y definition, any work of fiction must not be "real," in that no work of fiction has ever really happened just as it was written. But there are clearly differences between an obvious work of realism, like Anthony Trollope's The Warden, and an obvious fantasy, like Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. And yet, Alice contains characters like those one could meet in "real life," and its characters (predominately) speak English, and Alice breathes air and has two legs like any other nine-year old girl. By examining a few works of fiction, of various styles, I intend to create a working definition of fantasy in the Victorian era — not an all-inclusive one, but one that would apply to most fantasies of the era.
The works to be addressed are George MacDonald's Phantastes, Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." These works are by no means identical. Aside from the obvious fact that they include both poetry and prose, they cover a variety of styles and literary techniques. They all have something in common, however, and that is a fantastic element — an element which I will address in this essay. These works share both fantastic setting and characterization. The settings of these works vary from Carroll's Wonderland to Tennyson's Camelot, but they all differ from the world that surrounds us. In addition, the works frequently describe a process of transition from a realistic world to the fantastic — and when they do not, travel of another sort often plays a significant role.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the fantastic to a reader is the setting of a work. And perhaps the most obvious examples of this are Carroll's Alice books. Both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are set in very different worlds, and Alice must make a transition between her own world and the new. In Alice in Wonderland, she famously goes "down the rabbit-hole," and once underground she attempts to make another transition, this time through a small hole in the wall. In the second book, she goes "through the glass...into the Looking-glass room," which is simply the anteroom to an entire looking-glass world. The worlds of both books are essentially normal, yet slightly off — a dichotomy present in other fantasies as well. Eric Rabkin writes that this is what differentiates a true fantasy from a fairy tale, that it "continues to reserve its ground rules again and again" (quoted in George P. Landow, "Fantasy and Conceptions of the Real"). Alice's worlds are defined by ground rules: the world of Through the Looking-Glassis governed by a complex adherence to the rules of chess (as described in Carroll's "Preface to the 1897 Edition," 105), and Alice in Wonderland's world is frequently concerned with issues of size (certain objects make one larger, while others make one smaller). While these worlds have rules, they are unlike those of reality. MacDonald's Phantastes resembles the Alice books in this regard, in that his protagonist, Anodos, finds a "path to Fairy Land" (Phantastes, 23) that takes him to another world. Rossetti's "Goblin Market" is similar, yet forms an interesting departure from this trope. The titular market is just "down the glen" (l.47), but after Laura tastes the goblins' forbidden fruit, she is forbidden to return, or even see the market: Listening ever, but not catching The customary cry, "Come buy, come buy," ...Not for all her watching Once discerning even one goblin (ll.230-236)
Thus Rossetti shifts Carroll and MacDonald's travel structure, for Laura travels to a world she could see but not experience and then craves that experience but cannot return or even see the fantastic world. This is, again, an example of the "ground rules" of the goblin market: look, but don't touch.
Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" also take place in different worlds: Tennyson's in a mythic Camelot and Browning's in a world created from a "great variety of sources" (Donald Smalley, Notes, 500). What these works have in common (and what separates them from Carroll, MacDonald and Rossetti) is that these worlds are enclosed. Arthur does not travel from Victorian England to Camelot, and neither does Browning's narrator make the sort of transition described above. The worlds of these works are, like the previous ones, defined in certain ways. Tennyson's Camelot has its rules of conduct and chivalry as well as premonitions and dreams, and Browning suggests a similar sort of world, albeit in vaguer terms, mentioning "knights," "failure prophesied," and a "quest" (ll.37-39). But while these works do not have the sort of transition the previous four do, they do describe travel. Browning's narrator has been performing a "world-wide wandering...thro' years" (ll.19-20), and in fact, the poem is a sort of travelogue following the narrator on his quest. Since Tennyson's Idylls is a sequence of poems, each telling a separate story, there is no overarching journey. Travel does play a role in the poems, however, especially in the conclusion, "The Passing of Arthur." Arthur's death is actually a journey, as Tennyson writes,
The barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan ...
Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away. ["The Passing of Arthur," ll. 433-440]
The figure of the journey is mentioned elsewhere, as several other characters make voyages. Neither of these examples (Browning or Tennyson) represent the same idea of transition that the previously discussed works do, but their presence denotes some sort of shift in place in these works.
The settings of all these works clearly positions them as fictions, but it is not simply that which makes them fantastic. All the works create a sense of reality even in their most fantastic moments, because they have internal rules that they follow. These rules are not the rules of the real world, but they still dictate the actions of characters in the work. These works are also characterized by travel — in most of them, it is a transition from the real world to the fantastic. This transition is important (and the travel as well, because to a lesser degree it denotes the same thing) because, as George Landow writes, "something...must signal us that we are meant to take certain elements as fantastic" ("Fantasy and Conceptions of the Real"). By showing their characters traveling, these writers "prove" to their readers that they are creating fantasies.
The characters that inhabit these fantasy lands are the second sign to the reader. As with setting, there are varying degrees of reality in the characters of these works. But even where the characters may be drawn very true to life, there are other elements that create a world of fantasy. As with setting, Carroll, MacDonald and Rossetti create characters that are plainly of another world. Carroll's books are full of anthropomorphic animals, human playing cards, and the like. Phantastes takes place in Fairy Land, and is thus populated with fairies, as well as goblins and other creatures. Finally, Rossetti's "Goblin's Market" features many goblins as well. Rossetti's goblins are more along the lines of Carroll's white rabbit as she describes them:
One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry. [ll.71-76]
Like setting, these characters follow Rabkin's requirement for "ground rules" in fantasy. In Carroll's Alice books, the frequent use of anthropomorphic animals (i.e., animals that speak, think and act like humans) is always housed in realistic terms. When Alice first meets some talking animals, she frightens away a group of birds by mentioning her cat. While Carroll describes the birds in very human terms — they all find "various pretexts" to leave Alice (Alice in Wonderland, 26) — they do so only because they are birds, who fear cats as predators. Even with the more abstract characters, like the animated playing cards, they follow a version of the real world's rules. The queen card is, indeed, the queen of Wonderland, and the king and jack play their appropriate roles as well.
Rossetti's goblins are similarly anthropomorphic, but those characteristics only manifest themselves in their outward nature, rather than in their motivations (as in Carroll). The snail-like goblin is slow as if he were a snail, and the cat-faced goblin "purr'd" (l.109), but the cat-faced goblin does not chase the rat-like one. These creatures still follow a fantastic logic in their actions, however. They tempt Laura and Lizzie, in an effort to entrance them. Their actions follow rules: they do not accept payment for their fruits, and they only appear to those who have not tasted their product.
MacDonald's creatures are also slightly different, of course. The Fairy Land of Phantastes has its own taxonomy of creatures, from fairies and goblins to living trees and ogres. Each has its own motivations and natures, as MacDonald makes a point to mention. Early in Anados' Fairy Land adventure, he makes an observation about fairies and plants.
I may as well mention here, that the conclusion I arrived at from the observations I was afterwards able to make, was, that the flowers die because the fairies go away; not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die. The flowers seem a sort of houses for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on or off when they please. Just as you could form some idea of the nature of a man from the kind of house he built, if he followed his own taste, so you could, without seeing the fairies, tell what any one of them is like, by looking at the flower till you feel that you understand it. [Phantastes, 36]
MacDonald's narrator makes what almost seems like a scientific observation in this passage, making it clear that there are rules in Fairy Land — as there are in the goblin market and Wonderland.
Again, as with setting, Tennyson and Browning create characters that are closer (physiologically, at least) to what we consider real. When the characters in these works approach realism, the things that surround them become stranger, reminding the reader of their fantastic qualities. In Browning, for example, inanimate objects are given human qualities — a strategy that may be a form of pathetic fallacy, but nevertheless serves to stress the strangeness of the narrator's surroundings. He describes grass as growing "scant as hair/In leprosy" ("Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," ll.73-74); he addresses Nature, who responds "peevishly" (l.63); and the titular tower is "blind as the fool's heart" (l.182). These personifications (and apostrophe) are another form of Rabkin's "ground rules," this time working in reverse. Browning's poem starts with the accepted ground rules (grass grows on the ground, etc.) and moves away from them, but maintains that realistic basis. Tennyson performs a similar task in making everyday objects seem fantastic, but he uses a different method. In "The Last Tournament," realistic objects like a necklace and suit of armor become fantastic when described. The necklace that serves as the inspiration for the tournament is discovered in a manner that seems to deserve its own epic poem — Lancelot climbs up a cliff to find a necklace around the neck of an untouched infant sitting in an eagle's nest. This series of events is described matter-of-factly, in the space of a few lines, suggesting to the reader that this sort of adventure is entirely commonplace in the fantastic world of Camelot. Later, Tennyson describes Tristram's garb:
...armor'd all in forest green, whereon
There tript a hundred tiny silver deer,
And wearing but a holly-spray for crest,
With ever-scattering berries, and on shield
A spear, a harp, a bugle... ["The Last Tournament," ll.170-174]
The idea that a knight would wear such an elaborate suit of armor into a battle is entirely fantastic, and even for elaborate ceremonial garb, this would be an impressive sight. Yet Tristram is not the king, nor the most prominent knight (that being Lancelot). In The Idylls of the King, Tennyson injects the elements of the fantastic into an apparently realistic setting by imbuing every object with a dramatic story or ornate style. Thus both Browning and Tennyson use characterization (that of inanimate objects, though) to create fantasy in their works.
The literary devices addressed here are used in different ways throughout these six works. Tennyson and Browning create essentially realistic worlds that diverge from reality in their settings and characterizations. Carroll, Rossetti, and MacDonald create almost entirely unrealistic worlds that are rooted in (quasi-)realistic settings and characterizations. The interplay between reality and fantasy in these books is emblematic of Rabkin's "problem of Knowing" (quoted in Landow, "Fantasy and Conceptions of the Real") which he describes as characteristic of fantasy. Victorian fantasy created a world that was at once familiar and strange, and perhaps these works gained their popularity due to the drastic changes in society, politics and technology of the time, which created a truly real "real world" that was at once familiar and strange.
Last modified 13 May 2003