Thursday, January 19, 2012

Real vs. the Unreal, Worlds Other Than Our Own, and the Starting Line of Fantasy

Whenever discussions of fantasy fiction arise, the question of “which came first?” inevitably follows. Newbies mistakenly think that J.R.R. Tolkien started the genre, overlooking authors like William Morris and E.R. Eddison who had already begun a rich tradition of secondary world fantasy. The same arguments swirl over the many sub-genres of fantasy, too. For example, most believe that Robert E. Howard is the proper father of swords and sorcery, beginning with his 1929 short story “The Shadow Kingdom.” But others have pled the case for Lord Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1908), and so on.

Once begun, these arguments inevitably reach further and further back in time. George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) was published before Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), didn’t you know? Oh yeah, what about Malory’s LeMorte D’Arthur (1485)? I’ve got that beat: The Odyssey (8th Century BC). I see your Odyssey and raise you The Epic of Gilgamesh (1300 BC, or thereabouts). And so on. Until it seems that fantasy has always been with us.

But perhaps that isn’t the case. In an introduction to the 1988 anthology Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, editor David Hartwell draws one of the most neatly defined starting lines for fantasy I’ve encountered. Hartwell describes fantasy as a story written deliberately as unreal, and one which does not take place in the real world.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website.


Michal said...

This is such a great anthology, essentially required reading if you're interested in the history of the genre.

However, I don't really agree with Hartwell's "dividing line". See for my thoughts.

Trey said...

Interesting. Lin Carter, though, makes a similar distinction back in Imaginary Worlds. I oppose he doesn't argue it for fantasy in general, but does argue in for what's now called "secondary world" fantasy, which is what he spends most of the book talking about.

Welleran said...

Good anthology - this was one of the main books that really got me interested in older fantasy (thanks, Sci Fi Book Club!). I had just started college and it inspired me to hunt down some obscure author named Dunsany -- I found two original editions of his work in the school library, neither of which had been checked out in over 30 years!

Fred said...

Doesn't Tolkien make the same point somewhere? True fantasy is an example of a "secondary creation" or something like that. It is a created world and not based on Earth--with devils as bureaucrats and so forth.

I don't remember if he selected a "starting point," but I got the impression that it had to be separate and distinct from mundane Earth.

Fred said...

By the way, I forgot to mention: thanks for the reference to the anthology. The list of authors is impressive--one might even say fantastic.

Brian Murphy said...

Michal: Thanks for sharing the link, very interesting. I agree that trying to determine precisely how pre-modern minds read literature and perceived reality is fraught with difficulty, and certainly not black and white. And you'll get no arguments from me that the "dark ages" weren't nearly as dark as some would like to believe. And I do think magic realism further complicates the issue by blurring the lines between fantasy and realist fiction. Good essay!

Regarding the comments by Fred and Trey about other authors (Tolkien, Carter) drawing the same distinction between fantasy and realist fiction: yes, others have done so. I just don't recall seeing the line drawn so clearly and succinctly as Hartwell did in his introduction.

Fred, you are referring to "On Fairy Stories" by Tolkien (or "Tree and Leaf" if you happen to have The Tolkien Reader) and it is the definitive essay on fantasy fiction, if you had only one essay from which to choose.

Wellaran/Fred: Yeah, this is an excellent book, worth tracking down and owning.

Fred said...

That explains my confusion. Part of me said Tolkien's discussion was in an essay title "Fairy Stories" and another part insisted it was in "Tree and Leaf."

I have referred to the essay a number of times when discussing fantasy with others, so, for me also, it is the definitive essay.

I do have _The Tolkien Reader_.

Lagomorph Rex said...

This is a great book, it has a companion volume which is just as good..