Hello Wanderer! For today’s text we are going to adventure right into the thicket, discussing whether Fantasy as a genre has an established canon, where would it come from, and what might it be.
Fidel’s take: mythical beginnings
Since the XIX century, when the bookhouses started to invent and classify the different writing styles, Fantasy can be thought of as a genre. Today, it has become a major one and diversified into countless subgenres. Recently, some titles have even hit The New York Times Best Seller List
. But before we get to the present moment let’s take a dive into fantasy’s mythical beginnings.
The fantastical elements are common ground
on folk tales and creation myths all around the globe. To avoid this problem we are going to tackle a brief history of written fantasy, shortening the path and staying away from unnecessary controversy (I’m keeping that for later). I’ll ignore religious texts such as the Old and New Testament or the Quran. Putting that aside, where to begin?
It all starts in Greece. Well, not actually, maybe in the near east, or is it in Asia? We travel to 1800 BC, to the kingdom of Uruk and the fertile lands of Mesopotamia. There we find several tablets containing the earliest surviving work of literature: the Epic of Gilgamesh.
This epic poem presents the adventures of Gilgamesh, a hero that takes a perilous journey to discover eternal life (not a minor quest). It will later on affect popular culture
but first influence our next author
on the list.
Classical mythology is full of versions and retellings but one author is it’s cornerstone: Homer
. Even if the Homeric Question
doesn’t have an answer to this day, we can assure that the Iliad
and the Odyssey
have influenced all of Western fantastic tradition in some way. Traditionally we can set these epics around 1200 BC and place them very far in our past, being already legendary for the Greeks that we consider ancient such as Plato or Aristotle. The author himself has a fantastical origin assigned: Homer, the son of the river Meles and the nymph Critheïs. The image of the furious hero Achilles
still lives in our fantasies
to this day. His works have influenced posterior masters like Virgil
and will probably go on till humanity’s extinction. I’m adding an extra greek story, the one of the Ring of Gyges
. This is a mythical artifact that, according to Plato, allows the wearer to become invisible. It is tied to a legend of treason and power seeking characters. Does it ring any bells?
We are not analyzing the greek and roman myths
in detail as it would take a full article just for a decent introduction. Some noteworthy are Heracles as the archetypal hero, Circe as the powerful sorcerer, the Minotaur as a monster to vanquish and the myth of Perseus as the example of gifts given to overcome a challenge. Other early mythologies have their honorable mentions.
We now travel to the land of Pyramids and the Indo civilization. I’m not an usual reader of Vedic
mythology but we can’t ignore them. The legend of Atlantis (told by Plato
on the Timaeus
) and the Critias
)) shows us an important influence of Egyptian stories in Greece. This big chunk of mythology seems to have a later impact on most of European oral traditions. These also have some similarities with the much posterior Enûma Eliš
and even Germanic traditions. I need to investigate more about this matter so we will leave it for some other time. Let’s now travel back to the arabian world. The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)
is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. It includes stories from many different cultures around the Mediterranean Sea and India. The first English-language edition appeared in the early XVIII century. It has the particularity of being a framed story: Scheherazade, sentenced to be killed, tells a story every night leaving the end as a cliffhanger for the next day and thus forcing Shahryar (her husband) to keep her alive. The work doesn’t have a unique author nor a particular writing date. We know it arrived to western readers with the French translation by Antoine Gallad on a 12 volume work. These versions propagated today's classics as Alladdin’s Lamp
, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
or The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor
. But before those texts arrived in Europe many works had yet to be written.
Let’s take a look then at Medieval Europe. Here we find most of what’s today considered as the classical fantasy tropes and stories. From the Anglo-Saxon tale of Beowulf
to the Norse Eddas and Sagas, passing through the Celtic legends and Finnish epics. The Celtic as a group can be problematic: we find important thematic differences between Irish, Welsh and Scotish traditions. It’s noteworthy (and quite confusing) the importance of French retellings of British stories, later on reinterpreted by English writers. As an example we have the legendary Le Morte d’Arthur
. All of these writings stem from oral tradition and were transcribed to be immortalized on paper.
Before leaving I’ll mention a quick summary of influential works: The Elder
and Younger Edda
, the Fornaldarsagas
, the Nibelungenlied
(inspiration for Wagner’s work), Frithiof’s Saga
, the Mabinogion
, the Ulster Cycle
, the Kalevala
and the Matter of Britain
(which contains the legends of King Arthur, some of my favorite tales). Writing them all like this undermines their importance but we do have a limited space and I’ll leave Medieval Europe as a standalone text.
We are now reaching the end and things get nasty for fantasy. The last great epic poems and fantastic oeuvres will be written during the Renaissance. Here we have the aforementioned Le Morte d’Arthur
, Amadis de Gaula
(a hispanic reference) and the tales collected by Giovanni Straparola
in The Facetious Nights of Straparola
During the Enlightenment we see Fantasy transfigured into child oriented fairytales, a term coined by French author Madame d’Aulnoy
(from her works Contes de fée
). These times become actively hostile to fantasy as realism takes a strong hold of fiction. With Reason and Secularism on the rise, the new anthropocentric age wanted to leave the old fantastic world behind. Romantics will try to revert this trend as a way to recover spiritualism and imagination (rooted in nationalistic folklore). There is also a big radiation of new works and retellings. Among these: Grimm’s Fairy Tales
, les précieuses
). They will later inspire George MacDonald
and William Morris
, two key figures in the foundations of modern fantasy.
Last stop: the XIX century, just two hundred years from now, under the reign of Queen Victoria. All literature we mentioned is reprinted and available thanks to the printing press and industrial technologies. It has never been so cheap to buy a book, there have never been so many libraries, genres are being created and classified.
Who is the first fantasy writer? What’s the first fantasy book? We have to look for it and choose. Some pick John Ruskin’sThe King of the Golden River
(1841), many point at George MacDonald’sThe Princess and the Goblin
(1858). We cannot forget William Morris
and The Well at the World’s End
. I have no answer to these questions, and they may be too gray to have one. The Fantasy genre was not developed until much later and is just a label. Even during Tolkien’s time the term “fairy tales” was in use.
We’ve come a long way, from the earliest kingdoms of Humanity to today’s Nations. We left much uncovered, I hope we travel again sometime. See you soon, wanderer.
Franco’s stance: Many-faced Present
We have already traversed the sinuous paths of Fantasy’s origins and evolution, and a clearing now lies ahead: our beloved and familiar Modern Fantasy. It has dragons, wizards, magical swords, and gods for all sizes and tastes. Usually consisting of quests, myriads of monsters, prophecies and complex sociocultural events involving some sort of squabble between species (or what we usually call races such as: dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.), Modern Fantasy cradles us in its loving arms.
Truth is… Modern Fantasy is a complex thing worth more than simply a passing mention. Through the years it grew and evolved alongside technology radiating into whatever niche the media could offer turning into something no longer restricted by the rules of written work or oral tradition alone. Nowadays Fantasy is not only read and listened to (with increasing number of platforms, methods, and kinds of works), but also performed and lived in ways that bring fantasy so close to reality that might leave one asking which is which.
Putting a starting point to Modern Fantasy is also not done lightly, as expressed by Daniel Greene, and though opinions might vary the consensus is that J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’
(LotR) is where it all begins. The novel was the first successfully published work (in 1954) considered Fantasy by the community at large. And what a beginning it was! It had it all, and what was more, it even had Hobbits! But Tolkien didn’t stop with ‘The Hobbit’
and LotR; inspired by his studies and largely by former works and mythologies (such as the mentioned by my good friend in his section), through his life he created a Legendarium or a ‘mythology’ for his work. Developed in ‘The Silmarillion’
and ‘The Book Of Lost Tales’
they were the cosmogony and tales told by the many peoples of Arda
themselves, akin to our mythologies. And so the first step of Our journey is set.These works were the primordial stew for everything that was to come later, the primer, the first thrown stone on an avalanche. So let us stop and admire the view of this trekk.Many of the elements, and characters Tolkien used in his Legendarium were already present in many stories, folk or otherwise. Talking trees brought all the way from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’
and other folk tales; Elves and Dwarves drawn from the Eddas and other traditions across Europe, such as the Sidhe from the Celts; Drakes and Dragons that were first monstrous serpents in the collective imaginarium such as Li Tannin, the Nagi, the slavic Zméy and the greek Hydras among others turned into the later proper winged beasts in the most western cultures of europe; Creator Gods and Demi-gods depicted by the Valar and Maiar that were too akin to their Greek or Nordiic counterparts; Witch-Kings and Wizards; and last but not least Gigantic spiders brought from his own ineffable nightmares. It also featured Ghosts, and though not known by that name yet, un-dead characters and creatures, and the mention of a Necromancer inhabiting Dol Guldur; Magic swords, rings, stones, crystals and places also populated the realm. As we can see travelers, he left very rich and fertile seed and soil from which everything later sprung. There’s no story we would consider Fantasy that does not possess at least two of the aforementioned elements.
Yet the biggest and most important step was not only the accumulation of all these elements in one group of works but also the effect it had on the society that received it. A society that was still licking its wounds from the former wars, hastiated from reality, found a novel that upheld values almost thought lost by many, one that (by the author’s very same words) was to be an escape from reality. A Fantasy Novel. And because all these reasons, it stuck.
Now that we have glanced briefly at the starting trail, because it was not by any means a comprehensive study of all the fantasy elements Tolkien used, what lies ahead may look like a dense forest of Fantasies filled with brambles and pools of mud. But in reality the maze is but a series of very interconnected glades and lookouts that are constantly visited by Wanderers just like you, and I.
In the 60/50’s, while Tolkien was first publishing, two other things started to re-emerge in society, and were later going to coalesce and merge with the very same Fantasy LotR had rebirthed: Wargames and Roleplaying.
The later, being the oldest, has its not at all humble first steps with Historical re-enactment practiced already by the ancient Han Chinese, and appearing too in 16th century europe, as Commedia Dell’arte
with many stock characters and a lot of improvisation. Already in the 60’s groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism in Berkley and the Markland Medieval Mercenary Militia from Maryland started playing and performing Creative History games which recreated medieval history and culture.
The former one, though younger, would later prove to be much more impactful. Arising with the Chaturanga in the 6th-century Indian subcontinent, wargames started as strategy games that simulated warfare with pieces representing roles. This was of course nothing else but an earlier version of Chess. Another iteration would arise at the beginning of the 19th century under the name of “kriegspeil”. Commonly used by the military forces as part of their training, these versions added realism by featuring dice as the random chances of the encounters. Finally after the addition of miniature toy soldiers in games like Little Wars by H. G. Wells and its spread in the same year that The lord of the Rings was published a game called Diplomacy, by Allan B. Calhamer, added social interactions and interpersonal skills as part of the game play.
So… where does all this leave us? [imagen del meme de los dominos dnd el chiquito es lotr y wargames y el grande es ComiCon] Twenty years later, All these elements, Fantasy books wargames, and roleplaying would finally condense into the known and beloved Dungeons & Dragons
by Gary Gygax. Technology was also developing quickly, and soon enough roleplaying fantasy scenarios largely inspired by LotR or D&D would also spawn in computers appearing first as MUDs (multi-user dungeons in closed networks) and later maturing into full fledged MMORPGs like World of Warcraft
Now, we don’t have time to unpack all of that here, but knowing which are the Niches that Fantasy nowadays occupies and where do they come from is fundamental to understanding the process of diversification it underwent in such little time. Because today we not only have movies, podcasts, books and shows, which we consume passively, but also fanfiction, roleplaying, LARPing, cosplaying, regular boardgames, and for gods’ sake we can now use Virtual Reality to throw fireballs and hack a dragon’s head off with a sword in Skyrim.
But this is only the scenery.
Like reading a map, knowing where the most important elements are and how to go from one to another does not really cut it as a traveling experience right? You want to see the trees, smell the earth, and listen to the many birds sing their songs. Well let’s do that for a little bit shall we Wanderer?
Tolkien, though masterful in his work and a pioneer, is not the only Fantasy author out there. While portraying several fundamental elements to the genre, and you might disagree on this, he lacked… pisaz. The lore of his own world runs deep with lineages, powerful entities filled with willpower that would level mountains, Dragons bigger than cities and several creatures out of this world. But ultimately it was all built around already existing mythology and his own linguistic musings. His magic was well, very basic. There is telepathy, certain forms of elemental control, shapeshifting, domination of minds, and sure The Valar could create living things. Those are very good Fantasy elements yet when comparing them with today’s infinite variety of magic systems they do lack color and definition.
Using the success Tolkien had with LotR other authors launched themselves and their interpretations of Fantasy into the public. Almost a decade and a half later Ursula K. Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea
with dragons and Magic still tied to language (Old Speech), but this time in a much more tangible way, even having Wizards teaching how to use it. But still the flavour did not derive much from mythology, where Old Speech could only be used to speak the truth and change it (not so differently from the folkloric fairies/fae that could only tell the truth but spoke in riddles).
We would need to wait until the eighties to start seeing the real boom of diversity Fantasy had to offer. Like with Terry Pratchett and Discworld
, Stephen King and his Dark Tower, The Shannara Chronicles
by Terry Brooks, of course the Dragon Chronicles
of Margaret Wiez, and so many many MANY others. Goodreads lists at least 292 Fantasy books in the eighties and the numbers per year will only swell if you check them.
By the end of the nineties we have a veritable myriad of worlds, species, and magic systems and we can barely count them all. There are worlds sitting atop flying interstellar turtles, worlds connected by portals and towers, dimensions so vast and twisted that even the minds of the characters can barely comprehend them. We have magics that are felt more than studied, and some that resemble science so much I would doubt if to call them one or the other. Powers range from simple telepathy and telekinesis to the ability to subjugate masses with the swipe of an arm. There are Species that are great with magic, or suck at it terribly; some that are good at hidding themselves in plain sight, and giants and ogres so dumb counting is impossible to them. There are good dragons, bad dragons, stone dragons, metamorphosing dragons, real ones and imaginary ones. Magics can either be learnt by ones and not others, or by all; they differ between gender or species; there are old magics barely comprehensible and rune magic that has to be carved and etched to take hold; some are so difficult to control and pernicious to the user, many consider it plain evil, or the users to be monsters. We either need objects to wield it, be them wands, staffs, swords, rings or crystals, or they are always within us or within the fabric of reality. Sometimes the sources of power are limited and sometimes they are not. So…. what is Modern Fantasy in the end?
Wanderer, here I will summarize what it is to me. Of course you are probably going to deviate in some aspect or another. But that is the richness of classification as a phenomenon.
Some of the common points are: There is going to be more than one type of intelligent life. Ones will have power others will not, or will not be able to wield it:
Even in the Highest Fantasy settings there are common people that cannot for one reason or another use magic on their own. Muggles in Harry Potter
, people that can or cannot weave
in The Wheel of Time
, even in Tolkien’s Legendarium certain abilities were restricted to certain kinds of peoples, elves could craft wondrous things and humans could not, unless their blood mingled (i.e. the Numenoreans). This power will be bound by certain rules or restrictions:
In the Earthsea Cycle
magic is used through the Old Speech and the basic notion that everything has a true name, and speaking the true name of something gives the speaker power over it, and since you can’t lie in it, everything you say forces magic to change reality. In Harry Potter
spells have to be spoken out loud, and you can only perform magic with a wand. The afamed One Ring
could only be properly used by Sauron himself. Yet Strict rules within users wouldn’t come until the 21st century with authors like Brandon Sanderson, or Patrick Rothfuss. There are objects/an object through which power is wielded, or into which power is imbued.
Leaving aside the obvious and already named, we can also name the shardblades and shardplates from Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, or anything inscribed with runes in The Earthsea Cycle
, or sigaldry in The Name of the Wind
. But those are not the limits of course. In Bleach,
yes the anime series, shinigamies wield their powers through their Zanpakutō,
or soul-cutter swords. One of the biggest exponents of this is definitely the Shannara Chronicles
where magic and power is encapsulated and wielded in elf-stones of different kinds or other objects. There are creatures or life forms not found in our current reality:
Self explanatory. Their appearance can be traced back to myths and legends such as drakes, dragons, gryphons, unicorns, krakens, basilisks, etc. but different authors have been giving twists to old ones and creating news ones since forever. Robin Hobb for example has dragons that possess a larval state, and have to go through a cocoon state to become full dragons. Other authors like Brandon Sanderson create so many creatures and so different they deserve whole bestiariums and ecological studies. He created the chuul, giant crabs that walk on land and have rock shells, the axehounds hexapedal crustacean like creatures with caparaces, or the skyeels, flying predatory eal, amongst others.
These four pillars hold modern fantasy in its whole skyscraping glory. Everything else can sure have fantastical elements, but lay in other buildings with different foundations. Or rather that is my opinion wanderer, only the musing of a young guide of the modern fantasy world.
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