As Disciples pastor, fellow blogger, and church historian Bob Cornwall notes, the video has a Protestant and U.S. bias. I noticed nothing on the African church past Augustine and nothing on Asia or Latin America at all. But this is still cool to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
UPDATE: Janet of Quoth the Maven created this video in honor of her pastor, Mark Brewer, who preached a 21 week sermon series on church history. She gives the lyrics here:
http://quoththemaven.blogspot.com/2009/10/church-history-in-4-minutes-lyrics.html She admits to changing the order of a couple of events to make lyrics that rhyme. One niggling tidbit from my professor side: The Swiss Reformer’s name was Huldyich or Ulrich Zwingli, not Erlich Zwingle. But this is amazing and quite the treat. I am going to send it to my old church history professor, Bill Leonard, because he is a big advocate of preaching using church history and even wrote The Word of God Across the Ages to help facilitate that process.
O.K., that’s an odd title, I know. But women are always recommending books and films to men so that we will learn to understand them better. This is fine because, let’s face it guys, most of us are pretty lousy at understanding women. I say this as a man who grew up in a large family where males were very much outnumbered by females–all very strong, mostly feminist, women, led by my mother who was a force of nature. I am now married and have 2 daughters–no sons. So, I still live in a female dominated household–and yet, I still need help understanding women. So I don’t mind all the help or the pointers. Bring ’em on, ladies, and thank-you very much, indeed.
But it seems to me that most women also have trouble understanding men. Yet they seldom ask for help in understanding us. And since we’re men, we don’t usually offer. We think we are self-explanatory. We aren’t.
So, for girls and women who would like to understand men (at least, straight men in U.S. culture) better, but are too embarrassed to ask, I offer the following two films as a combined “Beginner’s Guide to the (Straight) U.S. Male.” No, films that help you understand men are not the same as films that men naturally like. If a woman just tries to watch what men watch: Top Gun, James Bond films, martial arts movies, True Lies, movies about sports, Die Hard, Ocean’s 11, etc., she MIGHT learn much about men. But, like an anthropologist in a new culture, she might draw all the wrong conclusions. What men like to watch doesn’t necessarily (or easily) tell you much about us.
But two films are better-than-average guides: Beautiful Girls and City Slickers. Beautiful Girls (Miramax, 1996), directed by Ted Demme and starring Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Annabeth Gish, Rosie O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, and a very young Natalie Portman will help you understand men in their 20s trying to grow up. High school is over, we may or may not have been able to go to college, but life has not turned out the way we hoped. We still dream of doing great things–and of being a hero to a beautiful girl–usually an unattainable one. Often we miss how great the beautiful (and brilliant, etc.) women are who are actually flesh and blood realities in our lives because of the dream girl, the fantasy. So, a key scene in the film, not to be missed, has Rosie O’Donnell attempt to wake up Hutton and Dillon (her good friends) by taking them to a convenient store and showing them centerfolds from a skin magazine and proceding to explain how fake they are: real (non-enhanced) breasts that size don’t float like that and aren’t attached to waists that slim. If you want big boobs, they usually come with larger waists. Smaller waists usually mean smaller mammary glands, too. Then she tells them the facts of life they have never learned: Breasts are designed to be chewed on by babies. Wake up, guys, you both are about to lose the great women in your lives because you think the fantasy is real. (They get it, but, being guys, they can’t help razzing Rosie. After she walks away, they loudly compliment her tits and ass. 🙂 ) Eventually, MOST of the men in the film wake up and do the right thing by their women. We men do grow up, face reality, accept reality, and appreciate the real life beautiful women who, for some reason, love us. It just takes some of us awhile to get there–but come on, women friends, give us a break. You already knew that girls mature earlier than boys.
City Slickers (Castlerock, 1991), directed by Ron Underwood and starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Patricia Wettig, Jack Palance, Helen Slater, Noble Willingham, David Paymer and Bill Henderson is about men facing middle age. Yes, this hilarious comedy is about the infamous mid-life crisis: You have not achieved all you set out to and now it looks like you never will. But how do you deal with it and what will be your legacy? A key scene here for women seeking to understand men is during the cattle drive when each of the men tells the others at what point he knew he was a man. Women don’t easily grasp this. Biology tells girls when they are women with or without any formal rites of passage. Boys don’t have such a clear symbol and our culture no longer has formal, agreed upon rites of passage. (Thus, teenaged males are so destructive or self-destructive as they seek their own rite of passage: learning to drink or smoke, running with a gang, drag racing, sexual intercourse, etc.)
Both films have plenty of comedy. These are not documentaries. But an observant, intelligent woman could learn much about men from these films. And since she is going to deal with men most of her life (even if she chooses lifelong singleness or is lesbian), the knowledge should be quite useful.
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.
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.
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.
Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction. Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.). Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.). Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers. Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction. (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes seldom become overly graphic.)
What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements. Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted. (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.)
The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy. The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.). Other major examples of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)
In later posts, I will outliine the major sources of modern fantasy, an overview of the history of the genre (especially the pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries), and outline some of the sub-genres within fantasy literature (e.g., “heroic, high, or epic ” fantasy; historical fantasy; alternate timeline fantasies; gothic and horror stories; sword and sorcery tales; “dark” fantasy; contemporary fantasy; humorous fantasy; urban fantasy. I may also compose a post outlining a brief history of science fiction and some of its sub-genres.
Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s). I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure. The story must first work AS literature. Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)
I like both Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. (I mean classic, heroic fantasy, not the ramblings of a political pundit. 🙂 ) So do my family members. My daughter, Molly (14), found the website, Fantasy 100, listing what it considers the “Top 100 Fantasy Novels Of All Time.” It’s a good list, but I don’t agree with the rankings. To rank Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series 4th, but Richard Adams’ Watership Down only 19th seems absurd to me–unless the site is just tracking sales in which case it ought to rename the list, “Most POPULAR Fantasy novels.”
My own, purely subjective, list of the top 20 Fantasy novels/series follows. Since I consider fantasy to be a separate genre from science fiction (there can be overlap–as in some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories), I am only listing pure fantasy works here. I might write another post on favorite “hard science” fiction works .I invite readers to list their own favorite works of fantasy. UPDATE: I have slightly rearranged the original rankings after further reflection.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (a novel in 3 volumes). Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation is visually stunning and fun, but misses much of the moral depth of the novels. Although I find Tolkien’s other Middle Earth novels, The Silmarillon, etc., interesting because of the light they shed on him and his world, they lack the narrative power of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
- T. H. White, The Once and Future King (adaptation of the Arthurian legend). Based on Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, this is the great Arthurian novel that was the basis for both the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone and the Broadway musical Camelot. (No, ’60s fans, Camelot was NOT an intentional allegory about the Kennedy administration. It’s only that, after JFK’s assassination, far too many romantics kept seeing parallels where there weren’t any. )
- Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Donaldson has a tougher, grimmer, vision than Tolkien, but there may be even more moral depth to his characters and stories. Especially compelling is the character of Thomas Covenant, a novelist who contracts Hansen’s Disease, popularly known as leprosy, an anti-hero who struggles with power and powerlessness, faith and unbelief, and the struggle to be loyal to the people he meets in an alternate universe (the magical Land) while also keeping faith with his view of sanity and reality. The moral power of beauty and care for life and living things is a deep theme of the books.
- Richard Adams, Watership Down. The concept of rabbits having a mythology and culture is odd, but the story is deeply gripping and helps one see the natural world in ways that illumine our world.
- Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. The sequels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind in the Door aren’t as good, but still worth reading.
- Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea. The other Earthsea novels don’t match the power of the first, but are still very much worth reading. LeGuin is a contrast to the deeply Christian outlook of Lewis and Tolkien or even L’Engle and Donaldson who also have Christian influences. LeGuin calls herself an inconsistent Taoist and a consistent NON-Christian and that comes out in her books, but they are great reading–and I am one Christian parent who believes in exposing my children to several rival worldviews. The other Earthsea novels are The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, The Other Wind.
- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter series. Some will wonder why I haven’t rated the wildly popular series higher. The stories are great and I’m glad my kids introduced me to them, but they haven’t yet stood the test of time–not even the test of whether I, personally, still like them ten years or so after first reading them.
- Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series of 5 novels which interweave the Merlin and Arthur legends with “modern” (1960s era) British children.
- Walter Wangerin, The Book of the Dun Cow. Written by a Lutheran minister, this is a great fantasy set in a barnyard where the hero is a cussedly endearing rooster and the dun-colored cow is an angel-figure.
- Mercedes Lackey, Last Herald Mage Trilogy (Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price). I like almost all of Mercedes Lackey’s books, but this is her best work. In addition to being a fine work of fantasy, with moral reflections on power and responsibility and sacrifice, it is also a great “coming out” tale of a young man discovering that he is gay–and the struggles to accept himself and get his very homophobic family to accept him, too. When Mercedes Lackey wrote these books in the early ’90s, there was little or nothing like this in fantasy genre. It was much needed–and at least one young person I know was helped to avoid suicide.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, Arthurian legend from a feminist perspective.
- C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. Not all even in quality, but Lewis manages to include the Christian allegorical allusions without being heavyhanded or forgetting that the story must come first. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and A Horse and His Boy are the best in the series.
- Philip Pullman, “His Dark Materials” Trilogy, The Golden Compass (U.K. title, The Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass. Pullman is a self-declared secular humanist and his works have been greatly criticized as “atheism for children” by the likes of James Dobson. They do present a worldview that is highly critical of religious beliefs, but, again, children should wrestle with all viewpoints–and the books are VERY well written.
- Tamora Pierce, Becka Cooper series (Terrier, Bloodhound, and Mastiff (due out 2010). Like Mercedes Lackey, I think Tamora Pierce is one of the best fantasy writers currently in the biz., but most of her heroines and heroes come from upper-class aristocratic backgrounds. Becka Cooper, by contrast, is a child of the streets turned “dog,” the nickname of the Provost Marshall’s Guards (primitive police).
- Stephen King, The Dark Tower Series. There are 7 novels, but the only boxed set so far is for 1-4. So, the novels in the series are: The Gunslinger;The Drawing of the Three ; The Waste Lands ; Wizard and Glass; Wolves of the Calla; Song of Susannah; The Dark Tower. King is far more famous for his many gothic and horror novels (although some cross over into science fiction), but this great series creates an alternate universe that is almost a cross between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the wild west as imagined by Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns” (mostly starring Clint Eastwood). King pits a gunslinger named Roland against a “man in black” that is nothing like Johnny Cash! There is also a Dark Tower series of graphic novels.
- Patricia A. McKillip, Riddlemaster Trilogy, (The Riddlemaster of Hed; Heir of Sea and Fire; Harpist in the Wind). Brilliant and far from formulaic, with surprise twists and turns.
- Katherine Kurtz, The Chronicles of the Deryni. I love all Kurtz’ Deryni books, but especially this first trilogy (Deryni Rising, Deryni Checkmate, High Deryni). Kurtz’ world is a fantasy version of Medieval Wales (Gwynedd), complete with a Medieval Catholic Church Militant; Moors (Muslims); a sundered Eastern church;and a persecuted race of magicians known as the “Deryni.”
- Jim Butcher’s novels of Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phonebook. Dresden is a practising wizard who works as a private investigator and a consultant for the Chicago Police Department. Sci-Fi channel made a half-hearted attempt to turn this into a series known as “The Dresden Files” but only about 5 episodes ever aired. Update: I’m told that 27 episodes were made, but I don’t think all 27 ever aired on Sci-Fi channel or anywhere else.
- Orson Scott Card, The Tales of Alvin Maker series (Seventh Son; Red Prophet; Prentice Alvin; Alvin Journeyman; Heartfire; The Crystal City and the forthcoming Alvin Maker). Card is more known for his science fiction work (as Stephen King is for horrorand gothic), but these are a great series of stories set in an alternate-reality version of 19th C. America. Card is a practicing Mormon whose politics is an odd mix: He is a Democrat because he is convinced the Republican Party in the South still supports racism, but he was an enthusiastic supporter of Bush and the Global War on Terror and strongly opposes same-sex marriage as a “dangerous social experiment.” He is a strong environmentalist. His odd mix of progressive and conservative views comes through in his books, but they make excellent stories in their own right.
- Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, beginning with Eragon. The movie is terrible, but these novels, begun when Paolini was only 15, are amazing and original. After further reflection and input from friends, I realized that I was ranking this too high because of compensating for Paolini’s age.
So, here are my fantasy favorites. What are yours? I would love to see someone try to write a major fantasy novel from a pacifist perspective–preferably from a perspective of Christian nonviolence, but Gandhian, Buddhist, or other pacifist perspective would also be fascinating. There also needs to be far more multi-culturalism. Even the European Middle Ages of the “real world” wasn’t as lilly white as portrayed in too many Medieval fantasies.
A friend took me to the new Terminator: Salvation today. I went because it was free for me and to spend time with a friend I hadn’t hung out with in awhile. But I have to say, my review is bad. Despite my disdain for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (lack of) acting skills, I really liked the first two “Terminator” movies, Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day. Both used an old theme (going back at least to the gothic novel Frankenstein) of technology gone amuck–which could also be read as fear of globalization, of like out of control, less human. Both first two films featured a very strong female lead (Linda Hamilton) and in the second film, she has no love interest and rescues the men. The second film is also more openly anti-war and deals with the theme of a machine designed to kill learning the value of human life (Can humans learn it in time?).
All this disappears in the third Terminator. The female Terminator is nearly voiceless and simply an excuse (as he later said in an interview) for Schwarzenegger to violently attack a woman with impunity. (“When else can you put a woman’s head in the toilet and get away with it?” Nice guy, the Governator.) The third Terminator was just an excuse to blow things up on film.
This is even more the case in the latest edition. There is no real plot. No strong characters, female or male. Just lots of killer machines and explosions.
No wonder James Cameron quit as director after the second film. Sigh.
Okay, first of all, I haven’t seen the new movie, yet, so there are no spoilers here. Second, I don’t want to be too politically correct. Conservatives can certainly like the Star Trek universe. (I hear they are especially fans of the Ferengii and have many posters of Quark. Go figure. 🙂 ) I am a strong progressive, but love the Terminator movies and other films with conservative themes like Bruce Willis’ Die Hard series. (Although the Die Hard movies aren’t QUITE as rightwing as many wingers seem to believe. After all, a prevailing theme in the films is of hi-tech thieves, motivated by nothing more than capitalist greed, are the real villains. They pretend to be terrorists, taking advantage of conservative government hyper-fear of terrorism to provide cover for real crimes. Hint, hint. Is this too subtle?) We all have our guilty pleasures.
But I do think that Star Trek is a fairly progressive/liberal science fiction franchise. It’s a basically hopeful vision of the future. It offers up a future earth that has survived war, terrorism, and ecological disasters and forged a global government of representative democracy (we are never told this, but it must be some form of federalist system to avoid tyranny). Hunger and poverty have been overcome. Most diseases have been conquered and high quality universal healthcare is available for all. Education is free and the world is highly literate with most people going beyond secondary education. It’s a clean energy society that is eco-friendly. (In Star Trek IV, the Enterprise crew in their stolen Klingon ship actually go back in time to the 20th C. to keep whales from going extinct–and in the process save the earth of their future.) There is finally global racial harmony. And, despite the micro-mini-skirted uniforms that reflected the fact that the original series was made in the ’60s, we finally have gender equality, too.
Even moving beyond terrestrial concerns, Star Trek paints a hopeful future not of a terrestrial-based galactic empire, but a United Federation of Planets–that eventually even includes the Klingons. The Starfleet ships are armed–Roddenberry’s humanistic vision is liberal, but not pacifist–but their main purpose is exploration and diplomacy. They try to avoid wars. (It would be hard to write a pacifist space adventure series that would still find ways to be action-oriented–but I write that as a challenge that I hope some will take up.) And, although often violated, there is a strong attempt to avoid repeating the grim histories of imperialist colonialism and neo-colonialism through a “Prime Directive” of non-interference in pre-space cultures and non-interference in the internal politics of even space-faring worlds. The problems still to be faced are the problems inherent in civilization.
I don’t mean to suggest that there are no problems with Roddenberry’s vision. Several come quickly to mind:
- I could never comprehend the Star Trek economics. Money has disappeared. So how are goods and services exchanged? A galactic system on the barter system? The Ferengii certainly show capitalism at its worst (and I find it very fitting that their planet is horribly polluted and their society so patriarchal that the women are required to be naked all the time and to remain homebound!), but at least their economics is recognizable. I am a democratic socialist, but NOT a Marxian communist. I can’t buy the Marxist dream of the withering away of the state, never mind the withering away of money!
- It is a very secular vision. Not until Next Generation explores Klingon religion and Deep Space Nine explores the faith of the Bejorranns do we see any exploration of spirituality. Star Trek projects a rationalist view of the future that I do not share. The Roddenberry vision still sees science/logic and faith as locked in eternal warfare. This is a modernist outlook that our post-modernist world has, thankfully, begun to question. (Although, international readers take notice: Here in the U.S., the Bush admin.’s utter hostility to science has led to a resurgence of modernist “scientism” among progressives. The “faith vs. reason” framing that I thought we had begun to transcend in the ’90s is back with a vengeance. Sigh. Thanks, AGAIN, George.) I also like that the movies and the later series flesh out what the original series only hinted at: that even the Vulcans were not completely empiricist, having numerous meditation techniques and disciplines–even for their devotion to logic. Like our Zen Buddhists, or some forms of Quakerism or Unitarianism, the Vulcans may have purged the supernatural from their worldview, but they have not been able to abandon some form of spirituality, including heavy doses of ritual.
- There is an Enlightenment/modernist disregard for tradition in the Roddenberry vision and in progressivism itself. It can easily become rootless. Of course, this is endemic to pioneers. Explorers and pioneers who leave home to find out what’s over the next mountain or the next wave or beyond the next star are a decidedly rare breed in human history. They leave home and home traditions behind–but bring more home traditions than they think. Yet they cannot be traditionless. In the new place, they forge new traditions–and more of what they once knew will work itself in that they consciously intend. I have a healthier respect for tradition and received wisdom. I think there needs to be a constant creative tension between tradition and innovation.
In general, I think, conservatives paint their ideal societies in the past. In a lost Eden or a lost Golden Age or swallowed Atlantis. They idealize the 1950s of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best or they idealize an Old Europe or Puritan New England or the First Generation after the U.S. Revolution or life on the American Frontier (Little House on the Prairie)–or Ronald Reagan’s America. The real history of all those eras was not so idealistic, of course. Wally and the Beav may have been oblivious to it, but the America of the 1950s had a Cold War, McCarthyist witch-hunts, a war in Korea, and deep segregation and the beginnings of the great challenge to segregation. I could complicate the pictures of the other “golden ages” too.
Even when conservatives paint hopeful pictures of the future, they tend to be projections of a return to the idealized past: Lost in Space shows the patriarchal nuclear family structure of Father Knows Best in the future. And those science fiction shows simply had no black people, indeed, no non-whites, in them–not even in subservient roles. It’s no wonder that African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s viewed those shows as genocidal–they seemed to take place after an (unmentioned) racial genocide. And no wonder that civil rights leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were fans of Star Trek, which featured prominent roles for African Americans!
The conservative regard for the past is not completely without merit. We all search for a “usable past.” The Hebrew prophets appealed to past actions of God and past eras of greater faithfulness in order to call Israel/Judah to repentance and reformation. We do well to judge ourselves by the ideals of our forebears at their best. But we also do well to remember their failings and faults and to refuse to make idols of either our forebears or the times in which they lived.
Progressives, by contrast, tend to be more like the Church Father Irenaeus than like Augustine of Hippo: we tend to project human perfection not in an unfallen past, but in a redeemed future. But this also has its limits. It easily falls into the trap of the Myth of Inevitable Progress. Progress comes only through struggle and never without set-backs and pain.
Still, I remain a progressive. I grew up in Florida–a mile from Cape Canaveral until Junior High. I watched Apollo rockets and later space shuttles take off. I had a poster of Neal Armstrong (as well as Jacques Cousteau). My Christian commitments lead me to modify Roddenberry’s vision, but the Star Trek vision of the future still resonates with me. In this time of economic recession and multiple perils, may we all “Live Long and Prosper.”