On writing fantasy
On loss and transfiguration

Longing for a better world

Tilly on the hill

From an interview with Lev Grossman (author of The Magician trilogy), in which he is asked for his definition of fantasy literature:

"My working definition? Any book with magic in it. It’s crude but effective. It helps if you take the long view, historically speaking, because it’s not like J.R.R. Tolkien invented fantasy with The Hobbit. Take a giant step back and you can’t help but notice that the greater part of all human literature is fantasy, in the sense that it has monsters and magic and things like that in it. Shakespeare is infested with ghosts and spirits and witches. Look at Spenser. Look at Dante. Look at Ovid, or Homer. Go back past the 18th century and practically everything could be called fantasy.

"It’s only relatively recently, at the start of the 18th century, that you see the arrival and dizzying ascent of what we might broadly call realism. Suddenly, around about Robinson Crusoe or so, Western culture was seized by this powerful idea that literature was supposed to resemble real life, and fictional worlds were supposed to behave like the real world, as it was coming to be understood by scientists, and anything that didn’t do so wasn’t literature. Magic and the supernatural were exiled to other, lesser categories: Gothic fiction, fairy tales, ghost stories, children’s books, fantasy. A lot of people still think it belongs there."

Wait, what's this?

Big beasts of the hill

"There is a specific modern tradition of fantasy fiction," he clarifies, "that starts in the 1920s and 1930s in England and America with writers like Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees, and which really takes off with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as T.H. White and Robert E. Howard....That generation -- the ones who were writing in the 1920s and '30s -- had been the victim of a historical trauma: They bore witness to a period of catastrophic social and technological change. The Victorian world of their childhood was shattered and swept away by the 'advances' of the early 20th century -- the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, the replacement of horses by cars, the rise of psychoanalysis, the invention of mechanised warfare. As a result, the world that they found themselves in as adults was virtually unrecognisable to them.

"Some of those writers responded to this cataclysm by creating strange, fragmented masterpieces that we now know as literary modernism: Joyce, Hemingway, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner and so on. Gertrude Stein famously called them the Lost Generation, and she wasn’t wrong. But other writers -- like Lewis and Tolkien, who were both veterans of the Somme -- wrote fantasy instead. They used it as a way to express their sense of longing for a lost world, an idyllic, more grounded, more organic, more connected world that they would never see again. They were part of the Lost Generation too."

Cows in the bracken 1

Cows in the bracken 2

Returning to these ideas in his essay "What is Fantasy About?," Lev notes that "longing" is a prominent theme in fantasy: the longing for a lost world, or a better one.

"Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing," he writes. "They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods....They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world. (Laura Miller writes about this really compellingly, albeit somewhat differently, in The Magician’s Book, her excellent book about Narnia. She quotes Lewis on his special notion of Joy: 'an unsatisfied desire that is itself more desirable than another satisfaction.')

"We too have lived through an inflection point: a great deal of technological and social change. We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

"Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense -- not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods -- they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

Cows in the bracken 3

Cows in the bracken 3

"The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it -- they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it....To be sure, fantasy worlds are often animated by weird mysterious forces -- like magic -- but even those forces on some level come from inside us. They’re not made in China. They express deep human wishes and primal emotions. Likewise the worlds of fantasy are inhabited by demons and monsters, but only because we’re inhabited by monsters, the ones that live in our subconsciouses (subconsci?) Those monsters are grotesque and not-human, and sometimes they even destroy us, but we recognize them instinctively.

"This longing for a world to which we’re connected -- and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement – the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And it you see it in fantasy."

Cows in the bracken 3

For more of Lev Grossman's thoughts on the evolution of fantasy, I recommend "Fear and Loathing in Aslan's Land," the third annual J.R.R Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College (Tolkien's college), Oxford, in 2015.

The watcher 1

Cows in the bracken 4

The Watcher 2

Words: The passages above are from "Lev Grossman on Fantasy" ( on Five Books.com)   and "What is Fantasy About?" on Lev Grossman's blog (November, 2011). The Lisel Mueller poem in the picture captions was first published in The New Yorker (November, 1967) and also appears in her book Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The hound has a surprise encounter on Meldon Hill.


How To Connect

Bare feet touch the ground.
Mud caresses the print.
Wings feathered by wind
finger the sky.
Sea salt coats an open mouth.
Sniff of sulpher
from the sulk of caldera
makes an ocean of eyes.

Greet of troll in his cave.
Soft fur of selchie's skin
thrown careless on the shore.
Corrugation of dryad's hand
resting on her bark.
We are part of this world,
what is real, what is shadow.
Even the snake in its dark
slither, even the shark
as it eats the sea.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Yesterday I left NYC and took a walk in a forest about an hour or so away. I touched moss on old stones, witch's butter, congealed puffball mushrooms, breathed air full of decaying oak leaves and picked and ate barberries and juniper berries. My fingers felt their belonging and my tongue remembered tastes my body longs for and recalls in a layered way. When I returned to NYC and noticed 7 out of 8 people across from me in the subway were holding their cellphones as if they were a lifeline, I began thinking about hands, and the abundance of sensory nerves in fingertips, wondering how they are impacted by these inanimate objects we touch. My senses, so opened by my time in the woods, felt overwhelmed upon my return. So I relate to what Lev says, and how the "Lost Generation" felt. Thanks for the post.

Thank you for this reflection, Judith. I will turn 71 tomorrow, and teeter on the lip of the cup of contemporary culture, in a matter of speaking, tempted but not taken by the iphone.

I've begun the work of a memoir and am culling writing that I began in 1999. In it is the evidence of purchasing my first (fliptop) cellphone and a laptop. Now, I reread the writing done in a place where I was born. As this post suggests I went back home to refind or refine my senses, my longing. Those stories could only have been written there.

Now, nearly two decades later, the longing persists. The story is long. A long story, long(a working title).

@Terri: thank you so much for this series of posts I am fed well on them:)

I have to use computers (there's no getting that particular genie back in the bottle) Sod it, I'm using one now, but I don't carry or even own a phone and I spend most of my life trying to avoid Ipads, tablets and all the other insane gadgets that many/most people crave today. It seems I went to sleep and woke up in a world of techno-obsessives. I acknowledge I'm a dinosaur, but I'm a dinosaur who doesn't need a machine to think for me.

Happy birthday for tomorrow, Mokihana! Eat, drink and do whatever makes you happy and then when you've done all of that, do it again!

Thank you for this post, Terri! I think some fantastical writing sounds so therapeutic!

Hi Jane

We are part of this world,
what is real, what is shadow.

Those lines are so incredibly true! Yes, we immediately connect to the current day or situation before us. But still we are connected to the world of our imagination and our emotional need to know what lies beyond. Whether it is that what lurks in that corner of the forsaken garden or the hidden niche of an old house. And beyond that we wonder with the gift of our curiosity about other creatures that inhabit this world and other worlds in myth and fantasy. This poem so beautifully weaves that concept of how the mythical is connected to the real, how the human character is connected to the consciousness of the primal landscape and all the magic, dark and light, that exist there. Thank you for sharing this one! As always, a treat to read and exceptional writing.

Thank you,
take care

And sometimes, does the other world, the other season filled with its gifts of natural beauty, harvest and reflective possibilities not seek or long for its mortal beings to re-enter and recognize what has been given and what is needed. What draws us to the mythological woods or garden, to creatures and beings that have powers transcending human ability and yet the same frailities and emotion, is that ever-present but illusive trait of longing. I have recently been drawn to reading Japanese poetry and mythic tales. One of their goddesses that struck me deeply was Tatsuta-Hime. She is seen as "The Lady Of The leaves" and "The Goddess of Autumn Blessings. She is also associated with spinning and weaving as well as protecting fishermen and sailors. I thought of Autumn personified through her character and how she needed to remind people of her presence, to once again recognized and revered. The poem below reflects this theme through her love for and reaching out to a single person, a fisherman she has loved and blessed. Again, she comes from the other world, a better world to reconnect with someone who has forgotten her, someone who needs , in a way, to be spiritually saved.


"She is called Lady of The Leaves,
goddess of Autumn blessings..."
From Goddesses Of The Four Seasons

The spider stays close
stitched in her web
along the window sill

while I haunt the glass --
a maiden
gowned in fog.

Near his bed
a porcelain bowl
waits to catch
the morning gleam.

so I whisper
as he still sleeps
half sunken in dreams --

how I gave you fields
swollen with rice,

birds to rip apart
storm clouds
and calm the water

but most of all
how you came home
with nets of silver fish,

the river bank nodding
with pampas grass

and the blush of leaves
deepening like the dawn
in my face

as you approached
and my hands swung open
the bamboo gate."

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