A Side Trip into Fantasy

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.

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Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.

Fantastic Origins

I saw a CFP (‘call for papers’) not long ago that was considering the notion of fantasy in medieval literature. I had a better proposal for a different call, but this one got me wondering about the history of the fantasy genre. Not long after, I got into a discussion during an online book club meeting concerning whether or not The Devourers by Indra Das actually qualifies as fantasy, as it is often labeled. On the basis of a lack of plot and too much emphasis on character psychology, I was among those arguing for ‘no’. I didn’t like the book, but that’s another story.

According to a general Google search, the fantasy genre as it is now recognized started during the Victorian era in England. Depending on who you ask, the first ‘modern fantasy’ was written in either 1872 or 1894 by George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin”) or William Morris (“The Wood Beyond the World”). Before these, epic poetry and fairy tales seem to be the most directly and frequently noted as ancestors. I haven’t read either MacDonald or Morris, so I can’t speak to that (yet); I have however read a substantial amount of epic poetry as well as mythology and fairy tales.

From epic poetry and mythology, I would guess the notable attributes of fantasy would be the supernatural elements and the focus on heroic warriors. The thing is though, these components are not restricted to western European epic, such as those by Homer or Vergil, or the Norse sagas. While the hero warriors like Beowulf, Achilles, Odysseus, deities like Thor and Odin, monsters, and sorcer-ers/-esses are certainly ancestors of many modern fantasy characters, these elements also appear in other times and places. Gilgamesh for example is Sumerian, Ramayana is from India, and Sunjata is from Africa. Theses epics also contain the same sorts of elements, yet are rarely connected to modern fantasy literature. In some ways this is too bad; I would rather like to see a story somehow featuring Enkidu (Wildman companion of Gilgamesh), Sumaworo (sorcerer king/antagonist of Sunjata) and Hanuman (helpful flying monkey/wind deity in Ramayana).

The fairy tale genre is also pretty obvious. The supernatural elements, the struggles of the heroes to interact and-or overcome them makes a lot of sense in connection to fantasy. The cautionary element of many of the original stories seems to have been removed from most modern fantasy, but then again Disney does the same thing. Every year in an intro to lit class, I shock at least a few students by pointing out that Ann Sexton’s “Cinderella” is actually pretty accurate to the original story in terms of narrative. This is also similar to the argument for story collections such as the 1001 Nights as possible ancestors. I can see that as a possibility; however, many of those stories might fall under the category of fairy tale or myth. I also wonder why something like Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market isn’t often cited. Maybe it’s too directly rooted in fairy tale tradition, but I would argue it too could be classified as fantasy.

There are some likely contributors that I was surprised to not see, such as chivalric tales. Something like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has nearly all of the elements already discussed, including the supernatural, deities (the Christian God and relevant associates are mentioned frequently), a hero, and has the addition of what may now be recognized as basic elements of high fantasy, knights, wizards and sorceresses, lords, and damsels. Given the obvious debt to Arthurian legend and tales of chivalry, I have to wonder why these kinds of stories aren’t connected to the modern genre. It’s possible, that I didn’t go looking enough, yet I would have though these things would be at the top of the list of likely ancestors, and they are not.

I understand why the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien would be cited as crucial to the history of the fantasy genre, as the mention of the likes of Patrick Rothfuss as inheritors and continuers of the genre. Both authors write in the tradition of high fantasy, using vaguely medieval settings, magic and its practitioners, heroes and ladies, dragons, demons, etc. I wonder why we don’t see more mention of the likes of C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll, authors of The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland series’ respectively. You could even add Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series too. While they do not write high fantasy, and their stories tend to be rooted pretty closely to the real world in some way, both Carroll and Lewis do in fact use many of the tropes, including magic, adventure, heroes, unusual creatures, battles, an all-powerful (or at least knowing) force, etc. Baum does so as well, although he lacks the deity element.

All of these possibilities also help consider hybrid genres like steampunk. I mention steampunk specifically because of the frequent Victorian element in the stories, characters, and-or settings. This genre shares many of the previously mentioned fantasy attributes with the addition of historical fiction options, and connections to science fiction (technology is often important).

Steampunk also happens to be a current favorite of mine, so maybe all of this is by way of saying, possible new research project, here I come!  To be continued…………..