Point of order re: the universe(s)

I ran across a thing on Facebook today. It was a query, to wit: “Who created the greatest universe?” Six possible answers were provided, in the form of authors and their iconic works of fantasy. They are, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, the six highest grossing fantasy franchises: Star Wars; Star Trek; Dragon Ball; Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Game of Thrones.

One of the larger points I am always trying to make is that geography matters, place matters. And for the love of the Actual Maker of the Actual Universe (and all potential universes, if you want to get technical about it), correct terminology matters. A universe is what it is: the extent of created reality. If you don’t believe in the transcendent, if you don’t distinguish creator and created, then the universe is just the totality of existence, even whatever, if anything, lies the other side of a black hole, or on the inside of the inmost folds of the eleventh dimension of quantum space, or what have you. That’s what the word ‘universe’ means. It doesn’t mean ‘fictional world,’ or ‘world in which a fiction occurs.’ If it meant that, then every fiction could be said to occur in its own universe. I don’t find this a helpful way of thinking about fiction, as it would make it impossible to think that one fiction could be part of a larger category of things we call fiction, and I take the essential unity of all fictions to be a very important point. But anyway, the point here is that, metaphysically speaking, no writer has ever created a universe.

However, there is a genre of fiction that posits an unreal setting, that is to say, a setting that is not supposed to be in any way connected with this world, or universe: not through somebody’s dream; not set in some heretofore overlooked corner of the Earth that can only be accessed by (for example) a very irregular and unusual train service; not some version of this Earth that is pretty much exactly the same as the one we know but with vampires or witches or whatever; not some alternative dimension accessed through a magical piece of furniture that is located in a fictional representation of this universe; not a galaxy far away (but in this universe, because what else could it be said to be far away from unless it were from us who live here in reality?); not a historical world of long ago, or this universe at some future time — none of that, I’m talking a totally fictive universe. The strictest definition for modern fantasy fiction that I can think of is the one that defines the genre as fiction that is understood, within the implicit logic of the fiction, to occur nowhere in this universe. In the case of this strictly defined fantasy, which is most contemporary high or epic fantasy, the author can be said to have, in a way, created a (fictive) universe, i.e. a (fictively) ontologically autonomous reality.

And guess what? Of the six options listed in the query that got me thinking about this, only one, George R R Martin’s, meets this criterion. All five of the other options are supposed, within the logic of the fiction, to occur in this universe. So there’s the correct answer: Martin wins by default. And that is all the more I will say about something I saw on Facebook. But maybe I’ll say later why I think the distinction at play here matters.


“A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.”

J R R Tolkien says this of his own literary development in the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which will be the subject of the next post. That post in part, and the one following it in whole, will address the subject of escapism as it is commonly associated with fantasy fiction. Before getting to that I wanted to draw attention to this one remarkable sentence that appears as an aside in the middle of Tolkien’s essay.

I find the last six words of this sentence — quickened to full life by war — in particular to be haunting. It is all the more disquieting to encounter such a sentence delivered in an off-hand fashion. “On Fairy-Stories” was originally a lecture given in March of 1939, though I do not know if this sentence was part of that lecture or if Tolkien inserted it later: I am reading a version revised in 1964. But I would imagine such an aside would have been present in the original lecture, as it isn’t the sort of thing one adds later on.

Tolkien of course was referring to the Great War, and as he spoke few could have doubted that Europe was preparing to go to war again. I suppose a man could make such a comment casually, even vaguely, only if he were addressing a room full of people who had been through the same civilization-altering war to which he referred. I cannot imagine a literary scholar today standing up in front of a room of academics at a prestigious school (JRRT delivered the lecture at the University of St Andrews) and mentioning, in passing, a traumatic experience like the Great War, and doing so with the knowledge that many of the people he addressed, certainly the majority of his colleagues present, had first-hand experience of that same trauma.

I was nineteen years old, just about to begin my sophomore year in college, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 occurred. I was most certainly getting into philology. But the war which was shortly to begin, and pick up significantly during my junior year when the US invaded Iraq, was something I was barely conscious of. I didn’t go to a prestigious school for undergrad, a place full of rich people. I was at the University of Cincinnati. But it made no difference, I was totally isolated from the conflicts, nobody talked about them except as a reason for despising the president.

As is the case with many people roughly my age, both my grandfathers fought in the Second World War. I grew up hearing their stories of the war — and their silences, when they came to that of which they could not speak. I was very interested in military history when I was a boy, and I spent a lot of time studying it in all of its phases, from antiquity to the present. In America of course military history does not extend beyond the advent of firearms, but I was always most interested in pre-modern warfare. I encountered plenty of it in fantasy, which genre, for reasons I’d like to talk about soon, does not mix well with gunpowder.

My father shared much of my interest in military history and he encouraged my reading about it when I was growing up. But after 9/11 and the wars that it entailed, he could no longer find it in him to study such things in his spare time. Neither did it anymore seem to me the sort of thing one could take a merely casual interest in. But I retained what knowledge I had gathered (along with a couple of swords that are, to this day, taking up space in my parents’ home). One summer, when I was a graduate student in Chicago, I was at a professor’s house with a bunch of my fellow classmates. We were outside on the porch. A couple of military jets flew overhead and I identified them — F-18’s — to the shock and evident disgust of my peers and the professor. To possess knowledge of such matters was taboo.

I will soon have occasion to quote from Sir Philip Sidney, who was a man of letters and a soldier that died what was considered a heroic death in the Low Countries in the 1580’s. There was quite a long period when men of letters like Sidney and philologists like Tolkien went off to war. They may have done it proudly or they may have done it as a matter of course, but the point is they went. My country has been at war, more or less, for most of the time since I came of age, but for the most part those wars have been, to me, something less substantial than a dream, something I would occasionally catch sight of flickering on a TV screen. In general, war is, for me, something I have studied, something I remember fascinating me as a boy in the occasional reenactment I would see, say at Gettysburg or perhaps a joust or two — something choreographed. My generation has not been tested in the way that Tolkien’s was tested, and I wonder sometimes if that lack — how strange to call it so — is visible in our fantasies.