An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 2, 2020

Cecire: Re-Enchanted

Maria Sachiko Cecire, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Reviewed by: Laura Dull (

Maria Sachiko Cecire’s Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century accomplishes a great deal of critical work in less than 300 pages, starting with poking a finger directly into the soft underbelly of medieval studies and the specter of its ties to white supremacist groups in the twenty-first century.  In her conclusion, Cecire confesses her love for medievalist children’s fantasy (also reflected in her curriculum vitae) and her belief in its value despite its “shortcomings,” which seems a light charge for what she argues earlier in the book.  Cecire argues that children’s medievalist fantasy, particularly that coming out of the Oxford School started by J. R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, successfully shaped children in a masculinist, white, Northern European vision of selfhood that used the medieval past to critique modernity and project an alternative present.  Because they and their followers published children’s fantasy, their project flew under the critical radar of literary and cultural scholars until the overwhelming breakthrough popularity of such fantasy with adult audiences (as seen, for example, in the adult audiences for the Harry Potter books and movies and the adult fantasy Game of Thrones franchise).  Cecire calls upon readers to acknowledge the dangers of the Oxford School’s project while recognizing the cultural power its members harnessed.  She encourages us to embrace and explore new ways of expanding the scope of the tropes of children’s fantasy to become more inclusive in the ways it reaches into the past to find magic in a difficult contemporary world.  Cecire’s work is thoroughly medievalist in analyzing the way children’s (and later adult) fantasy has been used to understand the past in response to the present with an eye to shaping the future.

After a powerful introduction in which Cecire delivers a series of analytical blows at the sacred cow of children’s fantasy (provoking a response that she later analyzes in chapter 4), Re-Enchanted settles into a set of chapters that divide roughly into an analysis of the circumstances that created the Oxford School (chapters 1 and 2) and a set of analyses of how the principles and tropes established by the school are expressed in twenty-first western culture. 

Cecire’s first, and perhaps most powerful chapter for a reader outside the field of children’s literature, follows the creation of the Oxford School’s medievalist fantasy, which used a heroic Northern European past to critique the feminizing secularizing modernism that was gaining ground in twentieth-century academic circles.  Cecire traces the ways in which the twentieth-century understanding of the medieval world, and particularly medieval literature, was suited to children’s literature with its dependence on hierarchy and clear-cut moral lessons.  The Oxford School’s use of children’s fantasy to argue for the value of the medieval Christian past, Cecire argues, was a strategy for resisting modernist scholarly attention that was becoming the “serious” mode of scholarship in the wake of the World Wars.  She traces nineteenth-century literary influences on Tolkien and Lewis (as they identified in various writings) and notes the realist mode complete with mock scholarly apparatus present in several of these works, tools Tolkien later employed in his Lord of the Rings (LOTR) cycle.  Such a combination of genres gave weight to an otherwise light genre of fantasy and is a strategy Cecire herself seems to perform in later chapters when her analysis seems most to stray from traditional academic boundaries.  She argues that Tolkien and Lewis saw magic as an allegorical way to return to timeless truths (for them Christian) as long as the reader was willing to think like white Christians.  She offers close readings of tales from the works of each, the most engaging of which is that of Eustace Stubbs, who exemplifies the ills of modernity in Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Chapter two traces the academic rivalry between Tolkien and Lewis at Oxford and the modernist scholars at Cambridge that resulted in the creation at Oxford of a curriculum that foregrounded medieval literature and languages in opposition to the modernist focus elsewhere and that sought to make the study of English literature masculine and weighty enough to compete with the Greek and Latin requirements of a Classics degree.  Cecire traces the history of English studies and its focus on moral education, starting with the theoretical underpinnings of Adam Smith, and follows its reception by colonial educators as a means of teaching morals without overt reference to Christian education.  English studies became a powerful vehicle for legitimizing colonial hierarchies, a vehicle Tolkien and Lewis embraced as England’s political footprint diminished.  While Cambridge’s T.H. White wrote about the young King Arthur (Wart) in his Sword in the Stone with plenty of tongue-in-cheek, Tolkien and Lewis’s curriculum taught a reverence for the medieval past and magic seen in the work of students such as Susan Cooper and her The Dark is Rising trilogy through to Philip Pullman in the His Dark Materials series.

The first two chapters are the most straightforward as Cecire builds the academic and intellectual genealogies of the Oxford School and argues for its impact and areas of success.  Chapters three through five read like case studies that attempt to demonstrate the influence of the medievalist fantasy promoted by the Oxford School on modern popular culture.  Chapter three makes a connection between the work of children’s fantasy literature and the cultural narrative of Christmas with their focus on enchantment and timeless rituals.  Cecire makes a textual connection between the Oxford School and Christmas with the setting at Christmas of a key scene in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and in a staple of the Oxford School’s curriculum, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (upon which Cooper’s scene is modeled).  Here Cecire takes the odd step of using the original Middle English quotes from Sir Gawain with modern English translations provided in parentheses. Her use of the original text here disrupts the flow of her argument (as demonstrated graphically by the need for the parenthetical translations).  While what Cecire argues in this chapter is interesting, its connection to chapters one and two remains loose.  In considering the chapters as individual parts, one could imagine this chapter as the original spark that prompted the entire project, now nestled in the middle of the monograph, buttressed by the surrounding chapters as well as an appeal to scholarly apparatus not dissimilar from the strategy of the nineteenth-century fantasy authors who influenced Tolkien and his use of such apparatus to give weight to a genre considered intellectually light by the broader culture.  The chapter offers key analytical arguments—that children’s fantasy rehearses the Christian story of a child savior who alone can save the world and that childhood rather than children is vital because children become adults who lose access to enchantment.  Cecire’s analysis of Christmas packs in a wealth of analytical work that gets lost in its abundance and in the jumping back and forth between the narrative and rituals of Christmas and their contemporary work for adults and the analysis of Christmas scenes in various works of children’s fantasy.  This chapter is clearly central to the monograph’s arguments and is the chapter that reads as the least polished and least tightly structured.  Due to its rich arguments and its structural choices, it is the chapter this reviewer found herself most wanting to be able to discuss with Cecire.

Chapter four tackles the racial implications of the Oxford School’s premises and the success of the works of its members on the canon of children’s literature and its ability to recolonize imagined spaces as the physical British Empire shrank.  Cecire demonstrates the success of these works in communicating a white masculine supremacy through the sometimes violent responses of fans when faced with critiques of their beloved characters and tales.  She points to the creation of childhood, innocence, and whiteness and its impact on school discipline and policing that disproportionately treats children of color as more culpable than their white counterparts.  She could have added the sexualization of children of color and its implications for sexual assault and sex trafficking.  Cecire, of course, traces the trope of the monstrous Saracen in medieval literature and its influence on the Oxford School, most notably in Lewis’ The Horse and his Boy.  She attempts, with less success, a neomedievalist reading of the Harry Potter series that seems less neomedieval (which she defines as the theory that a possible future world organization might be a secular version of medieval political structures-205) than simply informed by post-Cold War fears of unseen enemies and new manifestations of fascism.

The last chapter turns to the influence of the success of children’s fantasy on adult fantasy.  Cecire analyzes Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Lev Grossman’s Magician series through the lens of the post-ironic turn, which admits that life is terrible, but also open to enchantment through self-actualization.  She argues that the rise of self-help literature in the late twentieth century provided a context in which fantasy could turn from religious hierarchy towards individual choice and fulfillment.  She traces a concomitant break away from the masculinist tradition by creating heroines who find themselves through a heroic love.  While she acknowledges this tradition goes back to classics such as Pride and Prejudice, rather than analyzing why the writers have not broken from its gendered confines, she connects it to a modern trend to focus on individual problems and solutions over systemic ones.  She introduces Neil Gaiman as a popular adult fantasy author to demonstrate the turn to achieving inner happiness, but does not engage how his work aligns him in many ways with the Oxford School, including his use of British folklore and history.  She cites examples of his works, but does not include his modern translation of Norse mythology (2017), despite referencing the Disney television series Once Upon a Time and its run through 2018.  In fact, further exploration of Gaiman’s work would better fit her overall arguments than the paragraph of reference to Disney’s foray into adult fantasy, which only demonstrates that adult medievalist fantasy is profitable and ubiquitous (which references to LOTR and Harry Potter, with their huge film franchises, already accomplish).  The most interesting analysis in this chapter is of the ways in which the Stark children (and foster sons) in the Game of Thrones books and HBO series upend the major rules of medievalist children’s fantasy established by the Oxford School.  This and an analysis of Grossman’s Magician series demonstrate the chapter’s argument that adult fantasy’s disruption is to critique the lies of childhood fantasy that require reconciliation in order to become successful adults.  She notes that while these works critique and acknowledge the dangers in children’s fantasy as shaped by the Oxford School, they conclude that the feelings evoked by them still matter and that they provide access to an enchantment that allows us to change the world.  While I applaud the feeling behind this salvific argument and its ringing rhetoric in the closing lines of the chapter, it obscures the fate of the only non-white character analyzed, the death of Oscar Wao as he sacrifices himself to discover beauty (discussed at the beginning of the chapter).  

Cecire continues her project to save children’s fantasy in her conclusion by pointing to three ways in which non-white/male/heterosexual readers have responded to the genre—fan fiction, disidentification, and published revisionist fantasy.  She concludes with her hope (and one shared by this reviewer) that criticism of the genre will lead to more productive ways to re-enchant the world through its stories.   In a perfect world, I would wish for a tighter connection between the chapters, but Cecire has offered a wealth of analytical suggestions for scholars and fantasy authors to consider and explore further.

Laura Dull
Delta College