Studying Fantasy: An interview with Professor Robert Maslen

University_of_Glasgow_Gilbert_Scott_Building_-_Feb_2008The University of Glasgow has announced an M.Litt in Fantasy this year, and being the pseudo academic non pseudo fantasy lover that I am, I couldn’t resist taking a peek. I wrote to the program director, Professor Robert Maslen and he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions on the course, the process of designing it and the place of fantasy in academia today.

I definitely think all those interested in studying the genre in a university setting should consider the program. For more details, check out the website.

Also it totally helps that the place looks like Hogwarts.

Photo on 2015-03-17 at 11.18

Professor Robert Maslen

Here, we hand the floor over to Professor Maslen.

1) What drove you to create this programme?

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, so the programme could be described as the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. I’ve taught an undergraduate course in fantasy since about 2006 (it’s called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’, and it recruits so well that we have to cap it every year). I also supervise undergraduate dissertations on fantasy, and in recent years the number of fantasy-themed dissertations has increased beyond all precedent. A good proportion of my doctoral students, too, have worked in the field. All these developments convinced me that a Masters in Fantasy would attract students. And when I did some research and found out that there is no other such course in the world (though I would be happy to be disabused of this notion – there’s plenty of room for more!), I knew the moment had come to set one up. I should add that I’m tremendously lucky to work at a university that supports the idea of teaching fantasy, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I know from experience how rare it is to get the chance to work on fantasy in higher education, and it’s to the eternal credit of the University of Glasgow that they didn’t consider the award of a ‘Masters in Fantasy’ too embarrassing and dismiss it out of hand.

2) In the description of the programme offered on the University website, you say that the course is divided into two parts, with Part 1 focusing on fantasy literature from 1750 [1780 actually!] to 1950. What made you choose this time frame and not earlier texts like Beowulf and Morte d’Arthur?

Good question, and I’m not sure how good an answer I can give! There are two, in fact. One is simply that I wanted to focus closely on the fantasy texts I love, and that these have tended to be from the period covered by the course. Embracing a longer period would have meant sacrificing the sort of close scrutiny I thought these texts warranted and have too rarely received. The other answer is to do with the definition of fantasy. Among other things I’m a scholar of early modern literature, and I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with the notion that fantasy existed in the sixteenth century or before. This is because I tend to define fantasy as the literature of the impossible. What makes a story fantastic is the fact that the reader knows full well that a certain element or elements in the narrative could
arthurnever have happened, and our willingness to embrace impossibility as an integral part of the reading experience is what makes the genre unique. What’s deemed to be impossible changes, of course, between one century or decade and the next, and I’m not sure what they would have said was ‘impossible’ in the sixteenth century. So fantasy for me begins with the Enlightenment: the point at which certain thinkers decided that certain things were definitely possible and others not. We break the course in half at 1950 because the 50s are the decade of three hugely influential fantasy sequences: the Narnia chronicles, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and of course The Lord of the Rings. After that decade everything changed, and we’ll have our work cut out in the second semester to squeeze in everything people want to read between 1950 and the present.

3) Will students have the opportunity to explore other, diverse sources and their impact on modern fiction? Such as myths and sagas from Scandinavia, Japan and the Middle East?

The main thrust of the core course is towards an exploration of literature and the arts rather than myth and folklore; and its focus is on English language fantasy. The reason is simple: we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to address the full range of myth and fantasy from around the world in the short time available to us there would be no time to do justice to the focal texts, that is, the fantasies we want to study. There will be plenty of opportunity, though, to study fantasy traditions arising from other cultures. You could choose to do an option in Literature and Theology, for instance, which would let you explore the relationship between myth and fantasy under the guidance of experts in global culture. And of course you could do in-depth work on fantasy in relation to Japanese or Icelandic – or indeed Czech or Indian – culture in your dissertation.

4) As an academic, do you think fantasy runs a very real danger of becoming dangerously reductive in its presentation of different communities?

I think all fiction courts this danger, and that it’s the responsibility of creative writers to work against cultural reductiveness and of academics to point it out wherever it occurs. A certain element of reductivism is inescapable in a university programme like the Masters in Fantasy, in that it’s impossible to represent the full range of fantasy traditions in different global communities, or even in different communities within the English-speaking world, in just two semesters. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t encourage our students to explore fantasy produced by some of the many communities we have not been able to cover – either in options or the dissertation.

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5) Where does the line lie between children’s literature (a lot of which can be considered fantasy) and the more adult books we classify as ‘fantasy’ in the publishing world? What about books that straddle both those genres—such as the Harry Potter series or ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

There isn’t a line, I think, except the one you choose to draw as a writer, publisher, reader, or academic. Many books written to be read by children have ended up as favourites with adults (the Harry Potter series is a good example). And a lot of older children’s literature is now mainly read by adults: how many children these days read The Water Babies or Peter and Wendy? One thing that fascinates me, though, is the number of major fantasy works for adults that have their roots in books for children – which is one of the things I harry sorcerers
understand by your term ‘straddling’. Two obvious examples are The Lord of the Rings, which began as a sequel to Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, and T H White’s The Once and Future King, whose first section is a revised version of his children’s novel The Sword in the Stone. Unlike any non-fantasy fiction I can think of (again, I’m happy to be corrected!), these two books or book series are formally and stylistically designed to take account of the maturing of the child into the adult reader; and both of them help to explain why many fantasy readers are so profoundly un-snooty about the line you speak of. What these works say to us is: the line between childhood and adulthood is one we’ve all crossed, if we are adults, though few of us can say exactly when; and the process of making this transition can and should be traced in fiction’s form as well as its content. For me, the text that first successfully blurred the line between adult and children’s fantasy – I mean to the extent that one can completely forget it was initially marketed as a book for children – was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I remember reading this as a 9- or 10-year-old and being profoundly shocked by its refusal to entertain any of the literary conventions I was familiar with – such as adopting the viewpoint of the young protagonist, or treating him unequivocally as a ‘hero’. There was a coldness, a detachment from Ged’s predicaments that unnerved me as much as it fascinated me, and my attempts to grapple with this difference marked a major step on my road to becoming a mature reader.

6) What do you consider essential reading for anyone interested in this programme?

George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, John Crowley’s Little, Big, and anything that matters to you personally. Part of the pleasure of fantasy is that all our lists will be different. Read the fat books before you arrive and you’ll enjoy them a great deal more than if you rush through them after your arrival; they deserve to be mulled over in the long evenings.

7) Given the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, do you think some of the traditional concepts of fantasy have changed, such as the clear cut definitions of good and evil that dominated earlier writers’ work? How do you think this will change perception of the genre?

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Aren’t we rooting for Steerpike, in the Gormenghast books, even as we revile him? Where exactly does evil reside in Lud-in-the-Mist, or Little, Big, or even Phantastes? The big exception is The Lord of the Rings – along with the Narnia chronicles – which unequivocally pits good against evil in a battle to the death. One of the values of a programme like the Fantasy Masters is that it enables you to see how exceptional and surprising Tolkien and Lewis are in this emphasis, and how almost as soon as their impact began to be felt writers also began to problematize the good/evil dichotomy that was essential to their visions. This being said, I think A Game of Thrones, like all major recent phenomena in fantasy (I’m thinking of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy – if that’s fantasy – and the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), help to throw new light on the history of fantasy, altering our view of it, either subtly or radically, to the enrichment of the genre. Fans of The Game of Thrones may turn to the quasi-political fantasies of E. R. Eddison to find out where Martin sprang from; just as Potter fans helped restore to us the genius of Diana Wynne Jones, or Gaiman conjured out of the past Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his great inspirations. I love the fact that modern fantasy writers are so keen to proselytize about the authors they admire. All these writers are changing perceptions of the genre – have changed them, to the extent that it’s now respectable to have a Masters in Fantasy at a major British University, something I thought would never happen in my lifetime!

8) Do you think fantasy is not given its due weight in academic circles, still, or has the growth in audience (thanks to big budget films and runaway successes like Harry Potter) changed that?

It’s still not given its due weight. I have academic colleagues who will say to me that they never read fantasy: yet they teach the fantasies of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter on a regular basis. Their distaste for the genre is hardly surprising, given that the term ‘fantasy’ has always been used as an insult, a way of suggesting a childishly irresponsible tendency to turn away from the urgent
Daenerys-Targaryen-2problems of ‘real life’ and seek comfort in dreams. At the same time, the big budget films and runaway successes show us how widely this tendency is shared among contemporary readers and viewers around the world, so it seems to me childishly irresponsible not to subject fantasy to the same level of intelligent scrutiny we apply to far less widespread cultural phenomena. People seem to feel the need for fantasy in the twenty-first century, which means we should feel the need to study it.

9) How do you think this course will benefit a long-time reader of fantasy?

Each time I write about a familiar text I feel as though I’ve developed a better understanding of why it made such an impact on me and its other readers. Each time I re-read a major fantasy novel to teach it afresh I discover something new and astonishing about it. Reading fantasy texts in the historical context of the genre’s development, discussing them in the light of the various theories that attempt to explain how the genre functions – these activities will radically change your views on fantasy, I guarantee it. You won’t read it in the same way again after taking this course. And in my experience, this means you will take more pleasure in it, not less: analysis enriches, it doesn’t diminish. The course will also introduce you to texts you don’t know, and that’s something to celebrate. The canon of fantasy hasn’t yet been fixed. What I prize won’t be the same as what you think important, and teachers and students in the programme will be constantly sharing ideas about the fiction, films, comics and computer games that matter to them. And each new fantasy text you discover will subtly change the map of the genre you’ve been drawing in your head. Surely that’s an adventure any long-term reader of fantasy couldn’t resist!

10) And finally—what’s your favourite fantasy book and what are you reading now?

My favourite fantasy book changes as often as my favourite food. When I was seven, The Hobbit was the most important. When I was thirteen it was The Lord of the Rings; at
wizard of earthseatwenty I might have said The Book of the New Sun. But the works of Ursula Le Guin are probably the ones that have meant most to me, most consistently, across the years since I started reading. So I’ll pick the six-volume Earthsea sequence as if it were a single book, and say it’s my favourite.

I’ve been reading Patricia McKillip in recent weeks. I loved in particular The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Alphabet of Thorn. I’ve re-read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers for a class and been blown away again by its complexity. And I’ve also just finished the third novel in James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, of which I’m a big admirer, and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Both of these helped to confirm my view that we’re living in the most ambitious epoch of fantasy writing – both for adults and children – and that fantasy readers should be happy to be alive in the twenty-first century.

MUNning, and other dress-up games

A friend of mine was in town over the weekend, and among the topics that came up in our profound discussions was that of Model United Nations conventions. This isn’t/wasn’t strange, given that much of our early interaction came about as a result of various (make that two) MUNs. He has a lot more experience in this field than I do, and hence was able to contribute what I take to be more worthy points to the discussion. All I did was to start the ball rolling with a casual ‘So how helpful do you think MUNning has been/will be for your career?’

(In the course of this post I will refer to the act of participating in a Model UN convention, at a college or school level, as MUNning. Also, I should probably mention that the friend in question is currently doing a degree in Global Affairs, and recently did a three-month internship at the UN in New York.)

He thought for a bit, and said that no, there was no ‘direct’ and easily ascertainable benefit to his professional life. However, the practice of research he’d developed, the ability to read and retain information from newspapers and online archives- that was beyond priceless for a budding wannabe diplomat. What MUNning had cultivated in him, he said, was the ability to care about people in other countries, to feel responsible for one’s own decisions and the impact his interaction with his fellow ‘delegates’ had on countless lives. ‘I loved the feeling of representing someone’ he said, ‘and feeling responsible for so many people’. That experience, as staged as it might have been, has definitely had some kind of weight on his decision to work not just ‘in’ his country, but ‘for’ it.

After that, the conversation veered off this earnest course, chiefly because I couldn’t keep a straight face at what I thought was a pompous declaration. He was already, I thought, beginning to sound the part of  a high-profile UN employee, a la Shashi Tharoor.

Wording quibbles aside, I do not doubt the sincerity of my friend’s statement. I haven’t been a part of many MUNs myself (as a delegate), but I have seen plenty of MUNners. For most, the four day convention seems a fun excuse to dress up in their corporate, campus-placement best, spend a few hours speaking about themselves in third person and then, of course, have the fun backslapping and catching-up session after committees and councils disperse for the day. Many of those who do best in the council room are students who double as debaters for the remaining 3/4ths of the academic year, who are familiar with how best to turn a phrase, how to distract the watching judge (in this case, the Chair) from his/her weakenesses by strategically attacking an opposing delegate’s language. I have seen three-hour-long sessions where two or three principal delegates wrangled over the ‘definition’ of a particular word in the stated agenda. Yes, it is very important that everyone be absolutely clear on what exactly a term like ‘terrorism’ means, but when you have only two days, comprised of two six-hour sessions each, can you really afford to spend one fourth of that time defining something?

Then again, this might just be how exactly the ‘real’ UN works. Which, my less-UN-more-subaltern-supportive friends would argue, explains so much.

But coming back to my larger point, that of whether this makes any constructive ‘difference’ to the participant. There are always going to be some people who have entered the MUN (or similar, ‘model’ game, such as Moot Courts or Model Cabinet sessions) for nothing but the superficial glamour such activities hold in some imaginations. There is a thrill to dressing up, to feeling important and play-acting as someone else. That’s why the students in theatre clubs in college are usually considered ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying this aspect of a MUN, and I confess I have felt a thrill of excitement myself at the prospect of wearing high heels and strutting around the college corridors in a black, ‘corporate looking’  skirt.

I do, however, believe that one can take something more permanent than a photo-op from the experience. My friend is right- MUNs do cultivate in their more sincere participants a feeling of responsibility, an idea of the connectedness of the world and how one’s actions in a council room can affect millions of lives. These conventions ‘dress up’ the everyday, ordinary practice of reading the newspaper or tuning into international events, and make them desirable, things that lead to a better chance of victory in what is, at the end of the day, a competition for ‘best delegate’.  For kids who enter that contest at least three times a year (and in DU, certainly more often, with every college putting up its own MUN), the pursuit of this knowledge becomes a regular activity- regular enough that they may, at the end of those few months of frenzied MUNning- have a fairly good grasp of at least one or two countries’ stances on various issues of ‘international importance’.

And there’s nothing quite like the feeling of throwing your weight behind a ‘foreign’ opinion, and finding, surprisingly maybe, that you can empathize with it. For instance, my friend A was assigned to represent Somalia at a MUN convention. Her reading on the country exposed her to their policies on prostitution, which, she discovered, were much more ‘advanced’ and enlightened than India, a country more economically ‘developed’. As a representative of the Philippines in another convention, she was given the opportunity to read up on the history of a country that Indian students rarely, if ever, encounter in their textbooks. The concept of ‘comfort women’ in particular touched and troubled her, and she took up issues of women’s rights with a conviction and passion that was quite amazing.

I think MUNs give the opportunity of learning, first hand, that the world truly is an interconnected place, that decisions made by one delegate can alter lives in another country all together. It’s about lobbying, having people on your side when you want to make a change, and that means reaching out and trying to understand where they are coming from. What history has taught them, and in return, what that history can teach you.

So yes, some of my friends might sneer and call MUNning a ‘dress up’ game; it is a dress up game, but it is also much more. All good dress up games are more, eventually. They teach us about the importance of thinking like another person, of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and thus, slowly, quietly, subtly, they teach you the importance of being willing to care about someone who is, at the end of the day, not all that different from yourself.