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The word for world is story: towards a cognitive theory of (Canadian) syncretic fantasy Open Access


Other title
Thomas King
Canadian fantasy
Charles De Lint
cognitive theory
cognitive poetics
fantasy literature
Eden Robinson
syncretic fantasy
Nalo Hopkinson
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Bechtel, Gregory
Supervisor and department
Wharton, Thomas (English and Film Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Rak, Julie (English and Film Studies)
Hjartarson, Paul (English and Film Studies)
Sywnenky, Irene (Comparative Literature)
Attebery, Brian (Idaho State University)
Department of English and Film Studies

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Unlike secondary world fantasy, such as that of J.R.R. Tolkien, what I call syncretic fantasy is typically set in a world that overlaps significantly with the contemporary "real" or cognitive majoritarian world in which we (i.e. most North Americans) profess to live our lives. In terms of popular publication, this subgenre has been recognized by fantasy publishers, readers, and critics since (at least) the mid 1980s, with Charles De Lint's bestselling Moonheart (1984) and subsequent "urban fantasies" standing as paradigmatic examples of the type. Where secondary world fantasy constructs its alternative worlds in relative isolation from conventional understandings of "reality," syncretic fantasy posits alternative realities that coexist, interpenetrate, and interact with the everyday real. In the texts examined in this dissertation, for example, Celtic bards and Native spirits appear in contemporary Ottawa (De Lint, Moonheart), vodoun practitioners and their patron spirits are depicted in a near-future Toronto (Hopkinson, Brown Girl), and non-human characters from Native traditions (such as Coyote and B'gwus) play active roles in shaping the lives of contemporary characters in Alberta (King, Green Grass) and British Columbia (Robinson, Monkey Beach). In its explicit reconciliation of multiple (often cross-cultural) worldviews within a single narrative, syncretic fantasy explores the possibility that differing worldviews and the collision points between them may be negotiated not (only) as points of conflict but as opportunities for renovating and reconstructing these worldviews in new configurations. This process, in turn, echoes contemporary models of syncretism as a cognitive process. These models describe all cultural worldviews as deeply syncretic, arguing that individuals always integrate (or syncretize) a variety of (sub)cultural worldviews into their own idiosyncratic understandings of both Self and "reality." By consistently representing the syncretic integration of multiple worldviews as an explicit element of its narrative structures, syncretic fantasy also models the potential for syncretically reintegrating heterogeneous, cognitive minoritarian identities, stories, and histories into the contemporary cognitive majoritarian world. These narratives—by virtue of their presentation as fantasy—do not present definitive solutions to the difficulties of cross-cultural interaction but rather envision the possibility of such resolutions within explicitly imaginary, story-centric frameworks. Accordingly, this study undertakes several concurrent tasks: to seek out compatible critical frameworks for explaining the prototypical discursive strategies of fantasy and syncretic fantasy, to use these frameworks to construct a (tentative) cognitive model of syncretic fantasy, and to explore and extend this model in relation to particular literary texts. In the first case, I work outwards from existing fantasy criticism to demonstrate the underlying compatibilities between these critical frameworks and various contemporary models of cognition, story, and syncretism. In the second, I investigate how syncretic fantasy paradigmatically depicts—and thereby both models and implicitly postulates as possible—the (often cross-cultural) syncretic reconstruction of individual identities, stories, and histories in contemporary contexts. And in the last, I explore syncretic fantasy's utility as a critical heuristic for explaining these same narrative processes in texts both "inside" and "outside" the genre of fantasy proper, processes that have thus far proven difficult to explain through existing non-fantasy-based critical frameworks. The central task of this dissertation, then, is not to develop a static definition of syncretic fantasy, but rather to explore the interpretive and cognitive possibilities uncovered by both elucidating the paradigmatic structures of syncretic fantasy and reading particular texts through the critical heuristic(s) implied by these paradigms.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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File title: The Word for World is Story: Syncretism and Conceptual Blending in Contemporary Canadian Fantasy
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