25 February 2009

A (Brief) Orthodox Take on the 'Fantasy' Genre

The thesis I’m currently trying to write concerns the place of ‘imaginative literature’—by which I mean all literature, no matter the author, genre, or date of composition, written for a primarily aesthetic purpose—in the Christian life. While I don’t want this blog to become a big chatroom or bulletin board about my thesis, the feast of St Photius the Great called to my mind some references to that holy hierarch in my work. I should point out, however, that at the time of writing I did not have access to any printed copy of St Photius’s Bibliotheca in Greek or English (on which see Felix Culpa’s wonderful post). At some point, I plan to replace the citations of Roger Pearse’s wonderful website with citations of the printed text in English, and, obviously, with citations of the Greek when I translate the paper into Greek. I don’t know how they feel about internet citations in Greece, but I myself don’t feel truly satisfied until I’ve held a book (or at least seen a scanned pdf of it) in my hand.

I have explained what I mean by ‘imaginative literature’ above because often, when I use that phrase in describing the thesis to people, they assume that I’m referring to the ‘fantasy’ genre, of which Tolkien is a superb example. This confusion, I believe, is contributed to by the fact that there seems to be a specific debate within the debate about literature that concerns how Christians ought to view the fantasy genre. While I think that it is the sort of topic that could do with a lengthy treatment by a good Orthodox moral theologian, it is rather incidental to the main concerns of my thesis. Indeed, when I endeavoured to make some provisional comments about it, I found that it seemed to me to be much lesser an issue than others often take it to be. Here is the single paragraph, admittedly taken out of context, in which I shall make my own small contribution to this debate:

The relative merits of ‘fantasy’ and ‘realism’ in literature have been much discussed, albeit generally at a rather low level.[1] First, let it be conceded that fantasy in content has long been held in little regard. St Photios the Great, in his remarks upon a well-known fantasy of the ancient world,[2] speaks disapprovingly of ‘mythical fictions’, ‘heathenish superstitions’, ‘the transformations of men into other men and brutes, and of brutes into men, and all the idle talk and nonsense of ancient fables’.[3] Citing similar statements from other Byzantine writers concerning visual art, Henry Maguire has argued that such disapprobation of the fantastic is tied to its imaginary, invented character. Thus, St John of Thessaloniki tells his pagan interlocutor, ‘We do not invent anything as you [pagans] do.’[4] But here it seems that the problem is not primarily with the absurd or unbelievable nature of these inventions, but their very inventedness.[5] To say that they are ‘fantastic’ seems just another way of saying they are more quantitatively ‘imaginary’ than the elements of all fiction. For example, while St Photios is certainly more critical of the content of the ‘fantasy’, Metamorphoses, he chides as well Iamblichus, author of the romance, Babyloniaca, for wasting his talents on ‘puerile fictions’.[6] In fact, while the ancient ‘novels’ come under particular attack by ancient readers for blurring ‘an essential dividing line between truth and untruth’,[7] insofar as they too invent or distort what was believed to be true, the poets as well come under frequent censure ever since Plato.[8] Ultimately, I believe Leslie Ryken’s argument that all fiction entails the ‘call into being [of] something that does not literally exist in the world around us’[9] makes the fantasy/realism debate much less significant than it is often taken to be.[10] In other words, I am not certain that ‘fantastic fiction’ is qualitatively different from ‘realistic fiction’.

Suggestions are of course welcome, but at this point I’m beyond drastically overhauling the structure of the thesis. In other words, don’t tell me that I need to expand this and make it into a separate chapter. I’m perfectly willing, however, to expand it and make it some sort of article if such should be deemed necessary.

[1] This discussion is at its highest in the somewhat apologetic essays of two of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed practitioners of literary fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (Tolkien, The Monsters & the Critics and Other Essays, pp. 109-61), and C.S. Lewis’s ‘Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said’ (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper [NY: Harcourt, 1966], pp. 35-8).

[2] The book St Photios read was the lost Metamorphoses of Lucius of Patrae, the original Greek source both of the Greek ‘Lucius, or the Ass’ of Lucian of Samosata (ET in Lucian of Samosata, ‘Lucius, the Ass’, Selected Satires of Lucian, ed. and trans. Lionel Casson [Chicago: Aldine, 1962], pp. 58-94), as well as the longer and better-known Latin Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius Platonicus (see Apuleius, The Golden Ass: Being the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, trans. W. Adlington, rev. S. Gaselee [London: Heinemann, 1915]). St Photios, in a brilliant bit of literary criticism, very astutely surmises the dependency of Lucian on Lucius.

[3] St Photios the Great, The Library of Photius, trans. J.H. Freese, (London: SPCK, 1920), codex 129; Early Church Fathers—Additional Texts, The Tertullian Project, 17 July 2008, <http://tertullian.org/fathers/photius_03bibliotheca.htm>. In contrast to his rather harsh remarks about the content of the story, St Photios praises the writing as ‘clear, pure, and agreeable’.

[4] Henry Maguire, ‘The Profane Aesthetic in Byzantine Art and Literature’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 53 (1999), p. 190. Maguire also cites a relevant statement of St Nikephoros of Constantinople: ‘The idol is a kind of fiction of those things that do not exist and have no being in themselves. Of such a kind are the shapes that the pagans fatuously and irreligiously invent, such as of tritons, centaurs, and other phantoms that do not exist’ (Maguire, p. 190). Of the fantastic creatures, only the griffin regularly escapes condemnation—according to Maguire, because it was believed to be real (Maguire, p. 192, n. 15).

[5] Obviously, inventedness is belied by the absurd or unbelievable quality, and might otherwise be more difficult for the ancient reader to detect. Even Apuleius feels the need to inform the reader that what he is about to relate is a fabula (Apuleius, p. 2). On the literary implications of this announcement, see Andrew Laird, ‘Fiction, Bewitchment and Story Worlds: The Implications of Claims to Truth in Apuleius’, Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, ed. Christopher Gill and T.P. Wiseman (Austin: U of Texas, 1993), p. 157.

[6] St Photios does not discuss the imaginary character of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica (ET in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Romance, trans. Moses Hadas [Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1957]) or of the Adventures of Clitophon and Leucippe by Achilles Tatius (ET in B.P. Reardon, ed., Collected Ancient Greek Novels [Berkeley: U of California, 1989], pp. 783-97), although the former is praised for his seriousness and restraint (not typical of the romantic form, one feels), while the latter is strongly denounced for obscenity. According to one commentator, ‘These works were unproblematic for him. He knew them to be fictions and the very act of categorizing them as such apparently left him free to discuss them in terms other than truth or falsehood. We have, in effect, a tacit recognition of fiction as a distinct, autonomous literary form’ (J.R. Morgan, ‘Make-believe and Make Believe: The Fictionality of the Greek Novels’, Gill and Wiseman, p. 194).

[7] Morgan, p. 178.

[8] While I accept Christopher Gill’s argument (in ‘Plato on Falsehood—not Fiction’, Lies and Fiction, pp. 38-87) that the ‘centre of his interest lies elsewhere’ (p. 51) than in distinguishing ‘factual from fictional discourse’ (p. 46), surely the sense of ‘falsehood’ suggested by Plato’s attack on poetry at least involves some disapprobation of ‘fictional’ elements in an account that is ‘in some sense a factual one’ (p. 46)?

[9] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1989), p. 102. While I quote him here with approval, I do feel that Ryken’s arguments on this point rely overly much on an apparent dismissal of the notion of ‘realism of presentation’.

[10] In Lynn Ross-Bryant’s words, ‘Whether a novel falls under the classification of “realism” or “fantasy”, it offers an alternative world . . .’ (Imagination and the Life of the Spirit: An Introduction to the Study of Religion and Literature [Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981], p. 106).


Andrea Elizabeth said...

The comparison between "realistic" and fantasy fiction is convincing to me. A thought that I forgot to bring out on Owen's post on Cinema, is about the use of allegory or metaphor. I think both "realistic" and fantasy fiction can be called allegory, but then the question comes as to if this is a valid (or Orthodox) way to make a point. Christ's parables seem to validate allegory, but the Orthodox focus on Incarnational theology brings out Saint's lives rather than made up stories. But even these are often presented in a stylized way. I don't know if St. Photios would compare fiction to parables.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I read somewhere recently a reaffirmation of the suggested etymological source of griffin (Greek: γρυψ < γρυπος) ultimately lying with the NW Semitic kerub, in Hebrew כרוב. In addition to the obvious similarity of the words themselves, the physical/artistic presentations of such a winged hybrid creature are generally the same across cultures. And Greek contact with the Near Eastern cultures is known to have been lively as far back as the Middle Bronze Age, even before the establishment of the Ionian settlements in Asia Minor. The earliest usage of γρυψ in TLG that I could find, however, is in Herodotos, 8.4.21, so that's only 5th/4th century, though I believe the creature certainly appears in ceramics and sculpture before then. It'd take more looking, though.

So, Photios may, being one of the sharper knives in the drawer, have made the γρυψ/כרוב connection himself and thus doesn't complain about the griffin, as he considered them real, as do all the rest of us who are sane.

aaronandbrighid said...

In and of itself, it seems to me that allegory is a perfectly Orthodox way to make a point. But I would still hesitate to overplay the comparison between our Lord's parables and novels (a comparison Evangelical writers seem extraordinarily eager to make!). The parables were brief, oral stories tailor-made for the hearer and the situation, and though we often sit in our armchairs to read them now, they still acquire their full significance primarily when they are read aloud during the Liturgy. With a novel, written for the faceless crowd, you not only sit in your armchair, you become lost in the world evoked by the prose, you cease to live, momentarily, in the 'Primary World', as Tolkien calls it, and become an inhabitant of an imaginary one. It's interesting to me that St Photius never does compare fiction with parables, and gives no indication that I can recall of reading the novels allegorically.

By the way, if I sound overly anti-novel, it's not because I don't enjoy them (when they're good). It's because I'm simply trying to look beyond our modern prejudice in their favour.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, Kevin! I was in the process of responding to Andrea Elizabeth's comment when I got yours. While I had never thought of this before (or heard about hte etymological connection), I did always have this feeling that in some sense griffins were real. Thank you for affirming that feeling.

orrologion said...

I look forward to hearing more about your findings. I have thought long and hard over my Orthodox years (and before) about the value or danger inherent in fiction. Of course, I was a professional actor for years, so such fiction was my livelihood. However, I could never shake the critique St. Augustine gives of the theatre - and really, fiction in general it seems - in his Confessions. I've thought a lot about it, but never really come to any conclusion that I can easily relate. Needless to say, I am no longer an actor and no longer have any desire to act; I also find I don't like fiction all that much as it leaves me a little more dirty than I came (or, at least, a little more dirty in similar and different than I came to the piece on my own). This aversion to fiction is purely literary, I have no problem watching tv or film, which is probably nonsensical saying more about me and my spiritual state than I would like. (Of course, many an intelligent person would note that non-fiction is really no such thing; perhaps 'intent to make believe' is pertinent). In the book 'Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination' by Peter Ackroyd he has a section on the English penchant for storytelling, which does not bother letting the literal, historical, measurable veracity of an event or person get in the way of the 'more true' core of the story. He says it all better. I found it a rather more true than I would like indictment of my own penchant for fuzzy details in storytelling - even in those stories that are and are intended to be non-fiction. It seems a part of my make-up - and a part I don't necessarily rejoice in; I simple realize, now, that it is there and that my wife isn't just being a stick in the mud stickler for details and facts when she objects to almost every twist and turn in my retelling of a story from our early days (or last week).

I know for certain that my name is Christopher Joseph Orr. I know also some facts about my wife and child; I know where I live and work; I know when and how I entered the Orthodox Church. I'm trying not to go much further than that for fear of accidental embelishment and gestalt-like, hypothetical filling in of the gaps between points A and B.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Glad you liked it, Aaron! A Google search for Megiddo ivories will bring up several very nice examples.

Modern fiction can be a truly excellent help in improving one's writing. It's interesting that St Photios mentions the quality of the writings, showing that this is an important concern which perhaps can mitigate the foolishness of the entirely formulaic novels themselves. For years I read modern fiction, and though the majority of stories are lost to me, my writing definitely improved. I don't bother anymore because the stuff is almost universally solipsistic and often simply trite. And style has declined. At least in reading things from past decades (prior to the Dawn of the Me World in the 1960s), there was a general agreement that good writing had as a goal the improvement of the reader/hearer, not just titillation or entertainment. Are our burdens so great that escapism must be so readily available? I just don't think so at all.

For us, though, in wanting to be serious Christians, don't you find that little voice coming up: "Isn't this frivolous? Do you really need to read this?" Particularly when I have way too many edifying books at hand. I hear that little voice much more often lately, particularly since my latest contemporary fiction reading has seemed altogether tedious. Time is short, and the more precious for that. Outside of the superior quality of The Greats of Literature (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, et alia), time spent on fiction just seems time wasted.

Justin said...