Sunday, March 12, 2017

Syllabus for 20th-century Fantasy Literature

So,  yesterday, I was complaining about the endless hours consumed on bureaucratic tasks that, at best, have marginal value -- i.e., the creation of upper-division syllabi in the hopes that some search committee might, maybe, possibly think slightly better of your application.** Anyway, against my better judgment, I really got into the whole syllabus-creation thing . . . and I ended up creating another syllabus for a 15-week course in modern fantasy literature.

Now, what kind of books should go on such a thing? Well, I'll exclude the 19th-century people (Dunsany, Morris), although I'd probably include them in a more comprehensive survey-level course. I'd have to have a smattering of sword and sorcery texts, given its influence, plus a sampling of the relevant Inklings. After that, I'd have to go with the various responses to Tolkien's influence. Overall, though, I want to avoid the massive tomes that generally mark post-Tolkien fantasy -- there's only so much you can cover in 15 weeks, and I can't justify spending 3 weeks having them read Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time

Here's what I came up with:
  1. Howard, Robert E. The Essential Conan. Ed. Karl Edward Wagner. 1998.
  2. Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword. 1954.
  3. Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950.
  4. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1937.
  5. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. 1968.
  6. Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. [Book 1 of The Earthsea Cycle]
  7. Lackey, Mercedes. Magic’s Pawn. 1989. [Book 1 of The Last Herald-Mage]
  8. Cook, Glen. The Black Company. 1984. [Book 1 of The Black Company series]
  9. Pratchett, Terry. Jingo. 1997. [A Discworld novel]
  10. Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. 2015. [Book 1 of The Broken Earth Series]


Howard's essential not only for the S&S factor but because he lets me introduce the role of Weird Tales into the genre. Anderson's also follows up the S&S angle and, in addition, is a short work that cements the influence of northern heroic cultures on the genre.

Lewis and Tolkien are givens, and I picked their shortest representative works.

After that, though, you have to deal with how writers choose to respond to Tolkien. Beagle's work was a revelation of post-Tolkien fantasy, and Le Guin (besides being awesome) helps show the impact Tolkien had on children's fantasy. 

After that, my choices get a bit idiosyncratic. Lackey and Cook may not be considered "typical" or canonical fantasy authors, but they give the lie to the belief that 1980s fantasy was just Tolkien-clones. Lackey's book is about a non-straight male, so that let's us cover a Queer angle. (I also considered the feminism of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I just never warmed to her books myself.) Cook might be an even odder choice, but he wrote gritty fantasy before Stephen Erikson and George R. R. Martin made it a thing. Plus, Cook's a lot more original than may be commonly recognized.

Pratchet, of course, is a must, and he's one of the few successful people to do comic fantasy. Jemisin's book is arguably not even fantasy (unlike her earlier One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I didn't care for), but she's destined to become a canonical writer and was the only non-white fantasy author I could think of. Her book also is the only one on the list with a female protagonist, which is surprisingly rare. (The Golden Compass, perhaps? But then I wished to avoid too much children's fantasy.)

Anyway, this seems like a fun list. I kinda want to take this course myself.


**Wait, did I say "complaining"? I meant that I, uh, was noting the truth of Max Weber's claims about bureaucracy and rational systems that actually create irrationality. See, it's not whining if a major German theorist can be invoked.

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