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Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Brief History of Modern Fantasy Literature, p. II

III. Late Victorian Era.: The Flowering of Fantasy

At the end of the 19th C. and beginning of the 20th C., it was more acceptable for fantasy writers to write for children than for adults, so writers often deliberately wrote for children or adolescents in order to be marketable as fantasy writers.  One result was that some top-notch children’s fantasy was written by brilliant writers–producing works that that have remained popular long after their authors’ deaths.

J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish baron, author, and playwright, created the enduring children’s fantasy character, Peter Pan as part of a serialized novel (The Little White Bird) in 1901.  He then staged the play, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904.  This play also popularized the female name “Wendy,” which was rare in English prior to this. The numerous follow-up appearances of Peter Pan by Barrie and others continues to this day.

L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), an American writer was simultaneously creating the great “Oz” series of books.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and in 1901 became the first “global” mass-market children’s fantasy, the “Harry Potter” series of its day.  It also drew controversy similar to Rowling’s later “Harry Potter” books, with fundamentalist preachers denouncing the “witchcraft” and supposedly “terrible morals” of the story. Baum wrote 13 sequels, none of which became as popular as the original. He acknowledged the influence of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and even Lewis Caroll‘s “Alice in Wonderland” books, but was deliberately setting out to create “American fairy tales.” The books had numerous semi-allegorical allusions to political turmoil in the U.S. of Baum’s day.  (Baum was a Populist and Progressive whose wife, Maude Gage Baum, was a leader in the suffragist movement of early, first wave, feminism.) The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland, continued the influence for successive generations.  Baum continues to be a major influence to this day.

Other children’s fantasies of this era include Lewis Caroll (Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898)’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865) and Through the Looking Glass–And What Alice Found There(1872) (which mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians love because of the “inside jokes” that children and most adults miss) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)’s many “Peter Rabbit” and related stories.  Nor should one miss Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).

In this  Victorian period, adult fantasies were being written, too, especially in an adaptation of the old “traveler’s tale” format known as “Lost World” stories.  Often set in Africa (which was still mostly unknown to Western writers) or on unexplored islands, these were adventure stories outside the increasingly tamed industrial world.  Some were straight “realistic” adventure stories with no fantastic elements. Others, an early form of science fiction, depicted advanced civilizations or the hidden bases of rogue scientifice genuises (forming one of the roots of contemporary “steampunk” fiction).  But some included magic or other fantastic elements.  Among the most influential of the latter was H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and its sequel Ayesha (1905).  Haggard’s numerous adventure stories of English explorer, Allan Quartermain also sometimes contained fantasy elements–and that influence continues even to Steven Spielberg’s films about archeologist “Indiana Jones.”

The American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is most famous for his novels and short stories concerning “Tarzan,” a son of an English lord who is raised by apes, teaches himself languages, and grows up to be “king of the jungle.” Though wildly improbable, the main Tarzan novels contain little or no explicit fantasy elements.  But Burroughs also pioneered several science fantasy works of a “sword and sorcery on other planets” type as well as lost world novels.  The most famous of these were a series of novels concerning Captain John Carter of Virginia (a Civil War veteran) who is mysteriously transported to a “Mars” that was nothing like the Mars that even the astronomy of Burroughs’ day knew–a “Mars” the natives call “Barsoom,” containing beautiful Red Martian princesses who need rescuing from giant, 4-armed, green Martians in a desert world of canals with a strange combination of high technology and swords.  Burroughs also wrote of Carson of Venus (Amtor),  and Pellucidar (a lost world at the earth’s core).  This kind of Sword and Planet science fantasy would influence later writers like Lin Carter, the highly misogynist John Norman, and others. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Kim Robinson, and Michael Moorcock have paid tribute to Burroughs’ Mars’s stories.

At the tail end of this era comes an author who is pivotal to the later development of fantasy due to his large influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, E.R. Eddison (1882-1945).  I, personally, find Eddison’s style dry and contrived, but he attempted to recreate the old Norse sagas in a world of total fiction–a self-contained, wholly invented mythology. It was that project which Tolkien eventually undertook in far more detail and with far more talent.  Eddison’s novel is The Worm Ouroboros (1922), in meticulously recreated Jacobean English (which I find tiring), creates a world of aristocratic heroes who war for honor and to escape boredom.  Michael Moorcock finds Eddison’s villains to be more authentic than Tolkien’s and even Ursula LeGuin pays tribute to Eddison.  But I find the casual disregard for human life and suffering of Eddison’s “heroes” to be off-putting.  It is worth noting that the Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, etc. are not separate species, as in Tolkien and many others, but various nationalities of human beings.  The novel also deals with the classic theme of time as an eternal wheel (the “worm” or dragon Ouroboros is the serpant which eats its own tale, a classic symbol of rebirth and cyclical history).  Even though Eddison is not my cup of tea, his importance to this history cannot be denied.

IV.  The Post-Victorian/Pre-Tolkien Era:, 1920s-World War II.

 In 1923, an American publisher launched Weird Tales, the first English-language (and maybe first in any language) magazine dedicated solely to fantasy and horror.  This was the era when pulp magazines were huge and many a novel began as a serialized story in pulp pages.  Weird Tales (and other sister publications soon to follow, like Fantastic Adventures and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) launched numerous publishing careers in fantasy fiction.  Among those careers, pride of place must go to two very different American writers, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936),  Fritz Lieber (1910-1992),  and C. L. [Catherine Lucille] Moore (1911-1987), all of whom continue to have numerous fans and imitators.

Lovecraft, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic novels of the Victorian era, wrote in the boundary between the fast-separating horror and fantasy genres–a boundary crossing tradition that today would  be called “dark fantasy.”  Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared universe (other authors were allowed to use it and friends like August Derleth and Robert E. Howard did and others have continued) a series of stories and novels concerning demons and dark gods from ancient civilizations which, disguised, continue to threaten modern existence.  The stories usually take place in fictional New England towns and center on struggles against the Great Old Ones, a fearsome assortment of ancient and powerful gods who came to earth from outer space and once ruled the planet–and seek to do so again. The essence of these many stories is that the human world is an illusion–and the heroes of these stories, at risk of their sanity, catch glimpses of the true world behind that illusion and the cosmic struggle therein.  Lovecraft has been a major influence on later fantasy (Michael Moorcock and much dark fantasy) and on horror writers like Stephen King and Robert Bloch.  For an accessible secondary study, see Lin Carter, Lovecraft:  A Look Behind the Cthulu Mythos (Ballentine Books, 1972.) (It is worth noting that though Carter is a fan, he is far from uncritical, both of Lovecraft’s writing style and of some of his less savory beliefs, including his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.)

Even more influential than Lovecraft was Robert E. Howard whose troubled life ended in suicide, but not before writing numerous  stories of horror and fantasy.  Howard created the sub-genre of fantasy called “Sword and Sorcery,” usually featuring barbarian heroes, damsels in distress (often scantily clad), and a series of obstacles reminiscent of those from ancient mythologies (sorcerors, monsters, etc.).  This kind of fantasy differs from “epic” or “high heroic” fantasy (exemplified by Tolkien and all his imitators) because the protagonists (heroes or antiheroes) are not often great moral characters and the adventures usually do not serve as epic battles between the forces of good and evil–they are played out on a smaller scale.  (Some writers and fans of each of these sub-genres have held the other form in contempt, but Tolkien is said to have enjoyed Howard’s Conan tales.) Howard’s fantasy heroes included Kull the barbarian king of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn King of the Picts, and Solomon Kane a Puritan-Adventurer, but his most famous creation was Conan the Barbarian from lost Cimmeria in a pre-Ice Age “Hyborian Age.”  The Conan stories would eventually become a staple of Marvel Comics and a series of movies that launched the career of Arnold  Schwarzenegger–although I doubt the people of California can blame Robert E. Howard for the evil rule of “The Governator.”  L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter collected unpublished Howard stories into anthologies,  finished some fragments, and wrote their own Conan stories,  too. 

Fritz Leiber added realism (carefully controlling the fantasy elements and researching ancient weapons, technologies and cultures in a way Howard never bothered to do) and humor with his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a fantasy partnership between a Northern barbarian (somewhat more realistically depicted than Conan) and suave, sophisticated, city-dwelling thief.  The stories were written over 50 years and most originally published in pulp magazines before later anthologization.

C. L. Moore was one of the earliest female writers of sword and sorcery.  Challenging the sexism of the Robert E. Howard approach, Moore wrote stories in the 1930s (usually published in Weird Tales about “Jirel of Joiry,” female ruler of an alternate Medieval realm somewhere in our France who was as tough as Conan, smarter,  just as scantily clad, and always fighting sorcery. 

The era closes with the publication in 1938 of T. H. White’s (1906-1964)comic re-telling of the Arthurian cycle, The Once and Future King.  (Actually, only the first section, The Sword in the Stone, was published in ’38.  The “finished” novel was not published until 1958 and a “conclusion,” The Book of Merlin, was published posthumously in 1977).  Comedy has long been a feature of fantasy which has an amazing ability to  spoof itself when it starts to become pretentious.

IV. Tolkien and the Post-Tolkien Explosion

It is simply impossible to overestimate the impact of one, rather ordinary, Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Language, named John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (1892-1973).  A pre-Vatican II Catholic of conservative views from his childhood in South Africa onward, Tolkien was uncomfortable with educated women and much else of the rapidly changing world.  He was an early environmentalist and critic of overindustrialization who preferred books and created his entire “Middle Earth” imaginary world in order to have characters to speak the invented languages he developed. (You can actually learn to speak Elvish and the actors in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work, do so.) He wanted to create a mythology for Britain which, he believed, had lost its mythology.

In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit, a children’s fantasy based  on stories he used to tell his own children.  It enjoyed modest success and, if Tolkien had stopped there,  he might have been only mildly influential on later fantasy.  But he noticed that his characters had, at the edges of his tale, wandered into the high history of Middle Earth that he had been creating over decades.  He decided to connect the stories and worked on them by longhand, sending chapters out as letters to his son Christopher, serving in France during WWII.  The resulting saga, The Lord of the Rings (first published 1954-1955) was so large it had to be published in three volumes. It is NOT a trilogy, despite all those who claim otherwise.

There have been critics ever since, but Tolkien’s work was such a huge success that it created fantasy as a mass-marketing reality. (That is, someone could actually make a living just writing fantasy novels–something virtually  impossible pre-Tolkien.) He was never really comfortable with his fame and its attendant wealth.  After his death, his son, Christopher, began editing and publishing the many pieces of the longer mythology behind the Lord of the Rings, but these have been of interest usually only to diehard Tolkien fans.

Tolkien’s success had 3 immediate impacts on fantasy:  1. It spawned a host of imitators of The Lord of the Rings–most of them very bad.  (One, Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara and its sequels, I really dislike–but they became the first post-Tolkien “epic fantasies” to make the New York Times‘ bestseller lists.) 2. It spawned the republication of many of Lovecraft and Howard’s works (and other Weird Tales’ contributors) in fantasy anthologies.  3. It gave renewed attention to some of Tolkien’s friends and associates–a group of English writers known as “The Inklings.” (All of the Inklings were male, but Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a popular Christian apologist, creator of both the mystery hero, Sir Peter Whimsey, and a translation of Dante, is often considered an honorary “female Inkling” because of her friendship with several of the members.)

Among the most important Inklings for this history are C. S. Lewis  and Charles Williams.  Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis (1898-1963)  was Fellow and Tutor in English Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford (1925-1954) and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University (1954-1963).  Irish by birth, Lewis was an adult convert from atheism to Christianity and became a popular apologist for a rather traditional (though by no means fundamentalist) Anglicanism.  In addition to works on popular Christianity, two spiritual autobiographies, and various scholarly works, Lewis published several works  of fantasy, the most famous of which is the series  of children’s books known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956).  The Narnia books may be the most famous children’s fantasy works between Baum’s Oz books and J.K. Rowling’s recent Harry Potter works, though its explicit Christian themes leads the series to have FEWER (but still some) critics among conservative evangelicals.  Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fantasy novels where the Christian apologetics is somewhat more heavy-handed than in the Narnia books.  See Out of the Silent Planet (1938); Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus, 1943); That Hideous Strength (1945–which also brings back in the Arthurian cycle).  Lewis also wrote explicitly theological fiction in fantasy form, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933, a fictionalized autobiography); The Screwtape Letters (1942; hilarious series of letters from a senior devil to a novice tempter), and The Great Divorce (1945; A bus tour of the fringes of heaven from hell in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In Lewis’ work, his guide is not the Roman poet Virgil, but the Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George Macdonald [see previous post].)

A third Inkling with an influence on fantasy is Charles Williams (1886-1945), a staff editor at Oxford University Press who wrote a series of fantasy novels that have been characterized as “Christian Lovecraft.”  They aren’t my cup of tea, but many find them wonderful.  In chronological order, Williams novels (all later republished by the American evangelical publisher, William B. Eerdmans) are War in Heaven (1930; involves the Holy Grail); Many Dimensions (1931); The Place of the Lion (1931; very Platonic); The Greater Trumps (1932; involving Tarot Cards and the Great Dance); Shadows of Ecstasy (1934); Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows’ Eve (1943).

V. Pioneering Female Fantasy Writers:

The rediscovery of both Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Howard by the countercultural youth movements of the 1960s (ironic considering the deeply conservative trends of each in his own way) led to an explosion of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s–most of it mediocre at best.  The genre had been dominated by men, but a generation of women began to push at these boundaries–and today the genre is full of strong female voices.

Alice Mary Norton, writing as Andre Norton (1912-2005), was an American writer of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy.  In the fantasy genre, she became famous for her “Witch World” novels–a long series of books depicting a parallel earth in which magic works, but is, at least at the beginning, the exclusive possession of women.  The females who dominate the witch world believe that magic only works for virgin females and that loss of virginity will translate to loss of magic.  They are slowly forced to revise their beliefs because of the adventures of Simon Tregarth from our Earth who is able to handle some magic, marries the witch, Jaelithe  (who does not lose her magic), and whose children, both male and female, are stronger magic users than the traditional witches.

By contrast, Ursula LeGuin (1929-), influenced by Taoist and feminist themes, wrote a series of novels set in the world of Earthsea where magic is mostly male–controlled and female magic users have to unbend the conservative heirarchy of wizards.

Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) built on the legacies of Le Guin and Norton (and earlier, C. L. Moore) and on the post-Tolkien explosion.  She has written science fiction and fantasy.  She is most famous for her science fantasy “Darkover” novels, but also for the way she worked to get more women in the field by editing a series of short-story anthologies known as Sword and Sorceress, vols. 1-23 which helped to launch the careers of C. J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Diana Paxson, Elizabeth Waters, Elizabeth Moon, and others.  From 1979 onward (continuing with Diana Paxson), Bradley reworked the Arthurian cycle from a feminist (and neo-pagan) perspective beginning in The Mists of Avalon (1979) which spent 3 months on the New York Times bestseller lists. (Bradley herself experimented with Wicca and other forms of neo-pagan worship, but eventually became a confirmed Episcopalian.)

Madeleine L’Engle(1918-2007) was an American writer of novels aimed at adolescent audiences.  She wrote at the blurry boundaries between fantasy and science fiction (“science fantasy”).  I like her books, especially her best known (and award winning), A Wrinkle in Time (1962), but my wife, Kate, is an even bigger fan and has several of L’Engle’s works autographed by the author–which is so cool.  Influenced both in writing style and in religious views by the Victorian-era Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George MacDonald (see part I of these history postings), L’Engle, a lifelong and very active Episcopalian (American Anglican) was also a thoroughgoing believer in universal salvation.  For that reason, many conservative Christian bookstores would not stock her books, despite their prominent themes of faith.

Katherine Kurtz (1944-) has renewed the “alternative history” form of fantasy by creating an alternate Medieval Wales (Gwynnedd) that is the setting for her many Deryni novels–stories of a race of magic users persecuted by a Medieval Church–but more tolerated in lands where the Moors (Muslims) or the Eastern Church are dominant).  Kurtz was one of the first writers to go into detail about the mechanics of magic (often it seems like a form of Extra-sensory Perception or psionics) and her characters wrestle with the morality of their actions more than is common in the genre.  Although born in America, she has spent most of her adult life in a castle in Ireland, but recently moved back to the U.S. (Virginia) to be with her children and grandchildren in her senior years.  (She is known to be close friends with the science fiction writer, Anne McAffrey.) The Deryni novels first began being published in 1970.

Patricia A. McKillip (1948-) is an American writer who has lived abroad and writes both science fiction and fantasy. Her fantasy works usually take place in a Medieval like setting in which music plays a large part.  Though sometimes her writing reflects divisions of labor among the sexes, she portrays strong female characters who are the equals of their male counterparts.  The books usually involve elements of mystery as the main characters possess and/or are confronted by powers they don’t understand.  Her “Quest of the Riddlemaster” Trilogy from the early 1970s is particularly inventive.

Today, the numerous women who write in this field–with as many male fans and female–all stand on the shoulders of these determined pioneers.

VI. The Post-Tolkien Era.

As the counterculture kept the Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien books continually in print, fantasy began to splinter into numerous sub-genres: Sword and sorcery, epic/high fantasy, sword and planet and other science fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate histories, etc.  Most were only of mediocre quality.  But some stood out.  Michael Moorcock (1939-) is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy who did not like the way Tolkien dominated the field–and did not like the way barbarians like Conan dominated the field of Sword and Sorcery.  So, he created an anti-hero, “Elric of Melnibone,” who was a degenerate, a city-dweller, a hedonist and prince who disdained barbarians and from a long line of evil magic users.  Far from Conan’s rippling muscles or the clean living of Tolkien’s heroes, Elric was an albino (white hair and skin, pink eyes), weak and with disgusting habits.  Then, Moorcock cursed Elric with a magical sword, “Stormbringer,” which sucked out the souls of people to give Elric both physical and magical strength.  He cannot throw the sword away–and he is chosen to be the champion of Order vs. Chaos, a battle that is presented as more cosmic than the one between good and evil.  Eventually, Moorcock linked up his Elric stories with other heroes as incarnations of an “Eternal Warrior” in the battle between Order and Chaos.  Moorcock did for fantasy what Sergio Leone did for Western’s–gave a grittier, grimmer feel that fit well with the cynicism of the 1970s and early ’80s when they enjoyed their highest popularity.

I am not a fan of Terry Brooks (1944-) whose first successful novel, The Sword of Shanarra (1971), I considered to be a cheap retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though he modified this and became more creative in sequels, I never got over my initial disappointment. But Brooks showed that others could write Epic fantasy after Tolkien. He has now written 22 New York Times bestsellers during his career.

After Brooks (and, in my view, a much better writer) came Stephen R. Donaldson (1947-) who began working on his fantasy writing while growing up in India where his parents were medical missionaries. Donaldson’s 1977 book, Lord Foul’s Bane introduced “Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” an anti-hero as powerful as Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone and placed him in an Epic tale and in a Land as beautiful as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Where will fantasy go from here?  Who knows?  The possibilities are literally endless.   I hope to write future posts on science fiction, on the sub-genres of fantasy, and some major themes.

One note of criticism for this genre, I love.  Though the initial male-female imbalance is much less, today, the Anglo-American scene is still dominated by writers from the so-called “dominant” Caucasian culture.  (This IS changing. The late Octavia Butler [1947-2006] wrote science fiction and fantasy that was both popular and critically acclaimed.  Carol McDonnell, author of Wind Follower and Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Racing the Dark are two contemporary African-American authors.  And more Asian writers of fantasy are being translated, thanks to the popularity of manga comics and Japanese anime.  But the field is still WAY too moncultural.)   We need far more fantasy writers of more diverse cultural backgrounds.  That would help keep from having the overly-Caucasian casts.  Look, folks, even our “real” Europe of the Middle Ages was not so very white as most Medieval flavored fantasy novels.  Huns and Mongols and the Russ had brought Asian peoples and influences.  There were Islamic influences from both the Middle East and Africa–even in Britain, but much more in France, Portugal, and Spain.  And why must every other fantasy novel depic a society with a king, some nobles, and peasants? Even the “real” Middle Ages had wider political patterns with “free towns” run my guilds and merchants, or the cantons of Switzerland under democratic rule, etc.  And actual “barbarians” are usually only barbaric to those who consider themselves above them, and they are almost never like Conan.  Some variety and research, please.

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June 21, 2009 - Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction

10 Comments

  1. [...] Read more: A Brief History of Modern Fantasy Literature, p. II « Levellers [...]

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  3. i always love to read history regarding modern fantasy.

    Comment by swords | June 22, 2009

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  5. Michael,

    A really excellent piece. I would to add however that L. Frank Baum was an even bigger racist than Lovecraft. Baum openly advocated genocide against Native Americans and in some circles is considered partly responsible for the Wounded Knee Massacre.

    Comment by Frank Frey | June 23, 2009

  6. Really? I didn’t know this, Frank. Thanks for the heads up. I had been thinking of writing an entire article on resisting the history of racism (and classism and sexism) in the genre and push for more diversity among both authors and stories. Your remarks on L. Frank Baum have decided me and after full investigation, I shall. Thank-you.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 24, 2009

  7. Thanks for that… good to see your blog is back in action.

    Comment by Steve Hayes | June 26, 2009

  8. Recently I have been drawing comparisons between LotR and WW2. It seems like the previous great war was WW1. It ended and the rings were made (League of Nations). Germany is Sauron. You may be able to make more connections than I, but I continued on through Gondon, Rohan, etc…

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 30, 2009

  9. Tolkien served in WWI and his son Christopher served in WWII. But Tolkien disliked comparisons between his fiction and real world events–even if the analogies seemed strong.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 30, 2009

  10. Great article. Great Blog. I will visit again.

    thanks.

    Tom the Sword Gu

    Comment by samurai sword | August 5, 2009


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