While working on a project concerning the presence of science fiction in the Middle Ages, I noticed a question that seems to get left out of a lot of the history of fantasy and science fiction mixed origins: if, as a common argument goes, a lot of medieval stories based on what we might call science fiction now was fantasy, where does our notion of fantasy as based on medieval perceptions come from? Similarly and relatedly, if as I will eventually be suggesting many medieval stories were in fact science fiction before the label was invented, than what did medieval writers consider as what we now call fantasy?
A few working definitions to start: science fiction, no matter whose definition you’re looking at, seems to require a degree of connection to reality, either in terms of knowledge or believability in terms of technological basis, theoretical or philosophical understanding, or at least imagined possibility. Fantasy on the other hand, is based on a degree of acknowledged impossible and unrealistic characters, settings, and/or scenarios.
An obvious place to start looking for the medieval version of what at the time might have been called fantasy if that existed as a genre is the chivalric and Arthurian romance. These are the stories of the knights and kings and damsels that now make the basis of a lot of what’s now called high or epic fantasy (not fully interchangeable terms, but very closely related), the usual stereotype along the lines of the Shannara Chronicles or something by Robert Jordan. But there’s reasons why the chivalric romance cannot be the only basis. Firstly, to the medieval writer, these stories of Arthur etc. may have been a form of historical fiction, not necessarily fantasy as the requisite lack of realism may have been absent. Second, many of the modern versions contain a significant amount of magic, witches, wizards, demons, and other fantastical creatures like dragons. Again the realism problem is present if you take into consideration that on the creature front at least there exists the possibility that at least in theory these creatures were believed to be possible. This possibility rests in the medieval bestiaries which contain descriptions and pictures of creatures that would now be placed in the fantasy realm like griffins and basilisks. Third, looking at many of the original chivalric tales, there is a distinct lack of wizards, witches, and magic. Yes these things are present, but not nearly to the degree with which modern fantasy relies. Merlin is definitely presented as a wizard in many of the medieval stories including him, but he is less magician and more prophet. Witches or magical women of some sort occasionally show up as well, but again neither to the degree nor the range of powers that their modern equivalents are given; Morgan LeFay or the Lady of the Lake are virtually never a main character. Likewise, random acts of magic are few and far between, and even when they are a big part of the story, episodes like that of Le chevaler qui fist les cons parler focus less on the magic and more on the moral/humor of the resulting actions.
So, where does all the magic come from? What did the general medieval story consider actual fantasy? A big part of the answer is folklore. Folk tales in the Middle Ages I would argue were at the time and remain today a major source of the fantasy genre. Take for example the fairly well-known story/poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The frame might be Arthurian but that is not the source of the fantasy, and neither is it really the focus of the story itself. The main focus is on Gawain as a knight and how his perfection in chivalry and Christianity are tested via supernatural, folkloric means. There is quite a bit of research on the poem that argues that the Green Knight/Bertilak has his origins in the folkloric Celtic figure of the Green Man, and I might also add a touch of the dullahan (also present in Celtic folklore). Both the Green Man and the dullahan are fantastic figures out of pagan Celtic folklore, and their presence in the main antagonist, friendly though he may end up being, gives an otherwise chivalric Christian poem the rightful label of ‘fantasy’. Particularly given the Christian flavoring elsewhere in the poem, for example the symbolism in the description of Gawain’s poem or his occasional prayers to the Virgin Mary just before he is miraculously rescued from a bad or unpleasant situation, the use of the Green Man figure would likely be in the context of folklore and not someone who may have genuinely believed in the character. Even epic poems like Beowulf owe the fantasy components of their stories to folklore. Adversaries like the swamp-dwelling Grendel-kin and the dragon that make the poem more fantasy than Christian (and in the case of Beowulf to the point of some scholarly questioning of how late an addition the Christian elements might be) come from the pagan folk traditions.
Folktales and lore also account for the presence in much modern fantasy of witches, wizards, supernatural creatures of many sorts, magic, alone and in combination with heroes, damsels, and kings. Consider any story in the Grimm, Perault, or Christian Anderson collections (the originals, not the sanitized versions presented in the Disney Princess canon). Stories like “The Little Mermaid”, “Cinderella”, or “Beauty and the Beast” have the same kind of knightly hero, the damsel, the royalty, the magic, and the supernatural denizens that you see in epic or high fantasy tales such as Markus Heitz’s Dwarves series or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
I have to admit that since I haven’t started seriously researching this thread yet I find it likely that many of the ideas I’ve expressed are not unique to me. Even though I suspect these initial thoughts are not exactly new to the world, they most certainly are commonly overlooked in popular understanding.