The Enchantments of Escape

Scholar Maria Sachiko Cecire reflects on the complex legacy of the midcentury “Oxford School” in children’s fantasy literature.

Oxford's medieval spires amid wooded hills on a sunny day.
The dreaming spires of Oxford University viewed from Hinksey Hill. LatitudeStock—David Williams/Gallo Images/Getty Images Plus

I never thought I’d be interested in reading a single additional word of analysis regarding children’s fantasy and its current domination of our adult cultural landscape, but Maria Sachiko Cecire’s book Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century elevates the conversation beyond “for” and “against.” The professor of literature at Bard College steps back to put the genre in context, looking at the way 20th century authors of what she calls the “Oxford School” used children’s fantasy as a means to preserve a sense of magic inside a modern world they saw as increasingly hostile to belief.

We spoke recently about children’s fantasy as British export, the bizarre experience of being enchanted by books that also horrify you, and the newer works that, Cecire thinks, may help us out of this mess. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: What is “the Oxford School”? What are the connections between these writers?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I started out by realizing that a number of children’s fantasy authors who were British citizens had all studied undergraduate English at Oxford. I started to do some digging into what the relationship was between these people, and the curriculum they were studying. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, as many people know, were friends and colleagues, but they were actually working to reform the English curriculum at Oxford, in addition to writing their own fantasy.

They were the architects of this curriculum, which went into effect in 1931. And they really had an enormous role to play in the kinds of questions that were set in examinations, the texts that were required for undergrads to read; then this had this kind of huge knock-on effect in terms of what people were studying for the next nearly 40 years at Oxford. There’s still some vestiges of that curriculum in the Oxford education today. Then the younger authors I was looking at were Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman. They all studied this curriculum and got their degrees between 1956 and 1968.

This curriculum at Oxford was really heavy on medieval literature, just at the moment when most other universities were going in the direction of modernism and the kinds of writing that we now associate with literary fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. At Oxford they were doubling down on medieval literature and also looking at it not just as examples for linguistic analysis—which was how it had been primarily studied in the 19th century under philology—but really looking at it as literature. Really seriously asking students to meditate on both the English medieval past and also this idea of magic and enchantment.

And Tolkien and Lewis had a sense that this kind of literature would be good for students, not just their minds but their morals as young men—I guess I’m assuming they meant young men!

Yes, that’s the word they used—even though English, interestingly, was a field that attracted a lot of female students, and also notably attracted a lot of students from the colonies, because English has a history as a source of cultural capital for people who have been excluded from it.

But yeah, Tolkien and Lewis wanted their English curriculum to be something that was treated with the same respect as a field like classics, and they saw early English literature as having the same kind of level of difficulty, and the added benefit of having this kind of patriotic function. Tolkien wanted to develop a profound sense of national identity and heritage.

Tolkien and Lewis were also very much products of the 19th century, in a lot of ways. Lewis used an extended conceit where he describes studying their English curriculum as being like marching out into a “great rough countryside,” and students would need to take “your gun, your spade, your fishing tackle” to go “get yourself a dinner.” There was this idea that studying English literature is this sort of masculinist, colonialist, rough-and-tumble activity that helps to make a student into a man.

Where were you finding this stuff? What was your archive?

I went into the University of Oxford archives, where I saw some documents that were really quite notable, like handwritten Ph.D. thesis reviews by Tolkien. Oh, my God, pretty hardcore! I would not have wanted him as one of my readers! A lot of it was English department meeting minutes, and that’s where you start to see different decisions that get made in the department, figuring out what they want to be and where they’re going.

Ha! I’m laughing at the idea of going through departmental meeting minutes, but it truly does sound like a source where you could find out a lot about people’s thinking.

For sure! And for comparison’s sake, I also went to the archive at a few other universities, including Cambridge, which went in a really different direction from Oxford in the ’20s and ’30s—much more intentionally towards modernism, towards more contemporary texts, and cutting out medieval requirements for their undergraduate English degree.

And interestingly, Cambridge didn’t really have the same legacy of children’s fantasy writers. T.H. White was at Cambridge at a really interesting time, when there was still a medieval requirement, but right as they were ending it. If you compare his The Once and Future King to, say, The Lord of the Rings, they’re so different in the way they talk about the Middle Ages, with a different level of reverence. There’s anachronism in White’s writing, and pretty profound critiques of the warlike nature of the Middle Ages and of a lot of the nostalgia for that period. Whereas Tolkien and his students tend to be a lot more reverent of that material.

This reverence for everything medieval connects in interesting ways to critiques of Tolkien and Lewis I’d heard before—that they were colonialist, conservative to a fault, maybe racist in their thinking. There are a few smoking gun letters in your book, with these quotes that just make you blink.

I’m thinking of one of Tolkien’s, where he writes to his son in 1943 that he thought an American victory in World War II might almost be worse for Britain’s “mind and spirit” than a Nazi victory, since America is all “sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production,” while Germany is at least a country that values continuity with its past! Yikes.

And then one of Lewis’, from 1932, where he wrote to his brother describing “the East” as “off the rails” compared to the West—featuring an “unashamed and reigning iniquity of temple prostitution and infanticide and torture and political corruption and obscene imagination.”

Were these sources that had been previously published, or letters you discovered in your research?

Oh, these are just in their letters, previously published and widely accessible. There’s a big discourse around Tolkien and Lewis, a lot of discussion about whether Tolkien was anti-Nazi—which he was, but in large part because he was mad at what they did with his beloved Teutonic mythology! [Laughs] Well, I’m joking about that, but in part. … And the discussion about Lewis, about whether he’s against colonialism—which he certainly was, explicitly, but he also wrote pretty profoundly racist things like the quote you just read, about non-Western people.

You mentioned that your students sometimes have trouble approaching the texts critically, so you must have practice talking about the problem of critiquing books you love! How do you handle this in class, and how do you handle it in writing a book like this?

I think that a lot of rejection of critical analysis of people like Tolkien and Lewis, and of children’s fantasy more broadly, comes out of this kind of harsh binary around how people deal with realizing that their faves are problematic. It’s either you double down and you say, “No, this piece of work is amazing, and all of your critiques … are wrong” or “Oh, my gosh, this text that I thought I loved is terrible. I’m terrible. I can never look at it again.”

I mean, we humans are complicated. I think people don’t give themselves enough room to acknowledge that our desires, our pleasures, are constructed out of the societies and circumstances from which we emerge. In the process of studying, analyzing, and thinking, you can understand your own pleasures and desires better. And maybe think about how to make worlds and narratives that are as desirable, as pleasurable, as exciting, and even more so, but in ways that don’t have to marginalize and oppress other people!

I want to talk about “enchantment,” a feeling that you point out that Tolkien and Lewis defended against self-consciously “modern” ways of thinking, which generally preferred realism to magic. These books are totally enchanting, as people’s huge affection for them shows. But I have this feeling that some—not all, but some—people who virulently defend fantasy narratives like Lord of the Rings from any critique do it because they crave that feeling of “racial innocence,” as Robin Bernstein calls it. Like, the stories’ background whiteness is part and parcel, for them, of that childlike feeling of being totally enchanted by a tale—losing yourself in it.

There’re so many levels to enchantment in reading these texts. A lot of it has to do with sublime experiences, and this feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself, but also being special within that framework. But often that specialness is a form of privilege, and that privilege comes at the expense of other people, and if you pause and think about it, it’s really uncomfortable really quickly—or if you don’t come from that background and you’re reading these kinds of texts, maybe you figure it out with a shock at a certain point, or you detect it early on and are not interested in these texts at all.

And I think that’s one of the big challenges around this material—to recognize how often hierarchies play into the kinds of pleasure that comes out of these texts. I guess every person has to figure out how they relate to it. You know, eventually I realized I do not want feudalism to return to this land!

Me either!

It doesn’t mean that I can’t slip into that kind of enjoyment while reading them anyways, because of the well-worn patterns. It’s the familiarity of reading text like this, the comforts of returning to something you’ve read a million times, but you see it change in slight ways.

In a weird way, as you point out, children’s fantasy is one of the major ways in which England retains influence over the rest of the world. Just the other day, I happened to see an article about student-led historical tours at Harvard that quoted a visiting student from India who wanted to see a dining hall because he was “a huge Harry Potter fan.” The “Englishness” of these stories is a big part of what people seem to love.

Yes! I talked about this as a kind of “empire of the mind.” At the moment that the British Empire is waning, you see this rise of children’s fantasy literature, which is set in these kinds of precolonial worlds, but also imagining these new vistas for exploration and the pleasures of exploration and colonization, encounters with indigenous peoples—but cloaked in a different story, where the people you’re encountering are “magical creatures,” so you’re free of political resonances in an age of decolonization.

It’s really interesting, in light of what we were talking about—the pleasures of fantasy. Because the books are supposedly for children, this scrubs them clean of the complexities of “adult” concerns and gives them some kind of innocence, and it becomes a kind of free place of play. But that’s also re-inscribing these colonialist actions and privileges. Part of the pleasures of Hogwarts, of Oxford, of Harvard, have to do with profound privilege, layers of servants and workers and people who can’t get in that are making your experience so very special.

I think that’s a lot of what the export is, in many ways. It’s capturing and repackaging the elitism of the British Empire—creating other landscapes to enjoy it in that don’t have the same vexed associations.

You end your book lauding the current generation of fantasy writers. Any of those newer books that you’d like to recommend?

A lot of 21st century literary fiction that’s drawing on fantasy tropes or fantasy norms is responding to the disappointments of the genre, which come from the expectations that the genre sets up for kids. Newer fantasy often points out that when kids grow up to be adults, life is not nearly that straightforward or heroic. So we see a whole generation of fantasy writers who are still trying to hold on to this kind of sense of enchantment Tolkien and Lewis championed, while dealing with the sense that everyday life rarely turns out the way fantasy from previous generations had suggested it might. It’s a reminder of how dynamic the genre can be.

I recommend N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, of course. If you like Harry Potter, the Akata Witch series by Nnedi Okorafor is such an interesting comparison.* If you like Regency romance and fantasy, then Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown books are quite good.

People like Okorafor and Cho are really, in my opinion, building on the kind of norms created by a lot of the existing fantasy, but then you also have other writers, like Jemisin for example, who are trying to create entirely different frameworks, not necessarily referencing or building off of what’s come before.

I really would encourage people who love fantasy but feel kind of awkward about their relationship to it to try one of these books, and not just one. Keep going, you know?

Correction, Dec. 27, 2019: This post originally misquoted Maria Sachiko Cecire as recommending Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy for fans of Harry Potter. She recommended Okorafor’s Akata Witch series.