Stories have a habit of getting tied in knots, and then unfolding. First they entangle their protagonists, whose actions sometimes seem dictated by the needs of the Story in which they have become engaged; then the light dawns, and the Labyrinth becomes a path. For much mimetic or realistic literature, this process – inherent to the telling of Story – proves to be an embarrassment, a scandalous admission that fiction is an artifice. For most non-mimetic literature, the opposite is the case: the literatures of the Fantastic positively glory in the fact that they present, and embody, Story-shaped worlds.
Unsurprisingly, the two modes – realism and the fantastic – differ radically in the degree of prominence they grant to the central Transformation scene which is defined – after Aristotle – as the moment of anagnorisis, or Recognition. For Aristotle, Recognition marks a fundamental shift in the process of a story from increasing ignorance to knowledge. As Terence Cave defines it in Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (1988): "It is the moment at which the characters understand their predicament fully for the first time... it makes the world (and the text) intelligible. Yet it is also a shift into the implausible: the secret unfolded lies beyond the realm of common experience; the truth discovered is 'marvellous' ... the truth of fabulous myth of legend ... The interest of recognition scenes in drama and narrative fiction is perhaps that, more than any other literary motif or element, they have the character of an old tale."
It is at this moment of Recognition that the inherent Story at the heart of most full fantasy texts is most visible, most "artificial", and most revelatory. At this moment in "the structurally complete fantasy tale" (Brian Attebery's phrase) protagonists begin to understand what has been happening to them (he may have been an Ugly Duckling awaiting the moment he becomes king; she may have been re-enacting a Creation Myth in order that the Land be reborn; they may discover what Archetype serves as an Underlier figure and defines their fate; etc.). They understand, in other words, that they are in a Story; that, properly recognized (which is to say properly told), their lives have the coherence and significance of Story; that, in short, the Story has been telling them.
At this moment, characters might be thought of as gazing simultaneously into the past and into the future – backwards at the Bondage or Amnesia of their beginnings (when their story was still leading them Into the Woods), forwards through resolutions and (perhaps) Metamorphosis at the Mirror of the future which reflects their true being. It is a moment which may be signalled by Trompe-L'oeil effects, when two Realities (the past and the future) dance in one moment or body, before Time moves again, and they become incompossible. Story itself, at the moment of Recognition, seems to hold still in order to be recognized; and then – illuminated, as though the truth had made it free – begins to move. In fantasy texts this recuperative, inward-turning, heartlifting moment of Recognition is analogous to the moment of conceptual breakthrough (> SFE link below) which defines the essential thrust outwards towards increased knowing in an sf text. Conceptual breakthrough leads through the barrier to a realization of what the world is; Recognition is an acknowledgement that one has been there all the time.
The essential Taproot Texts which shaped the use of Recognition in fantasy are probably the late Romances of Shakespeare: Pericles (performed circa 1608; 1609); The Winter's Tale (performed circa 1610; 1623); Cymbeline (performed circa 1611; 1623); and The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623). Each of these plays is built with exquisite selfconscious "artifice" around convoluted, Time-drenched stories which climax in moments or "motors" of Recognition "in which", Cave points out, "persons and their identities are displaced and recovered". Characters who are both identifiable figures and Icons are like characters in a Fairytale; characters who are transparent to the Story that drives them are also central to fantasy. And almost every Godgame tale, from The Tempest on, climaxes in scenes of Recognition.
A famous example of recuperative recognition is the moment in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) when the eagles arrive during the last battle – an act prefigured in The Hobbit (1937) – and foreshadow the saving of the day, a foreshadowing recognized by all. A lesser-known example is in Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968), at the point when the saving transformations still hang in the balance, and the world stills utterly – then moves into renewal. A similar scene appears at the climax of Susan Cooper's Seaward (1983), when the girl protagonist decides not to follow her Selkie nature and the boy protagonist decides not to pass on to the Heaven of Tir-Nan-Og. As with Beagle's characters, the moment takes place on the natural Threshold of a beach, where the elements mix with Trompe-L'oeil abandon.
The second half of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story (1979) tells of its young protagonist's long search – after he has successfully saved Fantastica from the disbelief of the world – for his own self, which has become intrinsicate with the Land, but which he must find or he will never recover from the amnesia which is progressively thinning him (and Fantastica). Almost too late, he comes to a Goddess of vegetation, who feeds him and tells him he has gone "the long way around", being "'one of those who can't go back until they have found the fountain from which springs the Water of Life. And that's the most secret place in Fantastica. There's no simple way of getting there'. After a short silence she added: 'But every way that leads there is the right one.'" He finds the Water, within the jaws of a great Worm Ouroboros and bathes, and recovers himself (and the Story he has been creating). The tale ends.
Almost all of the work of John Crowley can be seen as tied to moments of Recognition: the various protagonists of both Little, Big (1981) and the Aegypt sequence (1987-1994) are obsessively concerned with the true nature of the Story that is telling them, for only when they have an inkling of that true nature can they know how to pass through the Labyrinth of climax; both Little, Big and Aegypt are enormously extended exercises in how to narrate the moment of cusp, the coital moment of the coming of Recognition; and to the extent they are examples of Gnostic Fantasy, they represent the passage through Recognition as a transition from darkness and sleep into true Reality. Both Sharon Shinn's The Shape-Changer's Wife (1995) and William Browning Spencer's Zod Wallop (1995) come to climaxes of Recognition. In Shinn's tale in particular the pattern is clear. Her protagonist's reluctant movement towards recognizing the eponymous wife's true nature – her name is Lilith, and she is a Dryad who has been Shapeshifted by a sorcerer into the bondage of human form, remaining so immured until the last pages of the novel – comes to a climax during the intricate moments when he recognizes his own nature as well, and prepares to assume the adult powers he had been eschewing.
In full-fantasy texts, Recognition marks the moment when the Story means itself. [JC]
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Conceptual Breakthrough.