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

Course No. 2997
Professor Eric S. Rabkin, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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Course No. 2997
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Course Overview

Many of literature's greatest works, from ancient myths to the works of Nobel laureates, rely on fantasy. Even when there has been a dominant preference for realism, generation after generation of readers have been drawn to stories of the fantastic not only for what they help us learn about ourselves as individuals and about our collective selves but also for what they show about our social values.

What can fairy tales and science fiction stories reveal about the psyches of individuals and nations? How does the literature of the fantastic reflect historical periods and preoccupations?

Join Professor Eric S. Rabkin, one of the world's foremost authorities on the literature of the fantastic and science fiction, as he takes you on a journey to explore Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind, Literature's Most Fantastic Works. You'll study strange tales of talking frogs and cannibal witches through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Arthur C. Clarke's astonishing 2001: A Space Odyssey and beyond. Focusing on the early 19th century to contemporary times, Professor Rabkin casts a wide net for fantastic works and delves deeply into some of the most astounding. You'll learn about the works and times of Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and more.

Once Upon a Time: The Lessons of Fairy Tales

In the early 19th century, two German brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, sought to demonstrate the deep significance of German culture. In the process they collected oral tales, which they believed were handed down from prehistory. These fairy tales, including "Hansel and Gretel," "Rapunzel," and "Snow White," are certainly tales of the fantastic, but they also have profound lessons to teach. What they teach us, however, is not always classic morality. One tale ("Rumpelstiltskin") shows that it is better to be beautiful than honest; another ("The Little Tailor") demonstrates that you can lie your way up the social ladder from peasant to king. Others, such as "Cinderella," offer consolations, ways of symbolically moving through difficult transitions in life.

Fantastic Works of Literature

The imaginative minds of the 19th century did not leave the fantastic to ancient folk tales. E. T. A. Hoffmann, for example, an energetic and creative German Romantic who died in 1822, created his own wildly fantastic tales. Both Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet and the Offenbach opera Tales of Hoffmann are based on Hoffmann's tales. Hoffmann's stories even probe the psychology of fantasy itself and anticipate by a century Freud's theories of the power of the unconscious.

In the mid-19th century, writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in the United States and Lewis Carroll in England explored their own notions of the fantastic and its powers on the reader. Hawthorne wrote fanciful stories about scientists who lose their way, often as a result of torturous love. The masterful Poe mixed fantastic situations and the torments of the human heart. Lewis Carroll's two Alice books are fantastic masterpieces, challenging our notions of language and reality.

Social Criticism and the Imaginative Mind

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imaginative minds were creating astonishing and bizarre worlds, weaving into the fabric of their narratives a significant strand of social criticism. H. G. Wells criticized Victorian sexual repression in The Invisible Man and imperialism in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Franz Kafka created fantastic tales, many of which were critical of society's institutions. Virginia Woolf wrote a novel Orlando critical of gender stereotyping in which a man lives from the 16th to the 20th century and emerges as a woman and mother.

View the Breadth of Modern Fantasy

Nor has fantasy literature slackened since the early 20th century. The famous French "New Novel" writer Alain Robbe-Grillet uses the fantastic to free readers from what he perceives as the unconscious constraint imposed by society and language. J. R. R. Tolkien created whole fantasy worlds with their own geographies and languages. Children's literature – Prof. Rabkin devotes a lecture to it – has been especially fertile with fantasy. And Magical Realism has blossomed with important works such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate.

The Most Important Fantastic Genre Today

Professor Rabkin next delves into science fiction, the genre that claims plausibility against a background of science, while weaving in high adventure and intellectual excitement. In this half of the course, Dr. Rabkin shows why science fiction should be regarded as the most important fantastic genre today.

Professor Rabkin posits Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel. You'll hear the story about the origins of that novel—a challenge to write the best ghost story – and you'll examine how Frankenstein explores themes of the struggle between the individual and society as well as the destabilizing possibilities of new knowledge. Europe remained the center of science fiction with such writers as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but that was about to change.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Early in the 20th century, a popular blend of exciting tales and scientific speculation developed in the democratic milieu of pulp fiction magazines: Even Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, wrote of rousing adventures on Mars. Soon, however, pulp fiction gave way to longer treatments. The writers Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein, along with Isaac Asimov and Britain's Arthur C. Clarke, emerged as important voices after World War II and brought science fiction tales into the mainstream of serious literature. You'll discover how each of these important writers explored the wondrous and disturbing implications of science and technology, their stories raising profound questions about humanity, life, and the future.

What Does the Future Hold?

In Professor Rabkin's final lectures you'll learn about important and enduring links between science fiction and religion, and also between science fiction and utopian novels such as 1984 and Brave New World. You'll explore the works of outstanding science fiction writers today, including Ursula Le Guin, who writes of fabulous new worlds in her literature for children and in science fiction. You'll learn how William Gibson's Neuromancer introduced the words "matrix" and "cyberspace" into our language. You'll learn about Philip K. Dick, who wrote the novel that inspired the movie Blade Runner.

Recapture the Joy of Childhood and Learn about the Literature of the Fantastic

From talking frogs to human robots, from Mad Hatters to mad scientists, Professor Rabkin's course offers an illuminating journey through the world's most fantastic and imaginative literature. Discover the magic, wonder, and profound significance of that literature.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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 Garc'a Márquez, explore this view with other experimental fantastic literature. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Eric S. Rabkin

About Your Professor

Eric S. Rabkin, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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...
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Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature's Most Fantastic Works is rated 3.4 out of 5 by 68.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from NOT WHAT I EXPECTED For me, the first portion of this series, on Fairy Tales, was painful to go through. The second portion, on Science Fiction, was not as bad. This course is for someone who is writing a high level paper and who needs thought numbing content to look well read. For me, this course was somewhere between philosophical ideals and religious ideals that had no real bearing on the numerous stories and tales covered. Some times we were way in the weeds and sometimes we were high in the ozone. I am not sure what Sigmund Freud's ideas, sexual and fertility ideals, and the study of the transformation of word sounds (from Greek to Latin to the Romantic and non-Romantic languages) has to do with exploring these Masterpieces, but these are trend lines throughout the course. An example is, what do the stages of a woman's sexuality and fertility have to do with the stories of Rapunzel, Snow White, or Cinderella, especially if these are suppose to be children's stories or fairy tales. At times we appear to have a need to deeply analyze almost every line and passage of a story, a folk tale, or novel for some hidden meaning. Now then, you will touch on some of the social moors of the time of the various writings along with the economic changes that came about in the writing and printing industry. You will also lightly discuss some of the better known authors in the Sci-Fi portion, but we always appear to be looking for some deep meaning in what they wrote in regards to society at the time of the writings and what other writers were writing about. At times it appeared that we were trying to pull a lot of information together with no real focus.
Date published: 2019-08-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intellectually Challenging This was a deep course dealing with literary masterpieces. Not for the casual course taker. For me it was engaging and enlightening. Well worth the time spent taking the course.
Date published: 2019-07-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I could not finish this. The professor seems to be making an effort to show how intellectual he is. Much of the analysis is nonsensical and often so pretentious you want to scream. I thought this would be an entertaining look at sci fi. Worse course I ever bought. I defy you to get through some of these lectures without saying: Huh? Whats he talking about/"
Date published: 2018-11-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Interesting subject but problems with the disk I purchased the DVD which has all sorts of problems. I can't get from one chapter to the next without scrolling from the very beginning of the disk. It's a shame because I find the subject matter very intriguing.
Date published: 2017-10-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too Erudite but Did Encourage Further Study For all the knowledge of its professor, “Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind” struggles to be as interesting as the name would suggest. For such an exciting-sounding title, the course is a little . . . boring. I was really looking forward to uncovering more about imaginative works such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Time Machine,” Tolkien, Verne, etc. I was also really looking forward to learning more about 20th century science fiction, as I had done some other reading about it. However, I found the course really didn’t get going until the 20th lecture (on the rise of science fiction). In lectures 20 to 22, Professor Rabkin is really in his milieu, explaining the development of this genre in practical and understandable terms. His reviews of Heinlein and Clarke were interesting and understandable. Again though, this was too long to wait for the “good stuff,” and I thought there were other flaws as well: (1) The professor’s statements are so dense – he seems very smart – it is very hard to take in this course in an audio format. His style is more suited to an essay or a treatise than an engaging lecture. I had not read most of the works referenced nor even a number of the authors – and the teacher seemed to pick the more obscure works at times. As a result, the summaries of plot and so forth were not enough to really get why it was an interesting work. (2) The professor seemed to ignore the popular in favor of the obscure. I have to skewer him for his treatment of Tolkien (Lecture 10 – “Tolkien & the Mass Production of the Fantastic”). His coverage of “Lord of the Rings” is so paltry; this is the biggest selling book of the 20th century after the Bible, yet he devotes only minutes to it. It has done more to introduce people to fantasy than any book and has spawned movies that have made hundreds and hundreds of millions. However, Professor Rabkin focuses on lesser-known Tolkien works such as “Leaf by Niggle.” He is far too reductionistic with Lord of the Rings, casting Frodo as a common English person, Aragorn as Arthur, and Gandalf as Merlin. The book has swept the imagination of people far and wide, yet he fails to really honor the incredibly imaginative landscape of the work: its world, its languages, its themes. (3) Rabkin states the great connection between how science fiction deals with themes typically only otherwise touched on by religion. Yet he diminishes someone like C.S. Lewis, who sought to express his religion through his works, who is far more known than Walter Miller, Jr., who gets the bulk of the time in that regard. The course did spur me on to want to read more on authors covered in the course. I just find that it was too hard to get real insight into the material. For a book about imagination, it really failed to excite. A so-so course but nothing grand.
Date published: 2017-10-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from OK, But Not Compelling I am not very interested in fantasy literature, but I thought I would take this course to see if it would kindle an inclination to explore the genre. I am sorry to say, it may be too much to expect, but this course does not do it for me. I have enough interest to have read much of Edgar Allan Poe, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S, Lewis, Franz Kafka, and even Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, all many years ago. Professor Rabkin expands my knowledge beyond these staples and helps in understanding the various kinds of fantasy (within which Professor Rabkin includes science fiction), citing many authors to explore. At times, however, there seems too much to absorb in this course. Professor Rabkin moves from one author to another, referencing others earlier and later in time, comparing and contrasting authors and their works, identifying traditions and influences, as well as providing appropriate context. Professor Rabkin does all of this in a rather flat delivery style. Perhaps I am just too accustomed to the liveliness of such other TC professors as Kenneth Harl and Rufus Fears. I cannot fault Professor Rabkin for failing to kindle my interest in the genre. Most of the works he describes, and those that I subsequently sampled, just do not appeal to me. Most likely this is a matter of taste and/or a failure of imagination on my part. This 2007 course has a fine course guide, complete not only with fine lecture summaries, but also a very useful glossary, biographical notes on the key authors discussed, and annotated bibliography.
Date published: 2017-08-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poorly delivered, minimum interest I managed to listen and watch 3 lectures before I decided this course was not for me. The professor's delivery of the material was dull and the material itself may have been of interest to a specialist in the field but to me, a layman, it was too academic. He spent a lot of time discussing individual stories of authors without giving enough background or plot so that his conclusions made much sense. An English major or someone with an existing background in literature may benefit from this course, but it was too complex and detailed for me, a non-specialist.
Date published: 2017-06-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Tedious and pretentious I could not get through this course. It is simply way too high brow. I thought it might be an interesting walk through science fiction writing but it totally lacks entertainment value. Sounds more like a university round table where each professor attempts to show how pompously intellectual he or she may be. Gave set to my local library where I am certain it will merely gather dust. Quite disappointing.
Date published: 2017-06-08
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