Section 2

Elihu Vedder (1836-1923):
The Fisherman and the Genie

Lecture 2:
The Fantastic (i)

The Psychology of Fantasy

  • "The Story of The Fisherman and the Demon" (1990): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 30-65.
  • Tzvetan Todorov, "Narrative-Men" (1971): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 443-53.

Plot Summary:
A fisherman throws out his net and catches a sealed jar. When he opens the seal, an evil Genie appears, who wants to kill him. The fisherman fools the Genie into going back into the jar. The Genie promises him riches if he will let him out again, and the fisherman accordingly lets him go. The Genie takes the fisherman to a lake with many-coloured fishes. He is told to bring the fishes he catches there to the Sultan. When a slave-girl starts to cook the fishes, a lady appears out of the wall and tells the fishes to remember their promise. They turn black as charcoal. When new fish are brought, the same thing happens. Finally the King sees what is happening, and is amazed by it. He travels to the lake to find out what’s going on. There he discovers a palace with a Prince, turned to stone from his midriff downwards, who tells him his own long, complex story of love and deception. After hearing the story, the King kills a slave who (as it subsequently turns out) has been having an adulterous affair with the Prince’s wife, a sorceress (and also the lady who came through the wall at the beginning of this part of the story) and disguises himself as the slave. He tricks the sorceress, who is the one responsible for the Prince’s petrified condition, and forces her to release both the Prince and the city which she has bewitched. Then the King kills her and rewards the Prince and the fisherman handsomely.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (2013-15)

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Unreal & the Real (2015)

The Unreal and the Real

"terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently,
the ruling principle of the sublime."
- Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

In the introduction to Volume 2 of her selected stories: The Unreal and the Real, veteran American Fantasy / Science Fiction writer Ursula Le Guin makes the following remarks about genre:
Nobody – for good reason – has ever been able to say exactly where “fantasy” begins and ends. It is immensely larger than the current commercial category of books labelled Fantasy. It cannot be limited to “the impossible,” or “magic,” or “the supernatural.” The origins of fantastic literature are lost to sight, because it is worldwide, and if myth and legend are included in it, it long predates history and literacy. It’s permanent, it thrives, because it’s infinitely adaptable.
She goes on to specify, however, that:
For a writer there is a genuine difference between fantasy and science fiction, which has nothing to do with the commercial branding of books as “genre” or the categorical imperatives of critics. The difference is in how you write it – what you are doing as a writer. In fantasy you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely. In science fiction you get to make it up, but you have to follow most of the rules of science, or at least not ignore them.
I’ll have a lot more to say later in the course on the specific things writers do when their object is to produce fantasy, or science fiction, or magic realism, but for the moment I’d just like to note the important point that the practical choices made by writers are motivated by the effect they want to have on a particular audience.

If you “break the rules” of a particular genre, you have to have an especially good reason for breaking those rules: a clear end in mind.

When it comes to that complex realm we call the Fantastic, these “rules” may seem loose or chaotic, but in fact – as Bulgarian critic Tzvetan Todorov explained in his classic essay on the subject – they can actually be seen to have clear boundaries and delimitations:
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils … or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event had indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.
Those are the two alternatives, then: when a supernatural (or fantastic) event takes place in a story, either it is real, in which case the laws of nature are not what we previously supposed them to be, or it is an illusion, in which case the interest of the story shifts onto the psychology of character. Why are these things being seen – is it a hoax, or some kind of hallucination?
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.

Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017)

Exercise 1 – Faking Sincerity

"Sincerity – if you can fake that, you've got it made."
George Burns

Tzvetan Todorov’s essay "Narrative-Men" implies not so much that everyone has a story but that everyone is a story. Again and again in traditional narratives we meet characters who interrupt the action with a long account of their own doings which involves, in turn, meeting other characters who start to tell their own stories until we are left suspended in a story within a story within a story with no resolution in sight.

  • Your task is to make yourself into a story.
  • There should be a basic plausibility about this story: i.e. you cannot change your age, gender, or other basic vital statistics.
  • Beyond that, the rest of it must be completely false - but plausible - with the exception of one true detail, big or small.
  • Come prepared to read it aloud to the group.
  • We'll try and guess which of the details is true, but the main focus of the session will be to discuss the believability of your narrative: not the truth but the verisimilitude of what you've told us.

Length: no less than a page, no more than 500 words.

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