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.
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.
The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.
With the recent release of Man of Steel, the mind naturally turns to the superhero genre. Whilst this is mostly characterised by larger-than-life comic book heroes like Superman, possessed of extraordinary powers and abilities, the term superhero is actually far wider than this and stretches back to long before the debut of the Man of Steel in 1939. Mankind has always been intrigued by tales of those who possess superhuman attributes – Classical mythology is full of stories of heroes like Hercules (superpower: strength), Odysseus (superpower: intelligence) and Cassandra (superpower: clairvoyance). What were the likes of King Arthur, Merlin and Robin Hood if not early superheroes? With the dawn of the printed book, the protagonists of many early literary works were also often extraordinary in some way, whether it was in the form of the fantastical adventures they had (see Gulliver or Baron Munchausen), their deductive genius (see Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot) or their dazzling charm and rugged durability (see Allan Quartermain or James Bond). With such an august literary and mythic heritage, it is clear that tales of superheroes are far more than a genre of children’s fiction, fit only for comic books and cartoons. Maybe it’s because everyone craves stories where the good guy wins and evil is vanquished. Or maybe something inside each one of us just wants to believe that a person really can fly.
As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
What is it that makes barbarian characters so popular and appealing? The original barbarians – the Huns, the Goths, the Gauls, the Saxons, Jutes and Picts etc – were history’s Hell’s Angels, credited with nothing less than bringing about the fall of western civilisation and the onset of the Dark Ages. They were anything but heroic, yet their fantasy equivalents are some of the most enduring and well known characters in the genre. Few have not heard of Conan, Robert E Howard’s muscle-bound anti-hero (although in fairness that may have more to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger than the character on the printed page). Of rather more respectable vintage are Druss, axe-wielding hero of many of David Gemmell’s Drenai heroic fantasy novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd in the Lankhmar novels. Barbarian warriors are also, of course, a staple of role-playing games. In this medium they are often represented as lone warriors, very different from the vibrant historical cultures on which they are based. Several characteristics are commonly shared, including physical prowess and fighting skill combined with a fierce temper and a tolerance for pain. No doubt due to their animal magnetism (though not to their general lack of personal hygiene) they appear to be irresistible to the opposite gender, and seem to possess an equal appetite for food and drink. While Conan, Druss and Fafhrd are all fairly standard examples of this archetype, the graphic novel character Sláine is a somewhat more ambiguous and intriguing take on the classic barbarian.
There are many memorable pairings of hero and sidekick in the fantasy genre – Frodo and Sam, Elric and Moonglum, Harry and Hedwig (or Ron and Hermione if you prefer). This is mirrored in science fiction by pairings such as Han and Chewie, Kirk and Spock, Doctor Who and his innumerable lovely assistants. In mythology, where would Robin Hood be without Little John, Gilgamesh without Enkidu? In all of my reading, however, I have never come across anything to match Fritz Leiber’s incomparable fantasy pairing of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Fafhrd is a seven foot tall northern barbarian; Mouser is a small, mercurial thief, once known just as Mouse, and a former wizard’s apprentice. They are perfect foils for each other: Fafhrd talks like a romantic, but his strong practicality usually wins through, while the cynical-sounding Mouser is prone to showing strains of sentiment at unexpected times. Both are rogues, existing within a decadent world where to be so is a requirement of survival. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing and gambling, and are seldom fussy about who hires their swords. But they are humane and – most of all – relish true adventure. Together, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are truly the Butch and Sundance of the fantasy genre.
Everyone has a clear idea of how fantasy elves – as opposed to their fairy tale counterparts – look and act. They are ancient and wise and possess both great nobility and power. In form Elves stand as tall as men – taller than some – though they are of slighter build and greater grace. They revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. They are not always called Elves but, whether it is Tolkien’s Eldar, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lios Alfar, Tad Williams’ Sithi, Raymond E Feist’s Eledhel, Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans or Katherine Kerr’s Elycion Lacar, these common features make them unmistakable as a fantasy archetype. In the worlds of fantasy role-playing there are numerous divisions and subdivisions of this proud, noble and ancient race – High Elves, Wood Elves, Half-Elves, Wild Elves, Sea Elves, Deep Elves – the list goes on and on. But there is one Elvish race that pops up time and time again in almost every fantasy world, one that is as synonymous with darkness as their fair cousins are with light and goodness. They have many names – Drow, Moredhel, Dark Eldar, Svart Alfar, Norns – but they are best known as Dark Elves.
The Hero’s Journey is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many myths, legends and fairy tales from all over the world. This widely distributed pattern was described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the ‘monomyth’ (a term that he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake). Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”. This sounds like the basic structure of virtually every fantasy story ever written but what is particularly interesting is that Campbell goes one stage further and ascribes this same structure to the religious narratives of Buddha, Moses and Christ and argues that classic myths from many other cultures follow this basic pattern.
I’ve always found the archetypal figure of the bard fascinating in folklore as well as in fantasy novels. There is Mercedes Lackey’s Eric Banyon, the star of the Bedlam’s Bard series of urban fantasy novels; Taliesin, perhaps the most iconic of all bards in Celtic mythology; and Listener, hero of Hans Bemman’s stunning fairytale fantasy The Stone and the Flute, which sits somewhere on the grey borderland between fantasy and mythology. Two of my best-loved characters from a couple of my favourite fantasy series are bards: the not-so-simple gleeman Thom Merillin from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the sometimes pragmatic but always loveable harper Flewder Flam from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In real world history virtually every culture has their own wandering musicians and storytellers – Renaissance troubadours, minstrels from the Middle Ages, Norse skalds, Anglo-Saxon scops, Greek rhapsodes, Indian udgatars, Middle Eastern ashiks, French Galliards and a dozen others. The part they play in the old tales is absolutely crucial for, without bards and their ilk there would be no tales to pass down, especially in the ancient days when reading and writing skills were scarce or non-existent, and it was the oral tradition which kept history, myth and legend alive. Perhaps the most memorable bard in fantasy that I’ve ever come across, however, is Phyllis Eisenstein’s Alaric, who for me remains iconic from reading the classic novels Born to Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach many years ago.