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Metamorphoses of the Sublime: From Ballads and Gothic Novels to Contemporary Anglo-American Children's Literature

Metamorphoses of the Sublime: From Ballads and Gothic Novels to Contemporary Anglo-American Children's Literature. Kamila Vránková. České Budějovice: Jihočeská univerzita v Českých Budějovicích – Pedagogická fakulta, 2019. 167 pages (paperback).

In her monograph Metamorphosis of the Sublime, Kamila Vránková articulates an impressive range of philosophical, theoretical, and literary texts to study treatments of the Sublime over three centuries. From my perspective, her discussion of recent children's literature is valuable for its synthesis summarizing and explaining the intellectual traditions that inform contemporary fantasy.

Chapter Seven, ‘Searching for the Other: Ethical Aspects of Fantasy Adventure in Contemporary Ango-American Fiction for Children’, describes a lengthy tradition of morally-inflected imaginative narratives that explore the challenges, ambiguities, and imperatives of desire. As eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century thinkers grappled with the risks and challenges of human imaginative endeavors, children were seen as particularly susceptible, whether in the form of night fears and anxieties or unfettered ecstatic visionary experiences. S.T. Coleridge, who well understood both poles, maintained the value of imaginative literature in helping children apprehend the great and the vast, a doorway to transcendence. Coleridge saw the sublime, therefore, as a vehicle for teaching religious truths. In her discussion of how notions of the Sublime become an integral part of children's fantasy literature, Vránková shows the links between Coleridge's generation and the postmodern ethics of Emmanuel Lévinas. As she notes, children's fantasy, like the Gothic novel, explores the boundaries of reality and consciousness, pushes against and violates norms, and stages ethical confrontations in stark binaries (110). And it is in the foregrounding of terror and extremity that children's fantasy fiction most urgently poses ethical questions. Ranging through an exhaustive survey of contemporary fantasists from Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling to the less-well known Jenny Nimmo and Fiona Higgins, Vránková deftly shows how notions of the Sublime inform children's fantasy, horror, and other fiction to construct a dialogue between self and other, past and present, life and death (114).

Vránková's application of these notions, aided by Jonathan Goldthwaite's typology of fantasy, shows how different subgenres approach these issues. In ‘circular’ fantasy, typified by C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), closed, secondary world fantasy stages encounters with magical and supernatural Others. These encounters ‘lead the heroes towards what really matters (. . .) a better knowledge of their position in and relationship to the surrounding world’ (113). ‘Closed’, secondary-world fantasies stage such developmental plots metaphorically, on an epic model. Yet they remain living traditions because, as Vránková notes, they ‘revive the emotions and ideas’ which remain compelling even in ‘the confusing, commercial and chaotic atmosphere of the modern world’ (117). The more critically and theoretically acclaimed metafictional fantasy, while it may seem to deconstruct the epic and folk formulas on which other fantasies depend, actually serves to reinforce the underlying ethic they mutually uphold: ‘[W]hat they really put in doubt is rather a casual, disinterested attitude to these values than the values themselves’ (117). Fantasy literature's potency comes from its realization of these confrontations between visible and invisible conflicts that underscore the relationship between the self and the cosmos as well as the self in community with others..

Chapter Eight, ‘Repetition in Time-Travel Fantasy: Adventure of Choice or Destiny?’, focuses on an important subgenre of children's fantasy. Here, Vránková makes strategic use of the theories of M.M. Bakhtin and Gilles Deleuze, among others. Like Gothic and contemporary fantasy novels, time-slip novels explore and transgress boundaries between past and present, between what is familiar and what is strange. Vránková links Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope with Deleuze and Guattari's exploration of structures dynamically emerging out of erotic and other drives (118), providing yet another image for development and the journey from childhood to adulthood. In most time-slip books, experience of another time and/or place requires the protagonist to mature. Depending on whether the journey is presented as a quest, a trial, or some combination of the two, this process may reinforce innate values in the protagonist or cause new qualities to develop. The benefit of the time-slip conceit is its insistence upon the relevance of history to the individual, its clarification of the position of the otherwise rootless child in relation to those who have come before. Acknowledging and experiencing vicariously the pain of the past as it refracts into present-day life becomes a key element of maturation (125).

Particularly innovative in Vránková's treatment of time-travel fantasies is her use of Deleuze. As she points out, Deleuze, reacting to Niezsche's notion of the eternal return, recognizes the threat of continuously repeating chronotypical patterns. Rather than succumbing to fatalism, however, Deleuze theorizes that ‘pure repetition, or repetition for itself, triggers other repetitions, produces difference and allows for the new' (125). In a paradoxical way, then, the formulaic repetitions of past narratives, past traumas, offers the possibility of disruption and change. These books thus challenge notions of predestination and fate by stressing how choice may make a difference and offer ‘a possibility of a new beginning’ (126).

Chapter Nine, ‘Other Worlds and the Experience of the Sublime in Fantasy Stories for Children’, synthesizes the implications of the previous two chapters by laying out the theological and ethical stakes. To engage with the sublime is to encounter some version of the divine. Postmodern theorists such as J.-F. Lyotard demonstrate that as we attempt to articulate the real, we frequently discover its unreality. Circular fantasies feature protagonists who deal with both the terror and the pleasure of that process. By combining the known with the unknown, these children's fantasies demonstrate these tensions. Imagining and realizing these secondary worlds, children's fantasy writers often express otherwise overwhelming truths about death, pain, trauma, and other effects of history. C.S. Lewis’s controversial conclusion to the Narnian Chronicles, which explicitly withdraws from language because the deaths and transmutation of his characters are unnarratable beyond a certain point, is one example of the tactics such authors employ. Vránková persuades that this use of sublime negation also offers a Lyotardian ‘witness to the inexpressible’ that can ‘make seen what makes one see, and not what is visible’ (Lyotard 207).

The penultimate chapter of the monograph, Chapter Ten, ‘The Formless and the Unspeakable in J.K. Rowling, Chris Priestley, and Lemony Snicket’, takes the ideas formulated in previous chapters to argue that concepts of the unspeakable and the formless can become a valuable device for the interpretation of the Gothic elements in contemporary Anglo-American children's literature’ (134). Here Vránková revisits early sources of the Gothic in novels by Clara Reeve and other eighteenth-century writers to show lingering influence in the ‘Harry Potter’ series (1997-2007), the ‘Tales of Terror’ series (2007-09), and the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ (1999-2006). Vránková shows how Professor Snape provides Harry with a crucial link between the power of the dark arts and the challenge to use power ethically. The gothic elements of this series freely acknowledge the terror of the liminal position between the known and the unknown, between the ego and the id. Harry's quest throughout is to ‘find harmony between his independence and particular social relationships (140).

Chris Priestley's ‘Tales of Terror’ and Lemony Snicket's ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ even more than Rowling's ‘Harry Potter’, are permeated with intertextual allusions to previous Gothic narratives. This intertextual referentiality challenges conventional notions of what is considered appropriate in books for children, especially the expectation that parents and other adults are kind or invested in children's welfare. However, each series' conclusion reinforces the Lyotardian aspects of time and the sublime: that breaking out of the eternal return requires a conscious determination to disrupt the flow. As Vránková puts it, the sublime provides a ‘shock’ that activates ‘the disappearance of this false consolation’, and ‘(. . ). the rejection of the self-satisfied indifference’ that allows the expression of ‘personal integrity’ and ‘the passage from death back to life’ (144). The popular ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ also deliberately plays up its gothic antecedents as it follows the adventures of protagonists Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. Not only does it provide copious direct references to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic writers, but it also employs their tactics of uncanny repetition, the double, the carceral, the unspeakable. It borrows from Nathaniel Hawthorne's

Marble Faun

(1860) to conclude with an affirmation of ‘knowledge based on experience’, especially when deployed in conjunction with the imagination (148). All three series offer ‘suggestive metaphors in the exploration of deeper psychological conflicts’ by means of the Gothic traditions that inform them (148).

Vránková's comprehensive survey employs an impressive range of reference: she is equally comfortable with eighteenth-century Gothic novels, nineteenth-century American ones, and twentieth-and twenty-first-century Anglo-American children's fiction. Her judicious choices of theoretical lenses help illuminate the works she discusses without overwhelming them. Her work is exemplary in how it integrates conventional academic concerns with critical theory and literary history with the study of children's texts. Vránková's monograph offers a rich resource for students of fantasy and opportunities for engaging in an illuminating and engrossing conversation about the continuing moral and intellectual reverberations of the Gothic Sublime.

Work Cited Lyotard, Jean-François. ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.’ The Lyotard Reader. Trans. Geoffrey Benington and Marian Hobson. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989, 196-211.

Naomi Wood
Kansas State University