William Gray, who has died aged 66 after a stroke, broke new ground in the academic study of fantasy by creating a multidisciplinary space that connected literature, philosophy, theology, folklore and the creative arts. He forged that space in his own writings and as the founder of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester.
Bill’s work validated the importance of studying fantasy, which has a long yet often trivialised history in literature and folklore. His published scholarship used multiple perspectives to reveal the existential depth of fantasy and fairytales, and the rich intellectual substance in their study.
In 1998 he published CS Lewis, a critical study that used this approach to illuminate the complex life and works of the theologian, literary scholar and author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Bill also drew on philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis and literary theory in subsequent books, including Death and Fantasy (2008), to show how fantasy writers – including Lewis, Philip Pullman, George MacDonald and Robert Louis Stevenson – engaged in the fundamental questions of life and death. In Fantasy, Art and Life (2011), he explored the relationship of fantasy to reality and the Janus-faced power of the imagination either to enhance life or to falsify it.
In Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth (2009), Bill traced the roots of modern fantasy fiction to Romanticism. Just as the German Romantics, such as Novalis and ETA Hoffman, had appropriated spirituality from organised religion to create a “new mythology” in their fairytales and philosophy, so British fantasy writers from MacDonald to Pullman also engaged with religious and philosophical traditions to create new mythic worlds. With this pioneering study of the genealogy of fantasy fiction for children, Bill pointed the way towards a more complex understanding of contemporary mythmaking.
Bill’s transcultural approach informed his book Robert Louis Stevenson (2004), which elucidates the Scottish writer’s biography as a “literary geography”, reflecting the contexts in which Stevenson wrote, from Europe to the Pacific Islands, where he traded tales with the indigenous islanders. Bill’s forthcoming edition of Stevenson’s fables and fairytales will, for the first time, give access to all the author’s fantastic works in the order and form in which he intended them to be read.
Bill founded the Sussex centre in 2009 – now called the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. The centre reflects his vision for the study of fantasy and wonder on an international and interdisciplinary scale, as does its scholarly journal Gramarye, which he launched as founding editor in 2012. As a site for conferences, symposiums, lectures, exhibits, concerts and other public events, the centre has become a mecca for scholars and artists from the UK and abroad.
The centre’s success, under Bill’s direction, has contributed to the UK’s leading role in the 21st-century study of fantasy – not only in folklore and literature but in television, film and other media. The writer and academic Marina Warner described him as “a high-spirited intellectual force” who “put fantasy studies on the map from a literary and philosophical point of view”.
In an era fascinated by Harry Potter and all things fantastic, Bill reached out beyond academia. In newspaper articles and media appearances, he challenged the notion that fairytales were children’s fare or escapist fantasy, emphasising that traditional tales and their modern adaptations confront us with life’s harsh realities – such as dysfunctional families – and offer hints about survival in difficult times.
He also advised on creative performances, including the National Theatre’s adaptation of MacDonald’s The Light Princess (2013) and a production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Royal Opera House in 2011. Universal Pictures called on Bill to serve as mythic and folklore adviser on its popular film Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).
Born in Glasgow, Bill was the son of Nelson, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife, Joyce (nee MacDonald), a founding member of the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women. He grew up amid poverty in the East End of Glasgow, where his father felt called to serve. With the encouragement of his primary school teachers, Bill went to Glasgow academy on a full scholarship.
He took a degree in modern languages at Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied with David Luke, then translating the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm for his later Penguin edition. At Oxford, Bill discovered German fairytales and was also confronted with existential questions, which led him to study theology, first at the University of Edinburgh (1975) and then at Princeton University (1978). He was awarded his PhD in 1981 for a thesis on the contribution of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer to the development of Christian theology.
In 1981 Bill was appointed lecturer in religious studies at the University of Chichester (then the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education). He also taught courses in aesthetics, and eventually moved into related arts – including dance, theatre, film, painting and theory – and English literature. He remained at Chichester throughout his career and retired as professor of literary history and hermeneutics in 2016.
Bill is survived by his wife, Lorna (nee Taylor), whom he married in 2002, his son, Jonathan, and daughter, Rebecca, from his first marriage, to Carol Poong, which ended in divorce, and stepdaughter, Rosanna.
•William Nelson Gray, literary critic and historian, born 30 July 1952; died 8 April 2019