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 74.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Well done; didn't increase my love for the subject Professor Rabkin is well articulated and knows his subject well. Unfortunately, after listening to the first of four DVDs, I find my sense of wonder for the stories he discusses to be less not more. This is a valuable series for background info on the story authors. However, Professor Rabkin's insight into the stories suggesting suppressed sexuality, the dangers of colonialism, etc. dampened my appetite for reading the stories he was covering. I guess I read fantasy & science fiction to add magic to my life rather than ground me more in the struggles of humankind.
Date published: 2020-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable listen! I purchased this course last fall and have listened through the entire lecture series at least five times- I catch something new every time. Professor Rabkin makes easy work of relating the evolution of fantasy in literature and his conversational style feels like you're listening to a friend tell you about their favorite hobby. As a writer, I love the insight into the minds of the great authors of some of history's most-treasured works.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Interpretive Course of the Fantastic I have a habit of reading the negative reviews of a course before I purchase it if it is in a subject I have only a moderate interest in. I did not do that with this course because it runs along the lines of my post secondary education and the work I now do professionally. The other day, after watching one of these lectures, I decided to look at the negative reviews. First, I am a long time customer of the Great Courses. For the most part I have found almost all the courses I have viewed or listened to very informative. This was no different. However, this is not a general easy answer introductory course many expect it to be and so one should not approach it as such. Among the negative reviews there was a intimation that the lecturer was either lacking in his information presentation for his audience or he was overly affected by his own intelligence. Having taken many, many English courses in university over my career I can tell you he was not either of these things. For me, his presentation was nuanced, very analytical, very well researched, and a pleasure to listen to and watch for the most part (his obvious reading of the teleprompter could be annoying, but that is a minor irritant). This can not be said of all the presenters on the Great Courses. That is the nature of, well, human nature. Second, I am a long time student of English Literature. I have read the criticisms that Prof. Rabkin quotes too much in a "sing song" patronizing way (really, does anyone listen or read older poetry anymore for the effects of rhythm and meter?), uses Freud too much (I think he only referenced Freud in one lecture), and makes up his own interpretations, ie. "It felt like he was just tossing theories at the wall to see if anything stuck." etc. I should note that I finished the course. I am not sure that most of the negative critics did. But I would also note that Prof. Rabkin is completely in line with how many professors of literature think and work, including reading the passages and poetry out loud. Much of all the humanities are subjective, as is life, and so when we plumb the nebulous depths of words and language searching for anything resembling such concepts as "truths" or "relationships" or "references" or even "beauty vs. ugliness" one has to bring one's own knowledge, experience, and worldview to bear. That is the nature of both the writing of literature and the interpreting of it. As a writer I might disagree with how someone has interpreted my work but there are at least two possibilities that can exist outside of my control: 1) the interpreter has their own agenda and wish to bend my words to their power (very common) or 2) the interpreter has seen something in my work that even I did not know I put there because, quite frankly, much of good writing is subconscious, arising from years of knowledge and experience coalescing into a sudden urge to write something down, good or bad, and do it day after day until the project is done. We little understand ourselves really. The study of literature can reach far beyond the known world of the mind, the easy answers and well worn trails, where our guides, sometimes in the forms of academics, must follow lost pioneer paths and hunting trails and interpret the wind and a new landscape. The aforementioned criticisms, even if they were accurate and well researched and intentioned, which they are not, arrive from someone, I would guess, who likes the well worn road. Little new wisdom can be gained there unless you have never trodden that path before. If this where one is then starting with an introductory lit course is recommended. Third, as a longtime fan and writer of the fantastic I found in Rabkin's analyses refreshing and informative. He made me rethink much of the classics, both fantasy and science fiction, I had grown up with. As a reader and writer this can only help me and in fact challenge me to up my game and be inspired. I think his treatment of both the fantasy and the science fiction elements of his course were well done, though yes, it does seem obvious he is a huge scifi fanboy. Everyone has their biases. Personally, I would rather learn from someone who is passionate about what they are teaching, willing to sidestep into the dark nether reaches of potential connections and meaning, then just a requoting (yes, I know that's "not a word") of what other "great critics" have said. That is, after all, the spirit of the fantastic itself, to push the boundaries, to think things most would not dare. In conclusion, the most common disappointing thing I find among a lot of these courses are the reviews themselves, most often the negative ones. They often seem biased, as if STEM people want the humanities to fit into some kind of easy to digest formula. As a science lover, I always find this disappointing, like when I read a GC philosophy professor's course being degraded because he has long hair and discusses Buddhism while talking about the nature of evil. We have begun to mix up education and the accumulation of wisdom (now a dirty word, it seems) with our expectation of entertainment based on our biases. I do not know about you, but most of my important understandings of the world came from keeping an open mind and accepting some hard truths that I had often had to work very hard at, if not painfully, to grasp. Prof. Rabkin's course was, or me, not particularly difficult, but it was very well organized, informative, interesting and even entertaining, and for that he has my thanks and appreciation.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fresh Perspectives on Fantasy and Science Fiction Throughout this 24-lecture course, Dr. Eric S. Rabkin impressed me as an erudite, well-organized, and grammatically correct lecturer. He analyzed a generous total of works by remarkable writers. Despite that, I was sorry that a number of influential authors of fantasy and science fiction (e.g., Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffrey, John Wyndham, Piers Anthony, Douglas Adams, J. K. Rowling) received no attention. As for Frank Herbert, we were merely told that his “Dune” was the first science fiction novel to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards—a rather minimal commentary on what is reported to be the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. Quite a few of the works that Dr. Rabkin did evaluate are lesser-known ones, some (though not all) of which are mentioned in lesson-by-lesson descriptive paragraphs under “Course Overview” in Teaching Company advertising. This, though, is one of their products for which considerable prerequisite reading would have been advisable, especially since the professor fairly frequently revealed synoptic content at length, even reading aloud the final pages of some stories and longer works without announcing “spoiler alert.” As a specific example, I cite how Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” was discussed. I had already read and admired it, and I considered Dr. Rabkin’s analysis of it truly brilliant; however, I’d have resented his giving away virtually its entire plot, including the ending, if I hadn’t read the novel. I had read about half of the featured works before viewing the course, and I wish now that I had requested a complete reading list in advance and prepared more as I might have for a graduate course in imaginative literature. Still, this Course #2997 could serve as a companion course to Dr. Grant L. Voth’s “History of World Literature” (Great Course #2300). My wife and I studied these DVD lessons together; and I agree with her view that, in most of them, Dr. Rabkin concentrated on details and subtleties of individual works, while more time spent discussing the growth and characteristics of various genres and sub-genres would have been welcome. As she put it, the professor focused on “the trees,” and we would have liked to learn more about “the forest.” Exceptions to that pattern were the more balanced lectures #8 on “Woolf—Fantastic Feminism & Periods of Art” and #20 on “Pulp Fiction, Bradbury, & the American Myth.” Dr. Rabkin expounded many interpretive literary theories. All were intriguing, intellectual, and sophisticated. Some of them I considered more convincing and better supported than others. Commendably, the professor did recognize the relevance of fairy tales, innovative literature from long ago, and children’s books to his overall topic. Despite having said that I’d have appreciated some “spoiler alerts,” I did enjoy it when he read aloud expressively from featured works, especially from the examples of fantastic poetry. I do recommend the course as worthwhile, though it is complex and academic to the point that it might be most fully appreciated by professorial colleagues and graduate students.
Date published: 2020-05-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I have to agree with the negative reviews. During your life, you've probably encountered people who were very smart, very analytical and very well read. You probably also encountered people who came off as wanting to appear smarter than everyone, capable of deeper analysis than anyone, and better read than anyone, especially you. Such people may be all these things, and they may also be so full of themselves that they are convinced that any theory they propose is the One Real Truth (no matter how fragile and stretched are the threads that hold the theory together). Let me introduce you to Professor Rabkin.
Date published: 2020-05-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I wish I had read the reviews The presenter’s unwarranted focus on sex and sexual imagery and symbols became annoying. Sometimes I felt he was stretching. He did not offer proofs for his theories and I had to stop listening. I gave hardly ever had this experience with a class from The Great Courses. So disappointed.
Date published: 2020-03-20
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
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