It’s that time of year again, and it’s hard to think about the holidays, particularly Christmas, without thinking of fantasy. It is particularly interesting to note just how many famous fantasy novels – particularly for children – are set during the festive period. The Dark is Rising, The Snow Spider and The Children of Green Knowe are all examples that come to mind immediately, but there are many others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whilst not set at Christmas specifically, features a suitably seasonal winter wonderland and even boasts an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) also feels like a seasonal novel, even if Christmas was quite literally the last thing on the author’s mind when he was writing it. There are also a number of more adult fantasy novels that make use of festive motifs, often inverting them in new and often anarchic ways. Examples of the latter include Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Then there are timeless classics like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which are neither entirely for adults nor completely for children, but fall into that strange twilight realm that separates the two worlds. What makes Christmas such a popular setting for children’s fantasy novels can perhaps be attributed to a number of things. The essential yuletide story of Jesus’ birth is full of fantastical elements, from the angels to the star to the three Magi. Moving to the secular (or perhaps pagan) side of things, Santa Claus is nothing but fantastical – flying reindeer, elves (which rather resemble gnomes), a fat man fitting down a chimney, and so on. Then there’s perhaps the most famous novel about Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is of course full of spirits. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Christmas continues to be explored by fantasy writers. The myths and legends of Christmas provide a rich source of inspiration for new tales, the season can be mined for its emotion and themes, and perhaps for its strange and wonderful mix of energies.
William Penn first landed in the New World in 1682. Armed with a land charter, he founded a colony based on religious freedom that just a century later would give birth to a new nation. Penn named the new city Philadelphia, derived from Greek words meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’. Magic has lurked in the Philadelphia area for as long as it has been populated (and perhaps even before humanity settled there). Magical beliefs and practices flourished among the indigenous peoples of the area, and as immigrants, missionaries, and colonists were attracted to the area, each brought their own magic with them. Since well before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600s magic has been a part of Philly’s history. The Lenape tribes who populated the area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the European settlers arrived viewed magic (or what the Europeans would label as magic) as an integral part of daily life. It was simply how the world worked and was recognised and treated as such by members of the various Lenape tribes. While many of the specifics have been lost over the four centuries of European intercession in the area, some basic information was preserved through a variety of sources.
Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.
Long before George R R Martin ever conceived of Westeros, a true realm of Ice and Fire existed in our world in the form of Iceland. So-called because of the oddity of glaciers and ice fields existing in a land that also has volcanoes and hot springs, this land of ice and fire has a coastline deeply indented by inlets called fjords; mountains, some of which are active volcanoes, that rise from the plateau and sometimes erupt; many geysers that spout steam and scalding water; and massive glaciers that cover one-eighth of its surface – Vatnajokull in the southeast alone is half the size of Wales. Iceland is the most thinly populated country in Europe. However, this small country produced a national literature which became the greatest in Europe during the early middle ages. Although the quality of Icelandic literature fell off somewhat after the middle ages, the country has never lacked poets and writers, and their verses and prose have been strongly influenced by the style of the sagas – a special kind of heroic story, or group of stories. The most famous of these storytellers was Snorri Sturluson, and his best known saga is called the Heimskringla, a historical saga about the rulers of Norway. This storytelling tradition continues to this day when, relative to the size of its population, Iceland publishes more books than almost any other country.
Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.
1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.
For almost the whole of his life, Kenneth Grahame’s first love was ‘the cool and secluded reaches of the Thames, the stripling Thames, remote and dragonfly-haunted’ – in short, that section of the river between Streatley in the west and Windsor Castle in the east, which he first came to from Edinburgh, in sadness, as a boy of nearly five. Grahame was grieving for his mother, who had just died from scarlet fever and for his father who, broken-hearted, had fled abroad to live by himself. Kenneth, his two elder siblings and his younger brother Roland were taken in by their grandmother at a large house called The Mount, situated on the banks of the Thames at Cookham Dene. Henceforth, Grahame’s happiest childhood days would be spent playing about on the river, sometimes ‘messing about in boats’ though more often on foot, so that he came to know the life of the river banks intimately. At first it was a new and unusual world to this city boy, whose knowledge of meadows and rivers was as limited as if he had spent his whole life underground. But soon came the awakening of his interest in boats, and the love that every country child has for long summer days and the woods under winter snow. Many commentators have spoken of literary creativity arising from some terrible loss in an author’s life. Whatever it was, as a result, Kenneth found the need to daydream, and many of his dreams are re-created in that bedtime idyll of a pastoral England, already disappearing in Edwardian times, The Wind in the Willows.
The jackalope is a mythical animal of North American folklore (a so-called fearsome critter) described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns. The word “jackalope” is a portmanteau of “jackrabbit” and “antelope”, although the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, and the American antelope is not an antelope. In early lumberjack folklore, fearsome critters were mythical beasts that were said to inhabit the frontier wilderness of North America. Many fearsome critters were simply the products of pure exaggeration; while a number however, were used either seriously or jokingly as explanations for unexplained phenomena. For example, the hidebehind served to account for loggers who failed to return to camp, while the treesqueak offered justification for strange noises heard in the woods. A handful mirrored descriptions of actual animals. The mangrove killifish, which takes up shelter in decaying branches after leaving the water, exhibits similarities to the upland trout, a mythical fish purported to nest in trees. In addition, the story of the fillyloo, about a mythical crane that flies upside-down, may have been inspired by observations of the wood stork, a bird that has been witnessed briefly flying in this manner. In particular instances more elaborate ruses – such as the jackalope – were created using taxidermy or trick photography.
Greg Bear (born August 20, 1951) is an American writer best known for science fiction. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (the Forge of God books), artificial universes (The Way series), consciousness and cultural practices (Queen of Angels), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children). Greg Bear has written 44 books in total. His most recent work is the Forerunner Trilogy, written in the Halo universe. Greg Bear was also one of the five co-founders of the San Diego Comic-Con. While most of Bear’s work is science fiction, he has written in other fiction genres. Songs of Earth and Power is an omnibus edition of two classic fantasy novels from the eighties. In The Infinity Concerto (1984) Michael Perrin endures years of captivity and deadly struggles in the Realm of the Sidhe, a fantastic, beautiful and dangerous world. In The Serpent Mage (1986) he returns to Los Angeles – but the Sidhe are following him. Greg Bear’s land of elves is not the pretty, enchanted place of so many fantasy novels but is an oppressive, menacing land of cruelty and fear, ruled by the unfeeling fair folk of Celtic mythology. His brilliantly descriptive narrative draws the reader in until you feel part of this world. Songs of Earth and Power isn’t an easy or comfortable read but it is one that is well worth the effort.
In The Lord of the Rings a strange and primitive folk named the Woses came to aid the men of Gondor in breaking the siege of Minas Tirith. These wild woodland people lived in the ancient forest of Druadan, below the White Mountains. In form they were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied and they knew wood-craft better than any man. The men of Gondor called the Woses the Wild-men of Druadan and believed that they were descended from the even more ancient Pukel-men of the First Age. These Wood Woses or Wild-men were an example of J R R Tolkien’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent plausible and memorable fictional races from the gaps and errors in ancient literature – in this particular case the mysterious medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For Tolkien was by no means the first author to make use of the literary and mythical archetype of the Wild-man. This is a mythological figure that appears fairly frequently in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands. Tolkien’s skill is in adapting this archetype to the landscape of English folklore through his fantasy masterpiece.