first published in the Official Mailing of REHupa #164
Inaugural Issue / Summer 2000 / Installment #1

Cross Plains, Crossed Planes, and the Nature of Fantasy

by D. Franklin Coffman, Jr.
Assoc. Prof. of English and Journalism, Rock Valley College, Rockford, Illinois

That Robert E. Howard delineated the boundaries and sketched in most of the background and fleshed out most of the key elements of the Sword & Sorcery genre is little disputed. Any successful artist in any art both extends and redefines the genre; few have done so much as Howard to set basic parameters. One could argue with great success that the work of Doyle in perfecting the Classic Detective Story or the work of Wells in defining what Science Fiction was to become would qualify as such achievements. In that particular niche in the early 20th century that could be called the "primordial adventure" only Howard and Burroughs qualify as masters; although inspiration has to be acknowledged from writers of the Naturalist school÷especially Jack London and Robert Service.

As T. S. Eliot maintains in his important essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent":

The questions of analogues, influences, and inspirations for Howard's achievements are matters for other papers with other foci ÷ although there are rich and waiting mines of material for the researcher to explore. My purpose here is to assert that Howard's adventure-laden fantasies demonstrate an axiomatic principle of the creation of fantasy worlds.

It is interesting that Robert E. Howard's brief, creative life should be lived in part and ended at Cross Plains, Texas. The varied vistas of central Texas offered springboards of inspiration for the writer's backgrounds, but the town name coincidentally suggests an angle of approach and interpretation to the broader genre of all fantastic fiction. This principle could properly be called "The Principle of Juxtaposition" or of "Bold Relief," the notion that Fantasy is important and powerful as a genre in that, when it succeeds, it enables us to see objective and inviolable and unalterable Truth against a background of untruth. At the very least it enables us to see the artist's "Truth" ÷ whatever that vision may contain. In bold relief against the background of the fantastic, when juxtaposed against the elements of what Tolkien calls the "Secondary World," 1 those elements which we can relate to as human beings, those elements which ring "True," stand out. These elements are sometimes, perhaps most times, blurred or indistinct against the backgrounds of Realism.

But another way to view the achievement of effective fantasy is to view the world of our perceived reality and the world of the received fantasy as two separate "planes" of existence. This notion of fantasy happening on another level or plane is not new, but we may extend the metaphor with a little imagination. The concept of "parallel worlds" is often encountered in stories of fantasy or science fiction or in that blend which is termed "science fantasy." But parallelism is, in the final analysis, an incorrect metaphor, because parallel lines or parallel planes, by definition, never meet or touch. The truer metaphor is the imagined picture of intersecting planes, of "crossed planes" that have a line of shared points and commonality. All points along this "Axis of Truth" are touchstones of objectivity, allowing us to see the essential realities of our existence and our human situation to the clearest extent possible.

This view is flawed to the extent that the metaphoric vision includes a single, clear, and obvious "line" of intersection, something straight and true and perceived with little difficulty. To extend this analogy further, the notion of "plane" must be modified to one of "surface" with undulations and even peaks and valleys. Now we have a complex three-dimensionality and a mind's eye view of two decidedly "unflat" surfaces with various and sundry places where these surfaces touch, approach, intersect, or even convolute across one another. There are, now that we have complicated our three-dimensional model, single "points" of contact that we may perceive as readers. There are places where the surfaces hover quite closely to one another, but, nonetheless, where "contact" seems imminent but ultimately fails to occur. There are places where an entire "line" of connections appears, but these lines are rarely straight and almost always demand following like a winding trail. There are places where the surfaces cross in wild shapes of significance, like the convolutions of a Klein bottle where patterns of commonality, patterns of reality, patterns of Truth suggest themselves, perhaps indicating a higher dimension of perception, but this last point is one for the metaphysicians and philosophers.

The great fantasist, George MacDonald writes in his seminal essay, "The Fantastic Imagination," that fantasy creation involves the necessity of breaking some laws and the necessity of keeping others. I include a fairly extensive passage to present the essence of MacDonalds ideas on this point:

Many of these same points are paraphrased and expanded upon by Tolkien and others, especially as they pertain to Tolkien's destinction of Primary and Secondary Worlds and the creation of, to play off of and correct Coleridge's often quoted but erroneous notion, what I will call an unwilled enchantment/enthrallment of belief. MacDonald's point (and Tolkien's) is that fantasy answers a creative urge, but must do so in accordance to some sense of order, of Law. To MacDonald's (and Tolkien's) view, this Law is the Law of God. The basic premises are that, for fantasy to be achieved, natural "laws" of our primary world must be broken or none can call it "fantasy." But moral laws and deeper laws that govern the human psyche and soul must not be violated; hence the touchstones of commonality and Truth under consideration. In MacDonald's (and Tolkien's) explanation, point and lines of contact, points of shared surface geometry in our metaphor are, in proper Fantasy, points of the unalterable Law(s) of God.

Tolkien considered one value of fantasy to be "arresting strangeness." The point MacDonald is considering above has to do with a detaining or captivating strangeness whereby the fantasy "holds"--in at least two senses of the word: it holds together and seems believable "while we are, as it were, 'inside'" (Tolkien), and it holds us as readers and appreciators of the fantastic art, captivated by the power and magic of words [the LOGOS] and the truths discovered against the strange background of untruth. The formalists and structuralists have called one aspect of this "defamiliarization." Dickens saw the word "Mooreeffoc" from the inside of a London coffee room on the glass window advertising the place and jotted it down in his notebook, along with a remark about the importance of observation and importance of seeing things in a new light and keeping a sense of awe. What really happens quite often is a "refamiliarization," a regaining of what was lost, or a revelation of a truth present all the time and right before us, but thus far unnoticed and unappreciated.

Of course with Robert E. Howard, these "Truths," these moral laws are different from those being discussed by MacDonald and Tolkien. At the very least, they are those of the "darker angels of our nature" (to twist Lincoln's famous line), the primordial, physical, lustful, often violent "Club and Fang" laws of the Darwinian principles to which Howard adhered. The truths of salvation for Howard were the truths of physical survival in this world (or any other) and the essential law of survival of the fittest.

That his "Truths" might differ from MacDonald's and Tolkien's adds another element to our evolving critical perspective. The discussion thus far has been along the analogy of these two "planes," or better, "surfaces," the one being the world of the fantastic text, the other being the surface representing objective Truth or Law. But let us now consider the possibility of intertextuality into the discussion. Let us consider the admission of multiple surfaces (multiple stories by multiple authors) and allow into our imaginary vision the manifold and complex interplay of "surfaces." While this will at first seem to be a likely source of confusion, does it not, upon further analysis, help the cause of the critical perspective. Now we may discover and examine places of multiple convergenge, discovering those points and lines of thought, emotion, or inspiration where many or even all of surfaces connect or "relate." And, thereby, are we not closer to a vision and understanding of whatever possible Truth or Truths that our limited potentialities may discern?


Printed Work Cited

1 Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy-stories." in Tree and Leaf. New York: Ballentine; Houghton Mifflin.

© 1999 by D. Franklin Coffman, Jr. / All Rights Reserved
contact the author Frank Coffman for permissions or other questions.