35. A Short, Untidy and Highly Idiosyncratic History of Fantasy

Warning: This post is long and very literary.

I love the genre of fantasy. On one level it provides a literary medium through which writers can explore moral responsibility, the human condition and the existence of the supernatural. On another level it pits heroes against dragons, sorcerers and monsters. What’s not to like?

The development of the fantasy genre fascinates me. This blog post chronicles—in an admittedly cursory and haphazard fashion—the history of fantasy.

Human beings have been making up stories about the supernatural since…well…presumably since they were kicked out of Eden.

These stories fall into several categories. Mythology refers to the traditional stories of a people or nation, usually concerning all-important matters like the accomplishments of deities and the creation of the world. Legends are less grandiose, consisting of stories about extraordinary people or events. Folklore is the collection of tales and superstitions of a particular people or nation, and fairy tales are a subgenre of folklore intended for younger people.

Although stories about the supernatural have been in currency for millennia, the genre we call fantasy didn’t come into being until the nineteenth century. Ancient stories about the supernatural are normally considered precursors to fantasy and placed in one of the categories already mentioned: mythology, legend, folklore or fairy tales.

The modern genre of fantasy is usually defined as the type of fiction in which supernatural phenomena are a primary element of theme, plot or setting. Fantasy is distinguished from the horror genre because it typically avoids dark, macabre themes. Fantasy is also considered separate from science fiction, which uses advanced technology and science (or pseudoscience) as storytelling elements.

There’s some debate about the first author of modern fantasy. As far as I’m concerned, that honor belongs to George MacDonald, a Scottish minister and novelist. MacDonald was a close friend and mentor of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—better known as Lewis Carroll—who wrote the famous Alice books; MacDonald was also acquainted with Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and other notable authors of his day. He is most famous for his fairy tales and two fantasy novels, Phantastes and Lilith, which would later have a profound effect on authors like C.S. Lewis.

Some decades after George MacDonald’s seminal fantasies, a reclusive professor of Anglo-Saxon was persuaded to finish and publish a bedtime story he had written for his children. That professor was J.R.R. Tolkien, and that story was The Hobbit.

Tolkien had been developing a private mythology for decades, making notes upon thousands of years of fictional history and creating multiple languages. To his own surprise, The Hobbit, which began as a bedtime story, established itself in his private mythology. After he was persuaded to publish The Hobbit, readers clamored for a sequel, and he eventually obliged with The Lord of the Rings—which is, in my humble judgment, the greatest work of fantasy and one of the finest works of fiction ever written. The Lord of the Rings is notable not only for its unprecedented depth, but its use of themes from Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon folklore.

Around this time, C.S. Lewis published The Chronicles of Narnia, his seven-volume contribution to the fantasy genre. Narnia drew upon earlier children’s literature (such as the works of E. Nesbit) and would later influence J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books and inspire—provoke is probably a better word—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Tolkien, who was a friend of Lewis’s, disliked Narnia: he believed the books were sloppily written and full of inconsistencies.

The fantasy genre rapidly gained popularity midway through the twentieth century, especially in the United States. The Lord of the Rings in particular gathered a huge following during the sixties, exerting a major influence upon other works of literary fantasy, the growing video game industry and the development of fantasy role-playing games.

From the sixties onward, the fantasy genre expanded in two ways.

First, the fantasy genre became more financially lucrative, driving the publication of commercial fantasy—shoddy, formulaic fantasy fiction written for the sole purpose of making money. Well-written fantasy fiction, or literary fantasy, became less common.

Second, the fantasy genre proliferated into dozens of subgenres. There is high fantasy, which creates supernatural worlds; low fantasy, which introduces the supernatural into our own world; magic realism, which combines matter-of-fact narration with surreal details; steampunk fantasy, which incorporates anachronistically old-fashioned technology and culture; sword and sorcery, which emphasizes sensational magic and medieval warfare; and many, many others.

Fantasy continues to flourish. Commercial fantasy is still produced and sold, unfortunately, but occasional works of literary fantasy reassure me there’s still hope for the genre. (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which TMTF reviewed some weeks ago, is a good example of modern literary fantasy.)

It’s worth pointing out that many of fantasy’s best authors have been Christians: George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle and others. Although I’m not sure why, I have a theory: The ideals of Christianity and of fantasy tend to be similar.

Christians believe in the existence a supernatural world that exists alongside the natural world; when the supernatural world intrudes into the natural world, we call it a miracle. Christians also believe in objective morality, the belief that right and wrong are consistent, unchanging realities, and that good is better than evil.

Fantasy usually creates a supernatural world that exists alongside the natural world; when the supernatural world intrudes into the natural world, fantasy labels it magic. Fantasy also typically remains true to the concept of objective morality—good triumphs over evil in fantasy fiction, after all, because good is consistently better than evil.

Christianity and fantasy fiction hold many concepts in common, so I think it’s no coincidence that some of fantasy’s best authors have been Christians. Since fantasy is fictitious, does my theory suggest Christianity is false? Absolutely not! The paradox of fantasy is that it reflects some truths more clearly than realistic fiction.

What do you think about fantasy? Do you have a favorite author or book? Let us know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “35. A Short, Untidy and Highly Idiosyncratic History of Fantasy

  1. I don’t usually post links as comments … they are often just self promotion. This one is not. I have nothing to do with this.
    My feeling is that anyone who read to the end of this “long and very literary post” would also appreciate this take on NPRs top 100 SciFi and Fantasy books in flowchart form. I’m sure you’ve already seen it since it was posted 6 weeks ago, which in internet years is like 6 years ago. Anyway. Enjoy.

    • Whoa. I’d never seen that flowchart. It’s really impressive, in a goofy sort of way. I’m glad to see many of my favorites made the cut!

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