The Heavy Fantastic

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

by Ursula K. LeGuin, edited and with introductions by Susan Wood
Putnam’s, 270 pp., $9.95

Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales and Stories

edited and with commentaries by Eric S. Rabkin
Oxford University Press, 478 pp., $15.95

We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.” The rhetorical phrase that provides a title for Ursula Le Guin’s essays, notes, and speeches about fantastic fiction becomes less plausible the longer you look at it. “We”—you and I and Ursula Le Guin—do live almost all of our waking lives in real or artificial daylight, and if half the world is always dark, that affects us very little. And then much poetry and a good deal of fantasy uses the language of rational and logical discourse, which is I suppose what Ms. Le Guin would call the language of day. Very little fantasy uses that language of the night which speaks “from the unconscious, to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious,” to quote her definition of great fantasies, myths, and tales. It is not a mere literal quibble to insist that there is no such thing as the language of the unconscious, and that the Grimm brothers and Hoffmann and Poe and Cabell and Tolkien use the language of day. They may use it, more or less deliberately, to suggest symbols, myths, and archetypes, but the interest of those symbols and archetypes is that they refer back to the real world, the world of daylight in which we live.

Such would be a rational view: and the first thing to make clear about most exponents and practitioners of fantasy fiction nowadays is that they do not accept it. They are Manichaeans in reverse, believing that darkness and fantasy are good, daylight and realism dull or worse. Le Guin, whose aphorisms tend to the mystically gnomic, tells us that “those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians.” (Listen to dragons? Who, even in a fairy tale, did that?) Professor Eric S. Rabkin, in his commentaries on a new anthology of fantastic writing, is franker. The real world, he tells us chattily, is a messy place where dust accumulates and crime often pays and true love doesn’t conquer. Let’s take the trip to fantasy, then, to worlds that “are not merely different from our own, but alternative to our own.”

So we’re all aboard in Fantastic Worlds for a journey that takes in the writers mentioned already, plus stories and snippets from Genesis, Greek myth, Br’er Rabbit, fairy tales, Carroll and Thurber, Lovecraft and Le Fanu, Bierce and William Morris, Hawthorne and Kafka. Thurber? Yes, Walter Mitty finds a place under “Fantasy,” and although there is no doubt that Walter Mitty fantasizes he seems an odd companion for Hoffmann and Poe in the same section. Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is an explicit moral allegory about the danger of seeking perfection, Kafka’s “The Judgment” an exercise in self-analysis based on the writer’s extraordinary relationship with his father. If such stories are to be categorized …

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