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Writing the Fantastic

Matthew Reza

Professor Kij Johnson
“Inaugural Lecture” [1]
Pembroke Lecture on Fantasy Literature in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien
Pembroke College
18 January 2012




For the inaugural lecture of the series Pembroke’s Lecture on Fantasy Literature in honour of J. R. R. Tolkien, Pembroke College (and in particular the mastermind behind the whole project, Will Badger) threw down the elvish gauntlet after weeks of publicity in the face of those Oxford colleges who also claim Tolkien as their own. In a gesture which will go down in fantasy history as a Gandalf and Balrog moment, the Pembroke series declaimed that no other namesake lecture shall pass. In this fantasy however Gandalf does not fall to the deep. In fact, there was little of Tolkien’s beloved universe in Kij Johnson’s lecture, a point she made explicit by highlighting how the lecture was more loosely in honour of Tolkien himself.

Freed from the constraints of talking about an arguably saturated discourse, Johnson—acclaimed fantasy author and critic—discussed her experiences in teaching fantasy, her own take on fantasy, and her own fantasy literature. In what is still a marginal area of literary studies in many traditions, to speak of teaching students about such ‘breaks from reality’, as Johnson herself put it, is both enviable and innovative. Citing seminal studies by Brian Attebery and especially Katherine Hume, it was hugely refreshing not to hear whispers of the high priest of theorising impossible things: not Tolkien, but rather, Todorov. Granted, hairs can be split over the terms fantastic and fantasy, but in this case Johnson’s more general focus on all things impossible delicately undermined Todorov’s hegemonic ‘hesitation’. This provided a wider platform for discussion which included a counterpoint: science fiction.

In addition to the definition of fantasy as explicitly metafiction—because all fantasy, Johnson argues, draws attention to the fact that it is a story and cannot be real—what was particularly interesting was her own take on writing fantasy. Her intention is to convince people of the reality within her pages, ‘that they really do have a tail’. Although not escapist, fantasy appears nonetheless to be a mechanism which allows her to engage with the realistic elements she portrays. Perhaps confusingly, realism figures heavily in Johnson’s fantasy: modern settings, Subarus, and present-day characters. No longer the land faraway in time and space, Johnson’s otherwise realistic world features a single break from reality: one such example from her fiction is a river of bees. No entire other worlds, no armies of goblins, elves and wizards, and no stuff of nightmares, just a small deviation from our own world; a subtle fantasy. It is this break from reality, Johnson says, which allows her to write.

In closing, she defended fantasy, arguing that fantasy is best suited to represent the strangeness of the world, but more importantly, and on a more personal level which encompasses her own blending with realism, Johnson asked why should her fiction not represent a strange world? A simple question of legitimacy, maybe, but one that sheds light on another and more provocative claim of Kij Johnson’s: fantasy is realism.

Matthew Reza [2] is reading for a DPhil in Modern Languages at Pembroke College, Oxford.