Stories about Stories resonates with the fight against book bans

One of my fondest childhood memories was sitting on my mother’s lap reading “A Shortcut in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. The main characters embark on a journey through space and time, from galaxy to galaxy, as they strive to save a father and the world. With surprising twists, the novel travels in the war between light and darkness, good and evil. The young characters become teenagers. My young mind was challenged by questions of spirituality and purpose. I felt an affinity with the characters as they were thrown into conflicts of love, divinity, and goodness. This first experience cemented my love for this type of story.

Today I reflect on my literary experiences with Beowulf, Persephone, Arabian Nights, The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hades. What do they have in common? Consider The Chronicles of Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. The first list is all folklore and mythology; this last list of fantasies. There are critical distinctions. Fantasy stories can usually be traced to a named author or group of them. It is popular entertainment, a modern literary mode. Mythologies are stories that predate the fantasy genre. Myths are often allegorical, can underlie cultures and religions, and rarely have a single author. Most myths have variations depending on the size of the culture or region from which they originate. They are oral, collective, sacred and timeless. This brings me to “Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth” by Brian Attebery, professor emeritus in the Department of English and Philosophy at Idaho State University.

Myth and fantasy have always been inseparable. Stories about Stories examines the fantastic as a world in which different ways of understanding myth collide and new relationships with myth are forged. The book offers a comprehensive history of the modern literary genre of fantasy as well as an argument about its nature and importance. The fantasy literature that has been written over the last century and a half shows how much it has been formed and shaped by various myths and mythologies. Attebery explores this dynamic in depth, detailing how fantasy, as a literary form, is a way to reconnect with traditional myths and the worlds they form.

Attebery is “the most readable, scholarly, and least contentious critique,” said acclaimed author Ursula K. Le Guin. “Stories about Stories adds new perspectives of understanding to its unparalleled study of imaginative literature.”

This scholarly work is broadly structured chronologically, and juxtaposes fantasy and myth. The connections between the two are presented in eight chapters that explore a number of moments in the timeline between the late 18th century and today. Each point offers a particular social and scientific relationship to myths and illustrates changes in how myths are incorporated into fantasy stories. The chapters include analytical tools and theoretical background, personal reflections and illustrative readings from a wide range of works, blended differently in each chapter.

I recommend this book to Tolkienists, fans of fantasy and myth, and anyone who appreciates a good story. Attebery’s exploration of the rediscovery of myth through fantasy literature is useful and engaging. As Lloyd Alexander said, “Fantasy is not an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”

The thoughts of the introduction to Stories About Stories resonate with the fight against the many recent incidents of book bans across the United States. The author says that those who do not or cannot read fantasy consider themselves superior to it. The enormous popularity of some fantastic texts only makes these people even more resentful. Attebery points the finger at book engravers who view fantasy as suspect for religious reasons. Some believe it encourages witchcraft and devil worship. Others say that just because it is not true, gender therefore negates Creation.

“Pressure to ban fantasy, Attebery concludes, is the least problematic scenario. “Book engravers at least take fantasy seriously.”

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