Reviews 2011

Cheek by Jowl: Talks and Essays on How and Why Fantasy Matters

Cheek by Jowl: Talks and Essays on How and Why Fantasy Matters. Ursula K. Le Guin. Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2009. 149 pages. USD 16.00 (paperback).

Cheek by Jowl, Ursula K. LeGuin’s new collection of older talks and essays, contains a number of poignant observations in its seven short essays and one more substantial work. The shorter commentaries are valuable for establishing LeGuin’s thesis on “why fantasy matters,” but they are somewhat overshadowed by the collection’s excellent centerpiece, ‘Cheek by Jowl: Animals in Children’s Literature.’

LeGuin opens with ‘Some Assumptions about Fantasy,’ a good place to begin, given the subtitle of the collection. Here, LeGuin attempts to debunk what she sees as the three primary myths of fantasy: “(1) the characters are white; (2) they live sort of in the middle ages; and (3) they’re fighting in a battle between good and evil” (4). That the talk was first delivered in 2004 speaks to the efficacy of her message, for while characters are still predominantly white, fantasy now more than ever includes numerous different social and economic situations, the “genuinely imagined society and culture” LeGuin dreams of: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, K. V. Johansen’s Warlocks of Talverdin series, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Fire spring readily to mind (these text also address the racial balancing LeGuin rightly demands). And while fantasy does still contain a marked representation of the existential battle, many fantasy tales engage with more complex questions of ethical and moral consideration; few could say that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Garth Nix’s Shades Children or Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, for example, represent good and evil simplistically. Overall, LeGuin’s message is one of positive belief in the power of truly great fantasy literature, but the talk focuses too much on the negative, ignoring much of the powerful fantasy that abounds.

The trend towards overgeneralization is a shortcoming in most of the shorter articles in LeGuin’s collection. In ‘The Wilderness Within,’ she discusses literary influences on the fantasy author. She calls “the accepted notion of literary influence” “appallingly simplistic” (10), as it “distains the effect of ‘pre-literature’—oral stories, folk tales, fairy tales, picture books—on the tender mind of the pre-writer” (11), but is her understanding of the “accepted notion” valid? How can any author not be influenced to some degree by our oral tradition? As Jack Zipes has argued, “our lives are framed by folk and fairy tales” (xi), a point supported by the plethora of fairy tale rewrites and allusions common in our culture today. In ‘Re-Reading Peter Rabbit’ and ‘The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,’ LeGuin presents an increasingly out-dated view regarding “universities [that] taught generations of students to shun all ‘genres,’ including fantasy” (27). While it is true that “[t]o throw a book out of serious consideration because it was written for children, or because it is read by children, is in fact a monstrous act of anti-intellectualism” (32), it seems that LeGuin is not only preaching to the converted, but is rather late in delivering her homily.

In ‘The Young Adult in YA Fiction,’ LeGuin delivers a cogent discussion of how the characteristics of fantasy (especially “the curious capacity fantasy has of satisfying both the child and the adult” [118]) circumvent accepted traditions of YA fiction. She establishes that the fantasy author is at liberty to construct a world that reflects—while not necessarily imitating—our essential humanity, “using imagery to express what can’t be perceived directly—using indirection to indicate the truthward direction” (119); in this ability lies the power of fantasy in our real world.

The penultimate essay, ‘A Message about Messages,’ sums up LeGuin’s position throughout the shorter works in the collection: To translate “the complex meanings of a serious story or novel […] into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them” (127). The final short work in the collection, ‘Why Kids Want Fantasy,’ similarly addresses the subtitle of the text. LeGuin here revisits consideration of the complexities of engaging in the “Battle Between Good and Evil,” not for only children, but also for adolescents and adults: “if you seek true guides into the land of fantasy […] you may not get rich, or stay young, […] but you’ll learn something about how to tell the difference between good and evil” (135). And this is “the Arkenstone” that fantasy gives us (135).

The problematic generalizations of the shorter articles are noticeably absent from ‘Cheek by Jowl,’ which is probably the best overall discussion of animal stories I have ever read. The one omission I regret is Charles G. D. Roberts, whose animal stories are far superior to Ernest Thompson Seton’s, which LeGuin does discuss. In the early 1900s, when Roberts and Seton were writing “realistic animal biography” (66), John Burroughs, an American naturalist, condemned their works in his article ‘Real and Sham Natural History.’ In the animal biography, he asserted vociferously, “the line between fact and fiction is repeatedly crossed, and […] a deliberate attempt is made to induce the reader to cross, too, and to work such a spell upon him that he shall not know that he has crossed and is in the land of make-believe” (Burroughs 1903:300). In “the land of make-believe,” however, animals can talk, can commune with humankind, and in this lies a power that LeGuin reveals adeptly in her investigation of the human need for communion with nature, especially animals. LeGuin establishes, in her fluid narrative style, the multitude of forms that animal stories take. She presents her discussion as following a linear progression from representation of real animal nature, through animal actors, and animal-human interaction, “to the purely human end of the spectrum” in the animal fable (ibid.). But the linearity or representation is flawed, for in all instances there is a degree of anthropomorphization. As LeGuin intimates, anthropomorphizing animal characters is not fundamentally problematic in fantasy, but the suggestion that it does not occur perhaps is. This is the criticism Burroughs and other critics have of animal stories: the line between the animal and human worlds becomes blurred. But does this matter to the reader? LeGuin correctly ascribes a power to these stories, a power that stems from the human need to “seek connection with nonhuman beings, or a reminder, however artificial, that there used to be a connection” (48). If we step aside from this question, and focus—as LeGuin does—on the connections the animal story forms with the human world, we are left with a both eminently readable and insightful consideration of animals’ integral role in human narratives. As a discussion linking human society with the animal kingdom, as well as comparing animal narratives themselves, LeGuin’s ‘Cheek by Jowl’ is invaluable. She runs the gamut of literary references from the pre-Christian writings of Lucretius to Pullman’s daemons, from Seton’s Grizzly to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Overall, Cheek By Jowl presents two separately cohesive critical streams: the shorter works assert the efficacy of fantasy as a literary genre (as the subtitle suggests) and the central, longer ‘Cheek by Jowl’ affirms the power of animal stories (as the main title suggests). It is understandable that they have been published together, given the lengths of the individual units, but the two themes do not sit comfortably side-by-side; nonetheless, there are a number of powerful literary truths to be gleaned from this collection.

Works Cited

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell. 1979. Lexington, KT: U of Kentucky P, 2002.

Burroughs, John. "Real and Sham Natural History." Atlantic Monthly 91 (1903): 298-310.

Karyn Huenemann
Simon Fraser University, Canada