Beyond and Below: Subversive Spaces in Postmodern British Fantasy

Paula M Zaja, Purdue University


Fiction is a reflection of reality; it is a mirror of our values, a method of understanding our experiences, and a gateway to confronting the problems in our world. In the twentieth-century, works of fiction increasingly focused on unreality, dream, and illusion; thus the genre of “fantasy” emerged in the 1940s. The fantasies of this time, exemplified by the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, were reminiscent of medieval, romantic, and mythic literature of the past, and adhered to long-standing traditions of archetypal characters, epic journeys, and distinct binary divisions between good and evil. Despite this, Tolkien and Lewis still introduced a new idea on top of these classic elements, the Otherworld. The imaginary realms of Middle Earth and Narnia were something new in fiction—fully developed lands completely separate from Earth—and the innovation of the Otherworld contributed immensely to the definition of “fantasy” as a genre. Because these stories take place somewhere else, it allows readers to escape the realities of our own world. The idea of escapism was not welcomed by all audiences, though, and for this reason, fantasy was often marketed as children’s literature and ignored by literary theorists for much of the twentieth-century. Many contemporary fantasy authors grew up reading these early fantasies and being enchanted by their magic, but the problematic ideology that lies beneath the surface of these stories has inspired some authors to create a new type of fantasy. Contemporary fantasy authors like Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and China Miéville have pointed out the misogyny, racism, and intolerance evident in Lewis and Tolkien’s works, so their fantasies aim to deconstruct and revolutionize the genre. Their works are postmodern fantasy, a new mode of fantastic storytelling which subverts the traditions of early fantasy by shifting the Otherworld to a parallel space which intersects with our real world and is built from our real experiences. This thesis argues that postmodern fantasy, as seen in Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995–2000), Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), and Miéville’s Un Lun Dun (2008), uses magical spaces to confront the status quo, question hegemonic authority, and advocate for the overlooked and the marginalized members of our society. In these three texts, the Otherworlds are mirrored, alternate versions of Oxford and London, and these speculative revisions of well-known British sites are where the invisible divisions, corruptions, and cruelties of our world become visible. The mirror of postmodern fantasy is a reflection of our reality, a protest against oppression, and ultimately, a triumphant declaration that freedom and happiness can be more than just a fantasy.




Choudhury, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Literature|British and Irish literature

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