Fantasy and Nationalism: Initial Thoughts and Future Plans

Many people know of the story of Frodo, a humble hobbit who embarks on a quest, along with a fellowship of representatives of various peoples, to destroy a powerful and dangerous magic ring. Fewer people might be familiar with American Gods, in which Shadow, an ex-convict whose wife dies on the day of his release from prison, is recruited by Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin, to help him rally the old gods carried to America by immigrants for battle against the new gods of technology, media, and conspiracy. Both works revolve around that prominent motif of fantasy literature, the quest, or what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey. Something that I will be looking into is how Frodo’s and Shadow’s journeys through their respective worlds constructs (or deconstructs) ideas of identity and nationhood. In addition, I have been contemplating the meaning of myth and legend in both works, in the context of the times and places they were written, and will have more updates on that later on.
Reading American Gods in conjunction with Benedict Anderson’s analysis of the history and nature of nationhood and nationalism in Imagined Communities has been eye opening, and I hope to read more works on nationalism responding to Anderson’s seminal work this summer. But first I’ll be rereading Tolkien’s trilogy, together with Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism. The real work begins in late June and July, when I dig into the Silmarillion and Tolkien’s letters, as well as Tom Nairn’s The Break Up of Britain to get a better idea of Britain’s nationhood and its history. I hope to gain a better understanding of Tolkien’s own perspective of his country, and apply that to his work and legendarium.
One thing that has always struck me about Neil Gaiman’s work is the subtle blending of this world with fantastical ones, a blurring of fantasy and reality that does not always clearly signal to you where the dividing line is. Gaiman drops the reader in an interstitial land where recognizable realities coexist with and transmute into fanciful impossibilities, unlike Tolkien, who submerges the reader in an entirely imaginative realm, although with its own curious protrusions of modern realities, especially concerning the hobbits.
An interesting (well, I think) aside: incongruencies in a setting otherwise characteristic of ancient Anglo-Saxon Britain–such as fish and chips and modern British mannerisms–have purpose, as the gentle and domestic hobbits, so out of place among immortal elves and warrior kings and powerful wizards, serve as avatars for the modern reader. The hobbits provide a humble, relatable perspective of fantastic events. As influential Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey argues in The Road to Middle-Earth, it is through the ostensibly out-of-place hobbits–who nonetheless survive and even succeed in a world bigger and more savage than they could have imagined–that the reader finds his or her own foothold in the story. Perhaps this technique of inserting the common man has a parallel in national myth and the construction of national identity; something else to look into.
However, to return to Gaiman’s work: rereading American Gods, I have come to appreciate just how gracefully this man plays with reality. He takes settings and stories that are comfortably familiar and should therefore follow familiar rules, and deepens them, confuses them, makes them magical and strange almost without the reader noticing. It’s this sneaky skill for the uncanny that makes reading his works such a trip. Gaiman also sometimes undermines accepted preconceptions; according to one of Gaiman’s characters, the legend of Paul Bunyan is at least partially artificial, developed by lumber companies as an advertising tool. But does the somewhat contrived nature of this so-called “fakelore” discount Paul Bunyan as true myth? If so, what does this distinction mean for nationalism, which is pretty clearly a man made phenomenon? Another question to consider in the coming months.
Speaking of trips, Gaiman carried out intense research for the purpose of writing American Gods by visiting small towns and experiencing the many quirks and legends of his adopted country, carrying out a road trip of fairly epic proportions. His novel is a loving yet clear sighted exploration of American culture and identity, and the myth that grants our lives color and mutual meaning, even if they are as fallible as we are.


  1. csdeforest says:

    Thanks, Dana! I actually haven’t seen the Starz adaptation of American Gods yet as I don’t have cable, but I’m eagerly awaiting the dvd release. I’ve been a long time fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, though. They do leave out a lot from the books (out of necessity, I suppose, otherwise they’d be a billion years long), but I haven’t yet thought much about how they might present Tolkien’s ideas regarding nation/identity differently. Definitely something to consider!

  2. danaflorczak says:

    I am a huge fan of both Tolkien and Gaiman, and I am really interested to see how your project develops! World-building, identity and nationhood are such large parts of fantasy literature and I think it will be interesting to see the commonalities and differences between these two works. Specifically regarding “American Gods,” have you seen the recent TV series adaptation? It could be interesting to compare how the hero’s journey plays out in the TV series and how that compares to and departs from the original source material. You could consider doing the same for the movie version “Lord of the Rings.” In my own research I’ve been thinking lately about how film or television adaptations add to, and detract from, the messages of the original works. Do Frodo’s and Shadow’s journeys, as they are portrayed in the adaptations, change the original ideas of identity and nationhood that Tolkien and Gaiman are communicating? It’s just something to think about – good luck with your research!