A Brief History of Modern Fantasy Literature, p. I
If we define “the Modern Age” as beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation movements of the 16th C., then the earliest “Modern” writer of fantasy literature may be Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Spencer’s
The Faerie Queene, is not only fantasy, but an allegory praising the Tudor dynasty and, especially, Queen Elizabeth I. (He was trying to suck up to the Queen for a place at court, but it didn’t work.)
Nor should we overlook the great Bard of Avon, himself, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare’s poems and plays covered many genres, but at least the following are fantasies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest; and there are, at least, elements of fantasy in the tragedies, Macbeth (the 3 witches), and Hamlet (the ghost of Hamet’s father).
Little fantasy writing was done during the Enlightenment of the 17th C. because this “Age of Reason” valued science and history and empiricism. It gave birth to realistic fiction with the adventure stories of writers like Willem Dafoe. This desert was necessary, however, because it allowed fantasy to develop as a distinct and separate genre from realistic fiction.
The Romantic movement in the 18th C. reacted to the Enlightenment focus on reason, by celebrating emotions and imagination including reviving “romances” that continued the development of fantasy literature. One major contribution of the Romantic period was the birth of the Gothic novel (which is also a forerunner of horror fiction). The first Gothic novel is usually said to be Horace Walpole’s 1794 work, The Castle of Otranto which introduces such Gothic features as a doomed castle or house, a cursed family, an author claiming to be only a translator or discoverer of an ancient manuscript, a haunted castle, a rightful heir, etc.
II. Pioneers of Fantasy:
In the Victorian Age (late 19th and early 20th C.), fantasy really becomes a distinct genre–and this era also saw the beginning of true science fiction (a story for a later post). The earliest Victorian fantasy is probably Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) which uses the devices of a realistic novel to make a ghost story seem plausible. (Scrooge’s initial doubt about the reality of the ghosts includes a skeptical explanation that his senses are fooled–and that explanation is never really refuted, leaving the reader to decide for herself or himself whether or not Scrooge really was visited by the ghost of his old business partner and 3 other spirits one Christmas Eve.)
Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) were two German brothers who were academic linguists–studying the way that words change in sound and meaning over time. However, history will forever know them for their hobby: collecting folk stories and fairy tales. Grimms’ Fairy Tales was first published in 1812, with later editions expanding the collection. Many of the best loved fairy stories and folk tales of Europe were anthologized by the Brothers’ Grimm: Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Cinderella. A good contemporary edition is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers’ Grimm trans. Jack Zipes (3rd ed., Bantam Books, 2003).
Whereas the Brothers’ Grimm anthologized traditional fairy tales, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) took the next step in the development of fantasy: writing original fairy tales with the same “spirit” as found in traditional folklore. Then the Scottish minister, poet, and author, George MacDonald (1824-1905), a direct and deep influence on both J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and also an influence on others as diverse as Mark Twain, W. H. Auden, and Madeleine L’Engle, took the next step: writing novel-length “fairy stories” such as The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and Phantastes (1858). The latter is usually considered to be the first fantasy novel written specifically for adults, rather than children or adolescents.
A major fantasy writer of this period whom I knew nothing about before doing this research was William Morris (1834-1896). Morris was an English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris wrote widely, but 7 of his novels toward the end of the 19th C. are fantasies. A Medievalist, Morris deliberately wrote in a style modeled on the Medieval Romances. His work represents a major development in fantasy because whereas previous authors set their stories in foreign lands or forgotten times, Morris was the first to create an entirely separate fantasy world for his books. Apparently, his most famous fantasy novel is called, The Well at the World’s End (1896) and I look forward to reading it.
Although today fantasy and horror are distinct genres, they were not during the Victorian era. (Even today, writers who want to, can blur the lines.) Some of the best known horror writers of the Victorian era, Mary Shelly (1797-1851), Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the playwright, Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) were also influential in the development of fantasy. Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is both early science fiction (arguably the first “robot” story), horror, and fantasy. Stoker’s Dracula(1897) draws from both the legends surrounding Vlad Tepes (a.k.a., Vlad the Impaler), whose actual history was bloody enough, and selects from the many ancient vampire traditions and uses them to tell a Gothic novel. Most of Edgar Allan Poe’s works are Gothic (a style he chose because of its current popularity), but he also invented the detective story (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Purloined Letter,”) and contributed to science fiction. But his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym of Nantucket (1838) (which I admit, I have not read), is a Gothic fantasy–but was also influential on Jules Verne’s science fiction. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is the last great horror story in the Gothic tradition, but it’s fantastic elements also influenced many a later “dark fantasy” writer, such as H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).
End part I. Part II will describe the flowering of fantasy literature in the twentieth century and then outline the many roads taken since the pivotal work of Tolkien.
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