Death and Fantasy
Reviewed by David Oberhelman
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 109/110.]
William Gray’s Death and Fantasy is a collection of his published and unpublished essays ranging from 1996 to 2007, loosely organized around the theme of death in fantasy literature from George MacDonald to Philip Pullman. He turns to the French psychoanalytic school, particularly the work of Julia Kristeva on the relationship between the matricide and suicide, to provide a framework for reading the manner in which the fantasists come to terms with the death of the mother as well as their own relationship to death in their works. Although the disparate essays gathered together in this volume do not provide a comprehensive treatment of death in British fantasy, they nonetheless demonstrate how psychoanalytic criticism can shed some light on the significance of death in MacDonald, Lewis, and Pullman.
The first half of the book focuses on two nineteenth-century Scottish fantasists, MacDonald and Robert Louis Stevenson. Gray’s first two essays on MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith are the most overtly Kristevan readings in the collection. Using Kristeva’s theory of the maternal “semiotic chora,” the pre-linguistic matrix out of which the individual must arise to attain selfhood, Gray examines the “suicidal” impulses of the protagonist in MacDonald’s early novel Phantastes, and then Gray looks at representations of the mother’s death in Lilith. At times the application of Kristeva’s psychoanalytic concepts is a bit strained, but they fit the dream-like state of MacDonald’s narratives and pervading tone of melancholy he picked up from Novalis and other German Romantics. Gray then turn to an examination of the presence of MacDonald in the works of fellow Scotsman Stevenson—specifically references to MacDonald in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–as well as Stevenson’s own efforts to write German Märchen [fairy tales]. The Stevenson chapters, which on their own offer some fascinating insights into his ties to the tradition of fantasy and the literary construct of Faërie, nonetheless do not quite fit the theme of death that occupies the other essays and perhaps would be better suited for a different collection.
In the second half of the volume Gray provides some key insights into the function of death in the fiction and apologetics of C.S. Lewis, and offers a detailed examination of the literary legacy of MacDonald, Lewis, and Pullman. Gray looks closely at Lewis’s reflections on death of his mother and the death of his wife in his writings and at death in his science fiction and the Narnia books, most importantly the figure of Digory’s dying mother in The Magician’s Nephew. Gray invokes Harold Bloom’s Oedipal drama of the “Anxiety of Influence” to read both Pullman’s “misreading” of Lewis’s ideas on death and to find parallels between Pullman and Lewis’s literary forefather MacDonald. Gray effectively defends Lewis from Pullman’s condemnation of the deaths in The Last Battle by analyzing the complex representation of death and immortality—the “witch’s time”—in their fiction.
Death and Fantasy thus offers a tantalizing glimpse at how psychoanalytic criticism can be applied to the analysis of fantasy literature and its preoccupation with death. Gray gives critics some new approaches to the study of these authors, and hopefully will in the future expand upon the nature of death in their works and in the works of other fantasists.