Monday, March 16, 2009

A Short History of Fantasy

I have always lamented the lack of respect the fantasy genre receives.

Now it doesn’t seem to matter what genre an author writes in, they all complain about how little respect their literary form gets. I recall Stephen King mentioning how maligned the “Horror” field was and recently a thriller writer I know bemoaned the lack of respect his writing category garnered. As I thought about it, none of the genres are respected. Sci-fi, Romance, Thrillers, Mysteries, Horror, Adventure…they all are denounced. Fantasy however, is the ugly stepsister to the ugly stepsister. It doesn’t even have its own section in a bookstore.

I have yet to walk into a Barnes and Noble or Borders and see a fantasy section. The best that can be hoped for is a “Science Fiction/Fantasy” section. I personally feel there is a huge difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but one could argue that Sci-Fi and Fantasy are both part of Speculative Fiction and this is why they share shelves, but Horror is also Speculative Fiction and yet it manages to have its own section. Given the recent upsurge in fantasy’s popularity, with such successes as Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings books and films, I would have thought it could have earned its own distinction, but so far, nothing.

I find this a strange rebuke given the distinguished history of the fantasy genre. Recently I was asked to give a talk on this very subject (more or less) for a writers group, which caused me to take what I already knew and add research to it. What I learned was interesting enough that I thought I would share it here.

Fantasy is the oldest form of literature. The ancient Sumerian Legend of Gilgamesh, suspected of being the first literary work of fiction, is a fantasy tale. The story of a hero-king who goes on amazing adventures with his half-wild friend Enkidu, follows the genre standard fairly well. While it abounds with myths, so do most modern fantasies.

Following this auspicious beginning, we find such works as Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey displaying the classic fantasy precept: “a hero with a destiny, on a quest against fantastical, often supernatural, adversaries.” Then as social constraints tightened, fantasy used allegory to say what couldn’t be so easily spoken of as in Dante’s Divine Comedy and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and more recently a means of conveying a complex idea through parable or fable such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Oddly enough, you won’t find any of these books in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of your local bookstore, and yet each one is pure fantasy.

Of course, the modern age of fantasy began in the 1800’s with the three: George MacDonald, William Morris, and Lord Dunsany. MacDonald was the first to write fantasy for adults saying, "I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five." His stories concern themselves with people from reality entering into a fictitious world similar to Alice in Wonderland that came not too much later. Morris took it a step farther, having the whole story take place in a completely separate invented world. Dunsany (his real name being Edward Plunkett), established the genre in both novel and short story form.

Despite Morris and Dunsany using ancient Norse style myths, such as dwarves and magic swords, the fantasy genre was dominated through the turn-of-the-century by wild adventure stories such as King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard, (1885) writing in response to Treasure Island which he considered “over-rated”, Rudyard Kipling (Jungle Book), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) 1912.

What today we consider fantasy was still trapped in the realm of Juvenile fiction with works like Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. It wasn’t until the twenties with the publication of the first all-fantasy fiction magazine, Weird Tales created in 1923 that popularity for the genre took hold. Other magazines followed and launched the careers of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard (Conan), Fritz Lieber (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser). This pulp fiction format brought fantasy, as a serious genre, to wide audiences in the U.S. and Britain.

Then came the Inklings, most notably J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis who reached back and tapped into the ideas of Morris and MacDonald respectively and created The Lord of the Rings and The Narnia Chronicles, stories of swords and wizards, dwarves and elves, destiny and good versus evil. While they were reasonably well-received at the time of publication, between the thirties and mid-fifties, it really wasn’t until the paperback publication of the Lord of the Rings in the sixties, that the fantasy genre really took off.

Science Fiction had already been popular through the fifties, but as the popularity of fantasy grew across college campuses, some science fiction writers began to turn to fantasy. Lin Carter and Ursula LeGuin for examples transitioned and I suspect this may be why fantasy was, from then on, stuffed in with the more established Sci-Fi books and seen as being of the same kin.

Still it wasn’t until 1977 when Terry Brooks published the Sword of Shannara—the first to appear on the New York Times Bestseller’s List—that it was proven someone, whose name wasn’t Tolkien, could succeed in fantasy.

In the eighties came the ongoing series phenomenon with the likes of David Eddings and in the nineties came the “fat-books” as epitomized by the likes of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. This became entrenched as the tradition of fantasy. The long, dense books of world-building, of endless series that ended in cliffhangers, of unpronounceable names and archaic dry prose. For traditionalists, these are wonderful books, only as the nineties ended a new audience was discovering fantasy.

Lured into reading by J. K. Rowling’s Potter series, kids grew up and wanted more. Adults, who never considered reading fantasy before, went to see the “Ring” movies and liked them. They picked up the fat-books, but didn’t care for the heavy, long-winded descriptions and the all too typical stories of the last forty years. They want engaging, character driven stories that—if not totally new—are fresh takes on old ideas (much the same way Tolkien and Lewis were on Morris and MacDonald.)

As the century turned again, a new revolution appears to be taking shape in the fantasy industry. New, unconventional, writers are popping up and fans are embracing them. Writers like Brandon Sanderson, Suzanna Clarke and Patrick Rothfuss who defy the traditions and push the boundaries are finding more than just acceptance, they are finding thirsty readers, parched from a long drought of sameness.

It does not surprise me that a young adult book such as Harry Potter appears to have precipitated this change. After all, the revolution of Tolkien, which established the benchmark of fantasy, also began with a young adult novel—The Hobbit.


  1. Interesting history, Michael. I had never followed the history of the genre that far back before. Lots of new information for me. Thanks.

    What path do you see the genre taking in the future? I know you're starting to see more "realism" infused into fantasy novels these days with George R.R. Martin at the forefront. While his work on A Song of Ice and Fire has slacked off, his influence is still there. Select authors seem to be moving away from the over-arching uses of magic and the traditional characters of elves and wizards. Personally, I like the change in scenery.

    Steven Till

  2. George RR Martin is certainly an interesting case. I actually see him as something of a transitional author. His work is certainly breaking from the traditions in respect to plot, but he still retains the traditional trappings of the archaic prose and world-centric focus, that keep his work inaccessible to readers attracted by more easily read, character-driven stories.

    I am trying to read him right now myself because I have heard such good things, but honestly I find his style is pretty dense. I often feel as if I should be taking notes to keep the names of characters and places straight. I happen to feel that if a writer does his job well, then reading should be effortless. Certainly, by the time you have read the first fifty pages, as a reader, you should be lost in the story and not even realize you are reading. So far that has not been the case with Martin. Although, I have heard his books are landmarks in the genre insofar as their ground-breaking realism, which I think is great.

    In the future I see the genre of fantasy being held more to the standard of general fiction. Fantasy has always been allowed to be inaccessible to "laymen." No one expects the next Terry Goodkind novel to attract the kind of numbers as The Da Vinci Code. If you read the first page of either, you might see why. Fantasy has always enjoyed the privilege of readers willing to slog through hundreds of pages before finding the plot. The future of fantasy, I think, is in appealing to fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike. That means authors need to write books that will capture anyone's interest no matter if they know who Tolkien is or not.

    Stories need to grab readers from the first sentence and hold them until the last. The days of world-building for world-building sake, I think are gone. People aren't really looking for the next Middle-Earth so much as a really good story about great characters.


  3. I agree with your comments on Martin. It is tough to keep all his characters and plot lines straight, and sometimes I have to keep referring to the family trees in the back of the book for reference. Aside from that, his characters are well-developed, and you will go from liking a particular character for a while, to dis-liking them later on, to liking them again. And no character is safe from the ax.

    Also, I agree with your take on the fantasy genre in the future. It will need to appeal to a wide range of readers. Eventually, after that cycles through, it will probably return to the Tolkien-esk style of world building, as readers and writers become nostalgic for the old style of fantasy. But for now, the new style is here to stay.

  4. Hi Michael,

    A very interesting article. Are you aware there will be a book coming out soon named "A Short History of Fantasy"? I was looking for information and so came upon your blog.

    I am very interested in the history of fantasy myself and I pretty much agree with your take on it. Another writer with a lot of influence would be Terry Pratchett.

    There is one thing that I am very much opposed to, and I guess I differ with you in this, and that is to call ancient myths as Gilgamesh and Odyssey fantasy. I believe people do so to show that the modern genre of fantasy has respectable and respected roots, but I think 1) that is not necessary and 2) incorrect. The fantasy genre as a modern literary form is quite something else than the myths of bygone peoples, that were written by Homer and others as artful representations of the actual past that they believed to be real. The very distinction between reality and fantasy as escapism, where we are perfectly aware of with modern fantasy novels, is in question with myths.

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