Reviews 2008

Folklore and the Fantastic

Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Jason Marc Harris. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. xi + 235 pages. £50; USD 99.95 (hardback).

Jason Marc Harris asserts in this revision of his dissertation that folklore elements, incorporated into English-language fiction published across the Victorian and Edwardian eras, directly challenge and compete for authority with the normative conventions of literary realism. Specifically, Harris frames fiction as an elite space that emerges within and is controlled by an upper-class urban populace who harbours a deep ambivalence for its social opposites—the lower-class rural folk who sustain traditional beliefs within the oral tales they tell. Victorian writers shared this ambivalence for folk beliefs, folk tales, and folk tales’ cousins, literary fairy tales, because of the contradictory cultural associations swirling around these venues. Enlightenment rationalism and evangelical zeal generated a deep distrust in the irrationalism and superstition that folk and fairy tales appeared to convey, while Romantics championed fairy tales as innocent catalysts of imaginative adventuring. The featured writers’ Scottish or Irish nationalities only compounded this ambivalence, for their sympathies with and understanding of their native folk ideologies did not suit those of the English elites dominating the literary marketplace. Thus, Harris intimates that the Scottish writers George MacDonald, James Barrie, James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Sharp, as well as the Irish writers Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and William Carleton, write fiction suffused with fantasy, the supernatural, and/or horror in order to harness their ideas to a potent vehicle: what Harris calls folk metaphysics, or “folkloric assumptions about how the supernatural engages the material world” (viii). These assumptions—i.e., these constellations of ideas, beliefs, and practices, along with the emotional resonance they evoke and transmit (5, 204)—when mixed within and strewn upon the pages of fiction ignite questions about competing cultural perspectives and thereby subvert fiction’s stable narrative reality. The result is an incendiary creation that Harris dubs the literary fantastic in which the elite literary and the folk fantastic vie for value within the “hybrid cultural consciousness of the writers and audience in England, Scotland, and Ireland” (1).

While this study focuses predominantly on fiction written and marketed for and read by adults, Chapter Three marks the sole significant exception. Here Harris investigates the ways that MacDonald and Barrie, respectively, manipulate folk and literary fairy-tale motifs and tale-types in their children’s books: specifically, MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and its sequel The Princess and Curdie (1883), and Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911). Essentially, Harris argues that both authors use folklore to attack bourgeois social norms, including idealized notions of morality, childhood, family, and class differences. The result: dystopic worlds in which child stasis trumps self- and social transformation. To develop this dark vision, MacDonald merges Christian theology with anthropology, evolution, folk images of female power, and folk tale subjects ranging from fairy abduction to subterranean humanoid creatures, while Barrie infuses his children characters with fairy amorality; Peter Pan, for instance, parallels the demon lover in folk ballads and romances. Immersing mood, tone, characterization, and plot in folk beliefs and tales, however, is only part of Harris’s New Critical story.

That MacDonald and Barrie write fantasies is key, Harris explains, for fantasies are coherent, continuous impossibilities adhering to strict rhetorical and structural conventions. The authors deliberately incorporate fairy tale paradigms within their fantasies to create certain formulaic expectations for their readers. Once these expectations are interrupted by fictional elements such as a character’s inner thoughts, authorial irony, or skepticism, the text admits what Harris terms interpretive hesitations, which inject a structural disturbance and thereby the crucial component of the literary fantastic: the questioning of the stability of reality as represented on the page. Other strategies can also create a similar textual dissonance. For instance, MacDonald and Barrie eschew the fairy tale’s “happy ending,” perhaps the most well-known plot point in fairy-tale morphology. This structural deviation, combined with the folkloric enhancements within the fictive content, helps create in the four studied texts a tart anti-modernism instead of a purportedly expected complacent progressivism.

By treating fantasy and fairy tale morphologies as normative vehicles and forms of meaning and casting fictive elements as aberrant interlopers, Harris flips literary scholars’ expectations about analyzing fiction and thereby demands, it seems, a certain respect for the fresh insight that this defamiliarization may invoke. Plumbing folk and fairy tales for insights into character, theme, and structure is not new, but Harris’s complicated New Critical approach may prove helpful for those seeking an alternative methodology for exploring children’s literature.

Unfortunately, problems abound in this study. Harris bifurcates complex class strata and treats the resulting binary monolithically throughout the book. This heavy-handedness detracts from—indeed, contradicts—the resilience and elasticity that he so admires about folklore. Further, he would have benefited from reading more deeply in the history of childhood as well as in the literary history of children’s literature to understand better the complexities at work in MacDonald’s and Barrie’s texts. The darkness he reacts to is not new to scholars of children’s literature and childhood studies. Finally, and most regrettably, Harris writes and organizes very poorly and thereby thwarts even the stalwart and conscientious reader’s good will. The introduction and second chapter in particular, so crucial in outlining and contextualizing the study’s major terms and trajectories, as well as situating the book’s argument within relevant criticism, stun the reader with l abored, mechanical writing; extraneous material; abstract, interchangeable subheads in place of transitional information; few, if any, connections to the book’s thesis; and no clear illustration of the argument’s place in the fields of folklore or fairy-tale studies. That the quality of the writing improves as the book continues will be little consolation to children’s literature scholars interested in pursuing Harris’s approach to folk and fairy tales, to MacDonald and Barrie, or, perhaps, to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Master of Ballantrae (1889), one of three texts that Harris explores in Chapter Seven, entertained adults and children alike.

Sandra Burr
Northern Michigan University, USA