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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Question: If you were going to teach a class on fantasy literature, what would you cover?

That's a big question. I've always wanted to design an introductory course on science fiction or fantasy (doing both at the same time would be impossible). Selecting texts, however, is always a problem for any genre-specific course. Where do you start? Where do you end? Which movements do you represent or ignore? Do you risk bringing in texts that few people have heard of in the hope of trying to show the true breadth of the fantasy genre, or do you keep it simple and recognizable, at risk of being a little dull or cliche?

Now, I'm no expert on designing literature courses, primarily because I'm a fairly new educator. That said, if I were to devise an introductory sixteen week college course on fantasy literature, it would look something like the following:

Novels, etc. (in order by movement or period)
The Epic of Gilgamesh (pretty much the earliest fantasy text in existence) -- Between 20th and 16th Centuries B.C.E.
The Odyssey by Homer (if any text has been integral to the creation of the modern fantasy genre, it is this one) -- 8th Century B.C.E.
Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858) OR Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)(either of these texts would be a great introduction to the trend of secondary-world fantasy we are so familiar with today)
The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka (a lot of classic must-reads for early weird and magical realist writing here) -- 1916-19
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (because you have to have it, even if you don't want to) -- 1954-55
Duncton Wood by William Horwood (by far one of the best animal fantasies ever written, but without all the swords and things) -- 1980
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (a unique and powerful fantasy story worth reading and discussing) -- 1986
Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb (a great book for discussing social dynamics and issues of gender) -- 1999
The House of the Stag by Kage Baker (an excellent modern fantasy tale with a wonderful fairytale twist) -- 2008

Note: I would argue that The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and The Odyssey are interchangeable. It really doesn't matter where you start, because you can talk about all three of these texts without putting all of them on the curriculum. It really depends on personal tastes. Personally, I think the ones I selected for the list are more accessible for a more general audience; Beowulf can be a very difficult text for some folks.

I would also recommend shoving The Rings of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner immediately prior to The Lord of the Rings if there is space and time for it; it represents one of the most obvious precursors to Tolkien's greatest works. You could even show the last act of the opera if you're so inclined.

Critical Texts:
The Fantastic by Tzvetan Todorov (offers a provocative theoretical approach to literature and the fantastic) -- 1973
Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion by Rosemary Jackson (another interesting theoretical text that would do some good for engaging with the novels above) -- 1981
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (possibly one of the best critical texts to be written in the last ten years) -- 2008

Note: Likely the texts in this section would be read in excerpts as supplements to the fiction reading. There are also essays I'd put in here that aren't directly related to fantasy as supplements to specific themes and texts.

I don't know if I'd show movies in such a course. There are a lot of films worth considering. For example, instead of reading The Lord of the Rings, you could having movie nights to watch the films (which I think are better than the books anyway). There are a lot of other interesting films to consider, such as: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Legend, or The Fountain.

Looking above, it's clear that I'm leaving out a lot of movements and genres--New Weird, Young Adult Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and others. It's inevitable, though.

So, any thoughts?

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  1. I'm not sure it's worth actually requiring students read Gilgamesh, Beowulf or the Odyssey for a history of fantasy class because they are the basis for quite a bit of modern storytelling, not just fantasy. One would certainly cover them.

    I would suggest some Madeline L'Engle, and if I had my wish, everyone would read the fantastic Dragon Age series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed (not to be confused with BioWare's game of similar name). This is some of the most original fantasy writing I have read in quite a while.

  2. Juicy: I think you'd have to have at least one of those in a class to explain the historical context. You probably could reduce them to one, with a discussion of the pre or post epics surrounding it.

    I thought of L'Engle, but an intro course like this is so hard to make with any linear logic, and jumping around between young adult and adult fantasy seemed an impossible thing to manage.

    I'll look at the Dragon Age stuff! Thanks for the suggestion!