Master of Arts
Theory and Criticism
Fantasy literature has long been considered an inherently conservative genre. However, Ernst Bloch’s Marxist theory of a utopian anticipatory consciousness and his concept of nonsynchronism recognize a progressive, utopian function within the archetypes and allegories of fairy tales, a precursor to modern fantasy. Bloch argues that archetypes are not static entities and can be repurposed to critique the world contemporary to a text’s production. Even archetypes produced under a past mode of production, like those used in fantasy, can therefore be anticipatory and utopian. By extending Bloch’s utopian function to include fantasy and integrating his philosophy with the historical-materialist hermeneutic of Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious (1981), I articulate a Marxist reading of the utopian function in the works of William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. Le Guin, demonstrating how the archaic figures and motifs of fantasy texts convey anticipatory glimpses of a utopian future.
Summary for Lay Audience
Since the nineteenth century, fantasy literature has been given short shrift. Scholars of “serious” literature and lay readers alike have accused it of being nothing more than escapist, retreating from reality, or immature, suitable only for young children and to be quickly outgrown. Not all imaginative forms of literature have been so poorly regarded: the imagined futures and technologies of science fiction, fantasy’s sister genre, are routinely celebrated for their critiques of economic, social, and ecological problems we face today. Since the 1960s and 70s, Marxist literary scholars have been especially invested in science fiction as a medium of social critique and speculation, one that possesses a unique “utopian function” of imagining how we might create a better world. Their work has also perpetuated the prejudice against fantasy. Darko Suvin argues that the value of science fiction is its ability to induce “cognitive estrangement” in readers, a process of making their world appear new and strange through comparison with sf’s imagined worlds. Suvin further argues that while fantasy texts are also estranging, their imagined worlds deviate too far from a rational-scientific view to provide real social critique. In this thesis I argue against such devaluation of fantasy through a Marxist lens. I draw on the utopian Marxist philosophy of Ernst Bloch to describe how fantasy articulates historically-situated social critiques and anticipations of a utopian future by repurposing archaic archetypes to speak to modern concerns. Combining Bloch’s theory with the historical-materialist method of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, I illustrate how the fantasy worlds of William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. Le Guin each articulate a critique of contemporary political conflicts and anticipate a utopian vision for the real world. Through my method of interpreting fantasy texts, I observe parallels between the literary theories of science fiction and fantasy and conclude that the estranging experience of fantasy shares the cognitive qualities of sf. Ultimately, fantasy, like sf, has a real utopian function; it provides meaningful social critiques of our contemporary world and invites us to imagine how we might improve our world by living differently.
Morgan, Alexander C., "Phantasms of Hope: The Utopian Function of Fantasy Literature" (2021). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 8232.