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.
Edward Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany, is one of the most acclaimed names in the field of fantastic fiction, held in high esteem by many of today’s major writers. More than eighty books of his work were published, and his oeuvre includes many hundreds of published short stories, as well as successful plays, novels and essays. A complex and fascinating character, and an important contributor to literature, Lord Dunsany was a versatile and creative writer, with works including fantasy, drama, poetry, science fiction, prose and autobiography. Born to the second-oldest title (created 1439) in the Irish peerage, Dunsany lived much of his life amid the dramatic, romantic setting of what is perhaps Ireland’s longest-inhabited home, Dunsany Castle near Tara. Dunsany himself is cited as a major influence by many writers and artists and as an important figure in the development of fantastic literature by editors, academics and critics. His work formed part of the foundation of fantasy, along with that of Poe, Morris and Rider Haggard, and fed into later work such as that of Tolkien, Lewis and Lovecraft. The term ‘Dunsanian’ evokes a particular style and atmosphere which has, in the words of more than one commentator, been much imitated but never duplicated. It is worth noting, however, that Dunsany never confined himself to any category – ‘genres’ such as fantasy, science fiction and so on did not really exist in his time – but was respected for his overall ability, being invited to lecture on many occasions, and receiving an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. Perhaps his most famous work was The King of Elfland’s Daughter.