Saturday, December 22, 2012

History of Modern Fantasy literature.

I suppose that I should point out that I am technically a trained historian. I majored in history, its one of my strengths. And while I can't say that I particularly like getting academic about, well, anything. Sometimes I just have to let my inner historian take over. This is one of those times. I don't really have a reason for wanting to talk about this subject in particular, other than I just felt like it and the vague hope that I can enlighten people to books they might not have heard of before, especially if they have an interest in where their favorite genre came from. Plus it gives me an excuse to put up really cool pictures on here, and I need no reason for that lol. Anyway, this is a going to be a very, very, VERY condensed history of modern fantasy from its beginnings to A Game of Thrones. lets get started.                 

I. Beginnings. 
Now to be really clear, from a historical standpoint, when talking about the history of any genre of speculative fiction you're mostly talking about both the literary traditions and popular culture of two countries, Europe (particularly The United Kingdom for our purposes) and The United States. Sure, other countries developed their own flavor of the genre, but none of them could really compete with the crushing mountain of creative genius or influence that came out of the U.K. and the U.S.  Hell, most of the big genre authors  from other countries, particularly from Asia, would remain virtually unknown to the rest of the world until the invention and wide-spread use of the internet. That doesn't make it right, wrong or indifferent, that's just the way it was. 

Modern Fantasy's first baby.
Now obviously the fantasy genre has its roots in mythology, the epic poems of the Greeks, Romans, Germans and other cultures, the romance stories of the middle ages , fairy tales and the artistic and scientific revolutions of the Renascence. But pointing to the exact birthday for fantasy is not as simple as it sounds. This is because a lot of work before the 19th century didn't always have clear boundaries between fantasy and other genres. Probably the most well known example of this are the works of Shakespeare. Although many of his plays, such as Hamlet and Macbeth , had fantastical elements they are not actually part of the fantasy genre. They're tragedies in where the fantastic serves only as a convenient plot device and little else. And so far as we know, Shakespeare only wrote a handful of plays that could fit into the genre: particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest 
It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th century that the genre as we  know it started to take shape when Scottish author George MacDonald published the children's novel The Princess and the Goblin in 1872  and the more adult themed Phantastes in 1858. The latter of which is actually considered the first fantasy book for adults. The other father of modern fantasy was English poet William Morris , who is most famous for the book The Well at the World's End. Morris' work was the first to introduce the idea of setting the story completely in a self-contained fantasy world. At the time, it was a pretty bold idea because no one had ever thought to create an entire fictional world to set a story in before. Morris' was also a fan of the medieval romances and heroic sagas and his fantasy work reflect that with it deliberate archaic style of narration and the setting were also heavily influenced by the culture of the middle ages. Which is why basically every fantasy author and their grandmother has used it ever since.  

II.  The Gods, the Serpent and the Children:

Even though both MacDonald's and Morris's work was successful and popular for their time, the genre they helped create didn't gain a wide audience until the turn of the century with the debut of Lord Dunsany and his novel The Gods of Pegāna in 1905. Like Morris, Dunsany set his story in a fantasy world, but he also added a layer of depth by inventing his own pantheon of gods for his world's inhabitance to worship. Dunsany set several stories in this world and was praised for his vivid imagination. And the impact his pantheon on the genre is still felt to this day. On the other hand, his narration style was really pretentious, grandiose and, well, really really kinda silly. Here's an example: 
 Some say that the Worlds and the Suns are but the echoes of the drumming of Skarl, and others say that they be dreams that arise in the mind of MANA because of the drumming of Skarl, as one may dream whose rest is troubled by sound of song, but none knoweth, for who hath heard the voice of Mana-Yood-Sushai, or who hath seen his drummer?                                     
And somehow this influenced an entire generation of writers who tried to imitate his style. No wonder the genre was considered for children for years. 

Speaking of which, this was also the time when all the classic children's fantasies made their debut, starting with Lewis Carol's classic Alice in Wonderland, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, L. Frank Balm's Wizard of OZ and countless others. The success of which, while all important steps in the development of the genre, also helped solidify the stigma that fantasy is only supposed to be for children and that as such, fantasy novels geared towards adults was considered distasteful. To be fair, this idea was not unique to this time period, but it was during this time that the idea flowered into a conscious societal thought, forcing some fantasy authors to re-purpose their work for a much younger audience. Even when it was kinda obvious that the book in question wasn't really for children. 

Worms eating themselves.
Such was the case with the next big event in the development of the genre when in 1922, English civil servant and author E.R. Eddison published one of the seminal works of modern fantasy: The Worm Ouroboros. For its time, Ouroboros had the most complete fantasy world yet, definitely the most ambitious. While there is little in the way of Mythopeia at work here, Ouroboros was an epic unlike anything that had been seen before, with heroic characters that were all of noble birth (which Eddisons did with all of his heroes for some reason), memorable villains and for 1922 one sick and shocking ending. The prose style (which thankfully was untouched by Dunsany) was inspired by Elizabethan English, which meant that you could actually read and understand the damn thing. Sadly, despite much critical praise Ouroboros was a failure when it was first published and went out of print very quickly. Ironically, two of the people who praised Ouroboros were two academics teaching at Oxford, but we'll come back to that.

Why did it have to be snakes?

III. Dreams of Pulp, and Halflings. 
Meanwhile in America, one year after Ouroboros was published; the first issue of Weird Tales, a pulp anthology magazine dedicated to publishing "Weird" genre fiction, hit the news stands. While it wasn't the first magazine of its kind, it did debut some of  most iconic creators in the history of speculative fiction: Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Fritz Leiber (creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser ) and  H.P. Lovecraft   (creator of the Cthulhu Mythos). Lovecraft's Mythos took Lord Dunsey's (of whom Lovecraft was an ardent admirer) idea of a fictional pantheon of gods and turned it into something dark and sinister. In where the gods are monstrous, other-worldly evil beings whose very existence must remain secret less the human races sanity and very survival be at risk. In other words, Lovecrafts gods don't want to help us, they want us dead so that they and their followers can rule the earth.  This idea of the fantasy elements being "evil" or harmful had been toyed with before, but Lovecraft took it to the next level with his deliberately told, vague and atmospherically charged prose that was both surreal and terrifying. His work not only influenced the horror genre, but it  would also ultimately lay the foundations for the sub-genre of dark fantasy.

At the same time Howard and Fritz wrote more traditional fantasy, but not the magnum-sized epics of Ouroboros. These were bite-sized but exciting serialized short stories that you could read in an afternoon. They were full of magic, swords, beefcake men doing heroic deeds in leather and loincloths and chicks in chain mail. This sort of low fantasy were the beginnings of the sub-genre known as 'Swords and Sorcery', You can kind of think of it as basically young adult fantasy. But Swords and Sorcery stories weren't supposed to be taken seriously, they were just fun. Now that's not to say that any of those stories were bad, usually far from it, what they weren't was really anything that hadn't been seen before. Fantasy by the 1930's had become something of a cookie cutter toy, something to be enjoyed and then put away at the outset of adulthood.

There and Back again. 
While this was going on, one of the Oxford Professors that had praised Ouroboros was banging a new fairy tale for his children out of his typewriter. A tale about a little man named Bilbo with furry feet and a magic ring as he joined 13 Dwarves on their quest to reclaim their homeland from a Dragon, named Smaug. The Professor was J.R.R. Tolkien and the book, was The Hobbit. Released on September 21, 1937. The Hobbit was an instant classic, winning praise in leaps and bounds and was even nominated for the Carnegie Medal. And while it is a children's book at heart, the story was smart and sophisticated enough to appeal to everyone, adult and child alike. Not only that, Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle-Earth was the most complete and realistic ever seen at that point, and would later become the standard for which all other such worlds must be compared. However, Tolkien had originally never intend for the book to be set in Middle-Earth. You see, what no one knew at that time was that Tolkien had started developing the world of Middle-Earth when he was 17, years and years before The Hobbit was even a conscious thought. It wasn't until much later that he discovered that yes, the Hobbit was part of this fantasy world. And this discovery influenced the squeal. When the Hobbit turned out to be a hit, his publishers obviously wanted him to write more. Tolkien agreed and set to work. His original idea was to write a much simpler story in where Bilbo goes out to find more treasure, but as the work progressed and the story began to "grow in the telling" this idea was abandoned. But Tolkien found another story in the smallest element of the Hobbit, namely Bilbo's magic ring. And the story that Tolkien wrung out of that, no one saw coming.

IV. One Ring and The Lions in the Wadrobe. 
That story was his magnum opus Trilogy: The Lord of the Rings. Originally intend to be told in one volume, the book was so massive that the publisher decided to publish the work as trilogy, which was published 1954-1955. Lord of the Rings was one of those once in a life time books that changes everything. Not only did it up the bar for the amount of depths and complexity that was possible for a fantasy story, it also set the popular image of the genre that endures to this very day. This book's influence on the genre cannot be understated, not only in the world of books, but in other media as well. Ever wonder why Elves use bows and arrows, talk to trees and, basically are the way they are in modern fantasy? Or why the atypical dwarf is the way it? Or why the image of a Wizard is basically...well you get the idea. Well you can trace all of it back to Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien didn't create these elements, Lord of the Rings did put them into the popular imagination.
obey the Jesus Lion!

Some years before the publication of Fellowship of the Ring, in 1950 the second Oxford Professor that had praised Ouroboros published the first in a series of children's novels that would redefine the both children's and young adult fantasy. A story about a group of siblings who discover a magical world after walking through an unassuming looking wardrobe. The author was Tolkien's good friend and celebrated Christian Scholar Clive Staples Lewis  and the series was The Chronicles of Narnia.                  
In essence, what Lord of The Rings did for Fantasy for adults, Narnia did for children and young adults. Although no where near as complex as Lord of the Rings, and not all of the seven book in the Chronicles follow the same characters, The series shared mythology, world and interconnected story did lay the foundation for what young adult fantasy would eventually become, paving the way for modern YA fantasy classics such as Artemis Fowl, and Harry Potter. Both Lord of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are considered the fathers of modern Fantasy and both works found a massive audience with the baby boom generation, and their popularity and influence has only continued to grow.

V. Wizard Schools and the Bringer of the Storm. 

Doesn't really look like a Sparrowhawk.
I'm gonna let you all in on a little secret: the reason why not many people remember the balk of the works published immediately after Tolkien and Lewis is because a lot of it was reactionary, and it must be said, not very good. Potential fantasy Authors read Tolkien and Lewis and tried to imitate them with mixed results. And while some of that would endure, like Terry Brook's The Sword of Shannara series, others were put away and promptly forgotten. Also during the 50's, 60's and 70's Fantasy's spiritual brother. Sci-Fi, started to grow up and gain mainstream acceptance and popularity with a little help from TV Shows such as The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, the British show Doctor Who and movies like 2001 and  Star Wars and the grand masters of the genre such as Bradbury, Herbert, HeinleinAsimov and Clarke. But among those masters: one would stand out and break the chins of mediocrity that had taken hold of the fantasy genre. The best way to describe her would be thusly: if Tolkien and Lewis are the fathers of modern fantasy, Then Ursula K.LeGuin is its mother, when in 1969 she published the first book in her now legendary Earthsea cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea.

I...actually haven't read this series yet, so I can't honestly talk about it in any real depth. But its important to our history of the fantasy genre because it introduced a plot element that has since become standard to the genre. Namely a school of magic where potential wizards can learn their trade (where do you think Rowling got the idea for Hogwarts). Of course, magic has always been apart of the genre, its part of the appeal. And the idea of a hero learning magic (or any useful skill for that matter) from a mentor is a trope in of itself. But until this, magic had always seemed like this omnipotent power where the limits and rules are vague at best. But for the first time magic had set rules, limits and real consequences both positive and negative, and even the ones who use it don't fully understand it. In other words, Leguin had made magic realistic. Not realistic in the sense that it couldn't do impossible things, but realistic in the sense that it was no longer this cosmic force that can do anything and only a few special people could learn. She made it more like a science, and just like any field of science it can be taught. And that's where the school of wizardry comes in. Having a school where any damn fool can learn magic was pure genius. And added a depth of believably that hadn't really been seen since Tolkien. Needless to say, Earthsea was an instant classic.

"Oh that updraft feels so good." 
Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum, the Swords and Sorcery genre was experiencing an unexpected revival, and some would also argue being perfected, by British author Michael Moorcock when in 1972 he published the first full length novel to feature one of his signature characters, The albino anti-hero, Elric of Melnibon.   A series that I haven't read yet, so I can't honestly analyse it. I can say though that Moorcock created the character because he was tired of the tolkinesque stories that were saturating the market at the time and he wanted to make something that was, as he saw it, darker and more mature than the run-of-the mill fantasy. So he made a drug addict, magic wielding, brooding albino anti-hero with a cursed black sword, named Stormbringer. What no one was expecting, however was the amount of success that this character would actually obtain. Since this character's creation, Elric has become one of the most recognizable characters in the genre's history, staring in 11 novels, countless short stories,  comic books/ graphic novels, music, role playing games and there's even talk of a movie in the works. Elric is also a central figure in Moorcock's loosely connected multi-universe sequence called The Tale of the Eternal Champion.

VI. A Dragon in my Dungeon.

You know what else happened in the 1970's? Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson formed a game company called TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) and released the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a table top role playing game that essentially let anyone gather their friends and go on their own fantasy adventure with the relative safety of miniatures, 20 sided dice, stacks of rule books and a game board. Since then, D&D has become one of the most popular and well known games in history, and continues to evolve with constant revisions. Now why the heck am I telling you this?

Barbarians: Check. Dwarf: Check.
Good guy Dark skinned Elf:...uh, check. 
Well the reason is that, unlike other board games, D&D has several worlds for players to get immersed in. And while players have the freedom to make their own adventures, the story of the worlds themselves is told through other media, particularly books. Writers are hired to create characters to populate the worlds and then write about them. This is what is known as a "Shared world." The most well known of these to have the D&D license are Dragonlance, created by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, and Forgotten Realms.  The most well known writer working in the latter being R. A.Salvatore, whose Dark Elf character, Drizzt Do'Urden, is actually the reason why D&D gets a mention in our history of the genre at all. The first book to feature the character, The Crystal Shard, was first published by TSR in 1988. Just to be clear if your coming into a shared world like this expecting anything beyond a "fun Swords and Sorcery story," you're going to be disappointed. The game designers control the setting and there isn't much chance they are going to venture out beyond what was considered by the 1980's safe and agreeable (and more importantly, "Profitable") conventions of the fantasy genre. And Forgotten Realms is no exception. Now that doesn't automatically make books like this bad per-say, but it does limit what shared world authors can and cannot do. And while Drizzt isn't immune to this by any means, Salvatore was fortunate enough to be given enough creative freedom to make the character unique. What makes Drizzt so unique? Its the fact that he's a Dark Elf, a race of elves that have always been considered "evil" both in and out of D&D. And despite the fact that Drizzt is a hero and nothing like the rest of his evil race, he's treated by others with fear and hatred simply because of what he is, not who he is. With Drizzt, Salvatore was able to break a mold and talk about an issue that hadn't been talked about all that much in fantasy, the issue of racism. That might not seem like a big deal now, but back then it was a breath of fresh air. Because by the 1980's the genre was growing stale.

VII. Growing up with Wheels of Ice and Fire.

While the 1980's saw the debut of many modern big shots authors such as Robin HobbTerry Pratchett, and comic book writer turned novelist Neil Gaiman. There hadn't really been anything published that could be said to rival the works of Tolkien. Although the genre was still a big seller and not ever novel belonging to it was bad, everyone seemed to agree that the conventions that Tolkien had created were now considered cliche and were really running out of steam and as a result the genre became a niche genre populated by video games and "kid shit." Even Terry Pratchett made a living by making fun of the conventions of the genre. What no one knew at the time, though, was that that was about to change, and it was about to change in a big way.

It started, innocently enough, in 1982 with the release of a movie based on Conan the Barbarian, staring Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones. To make a long story short, the movie was alright for the time, and it renewed interest in the character. And publishers, looking to cash in on its success, decided to hire writers to write new adventures for character. Chief among these was Vietnam veteran and historical fiction author James Oliver Rigney, Jr, whose previous work included a series of historical romances called The Fallon Blood and its two sequels The Fallon Pride and The Fallon Legacy under the pen name Reagan O' Neal. Rigney wrote a total of 7 Conan books, including the novelization of the film's not too great sequel. And he even complied and published a timeline for character. But Rigney already had his eyes on a horizon greater than Conan. He was already planning his next project, a fantasy epic that would not only make him a household name, but also finally succeed where so many others before him had failed...Namely, match (and some would argue surpass) The Lord of the Rings.

Let the Dragon Ride again on the Winds of Time. 
Writing under the same pen name he had used for the Conan novels, Robert Jordan,  the first part in Rigney's epic Wheel of Time sagaThe Eye of the World, was released to the public on January 15,1990. While the story might seem like another decedent of Joseph Campbell, about a young man with a mysterious heritage who was destined to save the world from the forces of darkness with his friends, and it does retain some conventions of the genre. The Wheel of Time differs greatly from its forefathers was that it was able to find new ways to use these conventions. For example: The traditional fantasy races of ogres and Elves are no where to be seen, and in place we have a new species, Ogeir. Which combine the nature loving aspect of the Elves with the physical appearance of giants or Ogres. Other fantasy races like Dwarfs, Hobbits and what have you are also not present and neither are...well you get the idea. Rigney wanted people, or at least psychologically real characters, avoiding all the major cliches and at the same time maintaining the level of imagination and that we've come to expect. A balance that not many can actually pull off. I don't have time to run down every aspect of the story but another thing that sets this series apart is the running theme of the nature of trust. Rigney said that he got the original idea for the series by asking the question "What would it really be like to be told that you are destined to save the world?" And his answer was that it would definitely not be like what it was in many other stories. He thought that selfishness would play a role, as would lust for political power. Making a situation where, despite this looming apocalyptic event, people in power are more concerned with petty struggles and their own position, creating a situation where the chosen one would never be sure of most of his so-called allies. This shade of grey marked a turning point for the genre. After so long, the genre was finally starting to to grow up and move out of the shadow of Lord of The Rings, and gain mainstream acceptance as both serious literature and works of art.

Winter is Coming. 
And within the same decade, that acceptance would come to fruition. When in 1997, another series began that would take that turning point and push it to its logical, and it must be said very dark and brutal extreme.  The series is George R. R.Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, more commonly known as Game of Thrones.

And that pretty much up leads us to the present state of affairs. What's next for the genre? Hell if I know. I just want to be apart of it. I could have talked about this for another few hours, but I had to stop somewhere and Song of Ice and Fire seemed to be the logical place. I hope you all enjoyed this and found it informative. And if you didn't, well you don't have to read it.
I'm out.
Happy Holidays, everybody.                  



  1. Wow, this is an awesome post! I never really thought of fantasy being rooted in mythology and ancient Greek legends, though it makes sense. You also gave me a lot of ideas on new authors to try out, like Le Guin and Brooks :)

    As for the future of the fantasy genre, I think a more realistic aspect to the main characters might well be the new direction. Like a shift from intricate, detailed worldbuilding to better and deeper characterization, which I found lacking in most of the books I read (except for GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire). That was one of the few things that really bothered me about LOTR. Especially the women in that series have almost no depth IMO.

    1. Glad you liked it, Vanna. Happy that I introduced you to new authors to try ^_^.

      Anyway, I think that the future of the genre is both intricate world building and deeper characterization. I think there needs to be a balance between the two. But that's just me. And the women thing is one of the reasons I like the Wheel of Time so much... because Jordan's women kill and eat the weak ones lol.