Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.

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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…………..