Reviews 2009

Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth: Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and Hoffmann

Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth: Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and Hoffmann. William Gray. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 215 pages. £50.00 (hardcover).

Despite Philip Pullman’s endearingly inconsistent claims that His Dark Materials is not fantasy, to readers and critics alike the series represents one of the most notable achievements of mythopoeic fantasy to date. William Gray’s Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth is the most ambitious and detailed demonstration of just how deep Pullman’s trilogy is rooted in the fantasy tradition stretching back through C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald and on to German Idealist authors and philosophers such as Novalis and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Gray argues that His Dark Materials “may be seen as in certain respects the culmination of this tradition of mythopoeic fiction infused with [...] a particular kind of Romanticism.” Such fantasy appropriates “older mythologies in a new key” and addresses “some central religious questions that have major cultural implications” (1).

Gray’s argument is developed in five chapters bracketed by the Prelude and the Postscript. Most of the Prelude is devoted to showing how His Dark Materials can be seen as Pullman’s “high [Romantic] argument,” that is as “his attempt to suggest the possibility of a reconciliation of humanity with itself and with nature in which experience re-appropriates the lost vision of innocence, but on a higher plane” (4). Chapter One, “German Roots and Mangel-wurzels,” explores how German Idealist philosophy helped shape the Romantic worldview, and how, in turn, this worldview and its affirmation of the powers of the creative imagination contributed to the emergence of fantastic supernatural fiction such as that by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis and especially Hoffmann. Gray pays special attention to Hoffmann’s novella The Golden Pot and is right to stress the importance for this tradition of the attraction to “what was dark and ambiguous” (13). Chapter Two, “George MacDonald’s Marvellous Medicine,” explores what happened after the masterpieces of this German tradition became available in England through Thomas Carlyle’s translations. Examining MacDonald’s essays on the imagination and all of his major fiction, Gray compellingly demonstrates how MacDonald “stands on the trajectory that [...] runs from Romanticism to Pullman” (46).

The “essentially Romantic core of [Tolkien’s] myth-making” (61) is discussed in Chapter Three, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Love of Faery.” Most of the chapter is devoted to Tolkien’s fascination with and attempts at creating pseudo-history, an aspect which has not received sufficient attention in Tolkien scholarship, as Gray correctly points out (83). Chapter Four, “C.S. Lewis: Reality and the Radiance of Myth,” traces the development of Romantic and Platonic ideas in Lewis’s fiction and apologetics from The Pilgrim’s Regress to Till We Have Faces. This is the longest chapter in the book (47 pages), and it pays special attention to how all of Lewis’s work was structured on “a particular experience of intense longing [...] which dominated Lewis’s early life, and which he would later call joy” (104). Chapter Five, “Measuring Truth: Lyra’s Story,” returns to Pullman. By far the best chapter of the book, it offers a dense and detailed examination of the various threads of literary-critical opinions, stylistic devices, plot and character constellations which connect Pullman to Lewis and earlier fantasists in the Romantic mythopoeic tradition. The short Postscript, “Harry Potter, Hogwarts and All,” seems like an afterthought addendum unrelated to the rest of the book.

For all its merits – especially in Chapters Four and Five –Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth is also disappointing. Knowledgeable and erudite, Gray is prone to digressions which seriously weaken, sometimes even obscure his main argument. One effect of this highly digressive style is the impression of a seesaw movement in Gray’s argument, as if he covers the same ground time and time again. Another is a distracting blend of authors, with too much Lewis in the chapter on Tolkien, and too much Pullman in the chapter on Hoffmann. I was also frustrated by what seems to be certain nonchalance about the book’s structure. The Prelude does not lay out how the argument will be developed in the subsequent chapters; the Postscript does not attempt to sum up the book; the various chapters, which seem to have been organized chronologically and by author, have no introductions or conclusions and consist of structurally idiosyncratic sections of varying lengths; the transitions between chapters are so weak that their order seems random. In fact, the order of author names in the title completely reverses the sequence of chapters as they appear in the book. This should not, however, discourage potential readers. For all those who seek to understand the relation between Pullman’s His Dark Materials and earlier mythopoeic fantasies, Gray’s sparklingly digressive and romantically (un)structured work offers, on the whole, some of the most compelling arguments to date.

Lydia Kokkola
University of Turku, Finland