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.
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?
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.
Snow White is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe, the most popular version of which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Following the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated feature in 1937, the tale took on a whole new level of popularity and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. While the majority of people today regard it as nothing more than a story for children, with magic, romance and cute dwarfs, the older versions of the story, including that of the Grimms’, with its themes of sexual jealousy, revenge and murder, was incredibly dark and certainly not written with children in mind – except as a warning. These deeper themes in the story have given rise to a significant body of ‘Snow White scholarship’, which seeks to explore the hidden meanings in the fairy tale and place them in some sort of context. Michelle Abate has explored the fact and fantasy of filicide in Snow White, Shuli Barzilai has considered the fairy tale in terms of its being a mother’s story, Vanessa Joosen has highlighted the retellings of Snow White between magic and realism and Steven Jones has given broad consideration to the inherent pitfalls in Snow White scholarship. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is Neil Gaiman’s famous revisionist re-telling of the story, Snow, Glass, Apples, which completely reconceives the fairy tale in a manner more disturbing even than the Grimm version that is best known today.
A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.
Puck, the mischievous imp of English folklore, also known as Robin Goodfellow, was immortalized in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The origins of this merry trickster figure are, however, far older and darker. The Old English puca – from which the name Puck is derived – is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in night-time woodlands. The Welsh called him Pwca, which is pronounced the same as his Irish incarnation Phouka, Pooka or Puca but these are far from his only names. Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – Puki in Old Norse, Pukis in the Baltic region and Bucca in Cornish – mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. Indeed, Pouk was a typical medieval term for the devil and the Phouka was sometimes pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass. Even the jolly-sounding moniker of Robin Goodfellow alludes to this creature’s more sinister side – Robin itself was a medieval nickname for the devil. How then did such a demonic spirit evolve into the merry sprite of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy?
Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas Learmont and True Thomas, may or may not have been a Scottish poet and prophet who lived between 1220 and 1297. I say ‘may’ because in many ways Thomas is as much myth as man. He is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Soltra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village now known as Earlston. He is said to have predicted the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, as well as being the traditional source of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. He is also the reputed author of the poem Tristrem, based on the romance of Tristan and Isolde, which no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott considered genuine (it probably in fact emanated from a French source). What Thomas is best known for, however, is the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, included by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), which tells of his visit to the land of faerie and his imprisonment there by a fey enchantress. In popular lore he was often coupled with Merlin and other British seers. An elusive, inspiring figure, Thomas the Rhymer slipped in and out of the Otherworld, creating new myths and legends that have only grown in the telling in the many centuries since his seeming ‘death’. He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.
Knights – brave and doughty individuals trained in the art of swordsmanship, who fight on behalf of a lord or kingdom against great foes – are perhaps the most common and popular archetypal hero found in fairy tales and fantasy. Someone has to shine a light in the darkness, slay wolves and dragons and stand between all that is good and the forces of darkness. When predation rears its head and howls, a Knight may be all that stands between innocence and death. This character has a long and honourable tradition in the old tales; without his axe or sword, happily ever after might never come to pass. The typical image that immediately springs to mind when the word ‘Knight’ is used is that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, each clad from head to toe in a suit of armour. But don’t let the word ‘Knight’ fool you – these heroic figures are known by different names all over the world. They were Cavaliers in England, Paladins in Italy, Chevaliers in France, Caballeros in Spain and Samurai in Japan. Despite the martial stereotype, this character does not even necessarily have to be a soldier. There is much more to being a knight than simply wielding a sword, as the following quote from the film Dragonheart makes clear: “A knight is sworn to valour. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His might upholds the weak. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked.”