eality and fantasy do not differ as much as one would expect. Far from being opposites, they have a parasitic relationship. The relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary defines the real world and the fantasy world. This is especially true in Victorian literature, where fantasy began to gain status. One might assume at first that the extraordinary belongs mainly in the realm of fantasy, but this is not so. As George MacDonald explains, "Truth is as much larger than fiction, as God is greater than man . . . be sure that no man can ever fancy anything strange, unexpected, and curious, without finding, if he had eyes to see, a hundred things around his feet more strange more unexpected, more curious, actually ready-made already by God" (quoted by Prickett, 161). Therefore, most elements of the extraordinary come from reality. In fantasy, often those things that reality deems to be extraordinary and incredible become mundane and familiar. Other times, commonplace events happening in extraordinary circumstances create fantasy. Either way, the way in which the ordinary and extraordinary interact determines fantasy.
The Victorians helped to fully develop the term "fantasy" as we now define it. Fantasy originally meant the same thing as "imagination" and "fancy" and belonged to the realm of madmen and children. However, during the Victorian era and the birth of Romanticism, madmen, children, and fantasy gained new status as people (mainly artists) began to take an interest in it. Fantasy developed a new meaning which separated it from both fancy and imagination. Fancy, as Coleridge defined it, is "a mere dead arrangement" of "fixtures and definite" (Prickett, 9). Fantasy started to be defined as the opposite of fancy. Fantasy became the word used to describe the quality of dreams and reverie, a quality which was important to the romanticists. Imagination, however, differs from fantasy in the same way sacred love differs from profane love: Anyone who dreams can access fantasy, while imagination is a creative force reserved mainly for artists. Despite the fact that the stuff of dreams makes up fantasy, fantasy does not represent unreality, but rather a new reality. The interplay of the ordinary (the expected, unremarkable, and common) and the extraordinary (the incredible, marvelous, and strange) that creates the difference between fantasy and the one true reality.
As the general view of reality changes, so does the definition of "fantasy". As George P. Landow says, "Fantasy and our conception of what is fantastic depend upon our view of reality: what we find improbable and unexpected follows from what we find probable and likely, and the fantastic will therefore necessarily vary with the individual and the age" ("Fantasy and Conceptions of the Real"). The "improbable and unexpected" on its own does not create fantasy, however, as MacDonald pointed out. In a piece of literature (or any art), one must mix the ordinary and extraordinary in unexpected ways so as to make it obvious to the audience that what they are reading or viewing is fantasy. Additionally, as new extraordinary things are found in the real world, they must be added into the world of fantasy. The discovery of dinosaurs provides one of the best examples of this process.
In 1812, the anatomist Baron Cuvier announced that a pair of jaws were found in a mine in Maestricht which measured to over four feet. In 1822, Gideon Mantell, a general practitioner from Sussex, found some enormous fossil teeth that he said came from an ancestor of the iguana which he would name the "Iguanadon" in 1825 (Prickett, 75). William Buckland officially named the first dinosaur, the megalosaur, in 1824 (van Wyhe). Though Richard Owen didn't create the term "dinosaur" until 1841, by the 1820s the age of Dinosaur discovery had clearly begun. Scientists began to find proof everywhere that monsters had existed in real life. They had walked on Earth, and not in some fantasy world. Authors and artists alike made it their job to create a home for these creatures in literature and to fabricate a world where they could be considered ordinary. Whereas before monsters still mirrored those of classical mythology, often with human faces and on a human scale, after the discovery of dinosaurs the literary world started to witness more and more large reptiles.
The creatures of fantasy became less slimy and more dinosaur-like. For example, John Martin's interpretation of the monsters of Milton's Paradise Lost was specifically reptilian. Also, in John Tenniel's drawing from Through the Looking Glass, the Jabberwock has "the leathery wings of a pterodactyl and the long scaly neck and tail of a sauropod" (Prickett, 80), which is interesting since the only description of the beast that the reader receives ("jaws that bite", "claws that catch", "eyes of flame") does not specifically suggest a large lizard. As Philip V. Allingham explains, Tennyson's "The Kraken" was also probably influenced by "recent discoveries of dinosaur skeletons by Gideon Mantell in Tigate Forest, Sussex, in 1822 . . . Thus, Tennyson's poem neatly combines the Bible, literature, mythology, and natural history, balancing the theories of science with the traditions of Christian faith" ("Kraken"). The image of an enormous reptile, or at least an enormous monster, was used so often in fantasy that it became common. What was extraordinary in reality became credible and expected in fantasy.
The discovery of dinosaurs was not the only discovery that shocked the Victorian world and then made its way into the world of fantasy. Evolutionary theorizing also made a splash in the realm of reality, mostly due to Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859. Fantasy authors used the idea of evolution, considered so extraordinary at the time, and used it to create their monsters. For example, in Kingsley's The Water Babies, the Doasyoulikes turn evolution on its head and change from human-like to ape-like. MacDonald also used this idea of degeneration in The Princess and The Goblin. The Goblins had once been "very much like other people" but they had spent so much time underground that "they had greatly altered in the course of generations" (Prickett, 82) so that they became hideous and grotesque. By turning evolution on its head and creating monsters out of it, authors were making evolution (or de-evolution in these cases) a normal part of fantasy, while many were still skeptical of the idea in the real world. Readers had to accept these scientific theories as familiar and ordinary parts of fantasy in order to fully appreciate the stories.
There is no doubt that the Victorians were fascinated with mixing the extraordinary and the ordinary in life as well as in literature. The Victorians demonstrated their appetite for fantasy through their willingness to believe signs and portents, a quality which Thomas Carlyle attacks in "Signs of the Times". This hunger for prophecy manifested itself in 1842 when word went round that London would be swallowed by an earthquake on March 16. There was a mass exodus from London as people tried to avoid the catastrophe. Hotels in Brighton reported that, "numbers of families of the middle and upper classes have arrived to avoid its consequences" (Jarrett, 12). People became gullible through their hunger for the extraordinary to happen in their backyard. In an issue of The Graphic from July 24th, 1875 an article concerning a "Wild Beast Mart", owned by Mr. Jamrach from Ratcliff Highway, "an importer of wild beasts as well as of birds both alive and stuffed" explains how, "It is odd to see the strange mixture of the domestic with the wild . . . the ducks quietly waddle under the very paws of the tiger." Part of the allure of the Mart was seeing everyday animals alongside such creatures as the "snake-eating snake" ("A Wild Beast Mart"). Another article from the same year demonstrates a mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary in its title alone — "A Picnic in Belzoni's Tomb". In the article, two men visit Thebes and partake of "a small leg of mutton, two roast fowls, some Cairo sweetmeats, with a melon or two, and some new picked figs" while sitting in "the grave-dust of the pharaoh". This article draws attention to the very English and very Victorian idea of bringing the everyday or the ordinary with you wherever you go, and so the men in this article consider it amusing to have a quaint English picnic while sitting alongside the treasure and remains of a dead king. It truly represents a clash of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and so the story sounds more like fantasy than reality.
Three Gothic Revival country houses: Left: Eatington (now Ettington) Park (1858), designed by J. Prichard. Middle: Humewood (1867), Wicklow, Ireland, designed by W. White, F.S.A. Right: Orchardleigh Park, Somersetshire (1855), designed by T. H. Wyatt. [added by GPL]
Victorian gothic revival architecture also often represented this mixture of ordinary and extraordinary. Men built castles for themselves, and castles, though extraordinary, exist in the realm of Reality, but castles used as homes for Victorian men border on fantasy. Horace Walpole, who started the Gothic revival or "Gothick" decades before the Victorian era, built an "extraordinary architectural fantasia" at Strawberry Hill. Gothick as a whole was a form of fantasy trying to fit itself into reality. As Walpole said, "There is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams" (Prickett, 14). Walpole tried to escape into a world of reverie by building an extraordinary home. The novelist and politician William Beckford's House, Fonthill Abbey, was even more extraordinary, since, as the art history scholar Nikolaus Pevsner says, "The effects of Strawberry Hill are playful, those of Fonthill are sensational" (Prickett, 18). Fonthill not only looked like a castle, but it also had an enormous octagonal tower two hundred and sixty feet high. By placing something extraordinary like an old castle in the place of an ordinary home, Beckford and Walpole produced the clash of remarkable and unremarkable that begets fantasy. So not only in their literature, but in their lives, the Victorians formed fantasy by playing with the mundane and the marvelous.
However, the Victorians' fascination with both the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary represented a shift from the tastes of the ages before. In the very beginning of the nineteenth century, the exotic and apocalyptic fascinated people, most likely because of the new age of steam and revolution For example, people flocked to the "Phantasmagoria" at the Lyceum in London in order to see the application of the newly invented magic lantern. People also visited Merlin's Mechanical Museum off Hanover Square to view exhibits that included "The Temple of Flora", "Merlin's Cave", and "the Aerial Cavalcade" (Prickett, 32). However, the sensibilities of the Victorians shifted away from this epic sense of fantasy whose purpose was mostly to shock and awe with mechanical marvels. In a way, mechanical spectacles such as those found in Merlin's Mechanical Museum only bordered on fantasy, and applied better to the realm of science, since they simply demonstrated the skills of new machines, though admittedly in creative ways. The Victorians perhaps recognized that and created a definition of "fantasy" which moved towards the surreal and worked with the strange and familiar in order to create a true dream world.
In some cases, simply putting the familiar in an unfamiliar setting is enough to create fantasy. Tennyson, for example, does this in Morte d'Arthur when he places his universal feelings of grief (though specifically for his friend Arthur Hallam) in the mythical world of Camelot (Jarrett, 9). In many works of Victorian fantasy, however, the ordinary and the extraordinary intermingle in such a way that elements of the mundane make a fantasy world both more real and more incredible. For example, in George MacDonald's Phantastes, the flower fairies have a social hierarchy and demonstrate human flaws and squabbles:
Those who took fresh rose-leaves for their boats floated the longest; but for these they had to fight; for the fairy of the rose-tree complained bitterly that they were stealing her clothes, and defended her property bravely.
"You can't wear half you've got," said some.
"Never you mind; I don't choose you to have them: they are my property."
"All for the good of the community!" said one, and ran off with a great hollow leaf. But the rose-fairy sprang after him (what a beauty she was! only too like a drawing-room young lady), knocked him heels-over-head as he ran, and recovered her great red leaf.
The fact that the fairies worry about such things as property and the good of the community make them seem like any ordinary human society. At the same time, however, the idea that magical beings would squabble over property and complain to one another is surprising, since one would assume that in a world of magic, petty human problems wouldn't apply. Later in the chapter, Anodos describes the daisy as, "a little, chubby, round-eyed child, with such innocent trust in his look! Even the most mischievous of the fairies would not tease him, although he did not belong to their set at all, but was quite a little country bumpkin." Again, the difference between "little country bumpkin" fairies and "drawing-room young lady" fairies reflects the hierarchy of human societies in reality, and yet seems ridiculous when applied to flowers.
Lord Dunsany also often reflects a familiar reality in much of his fantasy. He says in his preface to The Book of Wonder, "Come with me, ladies and gentlemen who are in any wise weary of London: come with me: and those that tire at all of the world we know: for we have new worlds here." However, he starts The King of Elfland's Daughter with a slightly different preface:
I hope that no suggestion of any strange land that may be conveyed by the title will scare readers away from this book; for, though some chapters do indeed tell of Elfland, in the greater part of them there is no more to be shown than the face of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty or twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland.
Dunsany makes it clear that though he offers a departure from reality, the fantasy that he offers is very close to the familiar fields or England and the well-known streets of London. When the two worlds meet along the lines of the ordinary, the result is surprising and often comic. For example, when Miss Cubbidge of Number 12A Prince of Wales' Square is carried off by a dragon to an unknown world in "Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance", she receives a note from an old school-friend which reads, 'It is not Proper for you to be there alone." It is common enough in reality that a friend should admonish Miss Cubbidge for being a lady living with no company except for a male (albeit a male dragon), but in a world where there are magic spells and dragons and where Miss Cubbidge dreams of a knight to come rescue her, the simple line becomes extraordinary and ridiculous. Additionally, the strangeness of the friend's words draws attention to the fact that the world Miss Cubbidge inhabits represents fantasy, where ordinary conventions become extraordinary.
Fantasy comes in many shapes, and those forms made famous by George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany only represent a few. One must not forget Lewis Carroll's special section of fantasy — the realm of nonsense. Nonsense is curiously the most structured form of fantasy. This makes sense, however, since the ordinary dominates in nonsense literature. Limericks provide a good example of this- limericks, a form of nonsense, describe people who you could find in society as well as society's conventions. For example, Edward Lear, famous for his limericks, would often draw attention to a person in society who acts somewhat peculiar and whom, because of this, society attacks. For example, one of his limericks reads,
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a Raven;
But they said — "It's absurd, to encourage this bird!"
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven. [quoted by Prickett, 114]
Though the beginning of this limerick is somewhat extraordinary, or at least a bit bizarre, the resulting ending is perfectly ordinary. Lear simply points out what would happen in society if someone were attempt to do something as silly as to dance with a Raven in public. But limericks are still fantasy because of this mixture of the extraordinary and the ordinary: Despite the fact that the reaction of the public is ordinary, the fact that the Old Man of Whitehaven exists as an extraordinary being in an ordinary world makes the situation fantastical.
Lewis Carroll personifies this fantastical mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary. He is both the relatively ordinary and rational mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the extraordinary nonsense writer Lewis Carroll. His writing also follows this pattern of being both rational and nonsensical, which makes it a fantasy. Everything that happens in the Alice books seems irrational, and yet it can be explained rationally. For example, in Through the Looking Glass, everything works backwards: Alice walks away from the house and yet always ends up walking towards it, she must run as fast as she can in order to stay in place, and the White Queen bandages her finger, yells, and then pricks it. However, all these extraordinary circumstances are easily explained using ordinary mirror logic. Movements in the mirror always operate in the opposite way from what one would expect. Also, according to backwards logic, speed in a mirror world would be time divided by distance rather than distance divided by time, so it makes perfect sense that Alice would have to run extraordinarily fast in order to do something so ordinary as to stay in place. Finally, time works inversely, like everything else in the mirror. Time doesn't reverse itself, since each action happens forwards (The White Queen doesn't unwrap her finger), but inverts itself, just like a motion in an ordinary mirror.
A similar system of logic works through Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice feels like she's falling "somewhere near the centre of the earth". If Wonderland truly exists at the centre of the earth, time there does not depend on the sun, because the centre of the earth does not experience rotation. Therefore, the lunar calendar constitutes the only form of time that makes sense. The Mad Hatter therefore speaks the truth when he and Alice argue about the day of the month.
The Hatter was the first to break the silence. "What day of the month is it?" he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and then said "The fourth."
"Two days wrong!" sighed the Hatter. "I told you butter wouldn't suit the works!" he added, looking angrily at the March Hare.
Alice announces the month in the previous chapter when she says, "the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps, as this is May, it wo'n't be raving mad", and so by looking in an almanac at the date May 4 1862 (the first year the story was told), one can see that there was a difference of two days between the lunar and the solar calendar (Prickett, 125). Therefore, while Wonderland, as its name implies, seems extraordinary, it operates on reason and follows the rules of the common lunar calendar. Carroll's nonsense turns the accepted relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary on its head so that the science behind everyday objects such as calendars and mirrors seems exceptional. In this way, nonsense creates a language to explain conditions of the world that are more complicated than they seem, and therefore represents a very organized, strict form of fantasy.
The extraordinary and ordinary both have a place in fantasy and reality. The Victorian fantasy authors began to become conscious of this and began experimenting with the relationship between elements of the everyday and the unfamiliar in order to produce new fantasy worlds. As more extraordinary material appeared in reality, fantasy shifted accordingly. A general fascination for the marvelous mixed with the mundane helped to foster this new burst of fantasy. Because they consist of the same elements, fantasy and reality are never really that far apart, but exist right next to each other, as close as England and Elfland.
[Materials from the Victorian Web are omitetd from the folowing bibliography and linked from this essay.]
"A Picnic in Belzoni's Tomb". The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper. 7 Aug 1875. Vol 12. London: John Leighton and Edward Joseph Mansfield, 1875.
Dunsany, Lord. The King of Elfland's Daughter. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.
Jarrett, Derek. The Sleep of Reason: Fantasy and Reality from the Victorian age to the First World War. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Prickett, Stephen. Victorian Fantasy. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005.
"Wild Beast Mart". The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper . 24 July, 1875. Vol 12. London: John Leighton and Edward Joseph Mansfield, 1875.
Last modified 13 May 2009