Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On the suspension of disbelief

One of the few college courses that I can say without hyperbole changed my life was in my sophomore year. I had pretty much ruled out medieval studies as a major after a bad first-year historiography course. On a whim though, I enrolled in Old English and Beowulf. After all, it was what Professor Tolkien had studied, wasn't it? I didn't have the slightest clue what Beowulf was about, only that it involved barbarians and that most English majors were scared of it.

As it turns out, only five other students were enrolled. I was the only non-English major. I immediately fell in love with the history of our language, and that love invigorated my passion for medieval history. The professor was Howell Chickering, a turtleneck and tweed kind of guy with a quirky sense of humor and a lot of patience for me and some of the other nerds in the class.

I remember that we were reading the passage in which Beowulf was preparing to dive into the mere to confront Grendel's mother. The poet notes that the hero girds himself with a chain byrnie before diving into the water. I put the brakes on the discussion.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Do you mean that Beowulf put on forty pounds of metal armor before he goes into a lake? Is he stupid or something?"

"That's exactly what he did," Chickering replied. "Why do you object?"

"It's just so unbelievable," I said. "It's that last thing I would do before I went in the water."

Chickering smiled, as if he were given an opening for which he had waited all semester. "Mark, you are willing to accept magic swords, dragons, and enchantments, but you draw the line at swimming in armor?"

I don't think I had a good answer to that. It was useful to remind me of the genre. After all, by doing the last thing any normal person would do, the poet was emphasizing how extraordinary the hero was (and, as it turns out, it was a wise decision, as the armor saves Beowulf from the dagger of Grendel's mother).

Still a part of me was not satisfied. Yes, I was willing to accept dragons as part of the reality of Beowulf, but allowing one fantastic element does not give any poet or author license to throw out all of the rules. Too much fantasy, and we as readers are lost to the reality the author creates. Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and its inhabitants generate no affection from us. Creatures and twists appear as they are needed to serve Carroll's satirical needs, and we never really enter Alice's world. On the other hand, millions have been absorbed by and Middle-earth, partly because there are enough familiar elements and internal consistences that the introduction of a fantastic element leaves us with a sense of wonder but does not threaten our willingness to accept what the author offers.

Many modern readers reject all fantasy out of hand, or else they relegate it to children's literature. I got into an argument a few years back with one of the brightest students I have ever known, who rolled his eyes at the mention of fantasy literature. I will grant that 95% of all fantasy literature is crap, but I suspect that ratio holds for all published material. No, his real objection lay in the fact that fantasy and science fiction do not tell stories that people can relate to, since they do not take place in the "real world." I asked him about the works of Allende, Orwell, Borges, Eco, and Garcia-Marquez. Again he rolled his eyes and said "That's different. They write literature." This student clearly had a line where he was willing to suspend disbelief, but it had less to do with the lengths to which the author's stretched our expectations than with the authors' reception by the literary establishment. Call it 'Magical Realism,' and you don't have to consider yourself slumming in fantasy.

After the conversation, it dawned on me that all of the great works of ancient and medieval literature contain fantastic elements, whether the tale is told by Dante or Homer. The Arabian Nights are no less moving and elegant because they contain djinn and magical transformations. Even Shakespeare had a healthy respect for the supernatural. Yet somewhere along the line, mainstream society lost its tolerance for the fantastic. In the English tradition, Austen and Dickens came to define 'important literature.' Marxists and deconstructionists had little patience for works which did not carry an obvious social message. Critics wonder at the popularity of movies about hobbits, Hogwarts, and superheroes without realizing that they are in no part responsible for the void which those movies help to fill.

So, fight on, Beowulf. Just take off that damn armor.
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