No Clear Door or Window or Gateway

About 7 months ago, V.E. Schwab gave the annual Tolkien lecture at Oxford. Her theme was gateway stories, books that really draw someone into the world of literature, especially fantasy. Her overall thesis was two-fold: 1) She argued that stories and book considered “literary” should not be required reading for fans of a genre because forcing yourself or being forced to read something just to say you’ve read it risks killing any potential enjoyment. 2) There is no such thing as pure fantasy. To be good, proper fantasy, what a story should do is allow “the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world. But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.” I also had the chance to hear her speak in person around the same time, at the Decatur Book Festival 2018. In her talk she suggested that there are two general kinds of fantasy- those which provide doors (a more immersive and complete experience of the world and narrative) and windows (those which provide only a partial view of the world of the story ad require more inference on the part of the reader).

About a month and a half ago, I participated in a series of interviews with high schoolers, many of whom mentioned (often prompted) the book or story that really got them interested in literature and reading. There were connections, both in titles as well as general ideas. Several shared V.E. Schwab’s experience of Harry Potter being their gateway into fantasy and reading. Some others named Rick Riordan, particularly the Percy Jackson series. What caught my attention was not only the trends of these two series for this generation, but also how uncanonical they are in terms of the traditional “literary canon”; both series are best-selling popular fantasy fiction.

About the same time as the interviews, there was a thread bouncing around Twitter which had been started by someone asking academics and scholars about reading they considered guilty pleasures or fun junk; the majority of the responses were likely not what the author of the original Tweet had been looking for. Most of the responses that I saw were something along the lines of, “why should any reading be shameful?” and “just because something like a romance novel isn’t considered literary doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about enjoying it”. Putting these three events together in terms of both proximity and general argument, there would seem to be a bit of a trend developing where tradition and popularity converge, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy.

All this got me thinking about what titles were my gateways since many of those mentioned above were not the ones that really got me into reading; I’m slightly older than V.E. Schwab, and now nearly old enough to be the biological parent of a high-schooler. I’m also a professional academic and scholar who tries to make time for ‘fun reading’, which in my case often leans towards the speculative, both fantasy and sci-fi. I avoided Harry Potter at first because it was on the best-seller lists, and I didn’t have much luck with enjoying titles that usually ended up there. But by the time the third novel was published, I’d gotten curious and borrowed a family member’s book club copy of the first one. This was my senior year in high school. Throughout college and a few years following, I became one of those fans who waited in line for the midnight release, and who downloaded and had to wait for the filters to buffer the movie trailers for the first film. Around the release of novel #6, I’d started to lose interest. I didn’t find out about the Percy Jackson series until I was in my early 30s, but I read all of them and enjoyed them. I tried a few of the other series as well, the Roman one and the Egyptian one; I just couldn’t get into the Egyptian mythology series, which is too bad since the actual mythology is fascinating. My point is that neither of these series could be my gateway since I’d gotten interested in reading beforehand, and neither really made me a lifelong fan of fantasy.

I agree with V.E. Schwab about the nature of fantasy and the nature of fandom. I also half agree with the Twitter thread. While I agree that there should be no shame in enjoying a book of any sort, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty clear expectations and cultural assumptions about what is canonical, popular, and literary. These things sometimes intersect, but frequently they do not.

I was always encouraged to read as a child. I don’t remember any favorites, but I do remember some series’, which I take to mean I must have liked them. I remember Dorrie the Little Witch (fantasy), Amelia Bedelia (comic but real world), and Babar (fantasy). I also remember reading C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia in the originally intended publication order which is not fully chronological in terms of narrative. I remember more about the BBC tv movie versions (late 1980s, early 1990s) than I do the books. The one novel I do remember was The Horse and His Boy which is set in the same world, but features characters that have little to do with the Pevensies. I also remember liking the Little House on the Prairie novels. With the exception of Dorrie, all of these series are well-known canonical children’s series’; I honestly don’t know if Dorrie is still especially remembered and read.

The novels that stand out to me most as my likely gateway into fantasy and reading for fun are both something I found in a used bookstore in downtown Dublin (Ireland), Chapters, which is apparently still there (Long may it prosper!).  I had two experiences here that I’m pretty sure shaped my reading habits towards what they still are 20 years later. Both times, I saw a book, picked it up, thought it looked interesting, but put it back. After repeating this a few times, I finally bought and read the book. The first one was Watership Down by Richard Adams. The second was Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Both of these titles are fantasy, but one is recognized as more literary than the other. Part of this may be due to Watership Down being older (1972) than the Discworld series (The Color of Magic, 1983), but the best-selling nature of many installments of the Discworld series likely also factors in. Both have also been turned into tv programs, cartoons and live-ish action.

Terry Pratchett led to Neil Gaiman which led to Gail Carriger and a years-long steampunk kick. After college, when I started getting interested in Gaiman (I think Anansi Boys was my first novel of his- I really enjoyed it), I also got interested in manga and graphic novels. This I distinctly remember and can place. In 2006, I’d moved to an area rural enough to not have a bookstore, and to have a library but one which was not terribly well stocked for my tastes. I started picking up the Shonen Jump monthly, which was still in print at the time, at the grocery store, and flipping through it. I started buying that, then subscribed, and eventually started getting into the graphic novel forms, manga first, then comic books. The interesting thing about the graphic novel world is that no matter what the form or style (manga or comic book) a significant percentage of the titles belong in some way to a genre or sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m reasonably sure that it was manga and anime that brought me away from fantasy to science fiction; not that I don’t still read fantasy; I most certainly do, but I seem to have been expanding my fun reading a bit more the past year or two.  I just can’t quite pin down a gateway. If I had to, I supposed it might be either Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (c. 1390s) or Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (2018). I’ve also read some of the more canonical and popular science fiction but it’s never really grabbed me. I read Neoromancer because I figured I should; I didn’t enjoy it. I read Planetfall by Emma Newman because I loved her fantasy Split Worlds series. I didn’t like Planetfall.

My point? Inspired by the conversation going on about the nature of literature, popular, canonical and otherwise, examining my own reading habits and what got me started both supports the current discussion and disagrees. I definitely agree with V.E Schwab that there should be no such thing as required fan reading. Case in point: the things I’ve read because I figured I ought to, I frequently did not enjoy. V.E. Schwab is herself an exception to my general experience with best-sellers, since I don’t often agree with the general public opinion on the amazing-ness of the novel. The things that I don’t agree with quite as much is the existence of the single or few gateway books or stories. For those who have them, I say ‘good for you’. My experience suggests that it is also possible for the introduction and fandom of anything, including fantasy, also has the potential to be lot be more gradual. As far as I’ve seen, this option hasn’t been really addressed.

On the Necessity and Perils of Fun Reading

Sometimes being a professional literature academic has its hazards. You try to read something for fun, and you end up getting all academic on it. I personally believe that too much ‘high literature’ is not good for anyone (too much Beowulf or Chaucer would make anyone cranky), and that which is often called fluff can be surprisingly literary in some ways.

I present here a re-envisioning of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” which has been highly influential in fantasy (and other forms of) fiction ever since it was first published. I’m going to use two major components of the theory: the ways tragedy and comedy fit in, and the structure of the narrative itself. Both are presented in full in the “Monomyth” prologue of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949). The original theory states that tragedy and comedy together are necessary for a total life experience, and that both are needed for catharsis, the Aristotelian goal of tragedy involving the release of negative emotions of pity and fear. The journey itself has 3 stages (separation, initiation, return) each of which consists of 5-6 steps or episodes. These 3 stages represent the trilogy structure as used in fiction, both literary and cinematic.

This theory first came to me when I was working my way through False Idols (Dragon Lords #2) by John Hollins. As of now, this series is a trilogy; I have no idea if the author will keep it that way or continue with further installments. I read the first one (Fools Gold) a while ago, and found it entertaining, if at times vulgar, fantasy fluff. I was in a bookstore, saw book 2, and picked it up because I felt the need for something of that sort. I was in for a surprise. Book 2 contained little of the screwball comedy between the characters and winning by the seat of their pants or in spite of themselves. The happy ending had not stayed happy; everyone was miserable and unlikeable, and the rest of the novel kept up the misery. By the end, the bad guy essentially had won and nearly all the heroes had been murdered. I was not pleased, but at the same time I hoped that book 3 (Bad Faith) would redeem things; I haven’t read it yet, and though it is literally sitting on my TBR shelf, it may be a while before I get to it. If I’m going to be reasonable, the final stage of the initiation sequence is “passage into the realm of night” which means that things will get metaphorically dark, and that the return (to the world of the first part) has to wait until the third stage. This would explain logically why the second installment would be considerably less happy and entertaining, as it is all about the trials of the hero.

This got me thinking about how this seems to be the eternal problem of the trilogy. Book 1 is a rousing, entertaining adventure, book 2 is depressing and not fun, makes you hate everyone and everything in the story, and then book 3 tries to create a balance of the seriousness of book 2 and the fun of book 1 but is rarely as good. I say ‘book’ here but very similar things can be seen in the original Star Wars trilogy, which was explicitly based in part on Campbell’s ideas. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy of movies follows the same general patterns as well. This visible influence of Campbell’s pattern on movies has been heavily criticized, and movie series rarely stick with trilogies anymore. Consider Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of books (which I have not read- so there!), which was made into a trilogy of movies, but then followed by The Hobbit (I have read this one), one book, made into a second trilogy of movies. Or Toy Story, left for 9 years a trilogy, which will become a quartet in 2019. The Campbell trilogy has been parodied as well, for example by the cartoon show The Fairly Odd Parents with aired three tv movies (1 hour each) as the season 6 finale, collectively titled Wishology! In addition to being a parody of the hero’s journey in terms of plot and characters, the episodes were titled “The Big Beginning”, “The Exciting Middle Part”, and “The Final Ending”. That’s another analysis.

Some contemporary novels series illustrate some of the trickiness of trilogies as well. V.E. Schwab’s recently concluded Shades of Magic series comes to mind. It managed to follow some of the structural rules of the Campbellian trilogy without getting too depressing or terrible in the second installment {this is another discussion in itself), but it will not remain a trilogy for long. The author has made known that she will be writing another series or two that includes some of the same characters and takes place in the same world, the first of which is already in publication (The Steel Prince comic volume 1 was released Oct. 8, 2018). Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles is a trilogy of novels, two of which have been published thus far (I haven’t gotten to The Wise Man’s Fear yet), but already has a fourth book which presents a side story about a side character. Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Homes series seemed to be a traditional trilogy, but now has a forthcoming fourth installment labeled as the conclusion of the series. Which I will not be reading. Book two was such a turn-off in terms of character and plot, that book three could not redeem the series. The only novel series that I can think of that will remain a trilogy, at least as of now, is the Rotherweird series by Andrew Caldecott, currently at 2 books with a forthcoming third labeled as the “thrilling conclusion”. This one I have some hope for, since it illustrates many of the qualities of the Campbellian hero’s journey, but because of some good decisions concerning point of view, and character and plot development in the first two novels, has generally avoided the complete and utter alienation of the reader, namely me, in book two; again, this will be another discussion in itself.

So, the re-envisioning suggests first that most modern novel and screen writers can’t or won’t stick to the standard trilogy structure. Second, the hero’s journey 3 parts in most current hands leans toward this pattern: 1-complete in itself and fun, 2-all dark and despair and no fun at all, 3-trying to get the fun back or at least have the good guys win. A lot of modern fictional narratives prefer to forgo the happy or at least conclusive ending. I’m all for literary complexity, but sometimes tradition is good. And desired.

This comes back to the balance Campbell requires of comedy and tragedy. What gets me is the general trend of leaving out the comic ending. Campbell himself argued that by the conclusion of the hero’s journey, the comic is redeemed and the tragedy is overcome. Granted, in the context of myth and fairy tale, this conclusion makes sense, but if modern narratives are going to follow the patterns noted by Campbell, why is this last bit so often left out? While comic technically in the Aristotelian sense only requires the double ending of good guy wins – bad guy loses, and nearly all the narratives noted above that are complete do observe this factor, the level of comedy in the more modern sense of entertaining and fun is not present nearly as much. Campbell required redemption of the comic and the world; escapist though it might be, I wish that part were a bit stronger. The damage done by the tragic seems to stick with the characters and their worlds too much for comic redemption to really take place is a lot of literary fiction. Note that nearly everything I’ve named above falls more into the ‘fantasy’ category, save the one I ended up hating. What that means is yet another discussion entirely.

To Really Get Medieval, Go Beyond the Literary

One of the benefits of medieval literature (loosely defined as anything written between 1000-1500 CE) is that you often end up going beyond the traditional ‘literary’. I’ve noticed that a lot of scholarship done on fantasy literature is done by people who originally specialized in medieval. For example, Kathryn Hume has written both The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and Its Critics and Fantasy and Mimesis. Science Fiction is a bit different, since many argues it got its start during the Victorian (or later) period and scholars of those time periods or later are most likely to address it. That does not stop the occasional medievalist from getting involved. If you study medieval books though, you’re likely to come into contact with a lot of other disciplines. While this is true of other times, places, and languages, it’s especially apparent in the study of medieval Europe. If you study the medieval, you will likely run into the following in some way, shape, or form:

Classics, especially Latin: Since Latin was the main language of education and official communication for several centuries, this makes some sense. If you need to read something in its original form, and it’s official, it’ll be in Latin. On the more literary side, since Latin was a big part of education, Roman poets and theorists and philosophers were hugely influential on the Middle Ages, including Virgil, Cicero, and Ovid.  Famous works of ancient Greece like Plato and Aristotle were known mostly through Latin translations (done largely by Middle Eastern scholars), and were similarly influential on literary theory, philosophy, and more.

Religion: The Church (there was only one recognized until about 1517) was a big part of medieval culture throughout Europe. Ideas and issues of faith made their way into poetry, fiction, politics, philosophy, etc. If you need to recognize what the main practices were, who key people were, how the law worked, how education was done, key philosophical practices and argumentative strategies, ad more, you need to have a reasonably good understanding of the medieval Church and faith.

History: Much like religion and faith, history relates to a lot of issues that often get brought into literature, including poetry and fiction. Political goings on often influenced culture, but also everyday life, and if you want to understand and dedication in most any work of medieval literature written by and/or for the upper classes, then you need to know the ruling families and their policies including international relationships and economics.

Science: The history of science is of course much older than the Middle Ages, but science in the modern sense was becoming more publicly recognized beyond the academy and specialist scholars between 1300-1500. If you want to read medieval poetry, a working knowledge of astronomy and astrology is useful to understand a lot of common love poetry phrases and tropes. Science also connects with history and religion, since certain practices and beliefs were sometimes at odds with traditional Church teachings. Alchemy is a medieval example, and later, Galileo and other scientists would run into trouble with Church authorities on account of scientific ideas. There is also the occasional text that includes references to botany or biology or physics or medicine as they were understood at the time.

Material Culture, such as clothing: Descriptions of what people wore, ate, or objects used in everyday life are common in many kinds of written material of the literary sort. Knowledge of clothing for example can help identify if a character is an ordained or lay member of the Church, which could have implications in the narrative. A woman’s clothing or jewelry could give an indication as to her status or her values. There’s even a poem “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” which provides a major source of knowledge of how carpentry might have been done in the 14th-ish century.

Mythology and folklore: As with science, a lot of poetic and fiction tropes come from folklore and mythology. Some of the mythology is from classical sources, but much of the folklore is more localized. Being able to identify a particular character or event in folklore is often handy when trying to understand some of the more fantasy-influenced chivalric romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lanval or Bisclavret, or Sir Orfeo. Poetry requires some similar knowledge, and extends into medicine and magic. The Middle Ages also made a lot of use of proverbs which often have folk elements or origins.

Logic: Logical reasoning and argumentation were a key part of medieval education, and as such poetry and other written works often make use of the rules of Aristotelian logic, which became popular during the 12th century. Religious poems or texts would borrow exegetical techniques which were derived from logic, dialogue was a popular argumentative and teaching tool both in fiction and non-fiction, and university staff and students often themselves were writers of poems and stories, which means that they were likely to include techniques with which they had a lot of familiarity.

Modern Cultural Theory, including gender and queer studies, and media studies: If you go to a large medieval conference that has a more multi-disciplinary focus like Kalamazoo, then you are likely to find a lot of panels that deal with the medieval in video games or films. This type of study goes back to the medievalist connections to fantasy literature, which also connects with mythology and folklore, which also connects with the history of the Church and politics, as well as elements of medieval narrative. Generic medieval Europe is a common setting for a lot of video games for example, and knowing any and all of the above noted can help in understanding some of the finer details of storytelling and world-building that area  part of media studies. On the gender and identity side of things, the Middle Ages to some extent deserves its reputation for stuffiness about such things as sex but only in the official, often religious, sense. In practice, there are records of all sorts, including the literary, that suggest that gender and sexuality were in fact a lot less standardized and strictly practiced as is often presented in modern visions of the medieval.

And that’s not even going into things like bibliography, grammar, rhetoric, and art of all kinds. Knowledge all of these subjects is useful or necessary to really get into medieval literature. They are more traditionally connected with ‘literature’ but particularly for the Middle Ages also constitute a unique branch of knowledge, separate and distinct from the literary applications.

Some Ideas For The Theory and Teaching of Fantasy

I have lived in Georgia for a little over three years. Only a few months ago did I learn that the Decatur Book Festival a) exists {less than 2 hours away from me}, and b) is the largest independent book festival in the country. Add to that, one of my current favorite authors who has one book just released and a second out later this month was going to be there at 2 panels on the same day, and I wasn’t going to be able to catch her on the upcoming tour (which was actually stopping in my hometown, now 1,000 miles away). Needless to say, I decided to go. I was not disappointed.

I should say for the sake of full disclosure, I only went Sunday since both sessions with V.E./Victoria Schwab were that day. I should also admit that, in spite of holding multiple advanced degrees in languages and literatures, I have never actually been to a literary festival of this sort before. I have also not been in the presence of someone who has hit the NYT Best Seller list several times in a row, and in different ranges (adult, YA, Middle Grade); I have been in the presence of famed academics whose books were crucial to my own scholarship or teaching, but it’s a different kind of fan-girling when you see a famous fiction writer who is probably more recognizable to the general public, both in the wilds of a local coffee shop a few hours before panels started, and in a room with a few hundred other people, or in a signing line with a few hundred people (at least).

Besides going to see authors I know, I also decided I wanted to listen especially for writing advice, since that almost always comes up during the Q&A parts of any fiction author presentation. I first noticed this phenomenon attending single author talks; inevitably, someone will ask for advice for the aspiring writer. I have since noticed that such advice has a place in the world of academic writing, albeit with a few adjustments.

The first advice that struck me as useful came from Joanne Fluke, author of a cosy mystery series featuring Hannah who owns a local cookie bakery in her hometown. She (Joanne that is) was on a tour for her latest installment, and stopped at the local indie bookshop in Milwaukee WI (#BoswellRules). When she was asked the advice for aspiring writers question, she said that it would be to always stop for the day when you haven’t totally wrapped up a thought. This way, you are guaranteed a place you can start off writing the next day and not be stuck trying to figure out what to write next. I have found this useful with the following tweak. Finish your thought, but then have a bullet point or two for what you know comes next. Then pick up where you left off when you come back to whatever academic essay, project, or whatever you’re working on.

Another piece of advice comes from a social media posting; I can’t remember if it was either Facebook or Twitter, but I’ve seen it several times since I first saw the Rule of 5. This I’m guessing is designed with the professional or trying-to-be professional writer more in mind. The Rule is that you must write at least 500 words or edit 5 pages 5 days a week. This doesn’t quite work as is for academics since often, in academic scholarly writing, you have to pause for research more often than you do for fiction writing. Sometimes it takes all day to straighten out a single footnote, which then feels like a major accomplishment. Or, you might need to spend a few hours trying to find a source that focuses on something obscure, like the history of travel to the moon in fiction. Worse yet, is trying to find a reference you know you’ve seen somewhere but didn’t fully record or note, and now when you need it you have to re-locate it. To accommodate such research realities that come with scholarly writing, I would amend the rule to 500 words, 5 pages edited, or 3 hours research, 5 days a week.

Back to the Decatur Book Festival 2018.

The advice I was looking for at the festival was both of the sort listed above, but also anything that would help me teach literature, especially longer works like novels.

The most useful and greatest amount of advice was brought up in the panel “Power and Vengeance in Other Worlds” featuring V.E. Schwab, Jonathan French, and Drew Williams. I didn’t always manage to catch who said what, so apologies in advance for any mis-attributions.

One of the first questions asked was about world-building and if world should come before plot or character, or vice versa in any combination. All three writers had different responses which was interesting in itself, but since I’ve taught Vicious by V.E. Schwab and will likely use some of her other works in the future, I focused mostly on her responses. She prefers to start with a main character who is nearly always an outsider of some sort, and ask ‘what if…’ some general kind of scenario or situation, and then build the world from there. Another version of this idea came up as starting with the character and concept, and populating the world based on those premises. She also expanded a little on a theory she’d introduced during the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. The idea is that basically, a fantasy writer can either create a window in which the reader only sees parts of the world and has to infer the rest, or a door in which the reader can see and experience the design of the entire world.

The basic idea of determining what a key focus is in a novel like the character, the plot, or the world I think would be a useful approach in teaching a novel, but even more so is the vocabulary of the door vs the window. I also think that these ideas could easily be adapted to other genres of fiction that aren’t necessarily based on fictionalized worlds.

The second useful question was how much do you plan for a sequel with a first book in what might be a series. This time there was more agreement among the writers, but I’ve got V.E.’s response as representative. The first book in the series should feel like a stand-alone story; that is, the reader should not need more to feel satisfied with the story and the world, but should want more. Any following sequels should not be mere continuations, but rather stories in their own right. Looking at it another way, the day should be saved, but not necessarily the world. One of the more interesting ideas that came up during this part of the discussion was that sometimes the saving of the day might be more internal than external. V.E. Schwab said, as she has said before, that she really like to write fight scenes. But especially with outsider main characters, the battles should get more internal as the story progresses. The first battle can and should be an external one, but the struggles tend to get more internal as the story progresses.

The idea of the internal versus external threats and fights I think provides a good way to consider how character and plot depend upon each other. The ideas about sequels might also provide for interesting prompts concerning how suspense is developed and how an author might try to draw in their readers.

I probably won’t be able to test any of this out until the spring semester but it’s never too early to start some general planning since I’ve found that some form of fantasy is generally acceptable to a wide range of potential students.

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.

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…………..