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?
The modern term ‘fantasy novel’ implies a narrative that combines novelistic characterisation and theme with a visionary imagination. While the fantastic in this broad sense had been a dominant characteristic of most world literature for centuries prior to the rise of the novel; the fantasy genre has its origins in 18th and 19th century discussions of history and fancy versus romance and the imagination. There were a number of debates about the proper uses of fantasy during this period. In 1810 the poet William Blake equated imagination with visionary fancy and set this apart from fable or allegory. But in 1817 another poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, made a distinction between fancy and the imagination – the work of the former being mere inventions, while the products of the latter were new embodiments of old truths. But while such a distinction on one hand appeared to legitimise fantasy as a literary form by allowing writers within the genre to begin to construct theoretical examinations of the nature of their craft, on the other critics remained sceptical of the uses of the fantastic in works of fiction. Fantasy elements were widely regarded as superstitious, to be tolerated only if supported by evidence of actual belief or if supported by didactic or moral purpose.
In this context it is hardly surprising that when something reasonably resembling modern fantasy began to emerge it often did so in the disguise of children’s literature (as with Lewis Carroll of Charles Kingsley), pseudo-historical fiction (as with Walter Scott), hermetic or occult fiction (as with Edward Bulwer Lytton) or pseudo-medieval fiction (as with William Morris). In particular, the renewal of interest in folk and fairy tales, leading to the literary fairy tale (or Kunstmarchen in Germany) had an emerging role in the development of the fantasy genre during the 19th century. Literary fairy tales, both original and adapted from folk sources, had been both familiar and popular since the late 17th century through the work of Charles Perrault and others. But this form achieved a particular vitality in Germany during the Romantic era. Ludwig Tieck’s 1812 story The Elves, for example, introduces portal and time-shift aspects, which became a common feature in such later examples of the form as C S Lewis’s Narnia. E T A Hoffman’s 1814 story The Golden Pot prefigures modern fantasy in another way: it begins in a contemporary urban setting, from which the hapless hero finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex world of wizards and elemental spirits. It is in the work of Tieck, Hoffman and their contemporaries that we can begin to trace a more or less direct line of descent to Victorian and later fantasy.
The writer who most fully embraced the aesthetics and techniques of the German romantics was George MacDonald. Like Tieck and Hoffman before him, in his first novel Phantastes (1858) MacDonald anticipates modern fantasy narratives, most strikingly in a scene in which the hero looks into a mysterious cupboard and realises that, beyond the household cleaning supplies and brooms, a tunnel leads towards a night-time sky. This is a clear prefiguration of the opening of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis, who once claimed it was MacDonald’s novel that “baptised” his imagination. MacDonald was a key figure in Victorian fantasy, who met the major English poets and novelists of the age and even befriended American writers such as Longfellow and Twain. Among his other friends was Lewis Carroll, whom he urged to publish what would become one of the most famous of all fantasy novels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1863). MacDonald himself achieved his greatest success with a series of books for children, including The Princess and the Goblin (1872), sometimes regarded as his masterpiece. This, along with classics by Thackeray (The Rose and the Ring, 1855) and Charles Kingsley (another MacDonald friend, now best known for The Water-Babies, 1863) helped create the impression that the Victorian era was something of a golden age of children’s fantasy, while remaining all but intolerant of fantasy for adults.
Yet there remained a substantial tradition of adult fantasy, even if it operated very nearly in exile. The ghost story thrived during this period, with some of its most famous examples coming from the major writers of the age, including Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. Edward Bulwer Lytton flirted with the mystical ideas of Rosicrucianism in his novel A Strange Story (1862); J S Le Fanu produced a classic of vampire literature in Carmilla (1872); and H. Rider Haggard and others popularised weird tales of lost races on dark continents. But while these and other sub-genres may have featured fantastic elements, the next author to add substantially to the recipe for what eventually became modern fantasy was William Morris. Since 1856 Morris had begun publishing stories and poems which were notably Gothic-influenced, but it was in that year’s The Hollow Land that he helped develop the idea of a fully realised secondary world. Between 1868 and 1870 Morris published translations of several of the Icelandic sagas, which would later prove such a crucial influence on Tolkien, Lewis and others. But perhaps his most significant contribution to fantasy history involved the efforts, late in his career, to revive the medieval romance through stories of his own invention, set entirely in imaginary worlds, such as The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at World’s End (1897).
At the same time, fantasy imagery abounded in music and the visual arts throughout Europe, often in ways closely allied to literature. Richard Wagner revived interest in German and Scandinavian myth and legend with a series of ambitious large-scale operas, culminating in the massive Rings cycle (1869-82). Yet another fairy tale provided the source for Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker (1892). Although Victorian England was perhaps less known for musical contributions, its most famous musical theatre collaborators, Gilbert & Sullivan, also turned to fairy materials in Iolanthe (1882). As for the visual arts, the above-mentioned William Blake was a visionary artist as well as a poet, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood counted fantasy author William Morris among its members. ‘Fairy painting’ by Sir John Millais and others became popular in exhibitions as well as in book illustrations. On the continent, fantastic or grotesque imagery frequently provided subject matter for artists as diverse as Francisco Goya in Spain and Edvard Munch in Norway.
The celebration of the fantastic in music and art influenced a number of writers, who seemingly found fantasy a liberating mode for exploring this new sensibility. Oscar Wilde’s work included the comic ghost story The Canterville Ghost (1887), collections of literary fairy tales (e.g. The Happy Prince and Other Stories, 1888) and a horror novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Arguably even more important in terms of influence on later fantasy and horror fiction was the Welshman Arthur Machen, whose classic 1890 story The Great God Pan can be seen as prefiguring an entire tradition of fantasies involving the survival of older deities in the modern world. In 1888, the Irish poet W B Yeats, whose own poetry and drama made considerable use of fantastic and mythical sources, produced a book of Irish folklore and fairy tales. Also, in 1890, Sir James George Frazer’s influential The Golden Bough was published, a wide-ranging and highly speculative comparative study of myth and religion, which influenced generations of novelists and poets.
At the same time, a younger generation of writers began developing reputations built largely around specific sub-genres of fantasy. Edith Nesbit produced a more contemporary style of children’s fantasy with books like The Story of the Treasure Seekers, 1898; Five Children and It, 1902; and The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904. Animal fantasies, once regarded as merely a subset of fables or fairy tales, took on a new and more sophisticated literary life with works such as Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books (1894-5) and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). Lord Dunsany pioneered the immersive, invented environments that would later come to be associated with ‘high’ fantasy with story collections and novels including The King of Elfland’s Daughter, 1924. Perhaps equally important was the generation of children for whom these and earlier authors, from MacDonald to Morris, were likely early literary experiences: the most famous of the later ‘Inklings’, J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis and Charles Williams, were all born between 1886 and 1898; E R Eddison in 1882 and HP Lovecraft in 1890. These were among the direct heirs of the traditions, conventions and ideas about fantasy that evolved during this era, and from these materials they arguably laid the foundations of the contemporary fantasy genre.