Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Revisionist Fantasy

Much of what is best in contemporary Genre Fantasy derives from a conscientious attempt to make standard genre tropes over, to make the condition of fantasy new. For example, the thoroughgoing programme of revisionism that followed on from the "second-wave" Feminism of the 1960s was both a necessary piece of common human decency and a productive force, no matter how often its results became new clichés – matriarchal Elves or herb-wise Wiccans persecuted by the patriarchs of the Inquisition, as in the works of Gael Baudino.

The expansion of Fantasy was a consequence of the counterculture of the 1960s, but that period's usually progressive values were largely antithetical to texts like J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). LOTR nonetheless came to be loved, imitated and in due course engaged with because it was read, not without good reason, as an attack on industrialization and militarism, and thus progressive in at least those respects, whatever its class, racial and sexual politics. It should not be thought that RF is essentially political: there are various examples of the mode, from Robin McKinley's Beauty (1978) – revamping the Beauty and the Beast legend – and Jane Yolen's Briar Rose (1992), both of which are RFs with very serious intent, to the generally much more lighthearted revisionism of Terry Pratchett in such novels as Maskerade (1995), which cheerily regurgitates the Phantom of the Opera tale. The McKinley and Yolen books could be regarded as having some form of political agenda, but what is important about them – and about the many Pratchett examples – is that they are creating something new in fantasy out of pre-existing materials.

Part of the essence of genre fiction is that it feeds constantly on itself (sometimes unconsciously); readers of genre fantasy want at least some of the time to be on familiar ground, to participate in the perpetuation of Fantasyland. In order to go on making things new while yet complying with the dictates of the market, many writers adopt the strategy of expressing in their fiction their own dissidence from the assumed values of Fantasyland. This is a legitimate instinct.

In almost all revisionist genre fantasy there is a strong element of complicity with the thing disapproved of – when Tad Williams criticizes J R R Tolkien for the racist and hierarchical Maggots in LOTR, it is within a narrative framework and to some real extent among set-pieces and moralized landscapes derived from LOTR. In Williams's work this produces a useful creative tension between moral programme and imaginative sympathy; it is not always thus.

There is in much conscientiously RF an element of posturing, most apparent when that which is engaged with is the specific work of other writers. It ought to be that to engage in self-criticism would be less problematic; Ursula Le Guin's Tehanu (1990), in which she takes issue with much of what she said in The Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972), proves otherwise – partly perhaps because of the strong implied criticism of readers for not seeing at the time with the clear moral vision Le Guin has herself now attained.

It is easier to try to delete the past than to learn, and teach, how to read it critically. When RF deals with traditional and folkloric material, particularly in Children's Fantasy, it is at the risks of both patronizing the past and being criticized in similar terms in the future. The 19th-century attempt by the Grimm Brothers to bowdlerize Fairytales and Legends as they collected them is now disliked. Later attempts to substitute mid-19th-century progressive values for "traditional" ones – satirized by Charles Dickens in "Frauds on the Fairies" (1853 Household Words) – have dated badly, simply because their laudable core values were so often sidetracked into passing issues like temperance and dress reform. Many contemporary attempts – as in Don't Bet On the Prince (anth 1986) ed Jack Zipes – to recast fairytale material to suit modern notions of what values children ought to imbibe from the fantastic are equally dubious.

In a further but overlapping category – described in this encyclopedia as Twice-Told – the retelling of stories, or elements of stories, is less a polemical revision than a way of meditating on Story itself. For example, the tales in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (coll 1979) tend to be both RF and twice-told, but the former more than the latter; by contrast, the Shakespearean echoes and parallels in her Wise Children (1991) and the transposed Westerns of her American Dreams and Old World Wonders (coll 1993) are certainly twice-told – which is not to say that they do not score the odd polemical point as they go. The version of Puss-In-Boots in The Bloody Chamber is an RF in that it makes sensuous use of the cruelty implicit in the original tale, a twice-told tale inasmuch as it is about the tone of voice in which Puss narrates rather than about transforming the plot.

There are various strategies for revisionist treatment of fantasy Icons. For example, Anne Rice's vampires are largely sympathetic and provided with some justification for their behaviour; Poppy Z Brite's, it is implied, should not be judged by human morality. [RK]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.