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.
The lost world is a subgenre of the fantasy or science fiction genre that involves the discovery of a new world out of time, place, or both. It began as a subgenre of the late-Victorian adventure romance and remains popular into the 21st century. The genre arose during an era when the fascinating remnants of lost civilizations around the world were being discovered, such as the tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the semi-mythical stronghold of Troy, the jungle-shrouded pyramids of the Maya, or the cities and palaces of the empire of Assyria. Thus, real stories of archaeological finds by imperial adventurers succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination. Between 1871 and the First World War, the number of published lost-world narratives, set in every continent, dramatically increased. The genre has similar themes to “mythical kingdoms”, such as El Dorado. In the popular imagination lost cities are real, prosperous, well-populated areas of human habitation that have fallen into terminal decline and been lost to history. Most real lost cities are of ancient origins, and have been studied extensively by archaeologists. Abandoned urban sites of relatively recent origin are generally referred to as ghost towns. Fictional lost cities have been created by many authors as the setting for stories and myths throughout the ages. These include places such as Atlantis, Ur, Lemuria and Thule, which have become part of the shared mythology of the human race.
The Man in the High Castle (1963) is an alternative history novel by American writer Philip K Dick depicting a nightmare world divided by Germany and Japan, winners of the second World War in an alternate timeline from our own. Set in 1962, fifteen years after an alternative ending to World War II, the novel concerns intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under the resulting totalitarian rule. The story features a “novel within the novel” comprising an alternate history within this alternate history wherein the Allies defeat the Axis (though in a manner distinct from the actual historical outcome). A hypothetical Axis victory in World War II is a common concept of alternate history, the second World War being one of the two most popular points of divergence for the English language alternative history fiction genre (the other being the American Civil War). As such, The Man in the High Castle (which has recently been adapted into a popular and critically acclaimed series by Amazon) has much in common with other fictional alternative histories, such as Swastika Night, Fatherland and Dominion.
In the Indian tradition, time is seen as non-linear – past, present and future co-exist in each generation. This theory underpins the doctrines of karma and samsara, the cycles of causality and rebirth. Indian religion has evolved over many centuries – its gods and goddesses have not been discarded but modified, and their attributes and roles have become fluid. It is this fluidity that has resulted in a rich body of stories and one of the world’s oldest unbroken traditions – India’s earliest religious texts are the four Vedas (‘books of knowledge’), which date from circa 1000 BC. Present-day India, as diverse in cultures and topography as ever, is imbued with ideas that can be traced back through millennia. There are few distinctions made between mind and matter, or humankind and nature. Hinduism, the most widespread religion in India (although just one of seven major faiths with Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism), is at once also a science, a lifestyle and a social system. The vast number of Hindu gods and goddesses can be bewildering, but beyond this variety lies unity, expressed in the unchanging, indestructible divine reality known as brahman that, according to Hindus, exists in all things. Everything in the universe, every creature and plant, is a manifestation of brahman and thus contains an element of the divine.
The birth of fantasy literature (as distinct from myths and fairy tales, which have on some level always been with us) has often proved somewhat difficult to pin down. Whilst the general public may regard the genre as having originated with the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950’s, fantasy literature has in many ways existed for perhaps hundreds of years before this. It is in the 17th century that we can find the first critical awareness of the separate existence of a genre of ‘fantasy’, so here I am not talking about earlier fictions about the fantastical, such as The Odyssey, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were an important influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. But can the birth of fantasy as a literary genre be traced back even earlier than this? Who were the founders of fantasy literature?
Following on from last month’s post on the lighter side of urban fantasy, I will now turn to that sub-genre of fantasy whose protagonists initially believe themselves to inhabit a world of consensual mundane reality then to their terror learn otherwise – the Dark Fantastic. In what follows the term dark fantasy is used to describe that particular sort of urban fantasy which standardly consists of a series of thrillers/detective stories that are set in, and whose plots are determined by, a mundane world entirely, but not always visibly, permeated by the worlds of faerie or the supernatural. A product of the 1980s and authors such as Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, Dark fantasy could in a sense be regarded more as an evolution of horror than of fantasy. It also includes what is in many ways a sub-sub-genre within Urban fantasy, Paranormal Romance, which dilutes the peril of the undead with romantic, vampiric anti-heroes. The protagonist of standard dark fantasy makes the discovery of the real, non-mundane nature of the world as an existential crisis, and thereafter learns more in the course of solving puzzles, or acquiring refinements of technique for living in such worlds. Whether these protagonists are wizards, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or exorcists, like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor, they are cousins to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and inhabit the same mean streets, even if they do so alongside vampires, ghouls and the more sinister denizens of faerie.
This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.
Among the foulest beings that ever inhabited Middle Earth were the Great Spiders. They were dark and filled with envy, greed and the poison of malice. First of the beings that took spider form was Ungoliant, mother of the evil race that plagued the world thereafter, as well as a close ally of the first dark lord, Morgoth. Her origins are unclear, as Tolkien’s writings do not explicitly reveal her nature, other than that she is from “before the world”. Ungoliant fled after devouring the light of the Trees that once lit the world in its springtime and it is not known what ultimately was her fate, although it is suggested in The Silmarillion that her unremitting hunger drove her to devour herself. At some point, however, she gave birth to a race of Great Spiders, including the character Shelob in The Lord of the Rings and the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. Unlike many of Tolkien’s other creations, such as Smaug, Beorn, ents, orcs, hobbits and so on, even the most eminent experts on his work have struggled to find clear sources for the Great Spiders of Middle Earth. It is, however, possible to begin to explain the origins of these terrifying creatures by reference to Tolkien’s earliest inspirations (and fears) as a child.