Colin Manlove, 1942-2020

Colin Manlove (4 May 1942 – 1 June 2020) was an Falkirk-born writer and literary critic with a particular interest in fantasy works. From not having read any fantasy literature before undertaking his postgraduate degree, Manlove became a pre-eminent scholar in the field of fantasy literature, publishing a number of important and seminal works.

Originally setting out to read science, Manlove then moved to history before settling on English. From there, Manlove undertook postgraduate work on the Edwardian writer E. Nesbit on the advice of Catherine Ing, his director of studies at Oxford. Unknown to Manlove before his studies, his work on Nesbit was transformative, leading to fantasy fiction by other authors and eventually his B.Litt on ‘The Fairy Tale: and its English Development, 1850-1960’ which included chapters on the traditional fairy tale, Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Then, in Edinburgh, he was offered the opportunity to teach a course in the burgeoning field of ‘fantasy’. At the same time he began to transform his thesis into his magnum opus: Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (1975). This major book made a comprehensive study of Kingsley, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien and Peake at a time when fantasy literature was yet to emerge as a subject worthy of academic treatment. In it he proposed a definition of fantasy as:

A fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantial and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects with which the mortal characters in the story or the readers become on at least partly familiar terms.

This definition of fantasy marked off the genre from fairy tales, science fiction, ‘Gothic’ and horror story, and he also distinguished between fantasies that are serious works of imagination and those that are fanciful or escapist. After this groundbreaking work, he moved on to other literary topics including Shakespeare and literature from 1600 to 1800, as well as publishing Critical Thinking: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Texts (1989, 1994).

Manlove returned to fantasy following the publication of Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion in 1981. Jackson focused on European subversive and revolutionary fantasy literature. It was Manlove’s impression was that Jackson regarded the likes of Tolkien, Lewis and MacDonald as shallow and sentimental Christian conservatives. This allowed Manlove to define two broad classes of fantasy – Anglo-Saxon, which Jackson condemned, and European. Later Manlove saw a further division in the characteristics of English and Scottish fantasy. This and other interests formed the basis of a number of significant works he would publish over the next twenty years. The Impulse of Fantasy Literature (1982), Christian Fantasy: From 1200 to the Present (1992), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Patterning of a Fantastic World (1993) and other works produced during this period were important contributions to the expanding discussion of Christian, English, Scottish and modern British fantasy.

Manlove realised that although fantasy is often seen as being the same the world over, it is in fact strongly national in character. In his Scottish Fantasy Literature: A Critical Survey (1994) and An Anthology of Scottish Fantasy Literature (1996), he looked at the supernatural traits of Scottish fantasies, and the traditional fairy tales, dream allegories, travels, other worlds and ghost stories of such writers as Robert Burns, James Macpherson, R.L. Stevenson, James Hogg, J.M. Barrie, Alasdair Gray, George Mackay Brown and Iain Banks. In The Fantasy Literature of England (1999), he traced the development of English fantasy from Beowulf to Blake, through secondary worlds, metaphysical, emotive, comic, subversive and children’s fantasy, to show that, even with authors as different as Chaucer, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien and Salman Rushdie, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde and Angela Carter, this very diversity was part of the national character of English fantasy. Manlove then went on to survey 400 English children’s fantasies from 1850 to 2000 in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003). The theme of national identities within fantasy appeared again in his Order of Harry Potter: Literary Skill in the Hogwarts Epic (2010), which argued for the Harry Potter series ‘to be considered as Scottish books’ and identified ‘Harry’s dualism as characteristic of Scottish literature’.1

His most recent work focused on George MacDonald. He said that he felt he long owed a book to MacDonald for ‘the mysterious visions’ he let Manlove enter, and this became Scotland’s Forgotten Treasure: the Visionary Romances of George MacDonald (2016), arguing for ‘the long-overdue acknowledgement’ of MacDonald’s literary importance.2

Manlove taught English Literature at Edinburgh University until his retirement in 1993. He received an honorary D. Litt in recognition of his pioneering research publications. He was a member of the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Speculative Fiction and Fantasy’s Editorial Board, and spoke at one of the Centre’s first conferences, ‘Mervyn Peake & the Fantasy Tradition’ (July 2011), along with Joanne Harris, Brian Sibley and Farah Mendlesohn. He and Prof. William Gray bonded over their shared Scottish heritage and love of fantasy literature, and Colin was very sad to hear of Bill’s death. Manlove’s death robs us of further work he planned to produce about fantasy literature, and his ambition to try to write for children will go unfulfilled. Literary criticism and fantasy literature owe him a great debt and those of us working on fantasy in its broadest sense are poorer for his passing. We are grateful for the opportunity to have known Colin Manlove and to have worked with him through the Centre.

  1. Reviewed by Dr Jane Carroll in Gramarye 3 (2013), 80-1.
  2. Reviewed by Dr Paul Quinn in Gramarye 17 (2020), 75-7.
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