Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Instauration Fantasy

Dictionaries define "instauration" as "restoration after decay, lapse or dilapidation" (Webster's Second International), or as "the action of restoring or repairing; restoration, renovation, renewal" (OED, 1st edn). The word has long been identified with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who worked for a quarter of century on a great multi-volume encyclopedia of all knowledge intended to replace the old Aristotelian structures of knowing with a newly created technique of empirical investigation, one capable of unlocking the whole range of Nature's secrets (the Scientific Method, in fact); this series of texts he called the Instauratio Magna ["The Great Instauration"]. The sequence was never completed; but enough exists for it to be clear that Bacon's great instauration, or renewal, was intended to be a world-changing transformation not only of the sciences but of political and cultural institutions as well.

IFs are, therefore, fantasies in which the real world is transformed; they are fantasies about the Matter of the world. They are rare – far-reaching Transformations in fantasy much more frequently affect the Lands of Secondary Worlds – and they often give an effect of mixing genres, including Horror and Science Fiction. Most have been written during the past two decades; possibly the approach of the millennium (>>> Millennial Fantasy) has inspired writers to create tales about profound shifts in the nature of Reality, during the course of which the history of the world may be rewritten and a new Story of the world become the shaper of the years to come. IFs are about the real world; are generally set largely in that world, though subtle malformations of reality may lead readers to assume that an Alternate Reality is being described; and sometimes extend into the near future, a period fantasies generally eschew.

There is an obvious family resemblance between this cluster of tropes and those which surround the Quest for the cure for the world's pain (> Healing) in full fantasy; the differences have partly to do with the fact that only occasionally, when Allegory becomes involved, as in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), is there any implication in full fantasy that these events relate to the mundane world and partly to do with the level of sophistication and ambiguity involved.

Many IFs, for example, culminate in some sort of sacred marriage – e.g., that between Auberon and Titania in John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), or that between Sweeney and Dylan in Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994 UK) – which replaces or redeems imperfect attempts made by an earlier generation or somehow otherwise involves loss. These sacred marriages often involve the reconciliation of elements, without which reconciliation Redemption would be impossible. This is rather different in resonance from High Fantasy, while including the purely dynastic arrangements which often conclude traditional tales.

Bacon's sense of how to renew the world from the base up had nothing to do with Magic – he held the occult (> Gnostic Fantasy) in the deepest disrespect; what renewal seemed to mean for him was the extremely difficult task of learning how to understand the workings of the world in daylight. It may, therefore, be anomalous to strike analogies between any form of fantasy literature and Bacon's own arduously earned clarity; and in the case of IF – several typical examples of which flirt abandonedly with Gnostic dicta about the nature of true Reality – this anomalousness might seem all the more pointed. At the same time, however, IFs do tend to focus on processes of learning, and tend to emphasize its difficulty. Their protagonists are likely to be in the thrall of scholarship; their settings may be seats of learning; and it is frequent for an IF to contain within its text a fictional Book whose title is that of the real text, and whose contents reveal – though it may be coded against profane discovery – the true Story. All these signals point to one central message: that instauration must be learned. It is not a gift of the magi.

A typical fantasy of this sort may begin in the real world, but generally the movement towards revelation is signalled by the Crosshatching of various realities (> Alternate Realities), though the real world is generally found at the beginning or end of any transition. There is typically a feeling of stress in this crosshatching, often signalled by a sense of the high dues to be paid by any protagonist wishing to cross the Threshold into Faerie (or any Otherworld); by a sense that various realities are thickening and Thinning in a manner that threatens all sorts of Metamorphoses (to the protagonist; to the story being told; but primarily to the worlds affected); by a sense of the precariousness of the psyche at moments when the Bondage of a previous reality may suddenly loosen – a sense intensified by a story whose protagonists are likely less important than what they learn. Because instauration fantasies are about replacing a false or defective story with one which describes the true once-and-future shape of things, Recognition scenes tend to be central; John Crowley's Aegypt (1987), for instance, could be read as a long sequence of recognitions that "there is more than one history of the world". Common also are Labyrinths that must be traced and Portals difficult to discern. IF storylines may well be set in Borderlands where it is possible to lose one's way or form.

There is thus a constant interrogative tonality to the IF, an atmosphere conveyed in part by the large number of scholars who wander investigatively and subversively through the pages of typical examples. This interrogativeness applies to the story inside the text, but also to the nature of fiction itself. IFs tend, in consequence, to work as self-reflexive narratives, as stories that point to themselves as being "stories", as texts that mark their textuality by incorporating within their real covers fictional versions of themselves; they are very likely to be metafictions. This constant selfconscious activity does not lead towards consolation: while its primary subject is renewal, the IF also serves to remind readers of much Genre Fantasy that the new reality does not necessarily comprise any form of return to – or Healing of – a previous version of the land.

Stories in which ancient gods (> Cthulhu Mythos) invade the present world are properly Supernatural Fictions. The IF depends upon the intersection of autonomous worlds, and examples are therefore mainly restricted to the 20th century, when the autonomous worlds of fantasy became common. An early (and partial) example of the mode is James Stephens's The Crock of Gold (1912), though the transformative incursion of Faerie into philistine Ireland is soon aborted. Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) again prefigures the form, though the King's transformative incorporation of the mundane world constitutes anything but a leap forward. Later novels, like Alan Garner's Elidor (1965) and Ursula K Le Guin's The Beginning Place (1980; vt Threshold 1980 UK), are both about the world, and both are interrogative; but neither moves towards a world-transforming moment of renewal. And M John Harrison's A Storm of Wings (1980 US) hovers hummingbird-like at the Trompe-L'oeil moment when intersecting Perceptions of reality alternate – too rapidly for the eye to catch.

The first full-fledged IF was probably Crowley's Little, Big, though the Faerie its protagonists disappear into is not the new world the reborn Frederick Barbarossa (> Sleeper Under the Hill) attempts to forge in the USA as the millennium approaches. Crowley's later Aegypt sequence may, when complete, constitute the definitive IF; it already represents the most thorough presentation of renewal as constituting a new story of the world. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), which can be read as sf or fantasy, stretches the real-world saliency of the mode by being set on Urth, which is Earth too many aeons hence to make much sense as an analogue of our present-day planet; but in other particulars – the New Sun itself is fated utterly to transform the world, while at the same time represents its salvation – it fits the mode profoundly well. Winterking (1984), the concluding volume of Paul Hazel's Finnbranch trilogy, builds to the transformation of an Alternate-World New England. Robert Holdstock's Ryhope Wood sequence locates the domain of transformation within a Time Abyss (> Little Big; Polder), where its various obsessed scholars undergo furious interrogations before they can learn of any new world.

Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) serves in this context mostly as an example of the interrogation of Borderlands, and of the failure of its heroine to master the knots of transformation, for she returns in the end to an untransfigured Earth. John Grant's The World (1993) is a particularly overt example of the IF. Simon R Green's Shadows Fall (1994) can most certainly be read as one. Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon reads at points like a Supernatural Fiction, but the weight of the tale lies in its depicting of a potential renewal (through the second coming of the Goddess) rather than the imposition of empire.

In the end, the IF is a story about finding out the truth, and living with the consequences. It is rich in potential; it may survive the millennium; it is currently the cutting edge of fantasy – the place where fantasy has no excuse not to be. [JC]

see also: Fantasies of History.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.