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Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper

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Four British Fantasists explores the work of four of the most successful and influential fantasy writers of the generation who rose to prominence in the "second Golden Age" of children's literature in Britain: Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Penelope Lively. Drawing on history, archeology, social geography, anthropology, and postcolonial theory, as well a Four British Fantasists explores the work of four of the most successful and influential fantasy writers of the generation who rose to prominence in the "second Golden Age" of children's literature in Britain: Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Penelope Lively. Drawing on history, archeology, social geography, anthropology, and postcolonial theory, as well as literary criticism, Butler provides a series of new perspectives through which to view these writers' achievements. He begins by highlighting some points of biographic coincidence (e.g. all four authors were children during WWII, all were born within a year or two of each other, and all attended Oxford University in the early 1950s when C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were publishing their seminal fantasies) and questions if these factors play any significant role in the development of these fantasy writers. The author then uses this question as the springboard for a case study in the assessment of biographical and literary influence. The book also considers the role played by Britain itself in determining the shape and preoccupations of these writers' fiction. Britain is a land with a long history in which contemporary life is constantly juxtaposed with evidence of the past in the form of ancient buildings, historic sites, and archeological remains. By placing the work of Cooper, Garner, Jones, and Lively in the context of British culture and of their own time, Butler provides a key to their fascination with history, mythology, and magic, and to the ways in which that fascination has found expression in their fiction. Students of children's literature and of fantasy literature as well as readers who are interested in the lives of these four subject authors will find this an insightful read.


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Four British Fantasists explores the work of four of the most successful and influential fantasy writers of the generation who rose to prominence in the "second Golden Age" of children's literature in Britain: Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Penelope Lively. Drawing on history, archeology, social geography, anthropology, and postcolonial theory, as well a Four British Fantasists explores the work of four of the most successful and influential fantasy writers of the generation who rose to prominence in the "second Golden Age" of children's literature in Britain: Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Penelope Lively. Drawing on history, archeology, social geography, anthropology, and postcolonial theory, as well as literary criticism, Butler provides a series of new perspectives through which to view these writers' achievements. He begins by highlighting some points of biographic coincidence (e.g. all four authors were children during WWII, all were born within a year or two of each other, and all attended Oxford University in the early 1950s when C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were publishing their seminal fantasies) and questions if these factors play any significant role in the development of these fantasy writers. The author then uses this question as the springboard for a case study in the assessment of biographical and literary influence. The book also considers the role played by Britain itself in determining the shape and preoccupations of these writers' fiction. Britain is a land with a long history in which contemporary life is constantly juxtaposed with evidence of the past in the form of ancient buildings, historic sites, and archeological remains. By placing the work of Cooper, Garner, Jones, and Lively in the context of British culture and of their own time, Butler provides a key to their fascination with history, mythology, and magic, and to the ways in which that fascination has found expression in their fiction. Students of children's literature and of fantasy literature as well as readers who are interested in the lives of these four subject authors will find this an insightful read.

30 review for Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper

  1. 4 out of 5

    Murray Ewing

    Butler’s book looks at the work of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, four authors who share some biographical similarities (all were born between 1933 and 1935 and so were children during World War II, and all were contemporaries at Oxford in the early 1950s when Tolkien and Lewis taught there — Cooper and Jones even attended their lectures), who rose to prominence writing fantasy fiction for children (or young adults) in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose work shares Butler’s book looks at the work of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, four authors who share some biographical similarities (all were born between 1933 and 1935 and so were children during World War II, and all were contemporaries at Oxford in the early 1950s when Tolkien and Lewis taught there — Cooper and Jones even attended their lectures), who rose to prominence writing fantasy fiction for children (or young adults) in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose work shares ‘a profound concern with time, myth, magic, the nature of personal identity, and the potency of place’. Given the intriguing biographical and thematic links, I was hoping for an investigation into why this might be, but although Butler looks at the work of his four writers in several thematic chapters (‘Applied Archeology’, about their interest in the past; ‘Longing and Belonging’, about their focus on place; and ‘Myth and Magic’, about their use of fantasy), generally he deals with each author separately, aside from those broad-stroke links. Not being much of an academic myself, I felt Butler spent too much time defending his chosen authors against potential modern criticisms. For instance, he feels the need to defend them against the possible charges of racism and Imperialism merely because they don’t explicitly speak out about those issues (or do so only fleetingly). I’d far rather he’d focused on what the writers do actually write about, rather than the potentially endless list of things they don’t. (Alan Garner has said that it’s the writer’s job to find universal truths by delving deeply into the personal and local — hence his focus on his own region of England, and his own family history. Need this be read as exclusionist? Butler says no, but it’s a pity he spends so much time having to say it.) Even the conclusion, about these four writers’ choice to write for children, is a defence against criticisms by other critics, rather than a summation of the book’s look at its chosen four writers. Still, Butler makes some interesting points — but only ever points, rather than what I was hoping for: the sort of grand, sweeping statements it’s probably considered rather naive to make in academic circles. Still, I like grand, sweeping statements — which may be why I also like fantasy.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sherwood Smith

    I am not a scholar, so my reading in letters is haphazard at best. So, as far as I know, this is the first literary treatment of writers who came after Tolkien, but there's a twist. This work does not tread Tom Shippey's ground (it's not an apologia for Tolkien and his influence); Butler is neutral about Tolkien—even-handed with pitfalls and praises—as he looks at four writers who attended Oxford when Tolkien (and Lewis) were teaching there. And then goes on to examine the work of writers who ma I am not a scholar, so my reading in letters is haphazard at best. So, as far as I know, this is the first literary treatment of writers who came after Tolkien, but there's a twist. This work does not tread Tom Shippey's ground (it's not an apologia for Tolkien and his influence); Butler is neutral about Tolkien—even-handed with pitfalls and praises—as he looks at four writers who attended Oxford when Tolkien (and Lewis) were teaching there. And then goes on to examine the work of writers who may or may not have been influenced by Tolkien, but who then went on to find their distinctive fantastical paradigm and voice. Alan Garner, arguably, shows the most influence with his first popular book, though he loudly denied it later. I remember reading Weirdstone as a kid, and thinking that it was a rehash of JRRT. But with each succeeding book he left the shape of the Tolkienian quest tale farther behind. Butler gives us a good look at Garner's subsequent work from the inside and outside. His take on Diana Wynne Jones is excellent. I'm glad when I see discussions of her work other than the witty (and true) Tough Guide to Fantasy. Butler, being a writer himself, has an exacting eye for Jones's qualities. Here's a random quote, which I think enlighting on why Jones isn't more popular with those who need to slot books into neat categories: …Jones has come to cross generic border with increasing frequency. Jones herself has expressed impatience with generic restrictions, and certainly there is no reason why writers need feel constrained by convention from combining genres, but such hybridization is not without consequences. [SF] tends to extrapolate from our current world to a time or place that may be vastly different, but that still belongs to the realm of hypothetical possibility. Its distance from our reality can be measured along what in Jakobsonian terms we might call the syntagmatic axis. Fantasy, by contrast, is related to our world by analogy rather than by extrapolation, and is a fundamentally paradigmatic form. This is, of course, a crude formulation: there are many science fiction worlds that have metaphorical application to our own, and I have argued elsewhere that a purely metaphorical reading of fantasy is unlikely to be satisfactory. And here's a bit from the opening of the chapter called "Plotting the Map to Logres": The synthetic and analytic capacities, the abilities to see connections and to make distinctions, are basic tools of perception and of argument. But there are fashions in these as in other things, and I think it fair to say that in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Garner, Cooper, Jones, and Lively began to be published, it was in a climate more hospitable to the synthetic impulse…[interesting summary of Eliade, Murray, Graves, and Rees]…As I write we seem to be at the opposite end of the cycle…[interesting summation of debunking and reassessment by skeptical academics of subsequent generation]…While academics retrench, a portion of the general public seems eager to accept each fashionable New Age idea that comes to its notice, often with little apparent demand, and even some scorn, for hard evidence. With a dogmatically skeptical academic community on one hand, and a credulous popular taste for all things mystical on the other, fantasy writers of the present day can only look back in envy at the relatively-homogeneous climate of thirty years ago, when it seemed much easier to find territory both imaginatively fertile and intellectually defensible As you can see, this is no gosh-wow fangush, it's a fascinating, witty, well-written, meticulously researched piece of work. (And I might add on the short list for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for this year.)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    This was a must-read for me when I discovered it, as I am or have been a rabid fan of all four of the "fantasists" discussed here; Lively's The House in Norham Gardens and Garner's Elidor are both on my [Very Eclectic:] Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time list. And I *did* enjoy the reading, but I can't really say that any of it stuck. Perhaps the tone was somewhat too academic for my taste? (I did get hung up making sure I read ALL the copious endnotes, which meant reading in two places in the s This was a must-read for me when I discovered it, as I am or have been a rabid fan of all four of the "fantasists" discussed here; Lively's The House in Norham Gardens and Garner's Elidor are both on my [Very Eclectic:] Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time list. And I *did* enjoy the reading, but I can't really say that any of it stuck. Perhaps the tone was somewhat too academic for my taste? (I did get hung up making sure I read ALL the copious endnotes, which meant reading in two places in the same book simultaneously.) Directly following on from this I have started Garner's collection of essays, The Voice that Thunders, and am devouring it. Both books are non-fiction, and it's a bit unfair to compare anyone to Alan Garner, but the reading is making me aware of what I felt was missing in Butler's very admirable, thorough and interesting dissertation: a sense of passion. I don't doubt it's there, but the dry voice of the lecturer takes over. Nevertheless it's a book I wouldn't be without. (It wasn't easy to get my hands on, either; though a darned sight easier than The Voice that Thunders. I'm glad I made the effort with both.)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mathew

    A highly comprehensive overview of the place and purpose of myth and fantasy in post-war children's literature. Butler's work could easily have led to several excellent papers on applied archaeology, longing and belonging, liminal spaces in children's fantasy literature and myth and magic. Although there was a lot to juggle here by choosing four writers rather than the one, Butler's interrogations were fascinating - especially the section on representing race and culture. Much food for thought h A highly comprehensive overview of the place and purpose of myth and fantasy in post-war children's literature. Butler's work could easily have led to several excellent papers on applied archaeology, longing and belonging, liminal spaces in children's fantasy literature and myth and magic. Although there was a lot to juggle here by choosing four writers rather than the one, Butler's interrogations were fascinating - especially the section on representing race and culture. Much food for thought here but Butler's style and approach was highly accessible with a smidge of wry humour throughout. I will certainly look for more of her work in these fields and found her reflections on Lively's work especially interesting.

  5. 4 out of 5

    N.J. Ramsden

    A pretty good general study of a wide range these four authors' works. Bulter covers plenty of ground, but at the expense of sometimes balance between the four and sometimes a sense of where the argument lies. If anything, I'm not sure Butler really has an overall argument so much, but does succeed in presenting a few useful and thought-provoking insights into some of these writers' methods and modes. Worth looking into if you're interested in this kind of thing. A pretty good general study of a wide range these four authors' works. Bulter covers plenty of ground, but at the expense of sometimes balance between the four and sometimes a sense of where the argument lies. If anything, I'm not sure Butler really has an overall argument so much, but does succeed in presenting a few useful and thought-provoking insights into some of these writers' methods and modes. Worth looking into if you're interested in this kind of thing.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Viki Holmes

    This is a thorough and insightful scholarly look at four of my favourite children's novelists: and it's no coincidence that they all hold a cherished place in my heart and on my bookshelves; bearing in mind their shared history and culture (all four attended Oxford University while both Tolkien and Lewis were lecturers there). Garner, Cooper and Wynne Jones in particular mapped for me and for many readers a mythological, cultural landscape of Britain; and it has been wonderful to retrace their s This is a thorough and insightful scholarly look at four of my favourite children's novelists: and it's no coincidence that they all hold a cherished place in my heart and on my bookshelves; bearing in mind their shared history and culture (all four attended Oxford University while both Tolkien and Lewis were lecturers there). Garner, Cooper and Wynne Jones in particular mapped for me and for many readers a mythological, cultural landscape of Britain; and it has been wonderful to retrace their steps and to understand a little more about what brought them to their writing so many books that I return to as an adult, with as much delight, grim fascination, and sense of what in Welsh we would call hiraeth - a longing for home, as when I first delved into their works more than thirty years ago.

  7. 5 out of 5

    The Hobbit

    A scholarly study of the four authors mentioned in the title. All the authors were children during World War II and were students at Oxford at the same time. They wrote most of their fantasy books during the 1950's and 1960's. Charles Butler studied their fantasy books from the viewpoints of history, Britishness, place, and mythology. This study is very detailed. It can be very dry if the reader has not read all the books under discussion. A scholarly study of the four authors mentioned in the title. All the authors were children during World War II and were students at Oxford at the same time. They wrote most of their fantasy books during the 1950's and 1960's. Charles Butler studied their fantasy books from the viewpoints of history, Britishness, place, and mythology. This study is very detailed. It can be very dry if the reader has not read all the books under discussion.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Candy Wood

    This is a good book for anyone interested in how the work of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper bases fantasy on the reality of specific places in Britain, past and present. Butler's material comes from a close reading of the texts and personal interviews with the authors, but at the same time he doesn't neglect the body of scholarship on these authors, incorporating critical responses by a wide variety of scholars. Beginning by pointing out that all four authors w This is a good book for anyone interested in how the work of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper bases fantasy on the reality of specific places in Britain, past and present. Butler's material comes from a close reading of the texts and personal interviews with the authors, but at the same time he doesn't neglect the body of scholarship on these authors, incorporating critical responses by a wide variety of scholars. Beginning by pointing out that all four authors were children during World War II and all studied at Oxford in the 1950s (when J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both lectured there), he continues with chapters considering the importance of archeology, Britishness, and myth and magic to the four. All four have written novels for adults as well as for children, and Butler takes those into account as well, concluding with a chapter interrogating those categories. The books for which the four authors are best known were all published several years ago, but Jones and Cooper are still writing for children, and Butler takes work as recent as 2002 into account. All in all, this is an interesting and useful book, especially for anyone who thinks British fantasy is all about Harry Potter.

  9. 5 out of 5

    T.E. Shepherd

    I've owned this book since it came out in 2006 but have shamefully only just got around to reading it. I am sorry that this is the case because it is a fascinating read. Through a series of four literary essays and a conclusion Charles Butler discusses the work of four of my favourite authors in this book. At first glance you may wonder why he has selected these four to discuss, when on the face of it their writing (particularly Penelope Lively's) does not perhaps seem that similar. The reason, I've owned this book since it came out in 2006 but have shamefully only just got around to reading it. I am sorry that this is the case because it is a fascinating read. Through a series of four literary essays and a conclusion Charles Butler discusses the work of four of my favourite authors in this book. At first glance you may wonder why he has selected these four to discuss, when on the face of it their writing (particularly Penelope Lively's) does not perhaps seem that similar. The reason, because they have all written fantasy for children and they were all students at Oxford at the same time, at a time when Tolkien and Lewis were teaching. He goes on to explain how this chance of circumstance doesn't really, curiously, have anything to do with it. Reading this book made me look at some of my favourite books in a whole new light, and has filled me with many pertinent quotes to do with my own writing. I also have a burning desire to re-read so many books on the basis of what Charles Butler has written.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Austen to Zafón

    Why: I don't know Alan Garner, but I love the other writers listed. I did not know that they all studied at Oxford when Lewis and Tolkien where lecturing there. Interesting. The library doesn't have it, so I've requested they order it because I don't really want to spend $45 to buy it. One review said, "this important title...belongs in any library that serves a liberal-arts curriculum. It is highly readable, commandingly intelligent, and refreshingly jargon-free. A seminal work of criticism." Why: I don't know Alan Garner, but I love the other writers listed. I did not know that they all studied at Oxford when Lewis and Tolkien where lecturing there. Interesting. The library doesn't have it, so I've requested they order it because I don't really want to spend $45 to buy it. One review said, "this important title...belongs in any library that serves a liberal-arts curriculum. It is highly readable, commandingly intelligent, and refreshingly jargon-free. A seminal work of criticism."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Fauve

  12. 5 out of 5

    April

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lori S.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Chapman

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rhiannon

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rosie Hopkins

  18. 4 out of 5

    Carolina Echevarría

  19. 5 out of 5

    Catfantastic

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Hansen

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nicola Mayne

  22. 5 out of 5

    Piers

  23. 5 out of 5

    Queery

  24. 4 out of 5

    Chrestomanci

  25. 5 out of 5

    Somesuchlike

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joy-Aisling

  27. 4 out of 5

    Hallie

  28. 5 out of 5

    Niall519

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ellen Schinderman

  30. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

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