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West Chester University

Fall 2004and
Spring 2005

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Spring 2003

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Course Information
  LIT 165 Syllabus
  LIT 165 Announcements
  LIT 165 Assignments
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  WRT 120 Announcements
  WRT 120 Assigmments

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
  Adieu to Imaginary Worlds
  One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
  ASSIGNMENT SHEET: Paper #3
  Notes on 'Before the Law'
  Samuel Beckett Links
  Notes on 'Waiting for Godot'
  Approaching 'Waiting for Godot'
  Notes on 'Axolotl' by Julio Cortazar
  Notes on 'EPICAC' by Kurt Vonnegut
  ASSIGNMENT SHEET: Paper #2
  DIRECTIONS: Independent Project
  Suggested Readings: Independent Project
  Utopia/Dystopia Links
  Character Analysis: Brave New World
  Analyzing the Brave New World
  Defining Utopia
  Embarking on the Brave New World
  A Critique of BRAVE NEW WORLD
  Dante Links
  Inferno: Final Destinations, Cantos XXXII-XXXIV
  Inferno: Malebolge, Cantos XVIII-XXXI
  Inferno: Questions/Analysis, Cantos XII - XVII
  Structure in the Inferno: Analysis, Cantos V - XI
  Inferno: Questions for Analysis, Cantos I - V
  Introducing Canto I
  Approaching the Divine Comedy
  Relating to Dante's Inferno
  Our Goals for Studying the Inferno
  Assignment Sheet: PAPER #1
  The Birthmark
  Leaf By Niggle
  Responses to Leaf By Niggle
  'On Fairy Stories' by J.R.R. Tolkien
  Notes on Ovid and 'Metamorphoses'
  Analyzing the Mythic Tales
  The Four Functions of Myth
  Myth and Metaphor
  Myth - Links
  Filtering the Introduction to 'Fantastic Worlds'
  Allegory
  'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' and 'The Zebra Storyteller
  Introducing the 'Imaginary Worlds' Theme
  Alice In Wonderland
  The Metamorphosis

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
  Conference Schedule: 4/21 and 4/26
  Commentary: Following Up Your Response
  Critical Thinking and Commentary
  Casebook: Evaluating Sources
  What is Argument?
  Parts of an Argument
  Casebook Assignment Sheet
  Rubric for Evaluation of Writing
  Assignment Sheet: Essay#1
  Expressive Writing
  Short Stories About Identity
  Thoughts on Stories About Identity
  Poems About Identity
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Mind-map: Identity

ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
  ENG Q20 Syllabus
  Frederick Douglass Excerpt
  Propaganda Analysis
  How to Detect Propaganda
  George Orwell's Politics and the English Language
  Propaganda Analysis Exercise

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

 
~~ Filtering the Introduction to Fantastic Worlds ~~

Our textbook may come off a little long-winded. Here are a few of its salient points, in my view:

Alternative worlds are valuable to us if we recognize their relationship to the real world. They become "responses" to the real world that we can entertain and ponder. Their ultimate power depends on how artistically accomplished they are, how much power they have to create something aesthetically arresting (beautiful) and evocative.

The first fantastic worlds-—MYTH—represent our oldest efforts to cope with FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS about who we are exactly, where we come from, where we're going. What is this world? What is this universe? Why are we here? How did we get here? Why is the world the way it is? What is our place in it? Why do we die? What happens when we die? Of course, there have probably always been "laid back" individuals who didn't care, as long as they had their rack of meat. Perhaps even there were even ancestral secular humanists hiding in their ivory caves somewhere. But there were significant scores of others whose consciousness would not rest, and these were the mystics. The journeys they took and the answers they brought back were the ones that got most peoples' attention. The mystic is the person who has a transcendental mystical experience, a transcendental spiritual union with God, or as Joseph Campbell likes to generically call it, the "ground of all being." The mystic tries to bring that experience back to people in ordinary words that refer to ordinary things. But since the mystical experience is an extraordinary thing, you need extraordinary words, a meta-language, a METAPHORICAL language, that will break through and communicate what is practically incommunicable. The language of mystical experience is myth.

Every fully developed literary tradition—every tradition which has raised literature to the status of art—has fantastic texts dating back to its earliest sacred texts. Myth is the origin of literature, of all the arts in fact. So we're at the groundspring, the fountainhead when we study myth. When you read an ancient tale, and there aren't many in your anthology, unfortunately, you are really connecting with your prehistoric ancestors, because long before these stories were written down—nobody knows how long—they were spoken orally.

Your introduction explains that the simple progression the textbook follows is from myth to fantasy to modern literature. Simple enough, but then Rabkin springs into a microscopic reading of a line from a Tolkien story, which I fear may have lost some of you. If you had patience, good for you. There are just a few of his points I would highlight:

  • "suspended disbelief" — as we already discussed, this is an essential part of reading fantastic literature. If we're not willing to entertain the "impossibilities" we encounter, we're done. So why are we willing, if we are? He says it's because we trust that there'll be a payoff.
  • "mythical" — this is a good one for us to key in on because we are about to study myth. What does this word signify? While it might mean "not true" to some, what it really means is, "not literally or historically true, but symbolically true—metaphorically true."

Mythical language is not literally true. It was never intended to be literally or historically true. Mythic stories take place in a world outside of time, beyond time, before time (human time, ordinary time). Unless you can literally believe a man was able to begin having scores of children when he was 100 years old, or that another lived past 900, you are probably going to read the stories in Genesis metaphorically rather than literally.

Take the Prometheus story that Rabkin uses as an example. In that story Prometheus steals fire from Zeus to give to man, who he has created, and Zeus is furious. He punishes Prometheus by chain him to a rock and setting an eagle to eat out his regenerating liver… A brutal punishment. (He's eventually rescued.) Now we may not choose to believe that the story is literally true, but we can still relate to the way it expresses how uneasy we feel about this god-like power we have, this special knowledge which enables us to harness the awesome power of fire. Fire in the story becomes a metaphor for something more abstract, more difficult to pin down, something akin to "intelligence," but more than that. It's the intelligence that's used to develop tools, technologies, how we can harness this powerful natural element and use it to our devices. Animals don't do that, but humans do. Fire is just the beginning. It's a primitive technology in our eyes. But it's a technology. And the uneasiness with technology is what's still with us, what still makes this outdated religious story still psychologically true. Our intelligence gives us godlike powers, and we are not comfortable with that power in our imperfect hands. It's a punishable offense therefore. It's still true today—that discomfort, that uneasiness, except the changes are so fast and furious, we don't have a mythology to catch us up. How blasé are we when it comes to nuclear technology, the atom bomb? Or the power to clone new life in a tube… what do we call that life? Is a genetically engineered human being still a human being? What about stem cell research, or abortion? These are all examples of technologies we've developed as a result of this intelligence we have, and we're not always thrilled about them; we're often uneasy about using them, and even thinking about it gives us the chills. We are capable of destroying the world, redesigning a new "transhuman" that's like us, but not us. That ability raises all kinds of conflicts and the mythic tale is what tries to cope with those conflicts; the tale provides resolution. Prometheus is punished. (But we're not stupid. Later, he's rescued.)

Psychologically, the Prometheus tale is accurate, true, though literally it may seem outlandish, and historically it's nowhere. That doesn't mean it's got nothing to tell us.

Rabkin asks a pertinent question, I think. Is fantastic literature for children? And the answer is yes, and no. It's for all of us.

Children enter fantastic worlds effortlessly because they aren't fully invested in "reality" yet. They haven't grown into it. For children immersed in idealized worlds, the illusions of fantasy are always at hand. You don't have to see it to believe it. Magic is everywhere. Do we simply grow out of that? Yes.

We all move from the childhood state of innocence, a state in which all our needs are magically met (hopefully, for the lucky ones), a state in which we are of central importance. From this vantage point the world seems like a wonderful place. But as we grow older, we discover "realities" that gradually replace this illusion: the world is nice sometimes, and other times it is brutally violent, dirty, disease-stricken, miserable, and unjust. Instead of being of central importance, you discover you are one being among many and that, far from being immortal, you could easily die. This movement from innocence to experience is a universal human passage. Many, many myths deal with it, including Genesis. It's a passage that involves a "reversal" of attitudes, where you think the opposite of what you thought before.

Strangely, fantastic literature employs this very technique of "reversal," except instead of moving us from innocence to experience, it moves us from experience to innocence. This is not a regression. It's a doorway. By making us temporarily innocent again, we can more easily pass into that metaphorical fantasy realm, where a certain kind of truth can be communicated (mystical truths, in the case of myth).

In fantastic tales, reversals can appear in plot, theme, character, style—any which way. They're the lifeblood of the imagination. They are what help us shed the baggage we bring so we can see the world in a fresh new light.

 

 

 

     

 


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