythology, there is a cauldron of poetic knowledge guarded by nine maidens, counterparts of the nine Greek muses.

There is also a cauldron to bring slain warriors back to life. The scholarly interpretation —  the mythographic meaning —  is a fascinating one that links together all the other meanings. Im­mersion in the cauldron represented initiation into certain re­ligious mysteries involving death and rebirth. The initiates, being figuratively — and perhaps literally — steeped in the cult mys­teries, emerged reborn as adepts. In legend, those who came out of the cauldron had gained new life but had lost the power of speech. Scholars interpret this loss of speech as representing an oath of secrecy.

One branch of The Mabinogion, the basic collection of Welsh mythology, and one of my own prime research sources, tells of such a cauldron of regeneration, and how it ended up in the hands of the Irish. And, in the tale of Branwen, the Welsh princess rescued from the Irish by King Bran, a great number of slain Irish warriors came back to life. Naturally, this cauldron posed an uncomfortable problem for the Welshmen, who were constantly finding themselves outnumbered; until one of the Welsh soldiers sacrificed his life by leaping into the cauldron and shattering it.

This incident gave me the external shape of the climax of The Black Cauldron (Holt). Though changed and manipulated con­siderably, the nub of the story is located in the myth —- except for one detail of characterization: the essential internal nature of the cauldron, its inner meaning and significance beyond its being an unbeatable item of weaponry.

And so I tried to develop my own conception of the cauldron. Despite its regenerative powers, it seemed to me more sinister than otherwise. The muteness of the warriors created the horror I associated with the cauldron. Somehow, I felt that these voice­less men, already slain, revived only to fight again, deprived even of the oblivion of the grave, were less beneficiaries than victims. As the idea grew, I began to sense the cauldron as a kind of ultimately evil device. My “Cauldron-Born,” then, were not only mute but enslaved to another’s will. If they had lost their power of speech, they had also lost their memory of themselves as living beings — without recollection of joy or sorrow, tears or laughter. They had, in effect, been deprived of their humanity: a fate, in my opinion, considerably worse than death. The risk of dehumanization — of individuals being manipulated as objects in­ stead of being valued as living people — is, unfortunately, not confined to the realm of fantasy.

alexander_book of threeAnother example of the same kind of creative invention on the part of a writer has to do with the birth of a character; and in this case a most difficult delivery. Writing The Book of Three (Holt), the first of the Prydain chronicles, I was groping my way through the early chapters with that queasy sensation of desper­ate insecurity that comes when you do not know what is going to happen next. I knew vaguely what should happen, but I could not figure out how to get at it. The story, at this point, needed another character: Whether friend or foe, minor or major, comic or sinister, I could not decide. I only knew that I needed him, and he refused to appear.

The work came to a screaming halt: the screams being those of the author. Day after day, for better than a week, I stumbled into my work room and sat there, feeling my brain turn to con­crete. I had been reading a very curious book, an eighteenth-cen­tury account of the various characters in Celtic mythology. One of them stuck in my mind — a one-line description of a creature half-human, half-animal. The account was interesting, but it was not doing much to solve my problem.

I was convinced, by now, that I had suffered severe brain damage; that I would never write again; the mortgage would be foreclosed; my wife carried off to the Drexel Hill poor-farm; and I — quivering and gibbering, moaning and groaning — I did not even dare to imagine what would become of me. The would-be author of a hero-tale had begun to show his innate cowardice, and I was feeling tremendously sorry for myself.

At four o’clock one morning, I had gone to my work room for what had become a routine session of sniveling and hand-wring­ing. I had decided, one way or another, to use this hint of a half­ animal, half-human creature. The eighteenth-century text had given him a name — Gurgi. It seemed to fit, but he still refused to enter the scene. I could see him, a little; but I could not hear him. If I could only make him talk, half the battle would be over. But he would not talk.

And so I sat there, expecting to pass the morning as usual, crying and sighing. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason what­ ever, I heard a voice in the back of my mind, plaintive, whining, self-pitying. It said: “Crunchings and munchings?” And there, right at that moment, there he was. Part of him, certainly, came from research. The rest of him — I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

My point, in these examples, is simply this: A writer of fan­tasy, like any writer, must find the essential content of his work within himself, in his own personality, in his own attitude and commitment to real life. Whatever form we work in — fantasy or realism, books for children or for adults — I believe that the fundamental creative process is the same. In his work, the author may be very heavily disguised, or altogether anonymous. I do not think he is ever totally absent.

On the contrary, his presence is required; not as a stage man­ager who can be seen busily shifting the cardboard scenery, but as the primary source of tonality and viewpoint. Without this viewpoint, the work becomes more and more abstract, a play of the intellect that can move us only intellectually. It may be tech­nically brilliant, but it becomes sleight of hand instead of true magic. If art — as Plato defined it — is a dream for awakened minds, it should be, at the same time, a dream that quickens the heart.

High fantasy indeed quickens the heart and reaches levels of emotion, areas of feeling that no other form touches in quite the same way. Some books we can enjoy, some we can admire, and some we can love. And among those books that we love as chil­dren, that we remember best as adults, fantasy is by no means least. It would be interesting to calculate how many of the classic works of children’s literature are works of fantasy.

The logical question is: What makes fantasy so memorable? Unfortunately, art is not always susceptible to logical analysis, or at least not to the same patterns of logic that apply in other areas. Instead of provable answers, we have possibilities, hints, and suggestions. The most obvious answers are the least accurate. Fantasy can be considered an escape from complex reality to a more simplistic world, the yearning for a past that never existed, or a vehicle for regression. Attractive as these answers may be, fantasy offers no such escapes from life. It can refresh and delight, certainly; give us a new vision; make us weep or laugh. None of these possibilities constitutes escape, or denial of something most of us begin to suspect at a rather early age: that being alive in the world is a hard piece of business.

There may be subtler forces at work. In even the wildest flights of fantasy, there seems to be an undercurrent of rationality. On its own terms and in its own frame of reference, the fantasy world makes a certain kind of sense. If there are ambiguities, they are recognizable as such. The fantasy realm includes superb vil­lains — utterly fiendish and irretrievably wicked — but no neurot­ics. The story does not move as the result of irrational behavior, capriciousness, or sudden whim. The “bad guys” have very good reasons for perpetrating whatever villainy they have in mind.

And there is always the possibility of effective action. The hero wants to do something, he can do something, and he actually does do something. So much of current adult literature offers us the anti-hero: I might say the hero as clodpole, the hero as a crashing bore, or as an existential loser. The fantasy hero may lose, too. But in the process, at least, he has made some effort to cope with his environment. He may be a sacrificial figure but never a passive victim.

The fantasy hero is not only a doer of deeds, but he also oper­ates within a framework of morality. His compassion is as great as his courage — greater, in fact. We might even consider that his humane qualities, more than any others, are what the hero is really all about. I wonder if this reminds us of the best parts of ourselves? A reminder, as Lewis Mumford says, that our poten­tial is greater than our achievement. An ideal, if we choose to call it that; but an ideal that may actually be within our reach. We cannot know for sure unless we do try to reach out for  it.

Or, does the vitality of fantasy come from a deeper source: from its deliberate use of the archaic, the imagery of our most ancient modes of thought? Jung believes it does, and spoke eloquently about “primordial images,” which at times over­ power us and make us aware of what is universal, and therefore eternal. In practice, this point of view seems to have a great amount of truth in it. Whether this also implies, as Jung believed it did, a common racial memory, a collective unconscious, is open to speculation.

We are now starting to wade into some rather deep meta­ physical waters. But the “Cauldron of Story,” we realize, does not serve up No-Cal carbonated beverage. The brew is consider­ably stronger. But certainly not too strong for children. They love it and thrive on it; and I believe they need the experience of fantasy as an essential part of growing up.

Strong emotions, moments of triumph or despair, are surely familiar to children. They respond to them and identify with them because these feelings are already a part of their inner lives — lives which, as we are continually discovering, are richer and more complex than we might have imagined, on both an unconscious and conscious level. Graham Greene touches on this in his essay “The Lost Childhood,” when he says: A child…knows most of the game….He is quite well aware of cowardice, shame, deception, disappointment.” I think these statements are true. And equally true that the child is aware of courage, pride, and honesty. Greene continues with what I think is the operative phrase: “it is only an attitude…that he lacks.”§ And here, on this point of attitude, the goals and values of high fantasy merge with those of all literary and artistic forms. Each work of art, in its own way, suggests a possible attitude toward life: a variety of life-styles, ways of seeing ourselves and others.

George Steiner, in his book Language and Silence, says: “the critic….must ask of  it [contemporary literature] not only whether it represents a technical advance…or plays adroitly on the nerve of the moment, but what it contributes to or detracts from the dwindled reserves of moral intelligence.” High fan­tasy as we write it today must, of necessity, be included as con­temporary literature, whether its apparent content pretends to look back to an imaginary past or ahead to a future (that may or may not be altogether imaginary). It must be able to answer the question that Steiner also raises: “What is the measure of man this work proposes?”‖

The question is not an abstract one, of merely literary judgments, but fundamentally one of how we choose to see ourselves. Shall we measure only our present condition, which is far from a happy one? Or is there some larger scale — not only to measure man, but which man can measure up to? Fantasy imagines there is. And if we can dream, maybe we can really measure up to the dream.

*Originally given at the New England Round Table of Children’s Librarians, October 1969.
† Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination (Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 100.
‡ J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), p. 26.
§ Graham Greene, Collected Essays (New York, Viking Press, 1969), p. 16.
‖ George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York, Atheneum, 1970), p. 9.

From the December 1971 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.



  1. Shirley Wayland says:

    A voice and thoughts worth keeping!

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