Monday, April 14, 2014

Yes, There Was Fantasy Before the Eighties

A couple of weeks ago, and completely out of the blue, I was contacted through my website by the organisers of Pulpfest, a convention due to take place this summer in Columbus, Ohio, asking if they could use one of my articles for their programme.

For a few years, I've contributed articles to the excellent Fantasy Faction website, many of them about classic works of fantasy and their authors, and the article Pulpfest were interested in was the one I wrote about Fritz Leiber and his series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Since Fantasy Faction were fine about the article being reused, I was delighted to give permission.

During the exchange, we talked about how so many fantasy readers now seem unaware of the genre's rich history — part of my motivation for the Fantasy Faction series in the first place. It seems to be a common misconception that fantasy started with Tolkien, then nothing much happened till the 1980s.

Now, the 1980s were without doubt a wonderful explosion of fantasy, which in the decades immediately before had been regarded largely as a poor relation of science fiction, but the new works that began emerging certainly didn't come from nowhere. Fantasy has a long and illustrious history.

You could argue, of course, that fantasy has been around since the dawn of literature. The oldest extant work of fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is full of gods, magic and immortals, as are the slightly later great epics of Greece and India. Were these regarded as fantasy at the time, though? It's very difficult to say exactly how Homer and his audience, for instance, thought of the gods who took human form at Troy or the monsters Odysseus fought on his way home. It's likely that they wouldn't have seen these elements as completely impossible, but such tales of wonder would certainly have been regarded as something other than normal life.

Magic and the supernatural have abounded in epics, romances and fairy tales told since then, all across the world, from the Welsh Mabinogion to the great Chinese novel Monkey, or The Journey to the West.  No doubt many of these were written and received with the same mixture of acceptance and scepticism as Homer's works.

Possibly the first culture to define fantasy as a genre was mediaeval Iceland. Contrary to popular misconception, the Icelandic sagas weren't traditional oral tales, nor were they in verse, nor were they mostly about gods and heroes. They were highly sophisticated literary novels, serving the population with by far the highest literacy rate in Europe at the time, and most typically historical fiction examining the birth of the Icelandic Commonwealth in the tenth century.

However, a minority of sagas were retellings of the old legends (most famously the Volsunga Saga, essentially the same story that Wagner used for the Ring Cycle) and the Icelanders had a name for these: "lying sagas". The word lying didn't have quite the unpleasant and disapproving meaning it does now, but it did define these stories — as opposed to the "true-seeming sagas", which covered both fact and realistic fiction — as deliberate fantasy.

Fantasy continued to flourish through the centuries that followed. At least two of Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, are unmistakably fantasy, while others have supernatural elements. Both Hamlet and Macbeth, for instance, would be defined today as magic realism.

Eighteenth-century fantasy ranged from Gulliver's Travels to the new Gothic genre, which eventually evolved into horror, to William Beckford's wonderful Arabian Nights extravaganza, Vathek.  It was in the nineteenth century, though, that fantasy as we know it today began to evolve, along with the science fiction of Shelley, Verne and Wells. George MacDonald wrote a series of fantasy romances, some for adults and some ostensibly for children, but it was William Morris, artist, poet, socialist and wallpaper designer, who really laid the foundations of fantasy in a series of novels at the end of his life, in the 1890s.

Morris's approach was essentially similar to the mediaeval romances, but he completely abandoned any pretence of real geography. Although he occasionally mentioned Rome or Jerusalem, the stories were essentially set in a mediaeval world of his own invention. He sent his heroes and heroines — the heroines are usually the stronger characters — on magical adventures to the world's end or exploring enchanted islands, and threw the supernatural at them from all sides.

Morris certainly influenced later fantasy. His islands in The Water of the Wondrous Isles show a strong similarity to those in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, while Tolkien appears to have used The Well at the World's End as the plot template for Lord of the Rings (it even ends with a Scouring of the Shire episode). Beyond that, though, Morris set the template that fantasy is mediaeval, a perception that still persists, even against the clear fact that only a minority of fantasy settings are mediaeval.

As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, a number of authors followed in the footsteps of Morris and Macdonald. Lord Dunsany effectively created the fantasy short story as we know it, with tales of adventurers and thieves "beyond the fields we know" and "at the edge of the world". William Hope Hodgson created far-future fantasy (as opposed to far-future SF) with The Night Land, a flawed but still impressive epic. In the US, James Branch Cabell blended romance and comedy to create the light side of fantasy, along with his antihero Jurgen, the model for all those fantasy antiheroes who live by their wits. And, back in the UK, E. R. Eddison wrote the first fantasy epic as we know it today, The Worm Ouroboros. In place of the individual adventuring of Morris, Dunsany and Cabell, Eddison showed world-spanning political manoeuvring, a vast war and a desperate quest. Like The Night Land, it's a flawed book but well worth reading.

It was in the US pulp magazines, though, that fantasy really took off in the thirties and forties. Authors such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft (yes, he wrote fantasy too), C.L. Moore, Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Hannes Bok, Henry Kuttner and Poul Anderson — not to mention Fritz Leiber, the best of all in my opinion — took the Dunsanian fantasy short story and ran with it over the hills and far away.

Many were ambidextrous in fantasy and SF, especially those who wrote for John W. Campbell's magazine Unknown Worlds, and they tended to write stories that applied the rigour of hard SF to their fantasy worlds and magic systems. Perhaps the best example of that school is the series of stories Pratt and de Camp wrote about Harold Shea's adventurers in the worlds of mythology. Others, notably Howard, took the story of pure fantasy adventure to a new level and created the sword & sorcery genre — which Leiber, who stood somewhat between the two schools, proceeded to delightfully deconstruct and reinvent.

Back in Blighty, besides two Oxford dons with a taste for beer and tobacco, T.H. White and Mervyn Peake each created idiosyncratic fantasy like nothing before or since. As the fifties turned to the sixties and then the seventies, a series of fantasy authors began to emerge: Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Karl Edward Wagner, Anne McCaffery, Tanith Lee and many more. At the same time, Lin Carter and Ballantine began reprinting many of the older classics mentioned above, for readers looking for "something else like Tolkien".

In his 1973 book Imaginary Worlds, Carter pointed out an oddity: that, despite Tolkien's success, few fantasy authors seemed to be emulating him. That changed in the late seventies — around the same time that The Silmarillion was revealed to the world — with two epic fantasies. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks was cuttingly described at the time as an exercise in rewriting Lord of the Rings in your own words, although the series it spawned still has many fans. Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, on the other hand, was both recognisably in the same tradition as Tolkien and utterly different.

These seemed to open the floodgates, and fantasy began its rise to the point where now it's seen as a major genre by the entertainment industry. Authors such as Brooks, Donaldson, Gemmell, Eddings, Martin, Jordan and many others are now seen as the "old, classic" fantasy authors, and I've no wish at all to demean them. But fantasy is much, much older than the eighties, and any reader interested in knowing the roots behind their favourite would do well to investigate some of the authors I've mentioned. There are some great stories waiting for you.

Unless I win the lottery before summer, I'm not going to be able to get over to Pulpfest. I'm proud, though, to be helping them remind readers of some of the great classics of fantasy.

You can find links to all my Fantasy Faction articles on this page of my website, where I've discussed many of these authors in more detail.


  1. Very true. I remember many of the writers you've mentioned, though I'll admit that I have a hard time getting sucked into truly ancient sagas or even stuff from the early 20th century. The dismissal, or even just the invisibility, of my own gender can be hard to take. Sometimes I can get past it, sometimes I can't. The 80s seem to be when a large number of the female heavy hitters in fantasy first appeared, many of whom are still popular today. But your list includes some women who emerged earlier.

    I've actually run across the opposite issue too--people who haven't read anything terribly recent and assume that all fantasy is like LoTR, or like the stuff that was written in the 70s and 80s that was Tolkien (or Dungeons and Dragons) inspired. Some of them are people my age and older, which makes sense. But I'm surprised how many younger aspiring fantasy writers don't realize that elves and "elevated diction" haven't been expected or usual in fantasy for at least 20 years.

    Actually, some of the newer stuff reminds me a bit of Leiber. The same dark, sardonic edge is there.

    1. Yes, the lack of female characters can be an issue in a wide range of older literature. It varies in classic fantasy. Morris's heroines tend to be much stronger characters than his heroes, for instance. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles, the male lead is little more than the love-interest. Eddison had female characters who were a lot more than cyphers, although they tend to be seen from a male perspective. And later in the process, female authors such as Moore, Norton and Bradley had strong females - though strangely LeGuin didn't tend to have many strong female characters till later.

      Even so, I think even those early works that do short-change female characters are still worth reading for what they are, without ignoring their shortcomings by modern standards.