Gormenghast and the Great Tradition

I began this essai in April, soon after John Wright wrote the blog post to which it refers, and shortly before I was taken ill. I offer it now with apologies, having decided that it still had something to say, and was worth finishing. —T. S.

John C. Wright, in a post at Castalia House, asks:

Why in the world does anyone consider the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake to be fantasy?

He sketches his own scheme of genre classification, which is radial rather than Aristotelian. In case any of my 3.6 Loyal Readers are unfamiliar with these terms, I offer brief definitions.

Aristotelian categories work by genus and species. (These words were borrowed from Aristotle by modern biologists and used in a different way. Ignore the biological usage for the present.) A genus is a category of things, distinguished by some particular quality only found among its members. This quality is called the differentia. A genus can be subdivided into species, by identifying some additional differentia to distinguish members of that species from the other members of the genus. The classical example is the definition, ‘Man is a rational animal.’ Animal is a genus: we can list off ways in which animals are unlike (say) plants, rocks, or locomotives. Man is a species within that genus, differentiated from the others because he is capable of reasoning.

(At this point, the Village Wag will claim that most men are anything but rational. This is a red herring. All humans, except infants and the severely brain-damaged, are capable of some form of rational thinking process. All of them fail to think rationally on some occasions, and some of them fail on nearly all occasions. This does not take away the capacity, which is the differentia of the species Man. A can-opener is still a can-opener, even if you never take it out of the shrink-wrap. Nuts to the Village Wag.)

There is an alternative system, less talked about but sometimes more useful. A radial category consists of a prototype, which is considered an ordinary or definitive member of the category, and any number of other things which share certain qualities with the prototype. If X is the prototype, the category can be defined as ‘things like X’. The similarity may be greater or lesser, so that there are central and peripheral members of the category.

To take an example used by Wittgenstein, chess is a game, and a ‘central’ game at that; it will do no harm to take it as our prototype for the class game. Chess is played for amusement (though in a professional match, it may be for the amusement of spectators); it has set rules and procedures; it is played with definite equipment (chessmen), in a definite playing-ground (the chessboard); it is a competition between the players, with a fixed standard (checkmate) to determine who wins and who loses. Football is unlike chess in some ways – it has many players instead of just two, and it is a contest of athletic rather than intellectual skill; but it, too, is played for amusement, with set rules, equipment, and playing-ground, in a competition with a winner and a loser. The details of play are very different, but in all the essential points, it is just as much a game as chess.

Tabletop role-playing games, on the other hand, are a peripheral member of the category. They are definitely played for amusement. Some equipment is used, and while the playing-ground is usually an imaginary place, it does have sufficient existence for the purpose of the game (like the imaginary chessboard in mental chess). But the rules and procedures are alterable at the game master’s whim, there is no defined winner or loser, and the players normally act in cooperation rather than competition. We feel that these entertainments count as games, but they are very atypical games.

Narrative fiction can be treated as an Aristotelian or a radial category, whichever you prefer. But once you come to subdivide it (for convenience in choosing stories that you are likely to enjoy), you immediately find yourself in a thicket of radial categories that cannot be approached in any other way. A mother reads ‘Cinderella’ to her child, and the child wants to hear ‘more stories like that’. Maybe what the child really wants is more about fairy godmothers, or young girls who marry charming princes, or magical transformations. But whatever the child wants, the mother is likely to find it in the radial category of ‘things like “Cinderella”’, which we call, for convenience, fairy tales.

In either the Aristotelian or the radial scheme of things, the process is recursive. Man is a species within the genus Animal, soldier is a species within the genus man, infantryman is a species within the genus soldier; and so on to any degree of specificity that you choose.

Likewise, fairy tale is a subcategory of a more general radial category, fantasy, which is a subcategory of fiction, which again is a subcategory of story. We can continue until we get a sufficiently precise idea of what the child wants: fairy tales in which the heroine becomes a princess and her wicked stepsisters end up mutilating themselves (as in the unexpurgated ‘Cinderella’). Maybe ‘Cinderella’ is the only story that fits that radial category, and there are no other stories enough ‘like that’ to count. But I cherish the hope that I may be mistaken.

Mr. Wright has great fun dividing fantasy up into radial subcategories (which he miscalls ‘descriptive categories’), and then naming them after their prototypes:

Hence, all detective stories will henceforth be ‘Doyles’; and when someone breaks the tropes and forms a new subgenre, ‘Hammetts’. Military SF will be called ‘Heinleinesques’, and space opera will be called ‘E.E. Doc Smithians’. Everything that copies Tolkien will be called a ‘Tolkienade’. And the works of writers like Moorcock and Pullman will be called ‘Antitolkienades’ — a term that might delight or infuriate those fine writers, depending on their mood.

He divides fantasy (‘for purely personal purposes’) into five radial categories:

1. Children’s Fantasy (J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, possibly Madeleine L’Engle);

2. Lin Carter’s strange menagerie of pre-Tolkien writers;

3. Robert E. Howard’s epigones (Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and, whether he likes it or not, Michael Moorcock);

4. Tolkien’s epigones (Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey).

A fifth group I will not here explore is the more recent children and grandchildren of these four: Gene Wolfe, George R. R. Martin, Roger Zelazny, Steven Brust, J. K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and, believe it or not, Joss Whedon. The entire genre of Urban Fantasy, which consists of leather-clad nymphettes kicking ass and stabbing knives into vampires and werewolves, follows the trail blazed by Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

(The fact that he considers Tolkien ‘children’s fantasy’ and does not include him with his own imitators is problematic, to say the least. Tolkien wrote very little for children, and his best-known books, except The Hobbit, were aimed at a definitely adult audience. Moreover, it is a rule in radial categories that the prototype is always a member. A category of ‘things like The Lord of the Rings’ cannot possibly exclude The Lord of the Rings itself. But this is a side issue.)

And then, not finding that Titus Groan and Gormenghast fit into any of these, he flatly denies that those books are fantasy at all. He waxes indignant at the mountebanks who have tried to sell those books to him under the rubric of fantasy; for they are selling shoddy goods under false pretences.

If the role of fantasy is to crack the coffin lid of the material world of death and taxes, and show us a glimpse of something older, greater, grander in the unnamed seas beyond, then the role of this book is to slam the coffin lid more tightly, and drive home the nails. It is the kind of book a nihilist, a man who believes in nothing, can praise, for it robs the world of beauty rather than adding to it.

But there is something far amiss with this claim. Mr. Wright praises Lin Carter, the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line in the 1970s, for collecting many rare and far-scattered fantasies of the earlier twentieth century, and bringing them back into print. But it was Carter himself who chose Titus Groan and Gormenghast to be sold under his ‘Adult Fantasy’ label. It would seem that he saw something in those books sufficiently ‘like that’ to count as fantasy; in which case Mr. Wright has simply overlooked whatever made Lin Carter consider those books fit to be included.

Lin Carter’s ‘strange menagerie’ was chosen, not only because Carter thought of those books as good and representative fantasies, but because their original publishers had allowed them to go out of print. Most of them were not labelled ‘fantasy’ when they first appeared; the term was not yet used as a publishing category. But when, partly through Carter’s efforts, fantasy received commercial recognition, it immediately swallowed up all the radial categories listed by Mr. Wright above, and some others besides. There is ‘dark fantasy’, which may or may not be a euphemism for horror; and satirical fantasy, which could be defined as ‘things like Gulliver’s Travels’; and several others. Some of these categories have gone clean out of fashion; and it is to such a category that Titus Groan and Gormenghast belong.

In 1894, Anthony Hope, a young English novelist, published a swashbuckling adventure story called The Prisoner of Zenda. This book has been aptly described as a minor classic of English literature. It has often been adapted for film, and at least once made into an opera. The style and scope owe a good deal to the romances of Alexandre Dumas père. When the book first appeared, it could have been classified as ‘something like The Three Musketeers’, and shelved with Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott. But it quickly spawned a mass of commercially successful imitations, so that there came to be a radial category of ‘things like The Prisoner of Zenda’. (There is no dishonour, here, in being an imitation. One of the first was Savrola, by Winston Churchill – yes, that Winston Churchill. One of the last was Orsinian Tales, by Ursula K. Le Guin.) The especial attraction of Hope’s book was that it was set in a richly detailed fictitious country in Central Europe, which he called Ruritania. The imitations therefore came to be known as ‘Ruritanian romances’.

As the twentieth century wore on, two things happened that made ‘Ruritanian romance’ untenable as a name. First, the old category of romantic fiction was broken up. Adventure stories, historical fiction, thrillers, detective stories, science fiction, and various other subcategories of romance went their own ways, and developed their own tropes and traditions. The word romance itself was narrowed in meaning, so that it was applied only to a certain type of love story. The Ruritanian romance, as a category, no longer fit within the reduced boundaries of romance per se; and so a new name was needed.

Second, the Modernists and Realists, and suchlike critical schools, set up a rigid definition of literature to serve their own purposes, and managed by a combination of jiggery-pokery and snob appeal to get that definition accepted by the publishing industry. I have quoted William Dean Howells elsewhere. He was by far the best-paying magazine editor in America during the ‘Gilded Age’ of the later nineteenth century, and he wanted stories in which

nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.

Howells had a blunt contempt for the entire idea of adventure, of telling stories about extraordinary events; and to him, the entire subject-matter of romance was unfit for literature. Real literature (as he defined it) dealt only with the here and now, with the everyday doings of ordinary people in familiar environments. This idea took firm hold on both sides of the Atlantic, and reigned for many decades almost unchallenged. In 1947, at the very time when the fires of Modernism and Realism were burning low, F. R. Leavis wrote a book with the astonishingly presumptuous title, The Great Tradition. The novels he held up as ‘great’ – selected works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad – all fit neatly within Howells’s narrow definition of literature. (James and Conrad sometimes slopped over the borders; they had too much talent to live in boxes.)

This view strongly informed the development of ‘mainstream fiction’ in the later twentieth century. The most influential critics and reviewers were in broad agreement with Leavis, though they feuded with him on particularities. A book written to match the radial category of Leavis’s ‘Great Tradition’ might have no quality of greatness about it, but it was just the thing that those critics were likely to praise; and the higher-toned publishers put out masses of such books, hoping to benefit from the free publicity.

It became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that a book had to be ‘mainstream’ to sell well; for publishers are usually blinkered and often incompetent, and do very little to help their products find a market. The heavy lifting has to be done by someone else, and in the last century, ‘someone else’ was apt to be the Times Literary Supplement or the New York Times Review of Books. The prophecy was regularly confounded. Books like Shogun, Dune, The Godfather, or The Lord of the Rings (each, in its way, in flagrant violation of Howells’s strictures) sold vastly more copies than even the biggest-selling books in the category that Leavis called ‘great’ and Howells admitted to be literature. It didn’t matter. The blinkers were on, and every disproof of the rules was dismissed merely as an exception.

This changed dramatically after about 1975, as dozens of staid old publishing houses were scooped up in a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions, and the resulting conglomerates had more concern for the bottom line than for the height of anybody’s brow. But in 1970 and thereabouts, when Lin Carter was publishing his Adult Fantasy line, that was still in the future.

Now, ‘Ruritanian romances’ were definitely outside of the ‘Great Tradition’. They were rollicking adventure stories, full of  all the things that made Howells faint and clutch his pearls: ‘fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles’. The Princess Bride is, in fact, a Ruritanian romance, or an affectionate pastiche of them. But since ‘romance’ as a first-order category no longer existed, booksellers were at a loss what to do with such books. They could be shelved under Classics if old enough, or Children’s Literature if simple enough. A sufficiently profitable book could always be shoehorned in somewhere.

Mervyn Peake’s two great novels (Titus Alone is neither great nor a novel, but a sort of sad extended footnote) are, in fact, Ruritanian romances; but they were too new for Classics, too difficult for the children’s section, and not profitable enough for publishers to chuck the rules and damn the torpedoes. They were well on their way to oblivion, at least in the American market, when Carter rescued them and called them fantasy.

Now, fantasy is one of those categories that were hived off from the old category of romance, under which Ruritanian romances fell. It is difficult to define fantasy in radial terms; or rather, it is a negative radial category. At its broadest, the term means, ‘Stories that are not like Leavis’s Great Tradition’. The usual way of defining it is to be Aristotelian about it, and say that a fantasy is a story about events that we commonly understand to be impossible – or at least flagrantly unlikely.

An imaginary country is not impossible: there could have been a place called Ruritania sandwiched in between Germany and Bohemia. But there is not. Ruritania is nonexistent, and that was an additional black mark against The Prisoner of Zenda. Bad enough that it was an adventure story; how much worse that it was not even set in a real place! Considerations like these caused the critics to banish Zenda from the hallowed precincts of Literature, and patronize it as (at best) a minor classic. (In just the same way, Leavis excluded Charles Dickens from the Great Tradition, and patronized him as ‘a mere entertainer’. He was later forced to recant this view.)

By the time Lin Carter came along, some people were beginning to talk of ‘Ruritanian fantasy’. It helped that Le Guin, whose Orsinian Tales, as I have said, were a very late entry into the Ruritanian field, was best known as a fantasy author. James Branch Cabell’s enormous and confusing mega-series, sometimes referred to as ‘The Biography of the Life of Manuel’, is a sort of mediaeval Ruritania, set in the fictitious French province of Poictesme. It contains fairies and miracles and suchlike trappings, as befits a story set in the Middle Ages; so Carter reprinted the books and called them fantasies. If Poictesme and Orsinia were fantastical enough to be fantasy, then so, presumably, was Ruritania itself; and the entire category was annexed to the fantasy genre.

But it was an unfashionable corner of the genre, and still is today, for the most part. The craze that Anthony Hope started in the 1890s had long since petered out. Le Guin found no buyer for Orsinian Tales for many years, until she had become a big enough name that publishers would print anything with her name on it. Peake’s Ruritania, the vast and ruinous castle of Gormenghast, was almost forgotten except by a small claque of mostly English admirers.

Most fantasy readers today, I imagine, are unaware that there is such a thing as a Ruritanian fantasy. I dare not accuse the learned Mr. Wright of being such a one; but he has perhaps lost that information in the lumber-room of his memory. He only sees the books themselves, and clearly dislikes them (which he has every right to do), and wonders how they came to be shelved with things that he deeply loves. This is excusable. What is not excusable is to deny the books their place on the fantasy shelves, which Lin Carter gave them half a century ago.

It is very true that Titus Groan and Gormenghast are not very likeable books. These are not adventure stories like Zenda or even The Princess Bride. There are elements of adventure, and at least one veritable swordfight, but they are portrayed with relentless irony, along with every other incident in the books and most of the characters. We can easily form the impression that Mervyn Peake did not much care for human beings, and thought most of the things they do too silly for words. Whether Peake was a misanthrope, I cannot say. But he was (though gifted in some respects) singularly poor at portraying character; and the easiest way to get round that is to depict all your characters ironically. The personages of Gormenghast are all obvious puppets; they scarcely rise even to the dignity of caricatures; and Peake has at any rate enough skill to write a convincing description of a puppet. To make us think of his characters as human is beyond his skill, and, I think, beyond his ambition as well.

The characters of Gormenghast are constructed by what Orwell once called ‘a debasement of the Dickens method’. In this case, the author takes one psychological aberration and makes it the entire basis of each character’s personality. The seventy-sixth Earl of Groan is suicidally depressed and nothing more. His sisters, Cora and Clarice, are pathologically stupid and nothing more. His manservant, Mr. Flay, is nothing more than servile; Flay’s archenemy, the cook, is nothing more than murderously angry. Barquentine, the Master of Ritual, is nothing more than obsessive-compulsive. Irma Prunesquallor is nothing more than vain. Steerpike, the villain, is nothing more than an ambitious psychopath; but his ambition drives him to manipulate the other puppets, and this makes the whole story go.

There are a few mild exceptions. Titus Groan, the title character, has (at first) no personality at all: he is a newborn baby when the first book opens, and barely a year old at the end of it. In the second book, he develops a kind of sullen petulance, which is only bearable because it leads him to oppose the wicked Steerpike. His mother, the Countess Gertrude, is lazy to the point of immobility, and cares for nothing but her cats and her pet rook; but she is capable of furious energy when her family’s rule and the castle itself are in danger. Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor is allowed a certain amount of intelligence, even wit, so that he may act as a kind of Socratic foil to the denizens of the castle. (Significantly, he is the only major character who does not live in Gormenghast itself, but in a cottage on the grounds.) But even he never really does anything but talk.

Gormenghast itself is ruled utterly, not by the Earl, but by a book of ancient ritual which nobody understands but everybody obeys implicitly. Every hour of every day is mapped out in detail, and nothing is ever permitted to happen except what has always happened before – that is, until Steerpike happens and the murders begin. It is fashionable in some quarters to see the rituals as a symbol of the emptiness and stupidity of Western civilization, and particularly of Christianity – the favourite bête noire of every pipsqueak intellectual for the last three centuries. But a little investigation reveals that they have their source not in Western, but Eastern culture.

Sebastian Peake, the author’s son, has said that his father intended Gormenghast to resemble the ritualistic and encysted society within the Forbidden City, the palace complex of the last two dynasties of the Chinese Empire. Mervyn Peake was himself born in China, just about the time that Puyi, the last Qing Emperor, abdicated and the monarchy failed. Titus, who runs away from Gormenghast for ever at the end of the second book, is probably modelled upon Puyi.

The Chinese Emperor was surrounded by an artificial society of mandarins, functionaries, and courtiers, all living by exquisitely refined etiquettes that no longer bore much relationship to the needs of daily life. In the background, like the book of rituals in Gormenghast, was the dead hand of Confucius; or, rather, of his disciples and commentators. The whole educational system of imperial China was built on these books; students were expected to write their own commentaries on the commentaries, and commit the whole system to memory; and those who placed highest on the exams were given the most important jobs in the mandarinate, from which they could command the biggest bribes. ‘Master Kong said thus-and-such’ was the sole and sufficient answer to any question of policy – in public and in theory; meanwhile, in private and in practice, people fudged the system and did whatever was necessary to keep the works creaking along.

Because of all this, the Gormenghast books have an odd effect on readers. The satire is obvious, biting, and relentless; but few people in the English-speaking countries have the background to understand just what it is that is being satirized. So they guess, and all of their guesses are bad – some worse than others. The late Warren Mitchell, who played Barquentine in the 2001 adaptation of the books by the BBC, was a vocal and cynical atheist, and therefore was convinced that the satire was directed against religion. Others have supposed the target to be Victorian mores, or the European civilization that blew itself to pieces in the First World War, or the irrational subconscious, or human stupidity in general. The text becomes a handy stick that any critic can take up to beat any target he chooses. This, I suspect, partly accounts for the alacrity with which the British critical establishment, bitterly hostile to their own country and culture, clasped the books to their bosom.

More recently, leading members of the British nihilist school of fantasy, notably Michael Moorcock and China Miéville, enshrined Peake as a kind of anti-Tolkien, and loudly proclaimed the superiority of the Gormenghast books to The Lord of the Rings. This is, to say the least, a minority opinion; but the British literati are nothing if not snobs. As C. S. Lewis once put it, they ‘cannot believe anything to be good if the unlearned spontaneously enjoy it’. The books are an acquired taste, and only a small minority of readers have troubled to acquire it; therefore they must be better than anything popular. Mrs. Grundy doesn’t care for Peake, and you can plausibly pretend that Mrs. Grundy is the target of the satire: what more could you ask from a work of Great Literature?

In fact, no Western nation has ever been hobbled by tradition in the way that the Confucian texts hobbled China. It is eight or nine hundred years since Europe definitely came out of the so-called Dark Ages; that is, since it grew strong enough to stop the endless attacks by Vikings, Moors, and Saracens (among others) and turn to more creative endeavours. Since that time, European nations and their colonial offshoots have produced such a continuous outpouring of new learning, new technology, new art and music and literature, and (inevitably) new manners and mores along with them, as the world had never previously seen. Even the Black Death could only slow the flood, not stop it. Of all the civilizations in the history of the world, ours is the least like Gormenghast. Peake’s satire depicts a place where nothing ever changes. The West is a place where nothing stops changing.

By 1800 or thereabouts, the pace of change had accelerated to the point where nobody could go through an ordinary lifetime unaffected by it. The past was becoming a foreign country, from which everyone was forced to emigrate sooner or later; and there was no going back. Some thought the world was progressing towards Utopia, some thought it was going to hell in a handbasket; nobody could deny that it was going somewhere. That was in the West. China (and its emulators, Korea and Japan) tried to stand still, and failed.

At the end of Titus Groan, the infant Titus is officially made Earl, receives the symbols and trappings of his office, according to the ancient ritual – and drops them into the lake. Nobody has any idea what to do; the book of rituals has nothing to say about such an emergency, just as the Confucian texts have nothing to say about steam engines, cannons, or capitalists. In both cases, the society’s reaction was to ignore the breach, shut itself up in guarded walls, and pretend that nothing novel had ever happened. But you cannot ignore change for ever. China and Japan tried their hardest to remain closed and changeless; but China was forced open by the Opium Wars, Japan by the gunboats of Commodore Perry. We never hear what became of Peake’s monstrous castle after Titus ran away at the end of the second book; but as all the rituals depended upon the existence of an Earl of Groan, we can only assume that change, at long last, came even to Gormenghast.

Peake has a knack for visual description, and though he is not good with characters and motives, he excels at depicting moods and atmospheres. About 1700, Europeans discovered the mood and atmosphere of Confucian China, and went into an ecstasy of imitation. A fashion for chinoiserie swept through Western art, architecture, and handicrafts; Western atheists were intoxicated and emboldened by the news of a great and apparently superior civilization untouched by Christianity. The Gormenghast books are a kind of chinoiserie in white-face, and something of the exotic appeal of Chinese culture shows through the disguise. We glimpse a world that is at once ceremonious, cruel, and timeless, with an ethic and aesthetic deeply alien to our own. This is a large part of the books’ appeal: one critic after another has remarked that the castle itself seems to be the principal character. But it is not a heroic character. There is no place for heroes in the book of rituals.

All this goes to make Gormenghast a kind of super-Ruritania. The castle is not found on any map, but it is so insular and self-enclosed that it would be pointless to look for it. Nothing that happens there is physically impossible, and to that extent it is not fantasy; but because the satire is so blatant and sustained, most of the events are psychologically impossible. It is almost a parody of realism. I am put in mind of G. K. Chesterton’s dictum:

Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is — what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is — what will a madman do with a dull world?

No real place was ever so dull and full of routine as Gormenghast; no asylum was ever so full of sick and screaming souls. And for a thousand pages or thereabouts, we see what the madman, Steerpike, does with this dull world. In that sense, Titus Groan and Gormenghast are perfect modern novels. But because their setting happens to be imaginary, the modern novel (and the Modernist critic) has no place for them. They do not fit in the category.

In Britain, where genre labels count for less, the books found a permanent following years before anybody troubled to ask whether they were fantasies or not. In America, they were flung on the ash-heap by the strict rules of Modernism as practised by New York publishers, only to be rescued by Lin Carter. They are the very opposite of fairy tales; but they belong to Faërie nonetheless, for no less spacious realm will claim them. What the critics call ‘Realism’ is a small and besieged principality, entirely surrounded by the empire of Fantasy. On one side, the map says ‘Here Be Dragons’; the other side could plausibly be labelled ‘Gormenghast’. But both are provinces of the same boundless country.

That, my dear Mr. Wright, is why Titus Groan and Gormenghast count as fantasy.


  1. Wendy S. Delmater says:

    Quite a lovely summation, and you have my hearty applause.

  2. Carlos Carrasco says:

    It would appear that you have quite the well-stocked lumber-room of memory yourself.
    I must acquire The Prisoner of Zenda.
    I hope you’re feeling better and have a Merry Christmas!

  3. As Aristotle said, artificial beings have no physis. In that sense, they are made and modified at pleasure, because their name does not really designate an essence, but just an arbitrary convention. “Fantasy” can include whatever we define it to include and no definition is better than another nor can they be right or wrong. They can be more or less useful (for librarians and shopkeepers maybe), more or less clear and so on, but that’s all.

    Thus, debating about which definition is better or right can never reach a conclusion. Nevertheless, it can and does allow Mr. Wright and Mr. Simon to entertain and instruct us with their wit and vast knowledge of fantasy, writing and past and present authors, so I will count it as a win for us readers.

    • All true, of course (except the bit about my vast knowledge); which is why the only proper way to answer an objection like Mr. Wright’s is to trace the usage of the word fantasy, and show how it came to be applied to those particular works.

      Though I do cavil a bit when you say that the names of artificial beings are merely arbitrary. There is the question of final cause, after all. We do not ordinarily call a thing a knife unless it was made for the purpose of cutting, and we call a story a fairy tale, or a fantasy, or what have you, because it is designed to scratch the itch for a particular kind of entertainment.

      • Good point.

        I’d say that arbitrary doesn’t necessarily mean senseless. Something arbitrary is just something entirely subject to the free will (liberum arbitrium). It can be senseless or not, according to that free will. Of course, as you point out, we are rational beings and we usually define categories for a purpose, so there is often a good deal of sense in them, but not necessarily so.

        To define a category is to put a finis on it, a limit. And we can put the limit wherever we want, so reasonable men will put it in different places, according to a plethora of reasons that may seem important to them, but not to others. For example, is a jack-knife a member of the knife category? Apparently, it clearly is. But for a Spaniard, it wouldn’t be so clear. A knife is a cuchillo and a jack-knife is a navaja. Very different things, probably because knifes are just kitchen utensils and jack-knifes were the most popular weapon in Spain up to my grandfather’s time (some of them were the size of small swords).

        Let’s go full etymological: a finis or limit, the object of a definition, means also a border in latin. Borders are arbitrary in the sense that they are defined by men, but there are serious reasons that influence where they will be put. They are the result of history and geography, and also of the struggle among men with different ideas about where that particular border should be.

        I find it strangely appropriate that the borders of literary categories should also be the subject and potentially the result of debates between opposing champions. In this case, Lord Thomas S. Talon and Grand Inquisitor John Penthane Wright. Why waste money watching the new Star Wars movie when we can watch such a cosmic struggle for free?

        • I have to say, ‘Grand Inquisitor John Penthane Wright’ is possibly the most fun form of that worthy gentleman’s name that I have ever yet read. I think I shall call him that from now on.

          *puckish grin*

  4. Excellent essay!

  5. Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

    Very interesting and enlightening essay.

  6. We can continue until we get a sufficiently precise idea of what the child wants: fairy tales in which the heroine becomes a princess and her wicked stepsisters end up mutilating themselves (as in the unexpurgated ‘Cinderella’). Maybe ‘Cinderella’ is the only story that fits that radial category, and there are no other stories enough ‘like that’ to count.

    In part that depends on how widely you define “Cinderella”. Cinderella Tales from Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner — despite excluding all the Cinderlad tales — reaches over 800 pages.

  7. Stephen K says:

    Thank you very much.

  8. Carbonel says:

    I have never read these books, nor wanted to, but I do remember the lean years in the 1970s and early 80s when any fantasy or science fiction was picked up as a potential gem.

    So your excellent essay and Mr. Wright’s were both plausible to me. They hung together at the time I read them. Since I know you both to be honest wights, yours clearly supersedes his, and is a better explanation.

    But I wonder about the phenomenon where the essayists are less well known.

    But all his that aside, what a fine bit of analysis, and what a pleasure to read.

    Thank you.

  9. A pleasure to read indeed, like old times Mr. Simon. I am very happy to see you in fine form!

  10. Stephen J. says:

    Huzzah! Seeing any topic get Simonized is a delight, but particularly fantasy and the works therein.

  11. Xavier Basora says:


    Really great post. Why did Howard Dean Powell decree that Literature(tm) could never include the pulps like Treasure island, Dicken’s books , action adventure books, Boy’s own stories etc ?

    I’ve never understood this obsession to narrow the genres to the really boring stuff like Franzen type books

    • Basically, Howells was an early American Socialist. As far as he was concerned, the sole job of literature was to advance the cause of Socialism by showing the people how horrible everything was and how desperately they needed to have a revolution. Any fiction that did not accomplish that was escapist trash.

      Sadly, since book-trained Socialists are nearly always bourgeois themselves, they have a strong tendency to blither on about other people’s suffering without actually having much experience of suffering themselves. (‘Playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot,’ as George Orwell said.) Thousands of fashionably literary Americans jumped on Howells’s bandwagon without realizing where he was trying to lead them, and became devotees of Socialist ‘realism’ and ‘consciousness-raising’ without necessarily becoming Socialists themselves. These people had enormous influence in the American publishing business; and of course there were always the minority who really were Socialists, and sometimes Communists, and knew exactly what they were doing.

  12. Jeffrey Smith says:

    I found this essay courtesy of a comment on File 770, and really enjoyed it. I obviously have to go back and read more of yours.

    One correction, though: the Gormenghast novels were not published by Lin Carter in his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Peake was one of the writers, like E.R. Eddison and David Lindsay, who were published by Ian and Betty Ballantine in their search for books their Tolkien readers might like. The success of these led them to hiring Lin Carter to dig out more. I think later printings of Peake had the Adult Fantasy unicorn symbol added to their covers, but the early editions did not.

  13. Matthew Alhonte says:

    Fun essay! The bits about how dreary “realist” literature is compared to sci-fi reminded me of an old favorite:
    “…they dare to call the literary celebrations of this cultural coma “realism”? And imagine it to be superior to SF? As Tacitus’s offworld Chieftan said, “They make a desert and call it realism!” The self-policing annals of dullness–the endlessly replicated fictions of divorce, career, sexual awakening and autumnal pathos–are polemics for living death, still life made still stiller, still smaller.” From here: http://www.otago.ac.nz/deepsouth/1198/film.html


  1. […] be and what it too often is. It appears obvious now, in not-quite-hindsight, that my recent piece, ‘Gormenghast and the Great Tradition’, has got to be included in that section; but it will want editing for the purpose, because some of […]

  2. […] published as fantasy, and prompted in response this terrific essay on the subject by Tom Simon, “Gormenghast and the Great Tradition”. (Hat tip to Niall McAuley.) At the end of his tour-de-force, Simon says […]

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