Friday, January 18, 2013

The Birth of Fantasy (Tolkien, Before and After)

The birth of Modern Fantasy as a distinct literary genre can be arguably dated to 1965, the year in which Ballantine Books brought out the first authorised paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  This singular work, rooted in an erudite philologist’s musings on the origin and transmission of languages, captured the imagination of the American reading public.  Sales figures soared, Tolkien’s name became a household word, and American publishers embarked on an urgent quest to find more works of fantasy to satisfy public demand.

But where to look?

In theory (at least) they didn’t have to look very far. The hallmark elements of Tolkien’s fantasy  – non-human races, inhuman monsters, imaginary landscapes, epic battles, heroic legends – have been around since the dawn of Western Literature.  Classical examples include Homer’s two Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Latin epic, The Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, all of which are infused with narrative elements imaginatively adapted from myth and legend. Out of the meeting between Classical and Germanic culture comes the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters on sea and land before finally succumbing to the dragon in mortal combat. 

In a subsequent fusion of cultures, Old English epic gave way to Norman French chansons de geste, which in turn gave rise to what can be loosely termed “chivalric romance”:  fanciful tales of knight errantry. In the wake of the Crusades, these romances become interestingly infused with new fantasy elements derived from Islamic folklore:  evil sorcerers, books of magic, secret gardens, enchanted palaces.  These works, especially those belonging to the Arthurian cycle (notably the works of late twelfth century poet Chretien de Troyes) were extremely popular.1

However, the poetic masterpiece of the Middle Ages is a fantasy trilogy:  Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Composed in the early 14th century, this extended narrative poem in three volumes chronicles the speaker Dante’s visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, to the heights of Heaven.  His spirit guide for the lower realms is the poet Virgil; for his heavenly journey, he is accompanied by Beatrice, simultaneously his idealised Beloved and angelic wisdom personified.  A numinous anima figure, Beatrice prefigures Tolkien’s Galadriel.

The romance tradition continues to develop throughout the Tudor/Jacobean period.  Many of Shakespeare’s most popular plays - As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest – are fantasies, as witnessed by the presence of non-human characters (gods, fairies, spirits) and lashings of magic.  Beyond Shakespeare, we have Milton’s “dark materials” epic fantasy Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s comic fantasy The Rape of the Lock.  But the most significant development of all in the history of fantasy was the transition from poetry to prose with the advent of the Gothic Novel.

The movement kicks off with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The  Castle of Otranto in 1764.  It’s a phantasmagoric tale that begins with a giant helmet falling out to the sky.  The ensuing story is a chivalric romance gone mad.  It was, however, a success, prompting other experiments in prose fantasy.  Possibly the most disturbing of these was Matthew Gregory Lewis proto-horror novel The Monk (1796) in which Lewis with ghoulish gusto gives free rein to his personal fantasy notions of what goes on behind closed doors in a Catholic monastery.  By savage contrast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831) is a true literary classic, arguably the first science fiction novel in English.  Another iconic example of the Gothic novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897.

Which brings us into touch with another writer of the period:  William Morris.  More widely recognised for his role in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris experimented with writing fantasy in the pre-Shakespearean mode.  In 1896, he published The Well at the World’s End in two volumes.  The following year saw the publication of The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Both novels have a fanciful charm that survives the ponderous quaintness of Morris’s prose style.  They are unquestionably fantasy novels – which is why, in the post-Tolkien demand for more fantasy fiction, Betty and Ian Ballantine relaunched them in the now-famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, published between 1971-1974.

This series included a number of other proto fantasy novels.  The earliest author on the agenda is the Scottish writer George MacDonald, represented by two adult fantasy works:  Phantastes (subtitled “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women”) which appeared in 1858, and the vastly darker and more challenging Lilith (1895) whose central character Vane finds himself shuttling between overlapping realms of existence. Another personal favorite of mine in the series is Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, first published in the 1920s, which brings a Spanish flavor to the fantasy tale.  I’m also very fond of The Kai Lung anthologies of Ernest Bramah, which are full of oriental colour and mischief.

But the Ballantines were also looking for new talent.  And they made discriminating choices.  Their first wave of acquisitions included Joy Chant (Red Moon and Black Mountain, 1973) and Katherine Kurtz, whose first Deryni trilogy, published in 1974, introduced historical fantasy as a new sub-genre.  Since then, fantasy has boomed.  The runaway success of the Harry Potter series in recent years attests to the genre’s commercial appeal. Though the popular demand has never been greater, it’s curious to note that the fantasy genre as a whole is generally disparaged by literary critics.

In my next installment, I will be addressing two related questions:  (a) what is there about fantasy literature that elicits such enthusiasm among so many readers? and (b) what are the reasons underlying the corresponding critical contempt?

Watch this space.


1The dominant story strands of the Arthurian romances were eventually woven together into narrative prose by Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d’Arthur, published by William Caxton in 1495.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Debby, Great overview history of the fantasy genre; it sent me off on a couple searches for things that I wanted to delve into a bit more. Very interesting. Thanks.

  2. Very interesting history of the genre. Thanks for all the detail you gave us, Debby.

  3. What a marvellously concise overview! Your precision in tracing Classical fantasy through its Romantic/Gothic lineage and ignoring science-fiction offshoots is a real eye-opener. You're dead on about the Ballantine paperback LoTR as the real defining moment in fantasy as a viable genre in publishing. My first editions (and a 1954 ninth impression of The Hobbit with the reworked chapter "Riddles in the Dark") are prized possessions, but their impact on publishing was nothing like the Ballantine paperbacks. Even Barabara Remington's Powers-inspired tryptich helped change the face of fantasy publishing.
    Good post. Great info, a lot to chew on here.

  4. Debby, your dense and bookmark-worthy post begs the question of how many aspiring fantasy authors have taken a good hard look at the history of their chosen genre. So many new writers simply read a book then think they can "do it," and dig right in without regard to the evolution of the very industry they hope will support them. I hope this post will inspire all our writers, whatever their genre, to study up!

  5. I fell, head over heals, for LOTHR in the 60's ... of course, it's possible that there may have been some mind altering influences ... but couldn't say for sure ... I don't remember.

  6. Debby, that recent really? And I have an interesting story about The Well at the World's End!

  7. I'm not a huge fantasy reader (but yes, I did read the LOTR books). One of my crit partners writes fantasy, and he's always telling me that his readers expect things that bother me. Thanks for this post which helps explain it.

  8. I agree with Kathryn's comment. When I decided to write Fantasy I started reading some of the classics, including the whole of The Iliad. (I found Homer easier to read than Tolkien, though.) Then I got a bit "lazy" and indulged more in books by modern authors, but I'm currently reading Frankenstein, so I'm glad I can cross that off my list, too!

  9. Many thanks! Regarding the Ballantines, I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Betty, who mentored me en route to the publication of my Mages of Garillon trilogy. Betty is also my inspiration as an editor. I've learned from the best!

  10. Enjoyed reading this, and I'm looking forward to reading the next installment, with the discussion of what readers find appealing about fantasy. Especially since that genre has changed so much since the Tolkien days (and has spawned so many subgenres I'd need to take my socks off to count them all).

  11. Very enlightening post, Debby. I've edited a couple of fantasy novels for the typical grammar, flow, continuity, etc., but was unaware of the history behind the genre. Thank you for sharing.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook