Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue