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.
Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.
While J R R Tolkien has been described as having many successors in the field of epic fantasy, few are as deserving of this title as Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay in fact assisted Tolkien’s son Christopher in the editorial construction of the unfinished, posthumously published The Silmarillion but is better known now as the author of the three books that make up the epic fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road). While the eighties unfortunately gave us a number of trashy Tolkien-wannabe novels, Kay’s trilogy towers above most of the genre due to the quality of his writing and, crucially, the time and love that he invested in the creation of the fantasy world of Fionavar, one of the most iconic and copied of all imaginary fictional realms.