Fantasy Literature and the Art of World-Building
Senior Seminar in Literature (course #18169), Fall 2006
Tuesdays & Thursdays, 9:30-10:45am
Sierra Hall 310
Prof. Charles Hatfield
Office ph. 818.677.3416 (CSUN x3416)
Preferred email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Class website: http://www.csun.edu/~ch76854/495FL
Office hours for Fall 2006:
Tuesdays/Thursdays 11:00am – 12:00pm
Plus alternate times by appointment!
Do take advantage of my office hours! That’s the best way to talk to me about your research interests,
work-in-progress, grades, and other concerns that require more than a minute’s chat.
catalog copy: “Intensive study of a major British or American author or of a literary theme or sub-genre. Reports and seminar papers required” (2006-2008 CSUN Catalog, page blank).
prerequisites: Senior standing and either 6 units of lower-division literature courses or 3 units of lower-division literature plus English 355.
methods: Discussion and (occasional) lectures, much reading and writing, and various class activities including presentations.
Questing: a description & rationale:
Fantasy literature often concerns journeys: long, life-transforming journeys beyond the lands we know, into uncharted or nonhuman territories that are faraway, enticing, and yet forbidding too. From Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the Lonely Mountain and back, to Thomas Rhymer’s seven-year sojourn in Elfland, to Ged’s passage to the far East Reach of Earthsea, fantasy often focuses on the voyage from home, the immersive, transformative trip from the familiar to the magical.
Perhaps it is this idea of flight that has led so many to dismiss fantasy fiction as merely “escapist” (as if reading proper literature involved no element of escape). Certainly fantasy has been contrasted, pejoratively, with realistic literary fiction, and in some corners of the world that dismissal continues. Not entirely without reason, perhaps, as the recent mushrooming of fantasy as a market genre has produced a great deal of formulaic, unchallenging stuff.
But the voyage from the mundane to the fantastic is not simply about escape. It can change our thinking, reinterpret our lives to us, and reframe our understanding of the world – and of literature. Fantasy has a rich potential for metaphor and can be imaginatively radical, carrying a thought-provoking, subversive charge. The fantastical imagination is at the root of the literary world tree: the impulse to fantasy, as seen in everything from Beowulf to The Tempest to Gulliver’s Travels, is one of the foundations of what we do as students of literature.
So, the trek is worth the trouble. It is in this spirit of journeying that I offer English 495FL, which represents a departure from traditional or canonical ideas of literature into territory hardly unknown but, academically speaking, still in the process of being “mapped.” As we traverse this territory, we will study the nature and history of literary fantasy, paying attention both to historically important sources, such as Arthurian romance, Norse myth, and folk balladry, and to recent developments in the genre such as the rise of so-called urban fantasy.
Our special focus will be how fantasy builds fictive worlds: either fantastical worlds entirely apart from our own, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, or worlds linked to our own, as in the “portal” fantasies of Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis or the contemporary fantasies of Terri Windling and Tim Powers.
Though we’ll touch on such time-honored sources as Beowulf and Arthurian legend, much of our reading will come from contemporary fiction typically found in the “Science Fiction &
Fantasy” section of today’s bookstore (get to know that section, if you don’t already). Of course we’ll also look at the roots of the field, including seminal nineteenth and early twentieth-century practitioners. In particular, we’ll study Tolkien and his concept of fictive subcreation, as modeled in the building of his personal mythos, Middle Earth. This idea of subcreation will inform our later discussions, as we move beyond Tolkien to the contemporary scene.
Our course aims to give you an introduction (for some of you perhaps a reintroduction) to a rich literary tradition and a thriving contemporary genre. Note that, because fantasy is a diverse, multimedia field, the course has the potential to be not only about literature but also about cultural studies in the broad sense. I’ve built our syllabus with an eye toward literary quality, of course, but your research and our discussions may also touch on popular manifestations of fantasy in such fields as gaming, fan fiction, and film. These phenomena are very much a part of the genre and help shape the fanbase for fantasy literature. So feel free to bring up these subjects!
About the reading load: This is a course for those who love to read. So read often, read everywhere, and, when possible, read ahead! One of our core topics will be high fantasy, that is, fantasy set in secondary worlds which, ideally, are deeply imagined, deeply involving, and internally consistent. To create such an immersive story-world takes time, and so the genre tends toward long, even labyrinthine books, the kind of books that appeal to readers for whom getting lost in the reading is a goal in itself. Such books are tough to work into an academic schedule, I know, and I’ve done what I can to represent the genre without getting too lost in the pages of epics – but, still, heavy reading is a prerequisite of fantasy. It goes with the course. So be prepared! (Bear in mind that, besides the required readings we do together, you’ll have to do much reading on your own in order to fulfill the course requirements.)
As a reminder, English 495 courses are meant to assess the skills of outgoing seniors in the major. 495FL has been designed to fulfill that mission by giving you multiple opportunities to demonstrate core skills in research, writing, and presenting. My more specific aims for 495FL are to help each of you work toward:
Ó informed appreciation of modern and contemporary fantasy literature, including broad knowledge of its history, source traditions, and enduring subgenres;
Ó confident understanding of key critical terms in the study of fantasy literature;
Ó heightened ability to discuss fantasy literature critically in relation to other literary and popular traditions and to contemporary media and culture;
Ó and, as in any senior seminar in literature, further practice in and honing of the analytical, rhetorical, and research skills necessary for success in the field of English Studies.
My main hope is that you’ll leave 495FL with a new perspective on fantasy fiction, including some guiding terms and new questions that will help you “read around” in the genre more mindfully and with greater pleasure, whether you came to the course as a fan or as a newcomer.
Your semester grade will be based on how successfully you fulfill the following five tasks:
Ó Participation (40 points, or 10%):
This includes attendance, of course, but also alertness, preparedness, and willingness to contribute to discussion and other in-class activities. Don’t worry if you’re not super-talkative, or a natural-born ringleader, but try to make a positive difference every time! The value of a seminar depends upon its participants.
Ó Response papers (120 points, or 30%):
These brief papers (2-3 pages each) will sometimes focus on specific tasks or questions posed by me, and at other times consist of your own, self-directed responses to certain readings. Expect to complete six such response papers over the semester.
Ó Presentation (100 points, or 25%):
This 10 to 15-minute in-class oral presentation should introduce your classmates to a secondary world developed in a work of high fantasy, be that work a novel, a series of novels, a cycle of short stories, a graphic novel or comic book series, a game, or other format (or some combination of the above). Your exact topic must be approved by me beforehand. The presentation should offer an analysis or critique of the world-building in your chosen work. You may want to make comparisons to works that we have read as a group, so as to place your topic in a helpful context. You may also wish to consider the cultural sources or inspirations of this secondary world, including, for instance, elements adapted from mythic or folkloric traditions. Another option could be to perform an ideological critique of the implicit cultural outlook behind this secondary world. (Another alternative could be to present your own created world, provided it is well-researched, well-developed, and distinctive. See me early about this if you’re interested.)
Ó Research proposal & annotated bibliography (40 points, or 10%):
This brief proposal (c. 250 to 750 words, that is, ½ to 1½ pages) will be due at mid-term. It should be accompanied by an annotated MLA bibliography of not less than four scholarly sources, at least two of which must be in print rather than online form. The purpose of this proposal is to establish the research problem, agenda, and some possible sources for your:
Ó Critical essay (100 points, or 25%):
This essay will consist of a critical analysis of a particular work or issue in the field of fantasy (this may include media and pastimes other than literature). The topic will be of your own choosing, and refined through dialogue between you and me, dialogue prompted by your research proposal. This paper will serve as your final, summative assessment in the course.
Extra Credit work may be available, at my discretion, to students who have made a sincere effort to fulfill all course requirements and who have maintained at least a “C” in Participation. Note that Extra Credit cannot exceed 80 points (that is, 20%). Do not submit Extra Credit work without prior consultation with and approval from me (this means a conference in my office). See our class website, <http://www.csun.edu/~ch76854/495FL>, for Extra Credit ideas.
Know your dates and procedures! Consult the Catalog and schedule of classes for information regarding changes of program, withdrawals, and incompletes. You are responsible for knowing this information.
I do not accept paper submissions via email.
Timeliness and planning are crucial: Our schedule is relentless; we’ll be sprinting from the first week to the last. Late work will therefore pose real trouble, for you and for me. So, papers not ready to be handed in at the START of class on the due date will immediately be docked twenty percent, grade-wise, and papers handed in more than two days late will be docked fifty percent. I will not accept papers more than a week late. Also, in-class presentations, once scheduled, cannot be postponed – so schedule your work deliberately!
I value attendance. I want to stress this. Missed in-class activities, such as discussion and group work, cannot be made up, and these are crucial to the course. Note that the only absences I discount in my grading are medical or family emergencies, family bereavements, and major professional commitments. If you must miss more than two days due to emergency, please provide strong documentation (e.g., a doctor’s letter) so that I may fairly take this into account. Finally, do not plan on being away during the last week of the term; our final meeting, Thursday, 12/21, from 8:00-10:00am, is just as important to our plans as any other meeting.
N Plagiarism: a reminder: Passing off the words, ideas, or work of another as your own, without properly crediting your source, is plagiarism and constitutes an academic crime. This serious breach of conduct is discussed at length in CSUN’s 2004-2006 Catalog (pp. 531-532). To avoid plagiarism, be sure to acknowledge all ideas and quotations from other sources. Keep accurate notes when working from other texts, and recheck citations and quotations at every step of your writing process. Also, whenever your sources go beyond the shared readings listed in our syllabus (below), be sure to give full bibliographical information in the form of a properly formatted MLA bibliography. Be advised that I deal with plagiarism by seeking the strongest penalties possible under CSUN policy.
All written work outside of class should be typewritten and should follow standard academic paper format: a double-spaced page with at least one-inch margins all round; a plain, unobtrusive typefont (such as Times New Roman) at 11 or 12-point size; consistent page numbering; and, please, no needless report covers or other plastic gewgaws.
Ahem! Phones and pagers should be silenced before entering the classroom. Also, refrain from laptop use not directly related to class (e.g., Netsurfing, IM-ing). If you’re that involved with your gadgets, then, in my book, you’re absent.
Campus resources: some reminders:
disabilities that affect their work may qualify for accommodations. Such
students are urged to work with the
Course reserves: If you don’t know it already, get to know the Reserves, Periodicals, & Microform (RPM) room in the Oviatt Library (4th floor, east wing). I may be placing both required and supplementary readings on reserve there. Because I’m still in the process of investigating the library’s resources in the fantasy genre, I don’t yet know how much we’ll end up using the RPM; still, it’s a good idea to (re)familiarize yourself ASAP.
The Writing Center: Looking for strategies to
polish your writing? Try the
Computer Labs: Our Library runs a 40-station lab in Sierra Hall 392 as well as a 170-seat lab in the Library called the Collaboratory (3rd floor). Call the Collaboratory service desk at 677-6304 or see <http://library.csun.edu/Library_Services/openlabs.html>.
(available at the Matador except as noted; prices given are “list” New):
Douglas A. Anderson, ed., Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy (Del Rey, $7.50)
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (
Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Norton, 13.95)
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (Spectra, 7.99)
Richard Mathews, Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination (Routledge, 22.95)
Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (MonkeyBrain Books, 18.95)
Tim Powers, Last Call (
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Del Rey, 7.99)
Terri Windling, The Wood Wife (Tor, 6.99)
Gene Wolfe, The Knight (Tor, 14.95)
Recommended: Ellen Datlow and Kelly
Link & Gavin J. Grant, eds., The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006: 19th
Annual Collection (
On a final, personal note,
I should acknowledge that 495FL represents a voyage of rediscovery for me, since I gobbled up fantasy as a teen but then fell out of touch with the genre. As I prepared for 495FL, I learned that the intervening years have transformed the genre into something much more diverse and mainstream. Contemporary fantasy has produced, is producing, both a mudslide of familiar genre stuff and, more importantly, a wealth of startlingly new, groundbreaking fiction. So, with a tip of the wand to my good friend Steve, who recommended certain titles and authors to me, I’m eager to undertake this latest quest.