27 December 2019

The Oxford and Cambridge Schools of British Fantasy

From Slate’s interview with Maria Sachiko Cecire, professor at Bard and author of Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century:
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, as many people know, were friends and colleagues, but they were actually working to reform the English curriculum at Oxford, in addition to writing their own fantasy.

They were the architects of this curriculum, which went into effect in 1931. And they really had an enormous role to play in the kinds of questions that were set in examinations, the texts that were required for undergrads to read; then this had this kind of huge knock-on effect in terms of what people were studying for the next nearly 40 years at Oxford. There’s still some vestiges of that curriculum in the Oxford education today. Then the younger authors I was looking at were Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman. They all studied this curriculum and got their degrees between 1956 and 1968.

This curriculum at Oxford was really heavy on medieval literature, just at the moment when most other universities were going in the direction of modernism and the kinds of writing that we now associate with literary fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. At Oxford they were doubling down on medieval literature and also looking at it not just as examples for linguistic analysis—which was how it had been primarily studied in the 19th century under philology—but really looking at it as literature. Really seriously asking students to meditate on both the English medieval past and also this idea of magic and enchantment. . . .

And for comparison’s sake, I also went to the archive at a few other universities, including Cambridge, which went in a really different direction from Oxford in the ’20s and ’30s—much more intentionally towards modernism, towards more contemporary texts, and cutting out medieval requirements for their undergraduate English degree.

And interestingly, Cambridge didn’t really have the same legacy of children’s fantasy writers. T.H. White was at Cambridge at a really interesting time, when there was still a medieval requirement, but right as they were ending it. If you compare his The Once and Future King to, say, The Lord of the Rings, they’re so different in the way they talk about the Middle Ages, with a different level of reverence. There’s anachronism in White’s writing, and pretty profound critiques of the warlike nature of the Middle Ages and of a lot of the nostalgia for that period. Whereas Tolkien and his students tend to be a lot more reverent of that material.
See previous discussions of Tolkien as a teacher of future fantasy writers in 2010 and 2011.

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