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

Sources of Modern Fantasy Literature

 Those who read this blog primarily for religious social commentary, theology, philosophy, or politics, should try back later.  I need a break.  Writing about other interests than the main themes of this blog help me to keep from cynicism, depression, despair, or misdirected anger.

Although dominated since Tolkien(1892-1973) by Western Medievalist forms, modern fantasy literature draws from a plethora of ancient sources in numerous mythologies.  No source of fantastic elements is off-limits and would-be fantasy authors who don’t want simply to repeat tried and true formulae, might want to explore Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, New Zealand Maori or other indigenous mythologies and tales.  These sources are all under-utilized in modern Fantasy Literature.  Below, however, I list the most common sources for fantasy, in roughly chronological order.

I. The Epic of Gilgamesh.  An epic poem from ancient Sumeria, this is one of the earliest works of fiction.  We don’t know when the first version was written in Sumerian, but the standard Akkadian version was compiled from older legends sometime around 1,300 B.C.E.  It tells of the exploits of a legendary King Gilgamesh, blessed by the gods with supernatural strength but who is bored with ruling his kingdom, and his friend, Enkidu the Wild Man (who is even stronger than Gilgamesh) and their quests and battles with incredible monsters.  The story influenced Homer’s The Odyssey, was outlined in brief in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (“Darmok”), and has even influenced some role-playing video games.  For non-scholars only interested in reading the work for entertainment, the most accessible English translation is N. K.  Sanders, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Epics, 2006) which reprints the prose edition of the Penguin Classics, 1960.  The “Sword and Sorcery” subgenre of fantasy is particularly indebted to the Gilgamesh stories.

II. Ancient India.  Modern Hinduism grew out of a complex of different Indian traditions–and many of those traditions have proved good source material for modern fantasy writing.  India has a long tradition of fantastical stories and characters.  The Japanese “manga” or graphic novel series, RG Veda, for instance, draws directly from the Rig-Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns and stories that represents India’s oldest (Vedic) Scriptures.  The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are also deep sources for fantasy.

III. Classic Greco-Roman Mythology.  The Greek and Roman myths and hero stories may be the  most “plundered” as source material for later fantasy literature.  Some of the most important stories are:  “Theseus  and the Minotaur” (minotaurs and mazes that contain monsters are common in fantasy literature), “Perseus and the Slaying of the Gorgon Medusa” (which also includes what may be the first “sea serpent” story in Western literature), “The Labors of Herakles/Hercules,” “Jason and the Argonauts.”  And, of course, Homer’s great epic poems (c. 800 B.C.E.), The Iliad and The Odyssey.  You can find both in one boxed set edited by Bernard Knox and translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles in a 1999 Penguin Classics edition.

IV. East Asian Legends:  Especially from China and Japan.  The rich mythologies and cultures of Ancient China and Ancient Japan  contain many elements that lend themselves to fantasy writing.  One prominent example is the Chinese dragon:  Western dragons are usually depicted as sly, evil, cruel, and greedy.  Chinese dragons, on the other hand, are considered wise and signs of luck.  In modern fantasy literature, we often see dragons drawn more like the Western image (e.g., flying), but many writers have started to give them more noble characters that are more in line with Asian traditions.  Taoist traditions have, by her own admission, influenced Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels.

Likewise the Taoist belief in Nei Jin (“internal power”) has influenced both real life martial arts and the kind of  Chinese fantasies known as wuxia, where the martial artist can perform superhuman warrior feats:  nearly flying, dodging hundreds of thousands of arrows, etc.  Wuxia is a word made of two Chinese characters, wu (having to do with things military or martial) and xia which refers to both the Chinese version of chivalry and the person (usually a swordsman) who lives by such a code.  Wuxia fantasy is found in Chinese novels, comics, and films, but is known in the West mostly through a series of films beginning with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) based on the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu.  See also Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a hilarious spoof of wuxia films–but fantasy spoofs are still fantasy.  The Chinese sage, as well as the swordsman, has now become recognizable in many modern fantasy works.

From Japanese culture and legends, fantasy has drawn upon the code of Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”) practiced by the Samurai warrior caste, the contrast between Samurai (knights serving masters) and Ronin (“masterless” warriors), the legendary ninja assassins, and strong interest in traditional Japanese weaponry.  Fantasy novels often use Japanese legends for suitable monsters or demons, too.  The popularity of Japanese anime (cartooning) has further popularized these legends and their modern variations.

V. Islamic Middle East.  The most famous source for modern fantasy from the Middle East is, of course, the book known both as 1,001 Nights and as The Arabian Nights, a book that compiled many traditional Arabic legends and folk tales.  (In fact there are layers of stories: Persian tales inspired by Indian mythology and adapted into Arabic by the 10th C. C.E.; Stories recorded in Baghdad in the 10th C., C.E.; and Medieval Egyptian folklore.) This anonymous work first took form in the 10th Century C.E. and reached its final form in the 14th Century, C.E. Western writers have tended to call all Arabic legends “Arabian Nights” stories whether or not they appeared in the 1,001 Nights. There are even a number of tales known in Europe and set in the Middle East called “Arabian Nights” tales, even though there is no known Arabic manuscript.  The collection first began to be a major influence on Western fantasy with the translation into French in the 1704-1717 by Antoine Galland.  Galland’s version includes the stories, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin’s Lamp,” that are not found in any Arabic or Persian manuscript–stories that he claimed he heard from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo.  In 1885, Sir Richard Francis Burton gave the earliest popular English version.  Modern English readers may find the 2008 Penguin Classics edition in 3 volumes to be most accessible.

The influence of these stories on later fantasy is incalculable:  flying carpets, djinn, genii, the characters of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, Scheherazade (and other women using their wiles to survive in very oppressive, and dangerous patriarchal contexts), are all standard features.  So is the use of such literary devices as “the unreliable narrator” and stories within stories. 

Other Middle Eastern/Islamic literature that has influenced later fantasy writing includes the national Persian epic, The Shanameh, and the Persian tale, Amir Arsalan which has directly influenced Japanese writer Yoshiki Tanaka’s Arslan Senki, translated into English as The Heroic Legend of Arslan.

VI. Norse and Icelandic Sagas (and related mythology)  Norse mythology, as reflected in the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda include the Norse/Germanic gods (the Aesir) such as Odin (German Woden), Thor, Loki, etc. and their battle against the forces of chaos embodied in elves, dwarves, frost giants, trolls, and giants.  They have directly, and indirectly, influenced everyone from Shakespeare to William Morris, to J. R. R. Tolkien,  Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson.  The Norse fornaldarsagas (lit., “Stories of Times Past”) told more “historical” legends, but drew upon the Eddas for fantastic elements.  These Norse and Icelandic sagas depict heroes on dangerous quests fighting dragons, barrow-wights, witch-kings, and other forces of evil, from which they must often rescue “fair maidens.”  The quests are also often journeys of self-discovery. 

The Volsungasaga and The Nibenlugenlied, in addition to being source material for Wagner’s operas, depict more historical legends, battles over thrones and dynasties, but still include many elements that have influenced modern fantasy.

Related to these source texts is the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf (c. 8oo C.E.) which tells the story of the defeat of two hideous monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s mother,  by the hero Beowulf.  J. R. R. Tolkien, while a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, gave a 1936 lecture, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics” which was the first serious look at the saga for literary purposes.  John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) retold the myth from the monster’s point of view.

Celtic mythology and folklore is another related source for modern fantasy.  Particularly rich is the Welsh tradition since it was collected into one source,  the Mabinogion (c. 1350-1410) , iron age tales which contain, among other things, the roots of the Arthurian legends.  One modern fantasy writer, Evangeline Walton, attempted to retell the Mabinogion in a series of four novels(for the four “branches” of the Mabinogion), The Island of the Mighty (1970); The Children of Llyr (1971); The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and Prince of Anwynn (1974).  In 2002, Overlook Press republished this series under one cover as The Mabinogion Tetralogy.  The Irish Ulster Cycle and Finian Cycle have also been mined repeatedly for modern fantasy. 

But the greatest influence of Celtic mythology has been indirectly through the “Matter of Britain,” the medieval romances we know as the Arthurian legends.  These legendary histories of Britain took on lives of their own, apart from the Welsh mythology of their source–an important step in the history of fantasy.  Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and others told versions of these tales, but they were  most influentially collected and reworked by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte D’Arthur (c. 1470),  making Mallory probably the first fantasy anthologist.  This work is directly the source for many modern retellings of the Arthur stories, especially T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and the 1981 film, Excalibur.  The Victorian retelling by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, which is heavily Christianized, is also influential–including on the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ science fantasy “Space Trilogy.”

In addition to T. H. White, the following modern reworkings of Arthurian legend stand head and shoulders above the rest:  Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Mary Stewart’s “historicised” version told through Merlin (The Crystal Cave, 1970; The Hollow Hills, 1973; The Last Enchantment, 1979; The Wicked Day, 1983; The Prince and the Pilgrim, 1995); and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist re-telling through the eyes of the women (which sees the tales as a struggle between Augustinian Christianity and the older pagan religions of the Great Mother), The Mists of Avalon (which also attempts to recreate pre-Augustinian Celtic Christianity as a form of Christianity which lived more in harmony with the pagans).  I would NOT recommend the “Pendragon Cycle” of Stephen Lawhead in which the Arthurian legends suffer because of Lawhead’s heavy-handed Christian apologetics. (His novels have won evangelical awards, but they just aren’t good as literature.)

Finally, there is the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, which, though not published until the 19th C., collects stories that date back centuries.  J.R.R. Tolkien has said directly that both The Kalevala itself, and the Finnish language he learned in order to read it, were direct influences on his The Silmarillion.  I would think this epic could prove to be a rich source for others as well.

These appear to be the major “taproot texts” or sources of modern fantasy literature.  Some are more heavily used than others.  I noted at the beginning that traditional stories from Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and New Zealand Maoris are all very under-utilized.  So, I think, is pre-Islamic Egyptian mythology.

June 16, 2009 - Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction


  1. […] More:  Sources of Modern Fantasy Literature « Levellers […]

    Pingback by Literature » Sources of Modern Fantasy Literature « Levellers | June 16, 2009

  2. Thanks for this. I have never been much of a reader of sci-fi or fantasies, but I recently completed the Lord of the Rings series and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Comment by Ralph | June 16, 2009

  3. That’s really cool! 🙂 Awesome post! 🙂

    God bless,
    Taylor J. Beisler

    Author “Arint Saratir: Warrior’s Light” and Freelance Writer/Editor/Developer
    Louisville, KY

    Comment by Taylor | June 17, 2009

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for your overview here! You cover a lot of ground in a short post.

    On your non-recommendation of Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, I would have to disagree. Yes, there are Christian elements, but I’ve never thought of them as heavy handed. He folds them in organically, and they fit in properly for the time period that he places the story.

    On whether or not his writing is good literature is probably more the question. If you use the Christian elements as a detraction from the literature, I can see your point, but many would see that as a plus.

    Personally, I enjoyed the first three books of the Pendragon Cycle better than the others, particularly his integration of the legends of Atlantis in with King Arthur–a very unique take. Merlin was particularly good.

    Thanks for your post!


    Comment by Robert Treskillard | June 17, 2009

  5. Robert, I am a Christian, so I certainly don’t see a Christian theme as ipso facto a literary detraction. It’s when the apologetic/evangelistic desire overrides the author’s ability to tell a good story, that I object. And I think that’s true of Lawhead. His characters are flat and his books are too “preachy.”

    But it is not only Christian authors who have this flaw. John Norman’s “Gor” series of science fantasies (in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burrough’s “John Carter of Mars” books or “Carson of Venus” books or Lin Carter’s “Callisto” series) preach a combination of patriarchy/male supremacy and Nietschean “master morality” vs. the “slave morality” of compassion and mercy and sharing in layers that are three feet deep. In the first 3 novels, Norman’s storytelling is good enough that someone like myself, who disagrees strongly with his views, could still enjoy the books. After that, I just gave up.

    Also, picking a writer whom I generally like, Mercedes Lackey does not usually let her neo-pagan commitments become the focus of her fantasy writing, though she does not hide them. But, in her otherwise fine “Bardic Voices” series (which does so much more with music than the books set her in world of Valdemar), she creates a thoroughly hateful Medieval Church. While it is JUST different enough from the Medieval Catholic Church of our world to be called fiction, it is clear that Lackey’s dislike of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular have been given full voice. I found it distracting from the stories themselves.

    Whether I agree with or disagree with the religious, metaphysical, moral or political views of a writer of fiction, I don’t want them to be “too preachy.” I want the work of fiction to be GOOD FICTION first and foremost. I still think Lawhead fails that test.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 18, 2009

  6. I forgot to say, “Thanks for writing!” I clicked on the link to your name and see that you are also an author who, like Lawhead, re-works the “Matter of Britain” from a Christian viewpoint. I wish you success and I hope to get around to your books, eventually.

    I’ll view your defense of Lawhead more charitably now that I know you have, as they say, “a horse in that race.” 🙂

    BTW, please feel free to list your own favorite fantasy works on my post, “Top 20 Fantasy Books/Series.” I’ll even let you include your own work. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 18, 2009

  7. […] Although dominated since Tolkien by Western Medievalist forms, modern fantasy literature draws from a plethora of ancient sources in numerous mythologies.  No source of fantastic elements is off-limits and would-be fantasy authors who don’t want simply to repeat tried and true formulae, might want to explore Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, New Zealand Maori or other indigenous mRead more at https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/sources-of-modern-fantasy-literature/ […]

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  8. Michael,

    Glad to hear that your non-recommendation wasn’t because of the Christian elements, per se, but how they were presented. I saw below you included “The Chronicles of Narnia” and other works from Christians on your top 20 list, so you’re obviously being very fair here and just looking at the writing.

    Maybe I was able to overlook these things more in his Pendragon Cycle because my introduction to Lawhead was with his Song of Albion series, which I consider excellent.

    In the Song of Albion, the Christian elements don’t come out until the very, very end … up until then a reader might not even know Stephen Lawhead is a Christian, in fact might question his Christianity. And even after reading the end, if one doesn’t like his conclusion, it could just be ignored.

    Anyway, I wasn’t trying to promote my own work by commenting, and I would never presume to put my own work on any list. My “horse in the race” is just a little foal and I am unpublished and probably shall remain so considering the economy, besides maybe POD.

    Thanks again, Michael. You’ve got a great blog going here!


    p.s. Although I consider myself a man of peace, I’m not a pacifist, per se. I do deal with these issues in my writing, hopefully fairly. I try to give different characters different viewpoints and have them act and react according to those convictions. Either way, I don’t shy away from showing violence when it happens, but I try not to glorify it, either, and instead try to show the negative consequences of it.

    Sorry for my long comment … I’m trying to be short, really I am!

    Comment by Robert Treskillard | June 18, 2009

  9. […] Sources of Modern Fantasy Literature « Levellers […]

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  10. […] Westmoreland-White at Levelers has been running a series of posts on SciFi and Fantasy lit. He has this to say on the influence of Gilgamesh on these genres: The Epic of Gilgamesh.  An epic poem from […]

    Pingback by Gilgamesh and Modern Fantasy Lit « Ketuvim: the Writings of James R. Getz Jr. | June 18, 2009

  11. Thanks, Robert. Having different characters with different convictions acting and reacting accordingly is ESSENTIAL to good writing. I have only 1 published (nonfiction) book–which sold very little. I have chapters in other books and am working on editing a modern “Richard Overton Reader” (trying to recover this lost radical Baptist). I am also writing (SLOWLY) a detective novel with a semi-liberal Baptist minister as my detective. 🙂 As a teen, I thought I would write science fiction and fantasy, but I don’t know that I ever will–but will continue to love reading it.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 18, 2009

  12. Hey Michael…

    Unrelated, but have you seen this?

    thewords.com is a modern paraphrase of JUST Jesus’ words. The editor has taken the teachings of Jesus and placed them in a topical format and it looks super cool to me, but I’ve only just started reading it. Thought you might be interested. Or have you heard about it?

    If so, do you have any insights on it?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | June 19, 2009

  13. OOOH, how’s the detective novel coming? I wanna see it!

    Comment by Dan Trabue | June 19, 2009

  14. Michael,

    I hope you remember me. We had some wonderful discussions about “Just and Unjust Wars” on the old Christian Alliance for Progress blog. I’ve always respected and enjoyed your commentaries. Now, I’m delighted to find that you and I enjoy the same type of literature.
    I would like to ask your opinion on two of my favorite authors, HP Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock. Lovecraft is an especial favorite of mine and has been since I was 14.(I’m now going on 61.)
    BTW, have you ever participated in table top roleplaying games?

    Comment by Frank Frey | June 19, 2009

  15. SLOWLY!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 20, 2009

  16. No, I haven’t seen it, but since almost all of Jesus’ teachings can be found scattered through the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud, I am one of those who believe that their power derives from their narrative context. The Gospel STORY is essential for understanding fully Jesus’ words, just as his words/teachings are essential for understanding the Story. (That’s one HUGE flaw–among many–of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; it attempts to make the passion self-interpreting, apart from Jesus’ teachings and healings.)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 20, 2009

  17. Hi, Frank. I do remember you.

    I enjoy both Lovecraft and Moorcock, but not as much as some. I will describe both their work in my next post in this series: A Brief History of Modern Fantasy Literature, p. II .

    And I love all kinds of literature. I used to play Dungeons & Dragons in college, but found I couldn’t keep up my GPA and play, too. Unlike my lovely wife and kids, I have never succumbed role-playing video games–afraid that I would get hooked and never get anything else done. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 20, 2009

  18. I agree with the last note, and am working on some fiction set in a pseudo-Bronze-Age Egypt. I’m having fun, anyway, and it might even see the light of day 🙂

    Otherwise, very thorough. I think that what is listed as sources depends on what kinds of fantasy one tends to read – for example, I’d say that Native American legends are used very often, and I would also say that “African” as a category doesn’t make much sense, since that includes everything from Aksum to Egypt to the Kingdom of Kongo to Zululand and the source-cultures for religions like Condomble and Santeria, just to name a smattering. Between all of those sources, I think you have a big chunk of fantasy that’s out there right now, especially in the past twenty years or so. Though, I agree, not enough for such a huge, rich continent.

    Comment by Doug | June 21, 2009

  19. Michael,
    Very nice summary. I too write fantasy, with a book coming out in December (The Tears of Ishtar) set in the Mesopotamia and Anatolia of just a few hundred years after Gilagamesh. like you I have always been fascinated with the roots of modern fantasy, and how that fit into my walk as a Christian. In the end, many Christian elements make thier way into my writing, not just in attitudes of my protagonists, but in the stories I end up wanting to tell.
    I am currently collaborating with Nisi Shawl on fantsy set in West Africa among the Dembe fighters.
    I love Tolkein, but I’m not him, and I am quite tired of the emulations that have dominated fantasy in recent years. The human experience is so rich, and our histories so varied and fascinating that it seems a shame that fantsy, which with science fiction is the literature of imagination, should show so little of that imagination.

    Comment by MichaelEhart | July 10, 2009

  20. I agree. The last thing the world needs is another story of elves right now.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 10, 2009

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