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..

Anonymous said...

One response, three years after this has been posted:

One of the neglected markers of modern English-language fantasy is that, when compared with the mythopoetic works of Homer or the early authors who included Arthur in their histories, modern fantasy is written with a rather different sensibility about any demarcation between fiction and non-fiction.

Modern fantasy is written for an audience who places great weight on differentiating between what is "real" and what is not, and furthermore an audience that notionally defaults to a rather materialist interpretation that says reality is defined by their vague notions of the scientific method, hard empiricism, and verified documentation.

But current theory (I write this in 2015 as a professor of humanities) suggests that such figures as Homer and The Venerable Bede (one of the key contributors to what evenetually became Arthurian lore) had a rather different view of reality. For the people of those centuries, differentiating between what is "real" and what is not wasn't that important except when the differentiation yielded practical results. So knowing whether something is "real" when it comes to agriculture mattered dearly to the farmers among them, but knowing whether something is "real" when it came to adventures in a far off land that had nothing to do with their lives had little import.

Is there a giant octopus in the deepest parts of the ocean? If I'm never going to see the shore in my life, much less the deepest parts of the ocean, and no one else I ever meet will see it, and what goes on in the deepest parts of the ocean will never have any impact on my kingdom, then why should I care about whether the giant octopus "really" exists? This is very different from modern readers, who often feel that even the most tangential and irrelevant claim must be verified and judged for its alleged factuality. I have met too many people who have said that the fantastical film Jurassic Park was spoilt for them because the dinosaurs lacked feathers . . . This is a very different way of looking at the world from how Homer or The Venerable Bede would have seen it.

On a related level, during many of these eras it was sincerely believed that if a story pleased the gods enough, they would cause it both to become true and to have always been true. Recall that the ancient Romans sincerely believed they could legislate whether someone became a god after death! Modern fantasy is written for an audience who can not conceive of believing that their "reality" could be altered by an act of Congress and who segregate modern miracles and sainthood into isolating religious cubbyholes safely out of the way of materialist scientific defaults.

Finally, figures such as The Venerable Bede saw it as perfectly natural for a person to add mythopoetic detail to their accounts of factual history and science. Neither they nor their intended audiences considered mythopoetic flourishes to stand in opposition to fact, and they did not see mythopoetic flourishes as detracting from the accuracy and credibility of their reporting. Again, we underestimate the degree to which this differs from modern fantasy audiences!

For a modern audience, a paper that stated President John Fitzgerald Kennedy fought a fire-breathing dragon while dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis would be dismissed as fantasy, and many people would distrust what the paper reported on the Cuban Missile Crisis specifically because a dragon had also been included. For the audience of The Venerable Bede, that a fire-breathing dragon had been included would have no impact on the credibility or reliability of the facts given about the Cuban Missile Crisis. They wouldn't even try to justify the appearance of the dragon as metaphor; for them, this kind of literalist differentiation was simply not a concern at all.