Modern Scholar lecture series on fantasy

discussions not about particular authors or books

Modern Scholar lecture series on fantasy

Postby DavidTate on Monday, 20 June 2016, 9:37 pm

I have just finished listening to the lecture series Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature. This is a lecture series produced by The Modern Scholar (Recorded Books), with lectures by Professor Michael D. C. Drout.

It's... not good.

Professor Drout is the William and Elsie Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College. I'd be willing to bet that he is in his late 40s, and fell in love with Tolkien (and C. S. Lewis's Narnia books) as a child. He was inspired by those authors to pursue studies in mediaeval literature, and in the meantime read some of the more popular fantasy of the day during his teens and twenties.

That would seem to be the sum of his qualifications to write on fantasy. He knows his Tolkien, but not much else. In fact, he seems to feel that fantasy began with Tolkien, for all intents and purposes. Like many commenters on fantasy, he cannot keep straight in his mind the distinction between fantasy the literary genre, fantasy the marketing category, and fantasy as a set of tropes. It's as if someone had read all of Heinlein's juvenile novels, Dune, and The Stainless Steel Rat, and on that basis felt competent to pontificate on what science fiction is, and how it differs from fantasy, and why the mainstream critics don't like it.

Here's the list of authors that Professor Drout comments on at any length in his lectures:
J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, life and languages, etc. etc.)
C. S. Lewis (Narnia only)
Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea and Always Coming Home only; he seems to think that The Lathe of Heaven is science fiction, and thus off limits.)
Stephen R. Donaldson (Thomas Covenant) (!)
Terry Brooks (!!!)
Robert Holdstock (Mythago Wood, Lavondyss)
Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising series)
T. H. White (The Once and Future King)
Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave et al.)
Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon et al.)
Lloyd Alexander (Chronicles of Prydain, briefly and without any mention of the Mabinogion)
Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials)
J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
Jorge Luis Borges
Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
Salman Rushdie

That's it. Not a single word to indicate that he's ever heard of
Lord Dunsany
E. R. Eddison
Hope Mirrlees
Fritz Leiber
C. L. Moore
Avram Davidson
James Branch Cabell
Ernest Bramagh
R. A. Lafferty
Theodore Sturgeon
Jack Vance
Roger Zelazny
R. A. MacAvoy
Richard Adams
Steven Brust
Tim Powers
Glen Cook
Patricia McKillip
Lois McMaster Bujold
...

Magical Realism is discussed only to conclude that it isn't actually fantasy but is "just another form of modernism", because it doesn't share the fantasy agenda of escape. Terry Pratchett is dismissed as not really fantasy because fantasy is serious, not deliberately humorous. Everyone before Tolkien is dismissed as not really fantasy -- at best an influence on Tolkien (e.g. George MacDonald). The only other author discussed at length who is actually a good writer is Ursula Le Guin. Talking about Brooks, Donaldson, and Rowling would make sense if this were a series of lectures about the marketing phenomenon (as opposed to the literature) of fantasy, but that's pretty clearly not the intent here. I suspect he just isn't familiar with any other quality fantasy.

This is an astonishingly ill-informed discussion of fantasy, presented as authoritative. I suspect that the professor would be a great guy to have a few beers with, but is not anything like an expert on fantasy literature, outside of his Tolkien specialty. One wonders if he wanted to do a course on just Tolkien, and was forced by Recorded Books to expand to other authors.
David Tate
Professor of Story Problems, emeritus
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