But where to look?
In theory (at least) they didn’t have to look very far. The hallmark elements of Tolkien’s fantasy – non-human races, inhuman monsters, imaginary landscapes, epic battles, heroic legends – have been around since the dawn of Western Literature. Classical examples include Homer’s two Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Latin epic, The Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, all of which are infused with narrative elements imaginatively adapted from myth and legend. Out of the meeting between Classical and Germanic culture comes the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters on sea and land before finally succumbing to the dragon in mortal combat.
In a subsequent fusion of cultures, Old English epic gave way to Norman French chansons de geste, which in turn gave rise to what can be loosely termed “chivalric romance”: fanciful tales of knight errantry. In the wake of the Crusades, these romances become interestingly infused with new fantasy elements derived from Islamic folklore: evil sorcerers, books of magic, secret gardens, enchanted palaces. These works, especially those belonging to the Arthurian cycle (notably the works of late twelfth century poet Chretien de Troyes) were extremely popular.1
However, the poetic masterpiece of the Middle Ages is a fantasy trilogy: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Composed in the early 14th century, this extended narrative poem in three volumes chronicles the speaker Dante’s visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, to the heights of Heaven. His spirit guide for the lower realms is the poet Virgil; for his heavenly journey, he is accompanied by Beatrice, simultaneously his idealised Beloved and angelic wisdom personified. A numinous anima figure, Beatrice prefigures Tolkien’s Galadriel.
The romance tradition continues to develop throughout the Tudor/Jacobean period. Many of Shakespeare’s most popular plays - As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest – are fantasies, as witnessed by the presence of non-human characters (gods, fairies, spirits) and lashings of magic. Beyond Shakespeare, we have Milton’s “dark materials” epic fantasy Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s comic fantasy The Rape of the Lock. But the most significant development of all in the history of fantasy was the transition from poetry to prose with the advent of the Gothic Novel.
The movement kicks off with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764. It’s a phantasmagoric tale that begins with a giant helmet falling out to the sky. The ensuing story is a chivalric romance gone mad. It was, however, a success, prompting other experiments in prose fantasy. Possibly the most disturbing of these was Matthew Gregory Lewis proto-horror novel The Monk (1796) in which Lewis with ghoulish gusto gives free rein to his personal fantasy notions of what goes on behind closed doors in a Catholic monastery. By savage contrast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831) is a true literary classic, arguably the first science fiction novel in English. Another iconic example of the Gothic novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897.
Which brings us into touch with another writer of the period: William Morris. More widely recognised for his role in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris experimented with writing fantasy in the pre-Shakespearean mode. In 1896, he published The Well at the World’s End in two volumes. The following year saw the publication of The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Both novels have a fanciful charm that survives the ponderous quaintness of Morris’s prose style. They are unquestionably fantasy novels – which is why, in the post-Tolkien demand for more fantasy fiction, Betty and Ian Ballantine relaunched them in the now-famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, published between 1971-1974.
This series included a number of other proto fantasy novels. The earliest author on the agenda is the Scottish writer George MacDonald, represented by two adult fantasy works: Phantastes (subtitled “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women”) which appeared in 1858, and the vastly darker and more challenging Lilith (1895) whose central character Vane finds himself shuttling between overlapping realms of existence. Another personal favorite of mine in the series is Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, first published in the 1920s, which brings a Spanish flavor to the fantasy tale. I’m also very fond of The Kai Lung anthologies of Ernest Bramah, which are full of oriental colour and mischief.
But the Ballantines were also looking for new talent. And they made discriminating choices. Their first wave of acquisitions included Joy Chant (Red Moon and Black Mountain, 1973) and Katherine Kurtz, whose first Deryni trilogy, published in 1974, introduced historical fantasy as a new sub-genre. Since then, fantasy has boomed. The runaway success of the Harry Potter series in recent years attests to the genre’s commercial appeal. Though the popular demand has never been greater, it’s curious to note that the fantasy genre as a whole is generally disparaged by literary critics.
In my next installment, I will be addressing two related questions: (a) what is there about fantasy literature that elicits such enthusiasm among so many readers? and (b) what are the reasons underlying the corresponding critical contempt?
Watch this space.
1The dominant story strands of the Arthurian romances were eventually woven together into narrative prose by Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d’Arthur, published by William Caxton in 1495.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.