Friday, 16 October 2020

The Oxford School of Fantasy

Oxford University is now vigorously promoting the notion of an ‘Oxford School of Fantasy’.  If you go to the webpage of its Faculty of English Language and Literature, you will find a section devoted to the genre of fantasy – hyper-popular at the moment after the television version of George Martin’s Game of Thrones.  We there learn that ‘Oxford is a natural home to fantasy literature with those who have worked or studied here having written so many famous and influential texts’; and a list of names follows which includes Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.

Well, yes, perhaps; but there is one rather blindingly obvious gap in that list, coming right between its first and second names.   For William Morris in the 1890s gave us a whole series of spectacular fantasy texts, from The Wood beyond the World onwards, which – quite apart from their own substantial merits - had a major impact on both Tolkien and Lewis in the early twentieth century.  Historians of the genre have regularly seen Morris as a, or perhaps even the, major figure in its invention.  Lin Carter terms Morris ‘the man who invented fantasy’ and describes The Wood beyond the World as ‘the first great fantasy novel ever written: the first of them all’.  Morris’s The Well at the World’s End, which his family affectionately nicknamed ‘The Interminable’, is certainly the major achievement in the genre before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

So the Oxford English Faculty should urgently update its webpages to include Morris’s fantasy works.  For Morris not only studied at Oxford, but, as I argued in William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895, the city remained central to his cultural and political imagination thereafter.