EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel, chapter 6: Fantasy


Aspects of the Novel

EM Forster, 1927

Chapter 6: Fantasy

Chapter 7, “Prophecy”, is a remarkable chapter. It illustrates why literary critics should be writers: Forster posits an elusive quality of some novels that has no name, and that he isn’t entirely sure even exists. A critic striving to understand what a novel means or how it fits into the writer’s biography wouldn’t even sense its presence, and would certainly not be able to describe it if he did. Forster is at his limits as an author just finding the metaphors to explain it. This shouldn’t surprise us. If the essence of a novel could be communicated in a straight-forward manner, without metaphor, analogy, connotation, or drama, that novel should have been an essay instead.

But to understand what Forster means by prophecy, you must first understand what he meant by fantasy; otherwise you may think that’s what he means by prophecy. So this post will talk about chapter 6: Fantasy.

Forster senses something strange and outside the elements of character, plot, setting, etc. Yet he finds this mysterious fifth flavor in works of drastically different sorts; so he divides it into “fantasy” and “prophecy”:


Perhaps our subject, namely the books we have read, has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right—it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right—it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground. Criticism, especially a critical course, is so misleading. However lofty its intentions and sound its method, its subject slides away from beneath it, imperceptibly away, and lecturer and audience may awake with a start to find that they are carrying on in a distinguished and intelligent manner, but in regions which have nothing to do with anything they have read. …


The novels we have now to consider all tell a story, contain characters, and have plots or bits of plots, so we could apply to them the apparatus suited for Fielding or Arnold Bennett. But when I say two of their names—Tristram Shandyand Moby Dick—it is clear that we must stop and think a moment. The bird and the shadow are too far apart. A new formula must be found: the mere fact that one can mention Tristram and Moby in a single sentence shows it. What an impossible pair! As far apart as the poles. Yes. And like the poles they have one thing in common, which the lands round the equator do not share: an axis. What is essential in Sterne and Melville belongs to this new aspect of fiction: the fantastic-prophetical axis. …


When we try to translate truth out of one sphere into another, whether from life into books or from books into lectures, something happens to truth, it goes wrong, not suddenly when it might be detected, but slowly. It is not possible, after it, to apply the old apparatus any more. There is more in the novel than time or people or logic or any of their derivatives, more even than Fate. And by “more” I do not mean something that excludes these aspects nor something that includes them, embraces them. I mean something that cuts across them like a bar of light, that is intimately connected with them at one place and patiently illumines all their problems, and at another place shoots over or through them as if they did not exist. We shall give that bar of light two names, fantasy and prophecy.”

Forster does not intend either word, fantasy or prophecy, to denote the supernatural. “Fantasy,” he writes, “implies the supernatural, but need not express it.”

The supernatural is absent from [Tristram Shandy], yet a thousand incidents suggest that it is not far off. … There is a charmed stagnation about the whole epic–the more the characters do the less gets done… facts have an unholy tendency to unwind and trip up the past instead of begetting the future… and the obstinacy of inanimate objects, like Dr. Slop’s bag, is most suspicious. Obviously a god is hidden in Tristram Shandy, his name is Muddle, and some readers cannot accept him.


I’m sure he’d say that Tolkien wrote fantasy, but I’m almost as sure he would not consider Game of Thrones to be fantasy at all. It’s merely a world in which magic does certain things, as electricity does certain things in ours. I doubt that he’d call Harry Potter fantasy either. In chapter 3 Forster wrote:

If we were to press her [Moll Flanders] or her creator Defoe and say, “Come, be serious. Do you believe in Infinity?” they would say (in the parlance of their modern descendants), “Of course I believe in Infinity—what do you take me for?”—a confession of faith that slams the door on Infinity more completely than could any denial.

I think that Forster would like to capitalize Magic as he capitalized Infinity, and if, when asked about Magic, you nodded and said, “Yes, yes; you can do magic if you have the right genes and a good wand from Ollivander’s,” he’d say that the Magic had become engineering through familiarity. Magic was Star Wars before Midichlorians. Magic is what you find in The Last Unicorn:

But he had judged them too easily. They applauded his rings and scarves, his ears full of goldfish and aces, with a proper politeness but without wonder. Offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them; and when a spell failed — as when, promising to turn a duck into a duke for them to rob, he produced a handful of duke cherries — he was clapped just as kindly and vacantly as though he had succeeded. They were a perfect audience.

Cully smiled impatiently, and Jack Jingly dozed, but it startled the magician to see the disappointment in Molly Grue’s restless eyes. Sudden anger made him laugh. He dropped seven spinning balls that had been glowing brighter and brighter as he juggled them (on a good evening, he could make them catch fire), let go all his hated skills, and closed his eyes. “Do as you will,” he whispered to the magic. “Do as you will.”

It sighed through him, beginning somewhere secret — in his shoulderblade, perhaps, or in the marrow of his shinbone. His heart filled and tautened like a sail, and something moved more surely in his body than he ever had. It spoke with his voice, commanding. Weak with power, he sank to his knees and waited to be Schmendrick again.

I wonder what I did. I did something.

Sometimes our hopes and dreams are built into the physics of the world so that it is more along the plan of Keats than of Newton.

He tries to distinguish them:

The general tone of novels is so literal that when the fantastic is introduced it produces a special effect: some readers are thrilled, others choked off: it demands an additional adjustment because of the oddness of its method or subject matter—like a sideshow in an exhibition where you have to pay sixpence as well as the original entrance fee. Some readers pay with delight, it is only for the sideshows that they entered the exhibition, and it is only to them I can now speak. Others refuse with indignation, and these have our sincere regards, for to dislike the fantastic in literature is not to dislike literature….

So fantasy asks us to pay something extra.

Let us now distinguish between fantasy and prophecy.

They are alike in having gods, and unlike in the gods they have. There is in both the sense of mythology…. On behalf of fantasy let us now invoke all beings who inhabit the lower air, the shallow water, and the smaller hills, all Fauns and Dryads and slips of the memory, all verbal coincidences, Pans and puns, all that is mediæval this side of the grave. When we come to prophecy… it will have been to whatever transcends our abilities, even when it is human passion that transcends them, to the deities of India, Greece,Scandinavia and Judæa, to all that is mediæval beyond the grave and to Lucifer son of the morning. By their mythologies we shall distinguish these two sorts of novels.

To demonstrate fantasy, he cites a passage from Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm–one with nothing definitely supernatural in it; you’ll have to click on the link to read it–then writes:

Has not a passage like this—with its freedom of invocation—a beauty unattainable by serious literature? It is so funny and charming, so iridescent yet so profound. Criticisms of human nature fly through the book, not like arrows but upon the wings of sylphs.

Humor has something to do with his distinction between fantasy and prophecy. Fantasy can be humorous; prophecy cannot. He compares fantasy to a flute, prophecy to a song, probably an operatic aria in a foreign language. The fantasist knows what he is doing, and if he’s trying to make a point, he makes it, like Tolkien with his message that the world and Man were created perfect and have both gone downhill ever since. The prophet wants desperately to tell us something, but doesn’t know what it is.

If it still isn’t clear what he’s talking about–and I don’t think it is–you can read the whole thing here. It might become more clear when I go over chapter 7, but honestly, I doubt it will.

My guess is that he thinks fantasy is when the world itself has a personality or an attitude. The real world is unromantically steadfast; apples fall regardless of their consequences for people. Fantasy worlds take an interest in their inhabitants and take some side.

– The King of Elfland’s Daughter spends a lot of words describing the personalities of Elfland versus the human world, and unlike in the real world, which we reshape according to our wants, the characters from Elfland inherit their personalities from their world.
– The world of Tristram Shandy can’t be driven just by physics, because some kinds of things happen more often than they should, and the opposite kind doesn’t happen at all.
– Tolkien’s worlds have themes running through them that are consistent, but contradict Earthly physics. It is a created world, made right in the beginning, but that only decays and runs down as time goes on, like a person growing old. It’s a place with no food chain, where a host of equally-dangerous, mutually-hostile things somehow co-exist in close proximity, in numbers greater than the land could possibly support, where a troll, goblin, dragon, or spider could easily satisfy its hunger by going over some hills to Hobbiton yet does not because something in the world says this kind of thing must be in this kind of place.
– You get the sense that Wonderland isn’t just a place that happens to be full of crazy people—Wonderland itself is crazy, or a practical joker; it changes to frustrate or rescue you, according to its own impish logic.


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