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Review – Rhetorics of Fantasy

27 December, 2009

This review was originally published in my LiveJournal but it occured to me that it might be of use to the general RPG debate on fantasy campaigns and games.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Best to start with the “Health Warning: This book is not intended to create rules. Its categories are not intended to fix anything in stone. This book is merely a portal into fantasy, a tour around the skeletons and exoskeletons of the genre.” (P. vii)

So, this book is trying to find common ground among the various paths of fantasy so we can at least discuss the various types with some agreed upon framework. Mendleson divides fantasy up into four primary categories:

Portal-Quest Fantasy: These are two strains (well represented by Narnia and Middle Earth) that are almost parallel in how they are told, the protagonist(s) ventures into another/wider world, learning about it and ultimately setting things right. These are stories of correction, often crouched in terms of healing or restoring things to how they once were. It is an interesting section as I never thought about certain aspects of the structure of the Quest fantasy, such as how history must be uncovered and it always true . . . as is prophecy. Characters in the portal-quest fantasy often accept their role reluctantly but they accept that the role is both true and necessary.

Immersive Fantasy: Immersive fantasy is rather odd category, as it is an umbrella for the worlds in which other stories are told, such as mysteries in a fantasy world (Randall Garret’s Lord Darcy series) or romances (many, but not my sub-genre) or war stories (Glen Cook’s Black Company). Immersive fantasy can even hold other types of fantasy stories within them (such as the intrusion fantasy within China Mieville’s Perdito Street Station). The key to immersive fantasies is how they present the world we find ourselves viewing as the only world, the techniques to do so are discussed by Mendleson and where they can fail.

Intrusion Fantasy: These are in some ways the opposite of the Portal Fantasy, with the fantastic breaking through into another world (usually ours). The intrusion fantasy is typified by the horror genre (such as Lovecraft’s stories) with every escalating threats and a resolution that restores the status quo . . . or something resembling it. Characters in the intrusion fantasy are often skeptical until almost too late.

Liminal Fantasy: This is the most unusual fantasy, and the smallest category, the one where the fantastic is never fully revealed but always around the next corner or just out of sight. Such as if you had found the wardrobe to Narnia, yet never crossed through. While I have read books that I consider to represent the others, I do not recall reading something which I would put into the liminal category.

Mendleson peppers each section with multiple examples (and a fair amount of technical terminology, see the glossary) and does a good job is discussing the twists and turns of each genre as well as counter examples and a concluding chapter (“The Irregulars”: Subverting the Taxonomy) on those books that do not fit into the four categories above. Again, not featuring books I have read but still interesting.

Just as it is intended to do, it makes me think about ways to discus fantasy and as such I believe this is a successful book. I hope to see more from Mendleson, and others, on this subject for an agreed upon vocabulary is a useful tool for discussing a subject that we all enjoy.

A useful glossary of terms for the non-English majors reading this book:

Dialectic – Finding truth through discussion and debate.

Metonymy – A word or expression used for something that it is closely related to (i.e. Downing Street to refer to the British Prime Minister).

Mimesis – Imitative representation of the real world in fiction. Thus Mimetic Fiction tries to represent the world as it is.

Monosemy- A text having a single meaning, an absence of ambiguity (usually used of individual words or phrases).

Phatic- In linguistics, a phatic expression is one whose only function is to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information.

Polysemy / Polysemic – The idea that texts are capable of many potential meanings and readings and can be read in a variety of ways.

Solipsism – The view that the self is all that can be know to exist.

Taxonomy – A scheme of classification; theory and practice of classification.

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