Recently, a student in my Children’s Literature class wondered aloud: “why is the fantasy land in so many books so often sort of England?” Maria Sachiko Cecire offers a compelling answer in this learned and engrossing book, demonstrating in detail why so many fictional worlds came to look so English, as well as the consequences for many readers who find themselves excluded or marginalized as a result. She goes a step farther, as well, showing that it is not just England but Oxford that is “the birthplace of children’s fantasy literature as we now know it” (1). Cecire focuses on what she calls the Oxford School of children’s fantasy literature, founded by J. R. R. Tolkien and and C. S. Lewis, not only because of their influential series (Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles) but also because of the English curriculum they put in place at Oxford that helped to shape the work of its students: Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising); Dianna Wynne Jones (Chrestomanci series and Howl’s Moving Castle); Kevin Crossley-Holland (the Arthur Trilogy); and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials). While each writer managed the legacy of the “Oxford school,” differently, they all, according to Cecire, “remain faithful advocates of early English literature’s capacity to re-enchant a disenchanted world through allegorical reading and creative rewriting” (109). Although J. K. Rowling wasn’t a member of this school, Cecire shows that she is in many ways one of its heirs as well.
Middle-Earth and Narnia are vivid, inviting fictional worlds, points of reference even for those who are not particular fans of the series. What is a world of possibility for some excludes and demeans many others. As Cecire emphasizes from the start of her study, not everyone feels welcome in these worlds in large part because they stitch heroism and adventure to white, masculine privilege the way Wendy sews Peter Pan’s shadow onto his body. “The rise and spread of medievalist children’s fantasy helped to establish Britain as a seat of global enchantment and associate ‘white’ (good) magic with racial whiteness in the minds of young people across the Anglo-American world and beyond” (10). While Cecire’s critical engagements are varied, she makes a particularly important contribution to conversations begun by Robin Bernstein (in her book Racial Innocence), who shows that racist views that are discredited in adult or mainstream culture can persist in children’s media and culture, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (in her book The Dark Fantastic) who points out that most fantasy realms are created and consumed by white people, their protagonists tend to be white, and these works “participate in excluding, demonizing, or tokenizing people of color as a matter of course” (Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games [NYUP, 2019], 26). Cecire also asks us to see the connection between two cultural “before” pictures twinned in medievalist children’s fantasy: the middle ages and the child, both of which are too often presumed white, associated with innocence, and upheld as timeless, despite their very specific histories, including the one traced here. As Cecire asks us to consider: “What does it mean when many of Anglo-American culture’s most beloved, hopeful, and seemingly apolitical ideals also perpetuate tyrannical norms that are in fact deeply political in the ways that they exclude and censure difference?” (172). What it means, Cecire shows, is that we need to turn a critical and unblinking eye on these ideals and the texts in which we find them, no matter how beloved, and we also need to expand the portals to welcome more diverse readers, authors, illustrators, protagonists, and plots.
Cecire combines a sharp focus and a clear argument, on the one hand, with an invigorating range and depth of scholarship, on the other. She first recounts the emergence of English studies and the curriculum reforms for the English School that Tolkien and Lewis put in place at Oxford in 1931. Cecire emphasizes that Tolkien and Lewis were both born outside of England, Tolkien in South Africa and Lewis in Northern Ireland, perhaps heightening their investment in the version of England they invented. From the margins, they created a fantasy of what being at the center might look and feel like. Their curriculum placed heavy emphasis on Medieval and Renaissance literature and ended at 1832, in sharp contrast to the curriculum F. R. Leavis oversaw at Cambridge, which made most Medieval literature optional and privileged the modernism Tolkien and Lewis disdained. (As Cecire points out, Cambridge produced its own writer of medievalist children’s fantasy, T. H. White, who took a considerably more irreverent approach to the period than his Oxford peers.) At a moment when many literature programs are again rethinking curricula, this is an engrossing story of curricular reform, with high stakes then and lingering effects still.
Cecire adds texture to her account through her attention to “the role actual medieval literature plays in the rise and shape of medievalist children’s fantasy” (viii). For instance, she compares the coming of Smaug to Lake Town in The Hobbit and the awakening of the sleeping dragon at the start of our hero’s third and final challenge in Beowulf (in her first chapter); she compares what she calls “the Christmas challenge”--the arrival of a threatening outsider--in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (in her third chapter). Throughout the book, Cecire uses evidence ingeniously, considering, for example, the exam questions members of the Oxford School would have encountered, making their fantasy fiction a kind of learning outcome. As Cecire shows, the Oxford School and its heirs continue to enshrine the old white magus as the figure of what it looks like to produce and transmit knowledge: “In series from The Dark Is Rising to A Song of Ice and Fire, old men, typically white and sometimes with young apprentices, study ancient texts in archaic languages for clues to urgent contemporary problems” and the heroes often end their adventures by recording them for posterity (119). In those old white wizards, Tolkien and Lewis live on.
The third chapter focuses on Anglo-American ways of celebrating Christmas as parallel to medievalist children’s fantasy: a protected, distinct temporal space of enchantment associated with childhood that one can revisit. “As children became seen as the primary and rightful occupants of a preindustrial, prelapsarian dream, an inherently nostalgic Christmas became their festival” (157). Co-created during Victorian industrialization, she argues, the idea of the child and the celebration of Christmas sutured together childhood, premodernity, innocence, and whiteness. Medievalism served to finesse this process of inventing both childhood and premodernity, making the new seem timeless or masking it as a return and not a shift. For me, this chapter is the hardest to summarize and the least cohesive although it is provocative nonetheless.
The centerpiece of the book is chapter 4, “White Magic: Racial Innocence and Empires of the Mind.” Here, Cecire argues that “white magic” defined itself against “black magic,” which was associated with African peoples and black skin, in the twentieth century. “It is no accident that this racialized connotation became attached to black magic following the height of the British empire” (174). In fantasy literature, “black” magic is often assigned the role of what Ebony Elizabeth Thomas calls the “Dark Other,” “a racially marked specter” against which the forces of whiteness align themselves even in texts that trumpet their own inclusiveness and egalitarianism (like the Harry Potter series). Cecire argues compellingly, then, that the frequent Manichean showdowns between “white” and “black” magic in children’s fantasy racialize and “allegorize the struggle for righteousness in a world sliding toward moral decay” (189). These compensatory fictions redress the decline of empire in one register by conjuring up a new empire at another level. “Following the fall of the British Raj in India and Britain’s postwar decline on the world stage, children’s fantasy began, I argue, to offer the magical Middle Ages as an alternate location for the continued expression of colonialist masculinity and white English superiority” (188). Not only do the English remain in control of this empire of the mind but the fictions themselves become a new global export.
As the chapter’s title signals, Cecire depends on and extends Robin Bernstein’s powerful claim that “When a racial argument is effectively countered or even delegitimized in adult culture, the argument often flows stealthily into children’s culture or performances involving children’s bodies. So located, the argument appears racially innocent. This appearance of innocence provides a cover under which otherwise discredited racial ideology survives and continues, covertly, to influence culture” (Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights [NYUP, 2011], p. 51). In a particularly arresting example, Bernstein argues that children’s doll play with black dolls marketed as indestructible resisted and reversed the Emancipation Proclamation, treating black figures as things to be owned, injured, and destroyed rather than as persons. In a parallel argument, Cecire suggests a process by which, as the empire crumbled, medievalist fantasy rebuilt it, offering numerous versions of a story in which the figure who achieves mastery is raced white and gendered masculine; the forces to be mastered or improved are often associated with blackness or darkness. In the process, “the genre adjusts its terms to retain a worldview that privileges white Anglo-American heritage and potential even as geopolitical conditions change and new transnational structures of power arise” (176); as a result, “popular fantasy emerged as a new model of Anglo-American imperial domination in the twilight of empire that laid the groundwork for heroic visions of ‘geek’ masculinity in the information age” (182).
After this especially strong and important chapter, Cecire moves to a chapter on how revisionist, post-ironic fantasy reframes heroism as intensely personal, achieved through connection and love, and expands to include more adult consumers. “I suggest that the expansion of self-help and recovery discourse in the face of late capitalism’s increasingly precarious conditions has been key to medievalist fantasy’s rebirth in adult literature” (237). This chapter includes detailed analyses of Howl’s Moving Castle, His Dark Materials, and Game of Thrones, the television series based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. A stirring conclusion on the “disidentificatory practices” of fan groups, published revisionist fantasy, and fan fiction explores ways that consumer/producers are pushing back against and moving beyond the tradition so effectively anatomized here. In this book, Cecire helps us to break the spell of the Oxford School by examining its history, investments, assumptions and exclusions. At the same time, she makes a compelling case both for training our critical attention on medieval and medievalist literature and for expanding the texts we read, teach, study, and share.