Why Are So Many Fantasy Novels Published As Trilogies?
It’s a simple question, to which I’m going to propose an extremely abstruse and complicated answer. Doing so will take us, as the phrase goes, a long way round the houses. And I’m honestly not sure if we’ll end up anywhere very worthwhile. But there you go.
Before we set off, I could briefly rehearse one — I suppose — obvious answer to the question. The reason trilogies are so prevalent in Fantasy publishing is because Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was published as a trilogy 1954–55, and that particular novel has had a determining or shaping effect on the way the genre then developed. You, aspiring writer, set out to write a High Fantasy novel. To do so you inhabit the forms and conventions that define the mode, copying these things directly from Tolkien, or else from other writers who have copied Tolkien. Insofar as that goes, the tripartite shape is, fundamentally, adventitious. It just so happened that Allen Unwin put out Lord of the Rings in three vols: Tolkien wanted a two-volume set (vol 1 being the Silmarillion, vol 2 the whole of Rings in one book) but his publishers weren’t having that — Silmarillion they considered too uncommercial to publish at all, and Rings too long to be a one-volume issue. Postwar publishing was not in a strong place: paper prices were still affected by the long-tail of wartime shortage, the economy was weak and books were (unlike today!) expensive relative to income, which meant that sales were sluggish. Allen Unwin put out the first third of the novel as The Fellowship of the Ring to test the water. The book did reasonably well: not spectacularly, but well enough for the other volumes to follow. It was the later success of Tolkien’s fantasy in the 1960s and after, when Lord of the Rings became a campus favourite and then a global bestseller, that impressed that three-vol shape on later Fantasy.
It might have been different: C S Lewis’s Narnia series is seven books long (probably, as Michael Ward argues, for reasons connected with the seven planets of medieval Ptolemaic cosmology). It’s possible seven could have been the default rather than three, but it just happened that three proved more definitive. (Some fantasy series do run to seven volumes, of course: it’s just not the default).
I’m not saying that is wrong, exactly, although I am going to suggest that matters are much more complex than this.
Am I right when I say that ‘the trilogy’ remains the default mode for Fantasy writing? You may, right now, be coming up with a range of examples of successful and impactful fantasy writing published in formats other than the trilogy. It’s not hard. What I would say, I think, is that the tripartite structure of Fantasy publishing sometimes gets obscured by the way commercial success tempts writers into adding lucrative extra works to their ‘sequence’. Stephen Donaldson, setting out to ape Tolkien in the 1970s, published a trilogy of Fantasy novels as ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’ — Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), The Illearth War (1977) The Power That Preserves (1979). But then he returned to the world of his fantasy ‘Land’ with various later titles, eventually publishing a trilogy of trilogies, his first threesome being followed by The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1980–1983) and The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (2004–2013). Terry Brooks’s even more derivatively Tolkienian Sword of Shannara trilogy (1977–1985) was later added-to with a dozen or more — I haven’t the patience to count how many precisely — sequel and prequel volumes. Ursula Le Guin returned to her Earthsea trilogy (1968–72) after several decades to add a second trilogy of titles (1990–2001), rather different in tone.
There’s another consideration. Fantasy authors who set-out to write according to a trilogy format sometimes stay true to that plan: Tad Williams’ tripartite Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, 1988; Stone of Farewell, 1990; To Green Angel Tower, 1993) for example, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy (2006–2008), or Leigh Bardugo’s very successful Shadow and Bone trilogy (2012–14), or Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy (2011–13) or N K Jemisin’s excellent Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17) or — well: I could cite hundreds of examples. But sometimes composition runs away with a writer. The two most prominent examples of this are perhaps Robert Jordan and George R R Martin. Jordan planned a three-volume ‘high fantasy’ epic under the rubric The Wheel of Time, publishing the first volume The Eye of the World in 1990; but popular success and his own self-indulgence diluted the structure until at his death eleven volumes had been published and the story was not finished — the sequence being posthumously completed by Brandon Sanderson with, perhaps fittingly, a trilogy of novels (The Gathering Storm, 2009; Towers of Midnight, 2010; A Memory of Light, 2013). Martin, a much better writer than Jordan, also planned a trilogy of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, to comprise A Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. The first volume was published in 1996, but three extra novels intervened (1999, 2000 and 2005) before the second eventually appeared in 2011. At time of writing Martin has said that two further volumes will follow, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, but he has already published other spin-off and prequel books, and it would be foolish to predict what the final shape of the series will be. Notable parallel cases in science fiction include Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy (1965–76), later greatly augmented by Herbert and, after his death, by his son Brian; and George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy of movies (1977–1981), later expanded into a trilogy of trilogies and indeed expanded very extensively beyond those nine core films. The subject of ‘trilogies’ in cinema is a large one and deserves a separate study, actually. But I don’t mean to be distracted here.
So will you join me, as I go round the houses on this question? No?
The larger context for my asking the question that titles this post is this: I’m working, slowly, on a Short History of Fantasy. I have posted a few bits and pieces from this project to my blog before. To nutshell the matter: in this old post I argue that what we now call ‘Fantasy’, or ‘genre Fantasy’, was galvanised by the enormous commercial success and reach of Tolkien and Lewis — especially Tolkien — in the 1960s and 1970s. My thumbnail history in that post traces a three phase development:  the various examples of ‘Fantasy’ that predate and in some cases influenced Tolkien-Lewis (William Morris, Hope Mirrlees, Conan, Fritz Leiber and so on) and three larger influences in particular: Bunyan’s allegorical fantasyland in Pilgrim’s Progress, the 19th-C fascination with Arthurian legend, and Wagner;  Narnia and Middle Earth, and  how the success of those two Fantasy series played out in the great delta of often frankly derivative Fantasy writing that has been so prominent a feature of literature over the last five decades or so. There are thousands and thousands of novels written in this mode, after all. A more recent blog, on Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) updates my broad thesis to incorporate important Fantasy titles that don’t really fit that model, like Beagle’s book and Susanna Clarke’s mighty Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004).
But for present purposes I’m sticking with those three feeder-streams, Bunyanesque allegory, Wagner and the revival in the 19th-century of interest in Arthurian medievalism. Each, I argue, has exerted a shaping influence on the way Fantasy developed through the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century. I’m going to come at the blog’s titular question via the last of the three: Arthurianism.
It ought not to be hard to persuade you there is significant overlap between Arthurian Fantasy and genre Fantasy as a mode. Both the mood and the specific narrative shapes of the Arthurian legendarium are present in a thousand genre Fantasy novels — the coming of a king, the battle to unify and define the kingdom, warrior-heroes abiding by a chivalric code, going on quests, fighting monsters, and otherwise having adventures, a wizardly Merlin-figure who guides or advises the hero, complications of a love plot, the ‘last battle’ and, most of all, the element of the once and future king, rex quondam rexque futurus, that Tolkienian kingly return.
There are many contemporary Fantasy novels that are actual retellings of Arthurian legend: notably, T H White’s The Once and Future King (1958) together with its spin-offs, the Camelot musical and the Disney Sword in the Stone movie; Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset (1963) and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983) though to literally thousands of Arthurian novelisations and film-adaptations produced in the twentieth- and twenty-first century.
But there are a great many Fantasy novels that don’t specifically dramatise Arthurian legend and yet still draw on Arthurian prototypes. John Teehan identifies five key elements ported from Arthurian myth into contemporary non-Arthurian Fantasy: the commoner who is really a king; the wizard who guides the hero; an enchanted sword or other magic artefact; a Quest; and what Teehan calls ‘diverse companions’, a ‘round table’ or fellowship. Teehan mentions, as examples: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, David Eddings’s Belgariad sequence, Howard’s Conan stories, Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Pratchett’s Discworld, Moorcock’s Elric, Marvel Comic Universe’s Thor and the Dungeons and Dragons game and its (many) associated novelisations. We could add lots of other examples.
Why there should be such a wide crossover from Arthuriana into contemporary Fantasy — and what this has to do with the question of trilogies — is perhaps less obvious. It may be that the Arthurian influence on genre Fantasy has been so pervasive and widespread that we simply take it for granted, don’t interrogate it further. But this would be a mistake. Contemporary genre Fantasy is not simply an, as it were, secularised or de-Arthur-ised modern version of the Arthurian legendarium. Though there are important continuities between Arthurian myth and modern Fantasy, there are important differences too.
My aim here is to discuss not just why King Arthur has appealed so very much, and in the particular ways he does, to the British. There were plenty of medieval Romances that include Arthur, in English and French, legends in which he is one of the seven worthies, along with Charlemagne, Roland and so on. But after the medieval period Arthurian legend falls pretty much into cultural desuetude until (there’s been a fair bit of scholarship on this) it comes roaring back into popularity in the 19th-century: Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult, Morris’s Defence of Guenevere, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Wagner’s Tristram und Isolde. This second flourishing of Arthuriana is, inarguably, a significant cultural phenomenon in its own right, as well as something that — it seems to me, obviously — pays forward in significant ways into the next century’s big boom in Fantasy.
In this larger two-step history, the medieval florescence of Arthurian storytelling and its nineteenth- and twentieth-century reflorescence — rex quondam rexque praesens — Spenser’s enormous, unfinished Arthurian epic The Faerie Queene (1590–96) has an important place: the last, major work for the first phase, and a direct influence on the Romantic and Victorian medieavalism that saw a recrudescence in Arthurian fantasies.
Now: Frank Kermode argues that readers misunderstand the allegory of Faerie Queene by failing to grasp the particular way in which, for Spenser and his audience, myth, history and religion braid together [Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (Routledge 1971)]. Specifically, Kermode argues, Spenser’s poem expressed a distinctly English Protestantism, one where Una is ‘the True Church’, Prince Arthur the secular true knight and Redcross the true knight of faith. For Kermode the important thing is the breadth, as it were, of Una’s signification, premised on ‘the claim that English Christianity was older than the Roman church.’ Renaissance Anglicans considered this claim — that Anglicanism predated Catholicism, and was the true and aboriginal version of Christianity as such — to be historically as well as theologically true. ‘All the apologists of the Settlement made the appeal to history as a matter of course’:
Whoever agreed that the English was the true catholic church had to think of her history as beginning not with the convulsions of Henry VIII’s reign, but … with the arrival in England of Joseph of Arimathea. For Christianity came here not from Rome, but from the East; and Una is descended from kings and queens whose ‘scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore’ [Fairie Queene, 1.5] … but ‘this catholic unity did not long continue’ says Foxe — thanks, of course, to the papacy. And Foxe enables us to recognise in Spenser’s text the features of certain especially guilty popes who were the progenitors of Duessa. [Kermode, 18]
This is the context in which Spenser’s fantasy worldbuilding and allegorical signifying is best understood: ‘Rome has divided the world and exiled the catholic church. Who will restore and re-establish it?’
The right and duty of restoring the Church to her pre-Hildebrandine purity (Canterbury independent of Rome, the sacrament administered in both kinds to the laity, no transubstantiation, proper respect for Romans 13) belonged to the heiress of Empire, to Elizabeth, whom Spenser in the dedication of his poem calls ‘most high, mightie and magnificent Empresse.’
This is the reason contemporary Arthurian Fantasy makes such a big deal of the quest for the holy grail — a feature (of course) of medieval and Maloryian texts, but not the central or defining episode the way it later becomes. I’m interested in this because it seems to me centrally to inform important aspects of contemporary Fantasy. This, in other words, is one of the things at stake in a commitment to English Arthurianism: the direct line of Christ’s ‘true’ church from Jerusalem to Glastonbury, via Joseph of Arimathea: Eden relocated to Avalon, Christian transcendence specified as an English topographic intensity.
Joachim of Fiore is important this larger story. People, from medieval thinkers to seventeenth-century radicals were captivated by his theory that the first two of the three ages ordained by God (a ‘Father’ age, a ‘Son’ age — to be followed by a ‘Holy Spirit’ age) had been completed, and the time for the tertium status was at hand. Various critics have stressed how important Joachim’s weird staged historiography and ‘eternal evangel’ theology has been to the later development of Western society — Erich Vögelin isn’t messing about when he asserts ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’ [Erich Vögelin, The New Science of Politics: an Introduction (1951), 112]. The four symbols Vögelin specifically identifies are:
(1) a ‘third age’, which Vögelin reads into the third positive status of Auguste Comte and the Third Reich of the Nazis. (2) a leader or ‘Fuhrer’ who shows the people the way into the third age (3) an inspired Gnostic prophet, (4) a new order of a spiritual community.
Nor was this some kind of niche fascination. Marjorie Reeves and Warwick Gould discuss, at length, the Joachimite presence in the work of Hegel, Lessing, Schelling, Michelet, Quinet, Pierre Leroux, George Sand, George Eliot — her Romola is, amongst other things, a fictional engagement with Joachimite ideas — Renan, Matthew Arnold, Huysmans, Yeats, D H Lawrence and James Joyce. [Reeves and Gould, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon 1987)] A who’s-who of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century thought and literature, there: all of whom saw the broader logic of history as essentially trinitarian and looked forward in varying ways to a ‘third age’, a tertius status, a global utopian spiritual (in some cases, literally Holy Spiritual) community to be governed by a rex futurus, heralded by a wizard-evangelist gnostic prophet.
As Reeves and Gould note, this is at once an iteration of a wider tendency to see ‘threes’ as significant in some fundamental or cosmic sense — they quote Joseph de Maistre to the effect that ‘“thinking in threes” is a universal human style’ (‘Ce nombre [trois] en effet se montre de tous côtés, dans le monde physique comme dans le moral, et dans les choses divines’) — and something more specifically Joachimite, a ‘fantasy’ in the religious and indeed psychoanalytic sense that, I am suggesting, informs ‘fantasy’ in a generic sense.
The connection with Fascism can’t be ignored — Hitler’s dream of a ‘Third Reich’ filtered Joachim via a specific German intellectual tradition — and the fascistic political logic of much commercial Fantasy certainly shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet: the valorisation of the warrior-king, the conflation of politics and magic, the emphatic racialisation of the built world. Norman Cohn explores in detail the throughline connecting Joachimites to what he calls ‘modern Nietzschean primitivists and their elite of amoral supermen’ and so on to the Nazi revival of a medievalist chiliast known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. [Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (2nd ed Pimlico 1993)]
Kermode quotes Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein’s theory that ‘Third Reich’ was a translation of Joachim’s tertius status. Lenin and Hitler both, according to Cohn, knowingly ‘secularised and revived’ traditions of apocalyptic fanaticism to serve their own political ends. ‘There are aspects of Nazism and Communism alike,’ he notes, ‘that are incomprehensible, barely conceivable even, to those whose political assumptions and norms are provided by liberal society.’ This is a very important truth, and one that can be restated, in more watery form, by saying: Fantasy, and its idioms of magic and myth, because they are not rational, can never really be liberal, or at least are structurally (that is, ideologically) much more compatible with fascism. I mean, I love all this stuff, and pointing this out is painful to me, but there we are. The dangerous charisma of the warrior-saviour shines in almost every classic example of the mode.
We’re at that dangerous intersection where history blurs into — or is deliberately confused with — myth. As Kermode puts it:
Arthur is not merely a Tudor ancestor, not merely a mirror of that chivalry which preserves the virtues in a troubled time, but also a Tudor version of that ancient eschatological dream, the Emperor of the Last Days.
The eschatological emphasis is particular striking, I think. The question could be framed this way: is Fantasy, as a mode, eschatological? A short answer might be: in a fairly complicated way, yes it is. I’d need a space longer than this blogpost to unpack all the ways in which it is. Wagner’s Ring is, straightforwardly, about the end of the world; Lord of the Rings is set at the end of the Third Age, as the world of magic and wonder the novel construes is dying, and its main storyline is an apocalyptic war to end wars (‘I am glad you are here with me,’ Frodo tells him companion, as Mount Doom spews its cataclysmic lava. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.’) In Westeros the dead have declared war on the living, and winter is coming. There is, we might say, an end-of-the-world vibe at play in the mode. The wrinkle is that Tolkien adds-in a new terminus to the Götterdämmerung-y prototype: the eucatastrophe — something so widely copied in subsequent popular culture that it has now become a cliché (I talk a little about the eucatastrophe, here). At any rate, Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, owes much to this English tradition. And there’s one other element which is important here. The religio-political discourse that frames Spenser’s epic is one deeply suspicious of the Papacy for political as well as theological reasons. One last quotation from Kermode:
The most insistent of all [Protestant] complaints against the papal antichrist is, probably, that which concerns the usurpation. Thus Foxe, like Luther, is always on the emperor’s side against the pope, and, like John Jewel, holds that the emperor has the power to call General Councils and the right to exact temporal obedience from the Bishop of Rome; an argument of great importance to the English.
Now, Tolkien was of course a Catholic; but he also self-identified as intensely English, and there are certainly ways in which the broader cultural assumptions of English politicotheology feed into his legendarium, and so through him into late 20th-C early 21st-C commercial Fantasy more generally. Spenser posits two knights, Arthur and Redcrosse, because he believes the secular knight and the knight of faith are both equally needful in the battle against the antichrist. Tolkien divides his anti-Sauron labour between his quondam-et-futurus king Aragorn on the one hand, and Gandalf, a maia, or type of angel, on the other, for related reasons. The Tolkienian eucatastrophe is a theological device rather than a plot-trick to toy with our emotions. It is a way of saying that our individual mortality (our human deaths, as functions of our human sinfulness) is brilliantly if unexpectedly redeemed in Christ, such that although it looks like we are doomed and continues looking like we are doomed until the very last moment, in that lastness lies the possibility for doom to be miraculously averted. As for the individual, so for the whole: the gloom of Pagan dying, and the severity of the Old Testament version of the Law, is unexpectedly transformed into mercy by the coming of Christ.
Tolkien, as a Catholic, took the Trinity seriously. The manifest trinitarianism of design of The Lord of the Rings is not a case of him playing games with this divine pattern, but rather of him expressing something he believed true of the universe in a deep sense, and working that truth into his subcreation. And that trinitarian pattern is both prominent in the novel — perhaps its very obviousness has meant that critics have tended not to discuss it — and, through Tolkien’s influence, has become a mainstay of genre fantasy more broadly.
To return to the question with which I started: why is the trilogy so predominant a form for publishing contemporary Fantasy? It does goes back to Tolkien of course, although. He sometimes expressed a preference for thinking of the book as a unity, but he also quite happily described it as a trilogy in a letter to W H Auden [7 June 1955]. And trinitarian logics pervade The Lord of the Rings. The theophany of the novel — if we extract it, and constellate it with Tolkien’s other writing — reconfigures God the Father (Eru Ilúvatar), earthly embodiments of this divine force (the maiar) and a ‘Holy Spirit’ described in the novel as ‘the secret fire’ — in Moria, confronting the Balrog, Gandalf (himself a maia) declares ringingly: ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.’
I have no evidence that Tolkien specifically read Joachim of Fiore, but he was manifestly aware of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century tradition of neo-Joachimite thought in which not just history but the universe itself divide into a ‘father’, a ‘son’ and a ‘holy spirit’ logic. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a ‘Third Age’, after the First Age in which God the Father creates the world and the ‘Second Age’ in which Sauron rises and falls and the world is remade from a flat plate into a globe. And, as several critics have noticed, the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings embodies three distinct historical periods within itself: the kingdom of Rohan, which is a essentially Anglo-Saxon realm of horselords and Old English poetry, cognate to, perhaps, the 8th-century; the realm of Gondor, a later quasi-medieval city and culture, 12th-century or later; and the north-western portion of the map encompassing Bree and The Shire, a place of waistcoat-wearing pipe-smokers, of comfortable bourgeois domiciles, steam-kettles and pop-guns: a version of England on the verge of industrialisation, and therefore an as-it-were 18th-century world. This disposition of the topography of Tolkien’s fantasy realm defies history, for in reality social and technological advances do not remain sealed away in individual countries, but diffuse across whole continents. But Tolkien knows what he is doing: an older, tragic-heroic age; a middle age of chivalry and nobility; a newer ‘third’ age, out of which is supplied the ‘saviour’ figure who redeems the world and destroys the forces of evil.
The ‘fellowship’ at the heart of Tolkien’s story is nine people, a trinity of trinities — to match the nine Nazgul, men suborned into evil by Sauron. Those nine are a trio of ‘leaders’ or fathers (Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir), three intermediary characters (Frodo, Legolas and Gimli) and three subaltern, or ‘childish’ characters (Sam, Merry and Pippin). Although that said, something interesting happens to the triple-tripartite character structure with which Tolkien begins the story: after Boromir’s death it reconfigures into three distinct trios in three separate storylines: Frodo, Sam and new-recruit Gollum — a compromised yet, in the end. essential member of the fellowship — travel into Mordor; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue the orcs who have kidnapped the other hobbits, and those hobbits themselves, Merry and Pippin, escape and reconnect with the resurrected Gandalf.
That wizardly resurrection has annoyed some critics, but it is crucial to the larger project of the book. To say ‘we live, we die’ is to make a merely materialist statement of existence; but to say ‘we live, we die, we live again’ is to articulate something crucial to Christian thought, and to sketch a Joachimite schema that moves us from the merely individual-existential to the social, collective realm construed as a to-come. We might describe ‘genre Fantasy’ as a backward-looking mode of art — might, indeed, deplore it as such, as Michael Moorcock does, as regressive, reactionary, traditional. But this is to miss the point of Tolkien’s work, which refracts its historicities (Old English, medieval, bourgeois eighteenth-century) into an implied futurity: the Third Age is coming to an end, and its adversarial evils are about to be defeated. This eucatastrophe implies a post-novel futurity that is, in fact, embedded in the novel’s prologue.
That this implied futurity is, in a key sense, Joachimite had important consequences for the myriad later Fantasy authors, few if any of whom have so much as heard of Joachim of Fiore, yet who imbibe via Tolkien the triple status model into their fantastical extrapolations. What future? Raymond Williams, reviewed the Reeves and Gould book I quote above, and thought they didn’t take their argument far enough. ‘The distinctions for which Reeves and Gould provide some of the important material’ struckWilliams as ‘decisive’ in a way Reeves and Gould do not explore.
There really are fundamental differences between ideas of a coming Golden Age (simple millenarianism), ideas of a universal spiritual transformation beyond the perspectives of orthodox religion (some forms of romanticism), and projects of liberation or revolution (now often generalised to Marxism but of course much wider and more diverse). That in confused times and minds these ideas are made to overlap is less significant, finally, than that they are different and often alternative or even opposed perspectives. To suppose that ‘the self-interpretation of modern political society’ or ‘the assumptions we all make about historical transition’ have their roots in Joachim’s ‘aggregate of symbols’ is not so much interpretation as an option for one perspective in preference to another. Where there is widespread perception, as in Vrchlicky’s poem on Joachim, of a ‘world sinking in the flood of vanity and blood’, it is all the more important to distinguish between alternative responses to it, and these are not so much ‘materialist’ and ‘religious’ as historical and meta-historical. The commitments that follow from these alternatives have become, in our time, fundamentally opposed. [Raymond Williams, ‘Past Masters’, London Review of Books 9:12 (25 June 1987). Williams implies that he is, here, Quoting Reeves and Gould; in fact he is quoting Roger Garaudy, Eric Voegelin and Frank Kermode respectively — as quoted in Reeves and Gould.]
So far as Fantasy is concerned, there is a connection, here, with Williams’ own preferred framework — Marxism — as explored above. But he goes on:
Was this so also in the 19th century, where in movements as diverse as romanticism, positivism, spiritualised history and socialism the doctrine of Threes — with generalised bows to Comte or Hegel, liberation or the dialectic — can with some initial plausibility be applied? I find I read that long crisis, and the very different crisis of our own century, in quite another way: as its actual history first, but then as the complex interaction of a received and still dominant religious consciousness and the new general formulations of both ‘society’ and ‘art’.
This is much more apropos. Tolkien would surely have repudiated any strictly Hegelian logic as applied to his fantasy (and did repudiate the materialist dialectic by which Hegel feeds through Marxist thought into twentieth-century socialism), but his novel was very much a response to the long crisis of his own century — its actual history, in which (as a soldier on the Western Front) he had participated, but also as this complex of religious consciousness and the newer formulations of society and art.
This, then, is how I’m answering the question I asked myself at the head of this post. Fantasy so often comes in trilogies — the trilogy form ‘fits’ Fantasy so well — because it is the formal expression of a deep trinitarian, quasi-Joachimite logic of Fantasy, or at least of Fantasy in this Tolkien and post-Tolkien idiom. Fantasy as a genre is ‘about’ history, in a metaphorical rather than a mimetic way; and that historicising aspect construes history as grounded in a deep past (a deep paternal, God-the-Father past), and as redemptive (God the Son) and as Geist, something abstracted from the merely material — in Fantasy novels this is often literalised as actual magic, or magical prophesy, or magical creatures like unicorns or dragons — which in turn figures a God-the-Holy-Spirit realm of the to-come.
That, at any rate, is my current working hypothesis.