‘Quite the most precious gift’

This is what Ruskin called a set of drawings by Burne-Jones, which Ruskin included in the resources he assembled for teaching at his Oxford Drawing School. This collection was incorporated into the Ashmolean in the twentieth century and you can now explore it in digitised form as The Elements of Drawing: John Ruskin’s Teaching Collection, images and catalogues including his notes and instructions.

Ruskin’s collection reveals much about his interests and priorities in relation to art, including his ongoing preoccupation with the Gothic style in architecture and the art which was influenced by it and in turn represented it further. It also reminds us that Ruskin was also very much a ‘fan’ of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose work embodied all that he most valued and admired. These drawings, in particular, show how even a classical subject – here William Morris’s retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius – could be recast in the mould of Pre-Raphaelite preoccupations with the medieval. It could also be placed within a spectrum of subjects which ranged from the biblical to the Arthurian without appearing out of place. In this example winged Cupid, though far from angelic, is very much in the mould of Burne-Jones’s numerous angels; compare this one or this. Indeed, apart from the rather revealing state of Psyche’s clothing and her sleeping form, this picture is rather reminiscent of Christian annunciation scenes, including the one that Burne-Jones himself painted. In such scenes Burne-Jones’s medieval aesthetic, reinvented and reshaped to the needs and interests of the mid to late nineteenth century, is clearly evident.

In inspiring, encouraging and then promoting the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin helped to make clear the lines of connection between them, and between their art and the Gothic architecture which he had described so enthusiastically. Arguably, Ruskin already belonged to a wide-ranging fandom for medieval architecture, comprising those people who studied it, wrote about it, and designed and created new buildings according to its forms and printicples. With Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, already fans of such architecture, came its development into a recognisable and distinctive form of painting.

Oh, and while we’re making connections, C. S. Lewis (a great fan of William Morris) also wrote a version of the story of Cupid and Psyche. His novel, published in the 1950s, was called Till We Have Faces.

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William Morris Exhibition, London

Two Temple Place are currently hosting an exhibition on William Morris that I hope to catch before it closes. It’s called William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth and you can find an interesting description of it here. There are some lovely illustrations of some of his work and a strong emphasis on his interactions with medieval culture and texts. We’ll be putting some of these in a broader context in tomorrow’s plenary lecture.

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There is nothing new under the sun…

If you would like to follow up on some of the ideas we talked about last week, have a look at this article/blog The Death of Literature? As the author admits later on, he has had to push together many very different ideas and approaches and some of it needs careful unpacking. However, much of this is done by excellent discussion in the comments section so do read through that as well to get the full benefit.

This may also provide a good opportunity for me to say that the comments section is available to you in this blog if there’s anything you want to say or ask about related to the fantasy literature we’re discussing.

By the way, someone left a brolly in my office last Thursday – given the current downpours, you might want to pick it up sooner rather than later!

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Delighted to find this blog last night: http://welshficwitch.tumblr.com/post/16028223498/why-the-medieval-era-is-my-fandom. As far as I know, I don’t know this person or have any connection to them, so it’s fascinating to find a writer expressing exactly what I’ve been suggesting; that the medieval constitutes a fandom for a certain group of authors, and that this has interesting links with fanfic. Go and have a read!

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Other times, other worlds

Since fantasy writing comes in many different shapes and sizes – novel, short story, poem – and is thus not defined by form, we need other ways of thinking about it. When it comes to thinking about the content, it is easy to get caught up in the complex relationships between fantasy and the fantastical. Since Tzvetan Todorov wrote his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre in 1975 there have been many attempts to tighten up both the genre and the terminology. Todorov’s approach centred on his identification of a ‘hesitation’ on the part of the reader (experienced either through a central character or externally) as to the nature of events which seem strange in the story: within the world presented in the work, are they normal or supernatural? This, coupled with a text which was not to be read allegorically, constituted the fantastic. (There is a lot more to the theory than this, of course, and if you are interested in pursuing it you can find Todorov in the library.)

This hesitation, however, provides us with some questions when the texts that we are dealing with were produced not since the eighteenth or even sixteenth centuries, but right back in the Anglo-Saxon period or even the classical period. Some critics have argued that works like Beowulf and even Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey should be seen as part of the tradition of fantasy writing given their dealings with the supernatural, but this assumes that there was some hesitation on the part of audiences at the time as to the nature of the events they describe. Was a story containing the interaction between gods and men fantastical to an audience in ancient Greece? Did people listening to Beowulf experience a moment of hesitation as to whether the monsters were real or not? Or were they an accepted part of the actual world, even if not a part that the audience had experieced personally or ever expected to?

Our problems with this are intricately connected to our problems with describing and imagining the past, which often seems like a fantastical place to us in any case. Much of the strangeness of the past chimes with what Todorov called the ‘fantastic uncanny’, but once we add the question of fiction we are moving into other areas again, trying to reconstruct the imaginary worlds of people very different from ourselves. I have recently been thinking and writing about the ways in which modern authors seem to tip over into treating the past as fantastical even when their approach purports to be historical and potentially explanatory. Their own hesitation as to whether events are natural or supernatural is expressed in the structure of the stories they present.

For now, I will suggest that we look at these earlier texts not as prototypes for either fantasy writing or the fantastical, but as sources of inspiration for the imagining of fantasy worlds; that we see the gap between our experience of the ‘natural’ and theirs as a space in which that hesitation becomes productive and full of possibility. Beowulf, as Tolkien himself suggested, is not a text to be pulled apart and dissected until it is nothing but a pile of textual rubble; rather it is a textual tower, something to be taken as a means of seeing further, providing a perspective on a wider world that may appear fantastical to us. We will be tracing the ways in which later fantasy writing saw, used and developed that world.


Tzvetan Todorov (1973). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press).

J. R. R. Tolkien (1936). ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,’ Proceedings of the British Academy, 22: 245–95.

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Welcome back!

As the new year starts with the Fantasy and Fandom module, this blog is now active again. On here I’ll post thoughts, reminders, ideas, links, examples, questions and ponderings based on what we discuss in sessions and what we’re looking at more generally.

Everyone is welcome to comment constructively, and to discuss various aspects of things in the blog by means of the comments section.

If you’re studying the module, I would urge to click on the ‘Sign me up’ button on the lower right of this screen; you will then get email notifying you every time I make a new post.

And finally, if there is anything you would really like me to blog about, do let me know and I’ll have a go.

Have a great module!

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Only connect…

Much of what has been discussed in this blog and the seminars has been all about connections – between texts, between authors, between readers and between people in wider communities of consumption and reception (where texts morph into films, songs, games and other stories). Those connections may be made through shared ideas, motifs, plots, characters or forms, creating new relationships which go far beyond the simple binaries of source/derivative, ancestor/descendant or even original/copy. If nothing else, I hope that it has thoroughly unsettled any assumptions about the possibility of really ‘original’ work and raised some questions about how such assumptions may be premised on the need for texts as distinct commodities which can be packaged and sold.

The ‘only connect’ phrase made famous by E. M Forster, however, in his novel Howard’s End, refers to a need for the individual to connect ‘the prose and the passion’ within, ‘the beast and the monk’ which represent extremes of the fragmented self: unbridled sexuality and complete denial of it. In connection, both cease to exist, and are transformed together into something else entirely: the potential for love. This seems to me to also be a description of the kind of process which fantasy often dramatises, not merely in the case of heroes who find (out about) themselves through both physical and spiritual journeys, but also in their interactions with the monstrous. It is not uncommon for fantasy protagonists to take on their extreme opposites only to find that they have more in common than they think – or to discover that disposing of the beast involves their own demise. Harry Potter is merely the latest in a long line of heroes who must make the ultimate sacrifice; note that Harry’s adult self, one finally capable of unselfish, mature love, arises out of the combination and demise of his child self (not monkish, perhaps, but certainly pre-sexual despite Harry’s crushes and kisses) and his monstrous other (the Dark Lord who has been very much less than human for most of Harry’s life, and is strongly associated with that most phallic of creatures: the snake). Right back where we started this discussion, Beowulf appears destroying a series of monsters: Grendel, who has been described as Beowulf’s ‘alter ego’; Grendel’s Mother, the monstrous, sexualised feminine challenge to Beowulf’s hypermasculinity and apparent asexuality; the dragon, whose instinct to hoard treasure alone is the extreme opposite to Beowulf’s role as a distributor of treasure in the community, and whose death is bought at the expense of Beowulf’s own life. [For modern fantasy takes on Beowulf and monstrosity, don’t forget Gaiman’s ‘Baywolf’ (the short story in Smoke and Mirrors) and ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ (the novella he wrote as a kind of sequel to American Gods, available from me if you’re interested).]

The kinds of connections that we make among fantasy texts, however, tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the texts. We connect things we already know, and shift them into patterns that respond to our desires for impossible challenges that can nevertheless be overcome, lofty destinies that are also products of our own actions and will, and that most unlikely and popular of outcomes: the happy ending! And fantasy can offer the reader the chance to ‘play’ the hero – both in the sense of occupying the hero’s subject position and in terms of moving the hero through the story, an active role which can then be expressed more strongly in the production of fanfic. Within fandoms, connections often (and rapidly) become codified into themes (hurt/comfort), exaggerated character traits (evil!Merlin) and storylines (the death of Arthur) that can be endlessly reproduced in varying combinations, but also then subverted all over again. Crossover fanfic is a good example of a sometimes peculiar but often strangely successful connection, bringing separate fictional worlds and characters into contact and producing something both new and hybrid as a result. The organisation of readers into fan communities often serves to privilege certain sets of connections, but this does not prevent other connections from being made.

Readers (and essay-writers) looking to connect sets of texts, both medieval and modern, need to remember that connections can operate on a number of levels and in relation to a range of textual features. In making those connections, however, it is worth first thinking through what kind of connection you are making, and then giving some consideration to the impositions that your own connective patterns and desires may place upon the texts. Make sure that you can argue your case thoroughly and through close reference to the texts in question; be alert to the ways in which shared language might lead you to connections which might otherwise be less obvious. And while there is no need to connect ‘prose with passion’ in an essay, thorough engagement with the material you discuss is always a good thing!

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