Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature's Most Fantastic Works

The Brothers Grimm & Fairy Tale Psychology
1: The Brothers Grimm & Fairy Tale Psychology

Professor Rabkin describes the course structure. In the first half, he will discuss fantastic literature from the earliest fairy tales to modern writers. In the second half, he will discuss the most significant genre of fantastic literature today: science fiction. He introduces the tales of the Brothers Grimm and explores the psychological truths in some of these stories.

35 min
Propp, Structure, and Cultural Identity
2: Propp, Structure, and Cultural Identity

In 1928 Russian scholar Vladimir Propp discovered the structural universality of oral folk tales and devised several theories about them, including the notions that characters remain stable within a tale and that sequences of key events are the same across cultures.

30 min
Hoffmann and the Theory of the Fantastic
3: Hoffmann and the Theory of the Fantastic

Professor Rabkin discusses E.?T.?A. Hoffmann, a romantic polymath and a spinner of true fantasy tales. Here Professor Rabkin defines the concepts of Romantic, Fantastic, and Fantasy. He also points out that long before Freud, Hoffmann posited a subconscious more powerful than the conscious. For Hoffmann, the achievement of art depends on both embracing and disciplining the fantastic.

31 min
Poe—Genres and Degrees of the Fantastic
4: Poe—Genres and Degrees of the Fantastic

Edgar Allan Poe used fantasy and created overpowering emotional effects for his readers by tapping into some of humanity's deepest fantasies and fears: for example, fear of death, fear of loneliness, and fear of one's self. Poe used art to accommodate his own fears, which, as Professor Rabkin points out, reflects what fairy tales have traditionally done.

31 min
Lewis Carroll: Puzzles, Language, & Audience
5: Lewis Carroll: Puzzles, Language, & Audience

Lewis Carroll's Alice books make up a composite fantasy that captivates adults by inspiring us to rethink the roles of language, convention, and art in our lives. Here the fantastic is the world of Alice's own imagination. What are the limits of language and logic for understanding our world?

32 min
H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals
6: H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals

Wells was once considered the pre-eminent novelist in English. In works like The Invisible Man, Wells shows how science offers a fantasy revenge against repression, both psychosexual and social. He argues for stories about issues that affect all people, not, as Henry James preferred, mere individuals. Wells analyzed the modern world but on a foundation of fairy tales.

32 min
Franz Kafka—Dashed Fantasies
7: Franz Kafka—Dashed Fantasies

Franz Kafka, an alienated man, recreated his life through parables of the fantastic. He drew his characters from the world of everyday experience and put them into settings that are familiar but situations that are fantastic. Professor Rabkin analyzes several stories, showing how Kafka criticizes social institutions as holding the potential for assistance but never giving any.

31 min
Woolf—Fantastic Feminism & Periods of Art
8: Woolf—Fantastic Feminism & Periods of Art

Virginia Woolf, who felt repressed in society because of her female sex, found consolation in the imaginative mind. Thus, in her fantastic novel Orlando, the protagonist begins as a male in the Elizabethan era and ends up a mother in the 1920s. Professor Rabkin examines Woolf's works, also touching on important writings of Emily Dickinson and Laurence Sterne.

30 min
Robbe-Grillet, Experimental Fiction & Myth
9: Robbe-Grillet, Experimental Fiction & Myth

Alain Robbe-Grillet's "New Novel" The Erasers challenges our notion of reality. It is a retelling of the Oedipus myth, suggesting ways to confront and erase that myth. Professor Rabkin links Robbe-Grillet's experimental novel with discussions of style by Roland Barthes and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

32 min
Tolkien & Mass Production of the Fantastic
10: Tolkien & Mass Production of the Fantastic

Professor Rabkin pays tribute to the Arthurian legends of England and recounts how J. R. R. Tolkien built on these fantasy materials to create his monumental trilogy Lord of the Rings. Professor Rabkin also discusses Tolkien's stories "Farmer Giles of Ham" and "Leaf by Niggle," showing how these tales too reflect Tolkien's deepest notions of politics and religion.

31 min
Children’s Literature and the Fantastic
11: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic

In this lecture, Professor Rabkin examines children's literature, pointing out that the loose constraints on it invite the fantastic. Attention is paid to the works of Beatrix Potter, Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, and Norton Juster. Dr. Rabkin notes that children's literature has contributed to fantasy and imagination that enrich adult literature, for example, George Orwell's Animal Farm.

30 min
Postmodernism and the Fantastic
12: Postmodernism and the Fantastic

Postmodernism, the current literary age, tends to view Nature as a matter of perspective, and shares important traits with fantasy literature. Indeed, works of Magical Realism, like those of Gabriel García Márquez, explore this view with other experimental fantastic literature.

29 min
Defining Science Fiction
13: Defining Science Fiction

Professor Rabkin concentrates on science fiction, defining it as a fantastic genre that claims its plausibility against a background of science.

31 min
Mary Shelley—Grandmother of Science Fiction
14: Mary Shelley—Grandmother of Science Fiction

The 1818 novel, Frankenstein, is the first fully achieved science fiction novel. It grew out of a form of Romanticism called Gothicism that Shelley re-formed in a crucial new way. The novel is not about science but about what goes wrong with it when controlled by an egoist.

30 min
Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complex
15: Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complex

Significant Hawthorne stories reflect the important Eden Complex, a concept discovered by Professor Rabkin, one element of which is a character striving to be godlike or to twist nature for his own ends. Poe too used Eden Complex constructs, with female roles played by symbols such as a whirlpool, a pit, or a bed.

31 min
Jules Verne and the Robinsonade
16: Jules Verne and the Robinsonade

Jules Verne combined love of science with satire. Most of his works are "Rob­in­sonades"—fantasies of intellectual conquest that, like the character Robinson Crusoe, sought to recreate alien circumstances in a European image.

31 min
Wells—Industrialization of the Fantastic
17: Wells—Industrialization of the Fantastic

H.?G. Wells used science fiction as par­ables for political and philosophical criticism. In The Time Machine, Wells looks at the inhumanity of the British class system, and in War of the Worlds at British imperialism; he rebukes them both.

33 min
The History of Utopia
18: The History of Utopia

Utopian literature is fantastic and can assume three forms: a utopia can be pleasant, ambiguous, or horrible. Lately, most have been horrible—as in the novels We, 1984, and Brave New World—and they challenge readers to change society.

30 min
Science Fiction and Religion
19: Science Fiction and Religion

Both science fiction and religion, although based on different notions of authority, try to better human life. Thus, science fiction sometimes uses religious speculation to explore spiritual concerns.

32 min
Pulp Fiction, Bradbury, & the American Myth
20: Pulp Fiction, Bradbury, & the American Myth

Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote about planets and unexplored continents, was a successful practitioner of pulp fiction. Ray Bradbury's groundbreaking The Martian Chronicles helped make the transformation from pulp fiction to subtler, more thoughtful science fiction.

32 min
Robert A. Heinlein—He Mapped the Future
21: Robert A. Heinlein—He Mapped the Future

Robert A. Heinlein's social imagination, his "hard science fiction" extrapolation, and superior craftsmanship, represents the best of a generation of American science fiction. His stories embody a strongly libertarian critique of modern American life.

32 min
Asimov and Clarke—Cousins in Utopia
22: Asimov and Clarke—Cousins in Utopia

Both Isaac Asimov (The Foundation series and I, Robot) and Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) were trained scientists as well as prolific authors. Both thought that humanity was perfectible and could achieve a good utopia—but first had to wake up to its shortcomings.

31 min
Ursula K. Le Guin: Transhuman Anthropologist
23: Ursula K. Le Guin: Transhuman Anthropologist

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most challenging writers of science fiction today. Her stories include genderless people, thus challenging gender stereotypes, and she also weaves Taoist philosophy into her novels. Le Guin's stories offer multiple changes of viewpoint to change attitudes toward language, human relations, and morality.

32 min
Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond
24: Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond

Professor Rabkin's final lecture examines the latest trends in science fiction. He discusses William Gibson (Neuromancer); Philip K. Dick, whose fiction inspired the movie Blade Runner; New Wave; and Cyberpunk, an outgrowth of cybernetics and punk music. He ends by suggesting that we now live in a science fiction world.

33 min
Eric S Rabkin

It is correct to say that fairy tales teach morals. This is true for those shaped by oral transmission through generations and for those, like many of Aesop’s fables, that may have been invented by a professional storyteller.


University of Iowa


University of Michigan

About Eric S Rabkin

Dr. Eric S. Rabkin is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He earned his bachelor's degree at Cornell University and his Ph.D. at The University of Iowa. Professor Rabkin received the Golden Apple Award, given annually by students for the outstanding teacher at the University of Michigan. Other awards include the University Teaching Award, the LS&A Excellence in Education Award, and the University of Michigan Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award. He also received a fellowship from the American Council for Learned Societies, and research funding from the American Philosophical Society. Dr. Rabkin is well known for his large, popular lecture courses on science fiction and fantasy and for his many teaching innovations. His research examines fantasy literature, science fiction, and graphic narrative, among other topics. He is credited with more than 160 publications. His more than 30 books include Narrative Suspense; The Fantastic in Literature; Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (with Robert Scholes); Teaching Writing That Works: A Group Approach to Practical English (with Macklin Smith); and Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination.

Also By This Professor