I love to read spiritual or theological memoirs. This type of literature has been around almost since the beginning of Christianity (although found in some other faiths, too). One of the great classics is St. Augustine’s Confessions which also includes his theological concept of time. Others include St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself, John Woolman’s Journal, George Fox’s Journal, and so many others. The Baptist tinkerer-turned-preacher, John Bunyan, wrote two, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress.
I got hooked on spiritual/theological memoirs in college. I was attending a conservative evangelical college (now university) in South Florida and I didn’t really fit in–my style of faith and spirituality (not to mention my politics) went against the stream of the cookie-cutter conservatism that was the official ideology. (I really should have transferred to another college.) The major target was “liberalism.” I was a political liberal, but not a theological one. One day I came across Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Living of These Days. I loved it. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just adopt Fosdick’s theology as my own. That’s not the value of spiritual or theological memoirs. They help you get past the stereotypes and see the other’s struggles and God’s presence in the person’s life. You get to wrestle with their questions and your own and find your own answers. So, I have found help in theological memoirs from many places in the theological spectrum, including those far more conservative and far more liberal than I am. Here are a few of the contemporary spiritual/theological memoirs that I have found especially fascinating. Please, tell me your list.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days. Harper, 1967.
- F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past. (Posthumous Edition). Baker Book House, 1980, 1993. I read the posthumous edition right after finishing my dissertation–as a break. Wow. Bruce is so chock full of pastoral wisdom that I wish was more widely shared by his fellow evangelicals.
- Ray S. Anderson, Soul of God: A Memoir. Wipf and Stock, 2004.
- Frederick Beuchner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days. Harper, 1991.
- Frederick Beuchner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir. Harper, 1992.
- Frederick Beuchner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. Harper, 1993.
- James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back. Abingdon Press, 1982.
- Lesslie Newbingin, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography. Wipf and Stock, 2009. This Anglican missionary bishop has had one of the largest impacts on the shape of Christian missions and interfaith dialogue. A truly amazing life.
- Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever: One Woman’s Controversial Ordination in the Episcopal Church. Pilgrim Press, 1999. Originally published in 1976, two years after the ordination, with a new forward by Heyward, now an out lesbian and a famous theologian, and an afterward by one of the other 11 women ordained that day in 1974.
- Lewis B. Smedes, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir. Eerdmans, 2003.
- Samuel D. Proctor, My Moral Odyssey Judson Press, 1989. A major memoir from one of the most important African-American pastors and educators in post-WWII America, a one time president of the Peace Corps, president of two historic black colleges, and of Rutgers University. I have ordered his second volume, finished just before his untimely death, The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith (Judson Press, 1999).
- Hans Kung, My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs. Eerdmans, 2003. Just finished this. Very powerful.
- Hans Kung, Disputed Truth: Memoirs II. Eerdmans, 2005. Looking forward to this, which is on order.
- Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography. Fortress Press, 2009. Halfway done. One of my biggest theological influences.
- Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. Smiley Books, 2009. On order. Cornel West is one of my favorite Christian public philosophers.
- William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning. Wipf and Stock, 2005. In some ways all of Stringfellow’s writings were autobiographical, but this is expressly a memoir from this brilliant lawyer and Episcopal lay theologian who was a guide for many in the ’60s and ’70s.
- Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story. Mercer University Press, 2006. Yes, Barnette was my teacher, but this incredibly moving memoir would touch many others who never knew this gentle saint who died only weeks before its publication. One of the best saints Southern Baptists ever produced–and the kind of life the current SBC CANNOT produce without changing what the SBC has become.
- Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Harper & Row, 1970. Repr. HarperOne, 1996. The deeply honest story of the conversion of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
- John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down. 1976. Repr., Wipf and Stock, 2006. The memoir of one of the most amazing African-American Christians. His brother shot down in his arms by a racist white sheriff in the Civil Rights era, Rev. Perkins never stopped believing in the humanity of white people and the triumph of gospel grace. Founder of Voice of Calvary ministries in Mississippi, which combines evangelism with community development–a pioneer in faith-based (no government aid) anti-poverty efforts.
- Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Speech, Silence, Action: The Cycle of Faith. Abingdon Press, 1980.
Of course, many important Christian leaders are far too shy or modest to write personal memoirs or autobiographies. Sometimes outside biographers have shed important light or have created a classic that is almost as helpful as the author’s own writings–a major example is Peter Brown’s biography on St. Augustine, which is a major companion to Augustine’s own Confessions. Another is Roland Bainton’s unforgettable biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand! The kind of biographer that is especially helpful to people of faith is sympathetic with the object of the biography (one doubts seriously that Brown could have written so helpful a biography of Augustine’s nemesis, Pelagius!), but has enough critical distance to show the warts and feet of clay. Hagiography, uncritical “lives of the saints,” that make the subject seem like plastic statues, are really not helpful, but nor are vicious attacks. Here are a few theological biographies I have found especially helpful:
- Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Eerdmans, 1975. Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005.
- Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Eerdmans, 1970. Revised and Supplemented, Fortress Press, 2000.
- David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.
- William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1982.
- Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Cascadia, 2000. A revision of the author’s dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, the opening chapter is the most complete biography available to date of JHY, whose writings are still being published posthumously.
- John Allen, Desmond Tutu: Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography. The Free Press, 2006. Authorized biographies can be “tame,” but they also usually have greater access to private sources. This is the best biography we have to date of Tutu.
- Christopher Evans, The Kingdom is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Eerdmans, 2004. This is a great supplement to the earlier work by Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer. Macmillan, 1988.
- Daniel P. Fuller, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller. Fuller Seminary Press, 2004. Reprint of an earlier edition by Eerdmans. This is an intimate but fair biography of the radio evangelist who founded Fuller Theological Seminary by his son, Daniel–who changed its original shape and reshaped it to the “progressive evangelical seminary” it has become.
- R. Alan Culpepper, Eternity as Sunrise: The Life of Hugo H. Culpepper. Mercer University Press, 2002. In similar fashion, New Testament scholar (and founding dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology), Alan Culpepper has written a sympathetic-but-fair biography of the amazing life of his father, Hugo. Hugo Culpepper, NT scholar and missionary to the Philippines, captured by the Japanese during WWII and held for 4 years, and later professor of Greek and Missiology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
- Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbingin: A Theological Life. Eerdmans, 2000. An excellent complement to Newbingin’s own memoir.
Please, Gentle Readers, share your favorite spiritual memoirs and theological biographies.
Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank. Carolina Academic Press, 2008.
I seldom review books that I have not yet read, but since I saw most of this in draft form as blog posts, I feel safe in doing so here. Kim Fabricius (yes, that’s his real name), is an American ex-patriate who has lived so long in the United Kingdom that I wonder why he has never become a British citizen. Perhaps it has something to do with his continued love of baseball. He is a minister in the United Reformed Church of the UK (roughly equivalent to the United Church of Canada or the United Church of Christ here in the U.S.), pastor of a congregation in Swansea (Wales) and chaplain at the University of Swansea.
Here, is an introduction to Christian theology that is provocative and humorous. Written in a series of provocative, sharply worded, statements, these are Fabricius’ careful conclusions–without the defense or elaboration of those conclusions in dense prose, such as found in most works on theology. These will stimulate debate and dialogue–and laughter, and rage–and maybe even stimulate readers to state their own convictions so sharply.
The usual theological topics are covered (Ten Propositions on the Trinity, Ten Propositions on the Holy Spirit, Ten Propositions on Theodicy) , but Kim also covers the life of Christian discipleship (Ten Stations on My Way to Christian Pacifism, Ten Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church), of spirituality (Ten Propositions on Worship, Ten Propositions on Prayer), ministry and the life of the church (Ten Propositions on Being a Minister, Ten Propositions on Preaching, 9.5 Propositions on Listening to Preaching). You also find a reflection on Fabricius’ greatest theological influence (Karl Barth) on “the new atheists,” on laughter, and on why baseball is God’s game.
This book would be great for new Christians, for church discussion groups, for introductory classes on theology (not as a main textbook), and, as Stanley Hauerwas says in a back cover plug, to give a friend who wants to know just what this Christian stuff is all about.
In their original form as blog postings (usually on Ben Meyers’ great site, Faith and Theology ), Fabricius’ series of (usually 10) propositions caused much discussion, delight, despair, and engagement throughout the world of English-language theology blogs! His installments were eagerly awaited and inspired some pale imitations. (Since Kim doesn’t have his own blog, there were also the conspiracy theories that he was merely Ben Myer’s alter ego. Will this book set those rumors to rest? ) I hope they will be at least as helpful and controversial in book form. My copy is now on order and I pray that you also, Gentle Readers, will give yourself and others this delightful slim volume as a great gift.
Biblical Studies on Nonviolence and Peacemaking
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Daniel: Under the Siege of the Divine. Plough Publishing House, 1997.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Exodus: Let My People Go. Cascade Books, 2008.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust. Orbis Books, 1997.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears. Augsburg-Fortress, 1996.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God. Fortress Press, 1999.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. Job: And Death, No Dominion. Sheed and Ward, 2000.
- Berrigan, Daniel, s.j. The Kings and their Gods: The Pathology of Power. Eerdmans, 2008. (On 1 & 2 Kings.) People are familiar with Berrigan as a nonviolent activist. Some others know him as a poet. But this radical Jesuit priest is also a very powerful biblical scholar. Yet these works are not technical, historical-critical, biblical commentaries (though Berrigan’s work shows how intimately familiar he is with biblical scholarship), but spiritual readings of biblical texts through the eyes of his radical, nonviolent faith and activism.
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Fortress Press, 1940.
- Borg, Marcus. Jesus: A New Vision. Fortress Press, 1994.
- Borg, Marcus. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. HarperOne, 2008.
- Borg, Marcus and N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
- Brown, Dale W. Biblical Pacifism. Evangel Publishing House, 2003.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Peace. Chalice Press, 2001. This is a revised edition of Brueggemann’s much earlier work, Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom.
- Cassidy, Richard J. Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel. Orbis Books, 1978.
- Cassidy, Richard J. John’s Gospel in New Perspective: Christology and the Realities of Roman Power. Orbis Books, 1992.
- Cassidy, Richard J. Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles. Orbis Books, 1987.
- Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus; An Intimate Portrait. HarperOne, 2008.
- Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography. Image, 2005.
- Chilton, Bruce and R. Jacob Neusner, eds. The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission. Westminster/John Knox, 2004.
- Crosby, Michael H. House of Disciples: Church, Economics, and Justice in Matthew. Wipf and Stock, 2004.
- Crosby, Michael H. Spirituality of the Beatitudes: Matthew’s Vision for the Church in an Unjust World. Orbis Books, 2005.
- Dear, John, s.j. Jesus the Rebel: Bearer of God’s Peace and Justice. Sheed and Ward, 2000.
- Dear, John, s.j. Mary of Nazareth: Prophet of Peace. Ave Maria Press, 2003.
- Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, and New Creation–A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. HarperOne, 1996. I don’t agree with Hays everywhere, but he does an excellent job of showing how nonviolence and peacemaking are in every strand of the New Testament.
- Herzog, William II. Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God. Westminster/John Knox, 2000.
- Howard-Brook, Wes. Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship. Orbis Books, 2004.
- Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation, Then and Now. Orbis Books, 1999.
- Howard-Brook, Wes and Sharon Ringe, eds. The New Testament: Introducing the Way of Discipleship. Orbis Books, 2002. If you want a 1 volume introduction to the New Testament that focuses on radical discipleship, sharing possessions, peacemaking and resistance to the violent Powers and Authorities, Howard-Brook and Ringe have edited that book here. Perfect for beginning scholars or for adult Bible studies in churches.
- Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Fortress, 1993.
- Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Fortress Press, 2002.
- Horsley, Richard A. In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008.
- Jordan, Clarence. The Substance of Faith and Other Sermons, ed. Dallas Lee. New York: Association Press, 1972.
- Jordan, Clarence. The Sermon on the Mount. Rev. Ed. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1974.
- Lapide, Pinchas. The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? Orbis Books, 1986. The late R. Lapide was Jewish, of course, but this work belongs in the biblical studies on nonviolence.
- Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Orbis Books, 1988.
- Myers, Ched and Elaine Enns. Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. 1: New Testament Perspectives on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. Orbis Books, 2009. (Vol. 2 focuses on contemporary practices rather than biblical study.)
- Rensberger, David. Johannine Faith and Liberating Community. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988.
- Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.
- Schussler-Fiorenza, Elizabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Fortress Press, 1998.
- Stassen, Glen H. Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance. Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Swartley, Willard M. Mark: The Way for All Nations. Wipf and Stock, 1999.
- Swartley, Willard M. Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics. Eerdmans, 2006. This is Swartley’s masterpiece. Most New Testament scholars finish their active careers by writing a New Testament theology that is the culmination of their scholarship. Instead, Swartley wrote what they often leave out: the centrality of peace to both NT theology and ethics.
- Swartley, Willard M. Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
- Swartley, Willard M. , ed. The Love of Enemies and Nonretaliation in the New Testament. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
- Swartley, Willard M. Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. Herald Press, 1983.
- Swartley, Willard M., ed. Violence Renounced: Rene Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking. Pandora Press, 2000.
- Trocme, Andre. Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution. Rev. & Exp. Ed. Orbis Books, 2003.
- Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Discernment. Fortress, 1992.
- Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress Press, 2003.
- Wink, Walter. The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. Fortress Press, 2002.
- Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Augsburg Fortress, 1997.
- Wright, N. T. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship. Eerdmans, 1997.
- Yoder, John Howard. He Came Preaching Peace. Herald Press, 1985.
- Yoder, John Howard. The Original Revolution. Herald Press, 2003.
- Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Eerdmans, 1994. Original edition, 1972.
This is not the first time I’ve plugged (free of charge) the Popular Culture and Philosophy series of books by Open Court Press, but they are just so much fun that I can’t resist listing all the titles (and subtitles–which often involve puns). I wish there was a series of theology and popular culture books that was this well done and this much fun. Some of the authors of the chapters in these books are Christian, but many aren’t. Good stuff.
- Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing. (2000). Ed. by William Irwin.
- The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer. (2001). Ed. by William Irwin, Mark Conard, and Aeon Skoble. (This is my favorite to date.)
- The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. (2002). Ed. by William Irwin.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (2003). Ed. James B. South.
- The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All. (2003). Ed. by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson.
- Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box (2004). Ed. by Eric Bronson.
- The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill, Therefore I Am. (2004). Ed. by Richard Greene and Peter Venezze.
- Woody Allen and Philosophy: You Mean My Whole Fallacy is Wrong? (2004). Ed. Mark T. Conard and Aeon J. Skoble.
- Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts (2004), Ed. David Baggett and Shawn Klein.
- Mel Gibson’s “Passion” and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy (2004)., Ed. Jorge J. E. Garcia. (I hated this film, which I saw to review, so much that I haven’t yet read this volume.)
- More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded (2005). Ed. William Irwin.
- Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Imagine (2005). Ed. Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl.
- Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way(2005). Ed. Tom Morris and Matt Morris.
- The Adkins Diet and Philosophy: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietsche (2005). Ed. Lisa Heldke, Keri Mommer, and Cynthia Pineo.
- The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, The Witch, and the Worldview (2005). Ed. Gregory Bassham and Jerry L. Walls.
- Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason (2005). Ed. by Derrick Darby and Tommie Shelby. Foreword by Cornel West.
- Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Thinkin’) (2006). Ed. Carl Porter and Peter Venezze.
- Harley-Davidson and Philosophy: Full Throttle Aristotle (2006). Ed. Bernard E. Rollin, Carolyne M. Gray, Keri Mommer, and Cynthia Pineo.
- Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think! (2006). Ed. Gerry R. Hardcastle and Geoorge A. Reich.
- Poker and Philosophy: Pocket Rockets and Philosopher Kings (2006), Ed. Eric Bronson.
- U-2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band (2006). Ed. by Mark A. Wrathall.
- The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless (2006). Ed. by Richard Green and K. Silem Muhammad.
- James Bond and Philosophy: Questions Are Forever (2006). Ed. by James B. South and Jacob M. Held.
- Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time (2006). Ed. by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch.
- The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think That Can’t Be Thunk (2006). Ed. by Michael Bauer and Stephen Bauer.
- South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating (2007). Ed. by Richard Hanley.
- Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics. (2007). Ed. by David Baggett and William A. Drumin.
- The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High Minded About Love and Haight (2007). Ed. by Stephen Gimbel.
- Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy: How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch (2007). Ed. by Richard Greene and K. Silem Muhammad.
- Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful With That Axion, Eugene! (2007). Ed. by George A. Reisch.
- Johnny Cash and Philosophy: The Burning Ring of Truth (2008). Ed. by John Huss and David Werther.
- Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy: Darkness on the Edge of Truth (2008). Ed. by Randall E. Auxier and Doug Anderson.
- Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? (2008). Ed. by Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin. (The revamped series was one of the few works of popular culture in America asking hard questions about the so-called “Global War on Terrorism,” and doing so with great science fiction.)
- iPod and Philosophy: iCon of an ePoch (2008). Ed. by D. E. Wittkower.
- Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant (2008). Ed. by Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Drecker. (I can’t wait to read this one.)
- The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link, Therefore I Am (2008). Ed. by Luke Cuddy.
- The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: The Wicked Wisdom of the West (2008). Ed. by Randall Auxier and Phil Seng.
- Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, and More Productive (2009). Ed. by Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch.
- Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: The Porpoise Driven Life (2009). Ed. by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt. (OK, I love Jimmy Buffett, but I can’t stand Rick Warren and that is the WORST pun I have ever seen.)
- Transformers and Philosophy: More Than Meets the Mind (2009). Ed. by John R. Shook and Liz Stillwaggon Swan.
- Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You) (2009). Ed. by Aaron Allen Schiller.
- Supervillains and Philosophy: Sometimes, Evil Is Its Own Reward (2009). Ed. Ben Dyer.
Forthcoming in 2009: These works do not yet have sub-titles.
- 43. The Golden Compass and Philosophy Ed. by Richard Greene and Rachel Robison.
- 44. Led Zeppelin and Philosophy Ed. by Scott Calef.
- 45. World of Warcraft and Philosophy Ed. by Luke Cuddy and John Nordlinger.
Forthcoming Titles for 2010 and Beyond: These works have not yet been assigned editors and authors, but have been approved as topics for the series.
- Anime/Manga and Philosophy.
- Soccer and Philosophy.
- The Rolling Stones and Philosophy.
- Martial Arts and Philosophy.
- Twilight and Philosophy.
- Monk and Philosophy. (I’m going to assume that is about fictional detective Adrian Monk and not about the resident of a monastery.)
- Doctor Who and Philosophy.
- The Boston Red Sox and Philosophy.
- Facebook and Philosophy.
- Futurama and Philosophy.
- The Onion and Philosophy. (Most humorous fake news website ever.)
- Rush and Philosophy. (I’ll pass.)
- Breaking Bad and Philosophy.
- The Dark Tower and Philosophy. (I would have thought Stephen King as a whole would have rated a work, not just his fantasy series.)
- Dune and Philosophy.
- Neil Gaiman and Philosophy. (Who?).
You can suggest other titles at the website of Open Court Press. Be prepared to argue the case. I, personally, have suggested volumes on Mo’Town, Ray Charles, Bruce Lee (I think Lee himself impacted the culture and raised philosophical questions beyond just martial arts), and Columbo.
In an earlier post, I listed my (purely subjective) list of the top fantasy novels/series. Here I will attempt a similar post with the related genre of science fiction.
- Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (1950). Not really a novel, but a collection of connected short stories that introduced Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” It should be read as the necessary prequel to the three (3) “Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw” novels: The Caves of Steel ; The Naked Sun; The Robots of Dawn. The film starring Will Smith was only loosely based on Asimov’s work–combining some of the “Susan Calvin” stories in I, Robot with The Caves of Steel.
- Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Many of Heinlein’s novels (e.g., Starship Troopers) are vehicles for him to preach his libertarian economics and militaristic view of the world. But he is a superb storyteller and his engineering background (like Asimov’s background in physics) enables him to write very convincing “hard science” fiction. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is Heinlein’s ode to the American revolution, projecting a future in which Earth’s moon has become an international penal colony (a hat-tip to Australia) and, with the aid of a self-aware supercomputer named Mike, revolts from Earth and becomes Luna Free State.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984). A feminist novel of a dystopic future in which an increase in infertility combines with the takeover of the U.S. (now become the Republic of Gilead) by a militaristic and patriarchal religious fundamentalism to create a nightmare society for women–especially those few who are still fertile and are forced to become “handmaids.”
- Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents. The late Octavia Butler was one of the few African-American women to write comercially successful science fiction. Here she projects a dystopic near future where gang crime leads to the breakdown of U.S. society and of the ability of a young woman to forge a new society out of this disaster that can reach the stars–an achievement that partly depends on the spread of a new religion, “Earthseed.” Butler also shows how the kind of driven personalities that can fundamentally change history are often poor at interpersonal relationships–since the second novel is told through the eyes of the estranged daughter of the heroine of the first.
- Frank Herbert, Dune (1965). The sequels are not as good, but still worth reading. This is a “space opera” and science fantasy of a far future where humanity has become a galactic empire that has become decadent and feudal. It also projects salvation through a messiah who is a result of a breeding program and genetic manipulation, played out on the desert planet of Arakis (Dune). The film wasn’t so hot, despite roles by Patrick Stewart (later Capt. Picard and Prof. X), Dean Jones, and Sting.
- Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1954). Benign alien visitors who look strangely like the devils of earthly legend (giant, red, horns, tail, wings) help earth people leave the species’ childhood and prepare for the next stage of evolution–a stage that these aliens cannot themselves achieve.
- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974). If Heinlein’s Starship Troopers glorifies war, Haldeman’s novel is the rebuttal. Published at the end of the Vietnam War (and with that clearly in mind), Haldeman projects a future war between earth and an alien species that, because of the time distortions near the speed of light, goes on for centuries–and is all based on miscommunication between the two species. Haldeman’s Forever Peace is not connected. Another great Haldeman classic is All My Sins Remembered which Haldeman wrote in reply to the super-spy novels and species which show such work taking no toll on the spies. Haldeman’s spy is an Anglo-Buddhist recruited precisely FOR his strong moral code–which then haunts him more and more in his career as a super-spy.
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1954). In a dystopic future, an oppressive government stays in power by suppressing books and reading. Education is by rote memorization giant televisions combine with recreational drugs to keep everyone “happy” suburbanites. All houses are fireproof (and believed to have always been so) and “firemen” do not put out fires, but find and burn hidden caches of books (while those who hide books are sent to reeducation camps). “Fahrenheit 451” is the temperature at which book paper burns. A resistance gathers in small groups away from populated areas with the task of each person so memorizing one book completely that s/he becomes that book, preserving learning and literature until the current dark age is over. This is Bradbury’s warning against the dangers of McCarthyism—but it works equally well for similar movements since the mid-50s.
- Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars; Blue Mars; Green Mars. A trilogy concerning the colonization and terraforming of Mars. Very realistic science combines with a strong story concerning the likely problems of colonists, personal and cultural clashes, and major ecological concerns to form 3 really strong books. I promised myself that I would only include one entry about Mars, though I have been fascinated by it since my childhood.
- Anne McAffrey, “Dragonriders of Pern” series. Science fiction with fantasy trappings: A colonized planet is cut off from contact with Earth civilization and because of a unique threat (spores from a nearby planet called “Thread”) devolves into a low-tech, feudal civilization. An indigenous lifeform (“fire lizards”) so resemble the dragons of earth mythology (except for size), that they are genetically engineered to be larger and to breath fire–and to use telepathic and teleportational abilities to help ESP-gifted humans fight this threat as “dragonriders.” McAffrey wrote numerous works of science fiction, but it is the Pern books for which the “dragonlady” will always be known best.
- Carl Sagan, Contact (1985). Astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote the definitive novel of first contact between earth and an alien species.
- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990). Highly entertaining cautionary tale about the headlong rush of genetic engineering (going on at breakneck speed in the food industry).
- Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959). A brilliant novel about a cyclic view of history (scientific advance followed by destruction, a new dark ages, a slow climb out and the whole cycle repeats), clashes of religion and government, and the dangers of global nuclear war.
- David Brin, Earth (1990). An ecological cautionary tale of the near future. This is a murder mystery set in 2038 in which the attempted victim is Gaia, the earth itself. Technology is both blessing (it allows truly global village networking that helps find clues and mobilize responses) and bane (it is responsible for the ecological abuse of the planet).
- Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Tale of an encounter between an emissary of a “normal” society and a society of gender-benders.
- David Brin, Glory Season (1993). Excellent tale of a world settled by radical feminist separatists who have the genetic know-how to create a rural utopia where women dominate and men are only needed tangentially and mostly live apart from women. This is a kind of counter-Handmaid’s Tale in which Brin argues for sexual equality and for societies in which men and women need each other. He demonstrates that it is not only male-dominated societies which can go deeply wrong.
- Pat Frank, Alas Babylon (1959). An early cautionary tale of nuclear war. One of the first to question the 1950s propaganda that nuclear war would be easily survivable and winnable.
- Octavia E. Butler, Kindred is a time-travel story that includes painfully realistic descriptions of slavery in antebellum 19th C. America.
- Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain (1993). A novel of genetic manipulation to create children who don’t need to sleep. In a recession, they are blamed for everything wrong and need to find a sanctuary colony.
- Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai novels. They were eventually supposed to form a complete Childe Cycle, but I think Dickson died before the historical prequels could be written. This is a saga of human evolution. The advent of star travel and colonization splits humanity into sub-species: the pure scientists; the people of (fanatical) faith (the “Friendlies”); the mystics and philosophers; and the ultimate soldiers (the Dorsai who, like the ancient Swiss, live on a planet of such barren resources that they are forced to send their sons and daughters out as high-paid mercenaries in the wars of other planets). Eventually, the scattered fragments of humanity must reunite with the fragments having been greatly enhanced. Whether or not one like’s Dickson’s overall saga, his Dorsai novels are really good reads–and he even includes one, Lost Dorsai, about a Dorsai who becomes a pacifist yet still embodies the fierce courage and strength of will of the Dorsai soldiers. It is only now, after Dickson’s death, that we can view the (incomplete) series as a whole. He did not write the novels and short stories in order and was supposed to write a series of historical novels beginning with the 14th C. to go with the science fiction ones.
What have I overlooked? What have I rated too high? What have I not valued enough?
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.