uthors utilize a variety of techniques in representing a fantasy world. An author can relate a tale through a third person narrator detached from the story or by allowing one of the characters involved in the action to describe the events. Different stylistic techniques also present varying possibilities within these forms of narration. Why do fantasy writers choose one form of narration or another? How do these styles affect the reader? How do they reflect the morals and themes the author wishes to communicate? How do they hint at the intended audience of the story? An examination of a range of classic fantasy works such as C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series, J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer, and George MacDonald's Phantastes reveals possible answers to these questions.
C. S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia aims to create an intimate, personal experience for a child reader. Lewis makes the educational purposes of his series very clear: to bring children closer to an understanding of Christianity, and to learn from the development of his characters, who change from ill-mannered children to mature and pleasant young adults. The style of his narration seeks to make these messages as clear and effective as possible. Lewis writes in the third person, telling the story from the stance of an outside narrator who does not interact with the characters. However, at many points in the tale, the narrator turns aside from the action for a moment and refers to himself as "I," such as when he speaks of other stories "even stranger than the one I am telling you now" (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 56). In this example, Lewis also refers to the reader directly as "you." Throughout the story, he continues to speak directly to the reader, mimicking the connection and interaction between a verbal storyteller and a live audience. The intimate nature of this interaction between the narrator and reader brings the child reader closer to the story, paralleling Lewis' pursuits to also bring the reader close to the Christian teachings in the text. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll also uses this interaction to create intimacy between the author and the reader. He, too, focuses on audience of children.
Lewis also creates a personal connection with the child reader by making it clear that he wrote the story just for children. He excludes the adult world in statements like, "creatures whom I won't describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book" (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 165). The passages and events which Lewis does choose to describe, however, also lead to an intimate relationship with the reader. Lewis thoroughly explains the experiences of the characters through interactive visualization. He asks the reader to imagine what it would feel like to take Lucy and Susan's place as they ride on the back of Aslan, the lion who symbolizes Christ in the story:
Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the bits and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or gray or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn't need to be guided and never grows tired. [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 180-181]
Lewis emphasizes this description by expanding the moment substantially and taking great time to explain many details that an adult reader would find obvious and self-explanatory. This passage also marks a change in style; Lewis suddenly switches to the present tense to help child readers fully and effectively envision themselves close to Christ, helping them understand the experiences of the characters and consequently his Christian teachings.
The child reader may find difficulty in following all of the events and characters that Lewis includes; in order to prevent this, his narrative style strives to make the action of the story as clear and as simple to follow as possible. He frequently refers to previous chapters of the book with statements such as, "Everyone suddenly realized the same fact that Edmund had whispered to Peter at the end of the last chapter" in order to clearly connect the various events in the story (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 70). He also uses his storyteller-like informality and intimacy to help the reader follow the action, which jumps around from chapter to chapter, tracking different characters. He begins many of his chapters by referring to previous chapters: "And now of course you want to know what had happened to Edmund" and "Now we must go back to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the three other children" in order to keep the reader on track and also create an effect of interaction between narrator and reader (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 95; 109).
In addition to creating an intimate connection with the reader in order to communicate Christian ideas, Lewis' style of narration also strives to emphasize the growth of the ill-mannered characters into mature young adults. In book five of the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis uses a unique technique to track the changes in Eustace's spoiled attitude. Rather than simply describing Eustace's traits by means of the narrator, Lewis allows Eustace to communicate them himself by including his diary entries throughout the course of the journey. Eustace demonstrates his own rude attitude in early entry:
September 3. The first day for ages when I have been able to write. We had been driven before a hurricane for thirteen days and nights. I know that because I kept a careful count, though the others all say it was only twelve. Pleasant to be embarked on a dangerous voyage with people who can't even count right! I have had a ghastly time, up and down enormous waves hour after hour, usually wet to the skin, and not even an attempt at giving us proper meals. [The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 74]
This early passage contrasts with Eustace's later verbal description of his encounter with Aslan, a moment of realization and transformation for his character. Lewis makes use of contrasting harsh and soft language to emphasize Eustace's attitude before and after this encounter, as Eustace explains, "And then he caught hold of me . . . and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm" (Lewis The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 116). The words "caught hold," "threw," and "smarted" communicate a more bitter and angry tone, but Eustace's transformation takes place between the two sentences in this passage, and in the second sentence the words "perfectly delicious, "swimming," and "splashing" convey a more playful, happy, and optimistic character. Lewis emphasizes these changes in Eustace's character by changing tone; by allowing Eustace to relate the events himself, Lewis highlights the moral lesson for the child reader.
J.R.R. Tolkien's narration and intentions in The Lord of the Rings differ greatly from those of Lewis, Carroll, and Dunsany. Tolkien also narrates his tale from the third person, disconnected from the action and able to follow all characters at all times. However, since Tolkien writes his trilogy for a mature audience, he does not seek to connect directly with his reader as Lewis does. Tolkien not once makes reference to his readers; instead he focuses on creating a complete fantasy world, disconnected from and unrelated to the world of the reader. His commitment to creating a self-contained, total fantasy world breaks only once in a single phrase early in the book, when he describes the elements of Gandalf's firework show: "The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion" (Tolkien 27). This brief reference to the modern world, an "express train," stands out as distracting; however, its singularity also emphasizes the consistency with which Tolkien maintains the illusion of his fantasy world for the rest of the narrative. Tolkien does not help his readers along as does Lewis; he does not simplify his metaphors and descriptions, or remind the reader of where one set of characters left off before continuing with their journey. His intended audience of adults and teens does not require these narrative techniques in order to follow his tale.
Similarly, Ursula K. Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey tell their stories by means of a third person narrator in their respective fantasy works, the Earthsea series, and Dragonsong. Both novels aim to engross the reader in their fantasy worlds — Earthsea and Pern, respectively — similar to Tolkien's intentions with his Middle Earth. However, Le Guin and McCaffrey write in styles simpler than Tolkien in order to reach their intended audience of young adults. Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane also falls under the category of a third person narration, but differs slightly from Tolkien, Le Guin, and McCaffrey. Donaldson does not seek to construct a complete fantasy world, but grounds his story in reality; he focuses on a man from the reader's world who finds himself in a fantastic dream world. Donaldson creates tension between reality and fantasy and must make these distinctions clear in his narration, requiring a style unique to the other fantasies written in the third person. His narration often reflects the protagonist Thomas Covenant's unfamiliarity and skepticism of the fantasy world by following Covenant's train of thought in abrupt sentences. Donaldson does not set these sentences apart in an obvious manner by italicizing them, but rather allows them to stand alone in short, one-sentence paragraphs. This subtle distinction between Covenant's skeptical thoughts and the fantastic narration experiments with the boundaries of fantasy and reality.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle also plays with this tension between reality and fantasy but in a very different way. Beagle narrates in the third person, disconnected from the characters in the story, like Tolkien, Le Guin, McCaffrey, and Donaldson. However, Beagle's characters periodically step into the position of narrator by dictating what events should follow according to the rules of a fairy tale. For example, Schmendrick the Magician explains the role of the hero to Molly Grue:
Haven't you ever been in a fairy tale before?. . . . The hero has to make a prophecy come true, and the villain is the one who has to stop him — though in another kind of story, it's more often the other way around. And a hero has to be in trouble from the moment of his birth, or he's not a real hero. It's a great relief to find out about Prince Lir. I've been waiting for this tale to turn up a leading man. [Beagle 91]
Although the narrator treats the story as if the complete fairy tale world truly exists, similar to Tolkien, Le Guin, and McCaffrey, the characters show awareness of their fictional nature. By stepping aside from the fantasy world and stating their knowledge of merely being characters in a fairy tale, Beagle breaks the illusion of his fantasy world. This style of narration points out that Beagle does not strive toward the same intentions in his fantasy as Tolkien, Le Guin, and McCaffrey aim for in theirs. Rather than constructing a complete fantasy world and immersing the reader in the story, Beagle keeps the reader aware of the fictional nature of his narrative by clearly mocking the conventional roles of typical fairy tale characters.
Beagle gives only two of his characters the ability to mock these fairy tale roles — Schmendrick and Prince Lir. Lir takes on the role of the archetypal hero in the story; contrary to the drive and duty which moves a regular hero, Lir's awareness of his role as the hero determines his actions. For instance, Lir explains to the other characters why he cannot take the Lady Amalthea as his wife, though he desires her greatly: "The true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. . . . Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. . . . The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story" (Beagle 180). Why does Beagle only give Schmendrick and Lir the awareness of the conventions of the fairy tale? Perhaps too many characters with this ability would confuse and overwhelm the reader. By making some characters ignorant of these rules, Schmendrick and Lir must explain these facts to the others, and thus also clarify them for the reader. For example, when Schmendrick transforms the unicorn into Lady Amalthea, he explains what actions she must subsequently take: "You're in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it. . . . If you want to find your people, if you want to become a unicorn again, then you must follow the fairy tale to King Haggard's castle, and wherever else it chooses to take you. The story cannot end without the princess" (Beagle 108). By explaining the unicorn's fairy tale fate to her, Schmendrick also makes her duties clear to the reader. In a way, this connection with the reader parallels Lewis' in his Narnia series, but Beagle does not directly interact with the reader; the reader understands Beagle's messages only by means of Schmendrick and Lir explaining the fairy tale conventions to the others.
This character narration and explanation holds great importance in Beagle's story. His characters outline the conventions of fairy tales so that he can experiment with these rules and the reader's reaction to them. His style of narration forms around his intention — to mock past depictions of the hero and the typical fairy tale characters. The fact that he questions and experiments with the expectations and standard actions of fairy tale characters hints to his intended audience. If Beagle wished to write a children's fairy tale, he would most likely not make use of the self-awareness of the characters; straying from the conventions of fairy tales would cause confusion and would make the story inaccessible to children, and the subtle changes in the standard prince, princess, and magician would escape their notice. The great emphasis that Beagle places on these departures from the rules, shown in his unique character narrations, demonstrates that Beagle intends The Last Unicorn for a more mature audience, even adults.
Although the fantasies written in the third person show general trends that group them into categories — intimate narrators who relate to children, fantasies similar to Tolkien that create a complete fantasy world for the reader to engross his or herself in, and narrators that play with the boundaries of reality and fantasy — the novels written in the first person, from the point of view of the main character, show very few similarities to one another. Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer, as one of the most recently written fantasies, combines many of the techniques of the other authors discussed — Wolfe's narration creates an illusion of a complete fantasy world, and hefrequently refers to the reader as "you."
Wolfe's style moves even farther than Tolkien in creating the illusion of a complete fantasy world. Similar to Tolkien's Middle Earth, Wolfe's fantasy world, Urth, bears no connection to the world of the reader. However, Wolfe's tale differs from Tolkien's in narration; rather than telling his tale from the point of view of a detached, third person narrator, Wolfe describes his fantasy world by means of his protagonist, Severian. Severian possesses a certain quality which makes him capable of telling his story in a detailed and complete manner: he remembers everything. Early in the book, he informs the reader of this gift, "It is my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing. Every rattling chain and whistling wind, every sight, smell, and taste, remains changeless in my mind, and though I know it is not so with everyone, I cannot imagine what it can mean to be otherwise" (Wolfe 11). This explanation of Severian's ability to remember each and every detail of his encounters not only makes him a fantastic character but also allows the reader to trust in his recollections of his adventure. Severian tells his story from a future vantage point, with the ability to both remember events and link them to subsequent happenings, such as when he recalls the turning point in his apprenticeship: "I gathered up the books and hurried along, though I did not know it, to meet my destiny and eventually myself in the Chatelaine Thecla" (Wolfe 48). He hints to his current position as a ruler in the House of Absolute, the royal house that resides over Urth, mentioning it in passing, "During the brief time I have occupied the throne" (Wolfe 164). As a character reflecting on the past, Severian gives hints to the reader on exciting events to come, encouraging him or her to keep reading until he does, indeed, become a ruler in the House of Absolute.
Wolfe uses Severian's role as the narrator and teller of the tale as the key to creating a complete fantasy world; he includes an appendix at the end of the novel titled, "A Note on the Translation," in which he designates his own role as the translator of Severian's tale from "a tongue that has not yet achieved existence — into English" rather than the author of the work (Wolfe 211). Indeed, Wolfe gives Severian the credit for writing the tale, adding to the illusion of Urth's existence. He writes, "Severian sometimes seems to assume that an extinct species has been restored" as if the character truly does exist (211).
Not only does Wolfe create a fantastic author and translator of the work, but the narration also assumes that the reader resides in the world of Urth. Severian often refers to the reader as "you," but his use of this technique produces quite a different effect than Lewis'. Rather than talking down to the reader, Severian's "you" refers to the reader on an equal level; he assumes that he or she already possesses the knowledge of his fantastic world, and does not need extra explanations and descriptions of its elements. When he reaches the Wall of the city of Nessus, Severian assumes the reader's knowledge of this place: "No doubt you, who have perhaps seen the Wall many times, and perhaps passed often through one or another of its gates, will be impatient with me; but before I continue this account of my life, I find I must for my own peace spend a few words on it" (Wolfe 207). This assumption of knowledge challenges the reader to follow Severian's descriptions and adventures, and shows that Wolfe intends his writing for a mature audience capable of this challenge.
George MacDonald writes his tale, Phantastes, with a first-person narrator as well, but in a style very different from Wolfe's. He begins his novel with the phrase "I awoke one morning," immediately using the word "I" to give the reader a sense of the first person narration to come (MacDonald 5). Unlike Lewis' use of "I" as a third person narrator not involved in the action, MacDonald tells his story from the point of view of the protagonist of the tale, Anodos, whom the plot revolves around. This first person account of Anodos' adventures immediately draws the reader into an intimate look at the situations Anodos finds himself in, the choices he makes, and his successes and failures.
Unlike Lewis and Wolfe, MacDonald does not refer to the reader by using the word "you"; Anodos' narration instead focuses completely on himself — his dream world, the various characters he meets, and events that happen to him — reflecting his egotistical, selfish nature. However, MacDonald does connect with the reader in way different from Lewis and Wolfe. In the middle of his journey, Anodos finds himself in a library where he delves into the various stories and begins to share the experiences of the main characters:
If the book was one of travels, I found myself the traveller. New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me. I walked, I discovered, I fought, I suffered, I rejoiced in my success. Was it a history? I was the chief actor therein. I suffered my own blame; I was glad in my own praise. With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume, I would awake, with a sudden bewilderment, to the consciousness of my present life, recognising the walls and roof around me, and finding I joyed or sorrowed only in a book. [MacDonald 76]
By placing Anodos in the position of the various heroes in the books, MacDonald makes it clear that he intends the reader to place his or herself in Anodos' place in his book. MacDonald shows his awareness of the fictional nature of Anodos' journey by including poems and excerpts from other great literary works at the beginning of each chapter. These passages, credited to well known authors, prevent the reader from becoming completely immersed in the action. These techniques communicate a very different purpose from Tolkien and Wolfe; MacDonald does not seek to create a fantasy world that engrosses and envelops the reader, but rather, like Beagle, aims to keep the reader aware of the fictional nature of the story. The awareness of the fantastic qualities of Phantastes allows the parallel between Anodos and the reader to unfold more definitively.
MacDonald also emphasizes this point by making Anodos' character very general. The reader comes to know very little about him as MacDonald does not tell about his physical appearance, but gives only the details of his age, twenty-one years, and shares the facts that his parents passed away, and that he owns some property. Since MacDonald does not allow the reader to learn much more than this, he emphasizes the situations that Anodos finds himself in and the world around him over his traits as a character. Anodos' general character allows him to represent any man rather than a specific man; this causes the reader to evaluate his ill choices as the downfall of human nature rather than one man's failures.
Throughout the novel, the reader follows as Anodos continually makes mistakes and eventually begins to learn about right and wrong in love, the dynamics of friendship, and consideration for others. The reader cannot help but sympathize with Anodos' character both because MacDonald writes his tale in the first person, creating direct contact between the protagonist and reader, and also because MacDonald asks the reader to put his or herself in his place. At the end of his journey, Anodos asks, "Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land?" (MacDonald 184). MacDonald poses these questions as much for the reader as for Anodos himself — Will the reader learn from Anodos' experiences or must he or she make the same mistakes themselves? By giving the reader this task of evaluating his or her own life, MacDonald proves that his novel requires a very mature audience.
The types of narrations used by the fantasy authors examined differ greatly and affect the reader in varying ways — a third-person narrator who speaks directly to the reader creates an intimate and personal connection frequently aimed at children, a third person narrator who does not make reference to the reader can engross and envelop a more mature reader in a total fantasy world or can play with the tensions between reality and fantasy, and a first-person narrator can further create the illusion of a complete fantasy world or ask the mature reader to put his or herself in the position of the protagonist. Each of the fantasy authors analyzed chose to write their tales with either a first or third-person narrative. This raises a few questions: What about the second person narrative? Would such a narration even fit in the fantasy genre? Why do none of the classic fantasy authors and novels discussed employ this style? An author writing in a second person narrative faces many challenges, but such a style creates new possibilities for a narrator-reader relationship. A second person narration would make MacDonald's pursuits to make the reader take the place of the protagonist in Phantastes an even greater possibility. As demonstrated in the various examples of fantasy narrations, however, authors do not always aim to include the reader in the tale. Some authors seek to create a complete fantasy world detached from a personal connection with the reader, while others concentrate on creating tension between a fantasy world and reality, keeping the reader aware of the fictional nature of the text. For these various intentions, many possibilities for narrators and narration techniques exist, allowing numerous frontiers for fantasy authors to explore.
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Last modified 17 May 2004