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Ever since I was young kid, I was always fascinated with fantasy, specifically the kind of fable-like fantasy that’s been pioneered by the likes of George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, and C.S. Lewis. It’s this love for the fantasy that made me determined to start drawing, hoping that I can bring out these characters that have been resting in my head for such a long time.
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This long essay was written by infamous online writer Kantbot and was hosted on the website The Autistic Mercury before it was deleted off the internet. Real Fantasywas the essay that got me to really sit down and consider my love of the fantasy genre and wonder if I really loved the genre for its philosophical roots or only liked it s for its presence in pop culture. This is the essay that introduced me to foundations of the fantasy genre, from Ossain to Tolkienand had credible impact of my life and art. Sit back and relax as I share to you Kantbot’s literary opus, Real Fantasy.
“In the beginning, poets and priests were one; it was only in later times that they became separated. The true poet, however, has always remained a priest, just at the true priest has remained a poet. And will not the future restore this former state of affairs?” – Novalis, Pollen #71
“The lore of tales contains the history of the original ideal world; it encompasses the distant past, the present, and the future.” – Novalis, Pollen #101
Few genres of literature are today so popular as that of Fantasy. Since the film adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, fantasy has become nearly omnipresent within the world of modern entertainment. From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, fantasy series have become some of the most popular and influential franchises in publishing, film, and television. It is really not necessary to say more by way of introduction. We are all familiar with the place that Fantasy holds within the modern cultural imagination, whether you play Dungeons and Dragons, or listen to Fantasy inspired power metal bands. With the current ubiquity of “Nerd Culture,” the stuff is everywhere and we all know what I mean, through one avenue or another.
But what is the source of Fantasy? Where does it come from? What does it mean? People’s understanding of these questions is fragmented, and opinions on the matter are diverse. Some have simply defined Fantasy as having to do with the Imagination. One person recently commented to me that Fantasy could be defined simply in terms of the etymology of the general word, “fantasy,” which comes “from old French, “fantasie,” via Latin from Greek phantasia ‘imagination, appearance’.” Fantasy, therefore, is to be defined simply as having something to do with the imagination. For this reason, I saw some arguing, Fantasy could essentially “be anything,” as the imagination has no bounds, so any attempt to limit the concept in any more specific way was to deny this fundamental power of our minds.
This though does not tell the full tale, as one could then just classify all literature as Fantasy. Imagination is, after all, the ground of all literature, and this was how the branches of Art were for a long time delineated. Sculpture and painting and the visual arts generally, were, in contrast to Literature and Poetry, seen as rooted in the Understanding rather than the Imagination. Whereas Music was often interpreted as being rooted in our powers of Reason. This point may seem obscure upon first consideration, but when considered historically, reveals itself upon further reflection.
When mankind first began to produce Art, it was upon the walls of caves, with their handprints and their crude representations of the objects and animals known to them in their immediate surroundings. It is not the case that this kind of Art was the precursor of painting as we know it, and that the other arts, like Poetry and Music had a separate, later origin. On the contrary, this first Art contained every branch and genre of Art known to us today in an embryonic, undeveloped form. These paintings were also the first writing, and in time, as written language came into being, it developed out of this tradition in the form of pictograms and hieroglyphics, which, gradually, proceeded from pictorial representation of the signified objects, to a greater and greater degree of abstraction. In this sense, the first paintings which man smeared on the rock walls of his early abode were also the first works of poetry he ever created.
Likewise, Music and Poetry were at first also one. And the earliest Poetry was completely musical in nature, as demonstrated by the character of Orpheus. Music, Poetry and Painting were all originally united as a single practice, and only as the human mind developed, did they separate from one another into their own distinctive branches of Art. This is why Wilhelm von Humboldt said, simply, “the field of the poet is the imagination.” The human mind was, at the beginning of time, an undifferentiated whole. The metaphysical faculties, or powers of the mind, Understanding, Reason, Imagination, Judgement, Feeling, blended together in the haze of primordial, emerging consciousness, and the respective development of each of these has often formed the spiritual backdrop for major periods of historical transformation. The 18th century, for instance, was the driven by the development of Reason as an independent faculty of consciousness, and when historians call this period the “Age of Reason,” they are really being completely literal.
To return to the topic at hand, however, this is why any definition of Fantasy as Imagination really can tell us nothing and offer no insight into the singular character of the genre of literature we denominate under this term. All literature would become Fantasy, and so we’ve really gotten nowhere and must go back and consider Fantasy in its particularity, as something specific, and as something with a history of its own to be reconstructed.
Identifying a single historical origin point of Fantasy literature, at first glance, may seem an impossible task. Some commenters have contended, for example, that, as all Fantasy generally incorporates “supernatural” elements, all literary works which do so are part of the tradition and history of Fantasy. And though I would agree, to an extent, this conclusion also seems to me to be lacking. Does the history of Fantasy begin proper with Greek Mythology? With Homer? With the Bible and its account of the Hebrew religion and the acts of their God? Was Moses the ancestor of Gandalf, as he conjured a snake from his staff? At once there may be some truth in such a characterization, but at the same time this doesn’t feel entirely fair to those ancient works of mysticism and religion. The Iliad can not be properly considered a Fantasy novel first and foremost, and neither can the Bible. These are religious texts, and their construction was not the act of a single individual, but rather a collective cultural project. Those that contributed to them believed the events they relayed to be true facts of history. They believed in the Gods of Olympus, and this to me seems like a very different thing than Tolkien, and his Legendarium, though that work may in many ways be modeled after genuine mythologies of ancient peoples.
Tolkien, certainly, did not create Fantasy single handedly, and even amateur scholars and ordinary fans of the genre would not argue as much, as somewhat earlier works, like those of Lovecraft and Howard, are widely acknowledged as well as significant steps in the development of Fantasy as a literary genre. By way of demonstration, however, the history of his Legendarium may serve to illustrate a few things about the genre more clearly.
When Tolkien first conceived of, and wrote The Hobbit, he did not consider this work as part of his Legendarium project, which he had already been working on separately for many years. It was only after the success of the novel, and the difficulties he ran into of creating a sequel, that he began to merge everything into a single mythopoetic enterprise. The stories that comprise the Silmarillion, in fact, were first developed by Tolkien long before The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, during the author’s time serving in the British Army during World War I, around 1917. In their original form, the components of the Silmarillion were grouped together as The Book of Lost Tales, an uncompleted work in which an Anglo-Saxon traveller from the 10th century, named Eriol, or Ælfwine, stumbles upon the Elvish isle, Tol Eressëa. It was Tolkien’s intention that Eriol would, by the Elves, be initiated into the lost and secret history of the world, and that this history, as Tolkien relates it, would constitute a unified lore of Anglo-Saxon culture, into which versions of different Northern European, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, etc. tales and sages could be synthesized within a single pseudo-historical context.
In fact, as is generally known, Tolkien never really abandoned this conceit. The world of the Hobbits, and of the One Ring, and of Morgoth, and everything else, was in fact our world. The supreme being of Tolkien’s Legendarium, Ilúvatar, created the Ainur, the gods of Middle Earth, and they together sang the Ainulindalë, the Music of the Ainur, the song of creation. The universe, or Eä, as Tolkien calls it, was the manifestation of this music, and the Ainur departed the Timeless Halls of Ilúvatar to dwell in, and shape the Earth, which they called Arda. This world, so Tolkien’s Legendarium goes, was, in the first conception, was a perfectly symmetrical, flat disc, and was without sun or moon. Middle Earth was created, as a continent of this world, following the rebellion of the Lucifer of the story, Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, who spoiled the perfect design of Arda. And so on and so forth. Middle Earth, in time, became the Old World: Europe, Africa, and Asia.
This complex of stories, Tolkien’s Legendarium, has clear influences in earlier works with which Tolkien was familiar, in particular the work of Lord Dunsany, and his 1905 book, The Gods of Peg?na, which, similar to the Legendarium, outline a fictional mythology of the world’s creation and the gods who participated in it. In Dusany’s personal mythology, like in Tolkien’s, our universe is the physical manifestation of the music of Skarl, the Drummer, who beats on his drum for all eternity. Dunsany, besides influencing Tolkien, was likewise appreciated by many of the other acknowledged founders of Fantasy, such as Lovecraft, Howard, as well as Jorge Luis Borges and many others. More than a century before Dunsany, however, we can find earlier literary projects which play with many of the same ideas that Tolkien was when he first began working on The Lost Tales. Most notably: the poetry of Ossian, though I’m not aware whether or not Tolkien, for his part, was personally familiar with them. The comparison has, however, been made by others, and the critic Christopher Ricks once went so far as to rebuke Tolkien by referring to him as “our Ossian,” and why such a comparison should be insulting, will be seen.
The saga of the Ossian poems is perhaps one of the greatest literary controversies in modern history, though the average reader today is unlikely to be familiar with it. In 1760, the Scottish scholar James Macpherson published a series of poems, under the collected title: Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language. It was Macpherson’s claim that these poems and fragments were genuine works of ancient Scottish-Gaelic literature, and that they were composed by Scotland’s version of Homer, a pseudo-historical bard named Ossian. The most famous of these works, published in 1765, was the notorious poetic epic, Fingal. Initially the Ossianic poems were accepted as authentic, or mostly authentic, and found many admirers among the literary establishment of the 18th century Enlightenment. Soon enough though, the providence of the poems was challenged by important contemporary critics, such as Samuel Johnson, and in the end, they have been mostly dismissed as a hoax and a total fabrication by modern literary scholars and historians.
Macpherson, like Tolkien, however, was engaged in his own project to synthesize the disparate elements of Gaelic literary history into a single canon of work, a canon which could, Macpherson likely hoped, lay the groundwork for a modern, independent Scottish culture. It was only in 1707, with the Acts of Union, that the kingdoms of Scotland and England were united under a single crown to form Great Britain, and throughout the history of 18th century British literature, the place of Scotland remained a central theme. Parts of Scotland, at the time, lagged behind England and the rest of Western Europe in terms of economic and social development, and the Highland regions were seen as a lawless realm of brigands and mutineers. Twice, in 1715 and 1745, the Highlanders participated in Jacobite uprisings which sought the restoration of the Stuart dynasty to the British throne. Overall, Scotland was a like a third world country in England’s backyard, and several major works of 18th (and 19th) century British literature, like the novels of the great Tobias Smollett, sought to address the cultural differences between the two countries.
At the same time, on the continent, Germany faced similar conditions, and there was, during this period, no single Germany as there is today, but rather a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms and city states loosely collected together under the decaying feudal institution of the Holy Roman Empire. The Enlightenment came to Germany later than it did to France, or England, and the contemporary German literary culture was seen internationally as being provincial and backwater in comparison. The situation began to change in the 1760’s and 1770’s though, as a new generation of German writers sought to modernize their culture, and elevate it to a position of international standing. In doing so, they turned to British literature as a source of models which they could adapt to combat the cultural hegemony of the French on the continent. And so Ossian found a warm reception among the Germans, along with Shakespeare, and Edward Young’s long philosophical poem, Night Thoughts. Together with the skeptical philosophy of David Hume, these works exerted a tremendous influence on the direction of German literature.
German Cultural Theory
It was the great critic and man of letters, Gottfried Herder, who led the charge in the reception of Ossian among the Germans. During the 1760’s Herder published a series of wide ranging critical essays in which he surveyed contemporary German literature in its entirety, and found it to be, in many respects, lacking. Even Frederick the Great of Prussia, the famous enlightened monarch, published his own work harshly criticising German language literature of the time in comparison to the French models he prefered. Beginning in 1771, Herder moved to Bückeburg and here he spent time wandering the Saxon landscape and imagining himself in the desolate regions of Northern England and Scotland as he read Ossian and Hamlet. In 1776 Herder relocated to Weimar, and joined Goethe there as court preacher, and over the next two or three decades, together with Schiller and others, delved deeply into the study of Culture generally, and its relationship to politics and history.
In 1774 Herder published the essay, Yet Another Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity, in which he repudiated standard models of progressive history common among Enlightenment thinkers. The title of the essay is an ironic condemnation of the failure of Enlightenment historiography, which commonly held that 18th century Europe represented the “maturity” of the human race. This was the arrogance of the Enlightenment in Herder’s mind, and the essay culminates in indignant tirade against the moral hypocrises of the philosophical mainstream of the era. Herder boldly defends the patriarchal, slave culture of the ancient near east, not that he defended slavery as a modern institution, but rather he asserts a form of historical relativism, in which the past becomes a “foreign country,” one that can only be judged and properly understood according to its own internal standard. Following Rousseau, Herder argues that modern moral concepts are not universal, and that the seemingly savage culture of the ancient near east was the one best suited to man at that stage of his development, and therefore could not be dismissed in accordance with the moral pretensions of the Enlightenment.
It was this turn in German historiography that laid the foundation for a rehabilitation of the German culture of the Middle Ages, the so-called “Dark Ages,” as progressive historians called it. As a result, a newfound appreciation for historical German poetry, like the Minnesang of the medieval troubadours, developed among German critics and scholars. Herder, for his part, was an exceptional philologist, and along with his own teacher Georg Hamann, and younger literary scholars like F. Schlegel, called for a massive expansion of the literary canon. Ancient Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit literature joined the Homeric epics and Athenian tragedies to create the concept of “World Literature” as we today understand it. It is here the connections between the work of Herder, and Ossian and that of JRR Tolkien become evident. It was the philological work of Herder and his reappraisal of Medieval poetry that paved the way for Tolkien’s work as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. The Ossianic poetry became a central part of Herder’s theories on the relationship between a people and its poetry. As Homer was an expression of the soul of the Greek people, so was Ossian an expression of the humble spirit of the oft-forgotten and oft-oppressed highland peoples living beyond the northern borders of England. Though the Ossianic poetry was, in the end, discarded as a hoax, Beowulf would ultimately come to fulfil the same role in the later philological work of Tolkien as Ossian did in Herder’s works, such as his Correspondence on Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples.
Under the influence of Herder, during his time in Strasbourg, Goethe too turned his attention to the local folkloric tradition. Strasbourg, at that time, was torn between the influence of German and French culture, and there appeared to be a real danger that the folk songs and tales of the local German speaking people would be erased by the advance of the French language. This represented the beginning of the ethnographic approach to German folklore which would dominate German literature through the Romantic era, from Goethe’s great poem Erlkönig to the work of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm.
At the same time, the concept of Culture became something of an obsession among German philosophers of the era. Key to the Enlightenment was the idea of, naturally, enlightening people. Enlightening the masses, educating them, refining the taste of the era, improving people’s ideas and morals. At the same time, political theorists turned their attention to questions of politics, and constitutions, and how to ensure justice and freedom and equality under legal and political institutions of the day. Frederick the Great was only one of many Enlightened Monarchs who ostensibly were concerned with reform, if only as a pretense for consolidating their political power against the aristocracy and the church. In 1789, with the outbreak of the French Revolution, many of these questions became even more pressing. The initial optimism of German thinkers, like Herder, for the Revolution, was soon enough clouded by doubt as the new French Republic invaded East into German lands, and the French Terror took root across the country wrecking the devastation of violence over the whole country. The French, for all their Enlightenment, had now sunken back into the depths of barbarism and ultimately made war on the entirety of Europe.
The question as to why the French Revolution had seemingly failed, and the question of German political unification became intertwined in the work of Schiller, in his Aesthetic Education of Man, he outlined a theory of culture which would be of decisive influence to the Post-Kantian and Romantic thinkers of the 1790’s. For Schiller, the ability of political institutions to provide freedom to the populace was limited. It was in culture that freedom and equality were to be found in actuality, and culture became not only the precondition of any political reform, but as the deeper source of morality within society.
Between Herder’s ethnographic approach, and his understanding of folklore as a manifestation of the living soul and collective consciousness of a nation, and Schiller’s theory of Culture as the basis and precondition of any eventual political reform, the German Romantics saw an answer to the problems of the immaturity of German literature and of German political disunification. It was under these influences that contemporary writers turned to folkloric and legendary sources as the basis of a post-enlightenment German literary culture that would unite the disparate peoples of the Holy Roman Empire linguistically, spiritually, and eventually, politically. Just as Macpherson had intended the Ossian poetry to elevate the status of Scottish literature and The Gaelic language among the supposedly more developed cultures of Europe, the German Romantics would assimilate German historical and folkloric material into a synthetic literary canon. Over a century later, in 1917, Tolkien would begin The Book of Lost Tales in the same spirit, as a synthetic context into which ancient Anglo-Saxon literary traditions could be collectively assimilated. What began as a personal intellectual project and game would, during the 1940’s, became the most famous and influential fantasy novel ever written. But the Lord of the Rings was not the first time the various intellectual strands described above were woven together into a major literary work. Before Tolkien, before Lovecraft, before Dunsany, there was Novalis.
Here we come to the crux of the whole matter, and return to our original question as to what Fantasy is, how it functions as a literary genre, and what makes it unique and distinguishes it from other forms of literature.
The Novel: Heinrich von Ofterdingen
Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772 – 1801) is, above all others, the holy prophet of Romanticism as well as its greatest martyr. Though his work has inspired regular academic interest among literary theorists and historians, his legacy has not been usually been appreciated by would-be historians of Fantasy. As a literary theorist, it is in Novalis that we find the first sustained explication of Fantasy as a new, and revolutionary genre of literature. As an author, it is in his Heinrich von Ofterdingen, his incomplete novel, that we find not only the first Fantasy novel, but also the purest and most noble expression of the genre. As a human being, it is in his personality and biography that we find the exemplary expression of the spirit of Romantic mysticism and longing.
Born to a decaying aristocratic family in upper Saxony, Hardenberg spent most of his short life as a student, at the Universities of Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg, and between 1795-1796, at the famous Mining Academy of Freiberg, where he studied under the distinguished geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. At Jena, which was, at that time, a notorious “party school” of drunken, fencing obsessed clubs, Hardenberg found himself at the epicenter of Post-Kantian philosophy and Proto-Romanticism. He met, and worshiped Goethe. He attended Fichte’s lectures on Post-Kantian Critical Idealism. He came under the influence of Schiller’s philosophy of Universal History. And befriended the small group of Proto-Romantics led by Friedrich Schlegel, a group which was nothing less the original nucleus and germ of the entire European Romantic movement in all its myriad 19th century formulations.
If Novalis could, despite his fragmentary output, and brief life, be said to have a single work which stands, above the others, as his so-called “magnum opus,” it is undoubtedly his incomplete novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. As has been lamented since his untimely death, it’s quite unfortunate that he did not live to realize his full plan for the book, as it remains, as some have put it, “the holy book of Romanticism,” and one of the most promising and tantalizing works of what is otherwise an already extraordinarily fruitful period of literary history.
The subject of the novel is that of the titular character and the Sängerkrieg, the minstrel contest at the Wartburg, a medieval castle in Thuringia in Germany. The competition, the stuff of old German legend, collected together the greatest minnesingers, a kind of knightly troubadour, to determine whose poetry was the greatest. The story has, from Novalis to Wagner, been retold in various forms, and was one of the most popular tales of Germanic legendary lore which the Romantics raided German history for. Besides Novalis, Hoffmann, Tieck, and Heine all treated the subject, and the story is all the basis for Wagner’s great opera, Tannhäuser. In Wagner’s formulation, Tannhäuser, one of the participants of the contest, spent many years trapped under the curse of the goddess Venus, dwelling in her cavernous realm, where he indulges himself in an orgy of the senses. Eventually, with the power of song and of love, he breaks the curse long enough to escape back into the real world. Tannhäuser attempts to reintegrate himself in the courtly society of the Wartburg, but during the song contest, he sings a bewitched song which reveals the shame of his sin and causes himself to be cast out. The third act of the opera deals with Tannhäuser’s redemption and his pilgrimage to Rome, as well as the self-sacrifice of his beloved Elisabeth, who intervenes on his behalf, in death, before God.
It is unclear precisely what version of this story Novalis planned to tell in his own work, but the basic idea seemed to conform to certain key elements of the legend, where Heinrich, at the song contest, would produce a kind of music that was so powerful and holy, that it would frighten the other contestants. The Venusberg elements, which Wagner drew from Tieck’s version, were not a part of Hardenberg’s conception of the tale however.
What exists of Ofterdingen is, ultimately, only the first of two parts planned by the author, and only fragments of the second, and notes as to Hardenberg’s intentions summarized by Tieck, survive. The first, which Hardenberg subtitles as “The Expectation,” was to be followed in the second by “The Fulfilment,” which immediately suggests a structural metaphor for Fichtean transcendental dichotomies, like those employed by Schiller. It was only in the conclusion of the second half that Heinrich would participate in the contest of the Minnesingers, and Tieck’s recollections as to Hardenberg’s intentions are vague on this point.
The entire plan of the work, though, follows in the model of Goethe’s 1794 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as it is less a recounting of the traditional legend of Germanic lore, as it is an artistic biography of Heinrich’s life, and his development within the society of the middle ages into a poet and prophet. Together with other contemporary works, Meister and Ofterdingen are sometimes called bildungsroman, that is, “novels of development,” though this concept, as a distinctive literary genre, has often been challenged by later critics as aesthetically untenable.
Goethe’s work has, on the surface, been often reduced down to a simple “coming of age” story about a man entering into society, and literary historians contend, to this day, with perceiving the deeper connection between the various novels traditionally counted as bildungsroman. Rather than merely being basic coming of age stories, however, these works are all rooted in the deeper problem of modern intersubjectivity, and the difference between the parts of society, the individuals who occupy it on the one hand, and the whole of society, the structure of their relationships to one another, on the other.
To understand this further, one need look as far as Goethe’s own definition of the novel. “The Novel contains Novellas.” Though this appears initially to be a rather obscure, and meaningless statement, when read against Schiller’s literary theory, and against Goethe’s mature novels, it takes on a deeper aspect. To briefly summarize Schiller, in his Naive and Sentimental Poetry, the history of the novel follows the same abstract course of development of consciousness as delineated in the Aesthetic Education of Man. In the Naive novel, the part and the whole have not yet become fully distinguished from one another. That is, the individual, and the spirit of social communion, remain closely intermingled. Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Tom Jones all being example of this kind of novelistic epic. Encyclopedic works of society, in which every part and branch of society is individually explicated and interrelated through the elaborate series of coincidences that are usually retraced in these kinds of books in their denouements. As the capacity for rational reflection grows, however, the individual becomes alienated, and the sense that the spirit of common society is physically present within the world is lost. So develops the Sentimental novel, which usually takes the form of the Confession, or Memoir, of a first person account of a character relating their life and experiences as an individual directly to the reader. Examples of this being the works of Defoe, such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Rousseau’s Confessions (which was seen as a novel by Schlegel), and Goethe’s own Sorrows of Young Werther. Finally, Schiller postulates the future development of the Novel as reconciling the part and the whole, and recreating the wholeness of the Naive while preserving the distinctiveness of the Sentimental.
For Goethe, novellas are identified with Sentimental confessions of the type described by Schiller under the above rubric, and Wilhlem Meister follows along this general scheme, of uniting the Sentimental reflections of individual social subjects, within a structure determined by the form of Absolute Subjectivity, that is, Society as a total abstraction under which all individuals are conceptualized. Through the course of the novel, characters take time to relate their own Confessions to Wilhelm, they narratize themselves into society, and posit themselves as individual consciousnesses. The form of the novel then reconciles, and limits these individual positings into a common socio-hermeneutical framework through which they may constructively interact with one another.
Novalis, for his part, follows the example of Meister by constructing his Ofterdingen out of novellas. Rather than individual Sentimental confessions, however, he makes use of tales of lore, of poems, fairy tales, and mythological legends. As Tolkien repurposed the legend of Atlantis into his own lore, as the tale of Númenor, Heinrich is told by the traveling merchants in the third chapter of Ofterdingen Novalis’ own version of the myth. In the hall of the Crusader knights, Heinrich hears rousing songs of war. And, in the conclusion to the first half, there is Klingsor’s long allegorical fairy tale. The difference between Hardenberg’s approach, and Goethe’s, is rooted in the transition of contemporary Post-Kantian philosophy towards Absolute Idealism. The fairy tales and legends which comprise the first part of Ofterdingen are not the Sentimental confessions of individual “i”s, but rather Absolute Subjectivity speaking directly at Heinrich, and manifesting itself as an objective reality within poetry.It is generally tempting to see the character of Wilhelm Meister as a stand-in for Goethe himself, but the work can actually be said to contain multiple versions of the author. Wilhelm, at the outset, is an undifferentiated whole, an undeveloped personality. As the individual powers of his soul are activated, as he matures and develops in self-awareness, Wilhelm is split into multiple characters, multiple versions of himself. At key points in the plot of the novel, a mysterious subset of characters are one by one introduced, who stand out from the other personages of the book. It is difficult not to read the character of Jarno, for instance, as possessing many qualities of the author, specifically the mischievous bent of his personality that he was very often notorious for. Likewise, the character of Lothario appears to represent Goethe as the politician, and baron. These characters suddenly appear, and quickly depart the scene, and it’s not until the conclusion of the novel that they reintroduce themselves as members of the “Society of the Tower,” into which they ultimately initiate Wilhelm as well. And so it is not only in Wilhelm that Goethe fictionalizes his own psychological development, but in all the members of the Tower Society, who each represent different faculties of the mind, or powers of the soul.
In Klingsor’s Märchen, the fairy tale which closes the first part of Ofterdingen, Novalis offers a similar dramatization of the development of consciousness, in the form of a fairy allegory. The style employed in this particular part of the work is done in imitation of Goethe’s own Märchen, a similarly pseudo-allegorical “narrated opera,” as Novalis once called it. Both tales draw inspiration from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and as director of the Weimar theater, Goethe at one point even wrote a sequel to that opera. The style and intent is almost identical to what Dunsany would later accomplish in his Gods of Peg?na, and to Tolkien’s own poetic legendarium of the Silmarillion. As the work of Dunsany has been read as a poetic allegory for the authors personal development, in Klingsor’s Märchen, the allegory is generalized and conforms to the parameters of Fichte’s phenomenological account of the development of subjects in their striving to perfect their own souls to heal the alienation they feel from idealized, absolute Society.
To go further still, the basic formula of Lord of the Rings follows this same scheme, only on an ostensibly much larger dramatic scale. The elves are immortal, and connected to the Undying Lands of eternity, and to higher things and ideas. Men are, in contrast, trapped within the realm of Middle Earth, and are forbidden to travel into the west. They are likewise trapped within time, and are defined by the mortality. If the Elves are connected to Reason, Man is connected to the world of Feeling and Sense. The Dwarves stand in between, and carve out their own domain in the mountains, where they accumulate for themselves many treasures. Here we see the Understanding, and its treasure hordes of knowledge. Gandalf in particular, as one of the Ainur, who has taken physical form, is the power of Judgement, which has exactly this function within human consciousness to unite rational form and empirical content. The story of Lord of the Rings is not the story of any particular character, but the overall story of the various races of Middle Earth coming together to defeat Sauron, who has sewn discord among them and fragmented the world.
Furthermore, the identification of Sauron with modernization, and industrialization, comes perfectly naturally into this context, as it under the conditions of Modernity that the whole has been fragmented, and the unity of the soul broken. Though it may not have been the literal and conscious intention of Tolkien to form the work according to such a plan, as the mind recreates itself in everything, so this metaphysical and phenomenological drama recreates itself in the drama of Middle Earth. The common trope of so much Fantasy, of a party of adventurers who join together on a quest to destroy a dark lord and reunite the splintered kingdoms of the world, is nothing other than a “bigger” version of the bildungsroman of Novalis and Klingsor’s fairy tale. In both Novalis, and MacDonald’s later Phantastes, this drama plays out on a more individual, intimate, and psychological level of the personal development of a poet or a knight. Later Fantasy has added in more window dressing, but the underlying tensions of modern alienation and fragmentation remain the driving force.
Today the World of Middle Earth of Tolkien’s writings has become completely co opted by Peter Jackson’s highly successful adaptations. The aesthetic style and mood of the Lord of the Rings movies has taken over for the imagination and come to define how this work is seen. Why though did the work become so popular in the first place? Especially among the culture of the 1960’s, which was when the book first achieved its huge pop cultural significance?
For the answer we need only look at the mission statement of Gandalf’s Garden, which, along with the International Times and OZ, was an influential counter cultural publication of the 1960’s underground press:
“Gandalf the White Wizard from the trilogy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is fast becoming absorbed in the youthful world spirit as the mythological hero of the age, as graven an image on the eternal psyche as Merlin of the Arthurian legends. In the land of Middle Earth under threat of engulfment by the dark powers, Gandalf unites the differing races, mistrustful of each other through lack of understanding and communication, in a final effort to save the world. The crusader spirit in Gandalf is echoed in the cry of the Now Generation seeking an Alternative to the destructive forces of today’s world, by spreading human love and aid, for the unity of all the peoples of the Earth.”
To define fantasy in narrow terms, in terms of its fantastical tropes, its mass market popularity, its magic or supernatural elements misses the point, and really, misses the point of not just Fantasy but of all literature. Fantasy itself, as its was conceived, was not about magic, but was magic itself. Modern magic. For Novalis, and the German Romantics who developed the genre as a cultural project and as an expression of the emerging Absolute Idealism of the era, their poetry was a way of transforming the world on a spiritual level. There was a Revolutionary import to the whole idea, not just a desire to sell books and influence the culture and appeal to the consumer fanbase. It’s not just the case that Fantasy has lost its magic because of changing tastes among nerds, the magic has been lost because the deep spirit of poetry no longer inhabits Fantasy writing today. And this is where the fandoms have it wrong, in their insecurity about their own tastes and hobbies. It’s commonplace today for arguments to break out, over whether Fantasy counts as “real” literature or not, and the fans are prone to rage whenever its suggested their favorite mass market paperbacks may have little part to play in the moral and spiritual evolution of man that is Literature’s primary objective.
Fantasy was indeed once Literature, in the true sense of the term, in the sense that Novalis understood it. It was once a magic spell cast over transformational moments in world history to bring about a reconciliation of the forces of discord which threaten to undo our modern civilization at every turn. But the spell is faded. Atlantis has sunken beneath the waves. And the elves have left for the undying lands far beyond the seas.