If you walked into a bookstore 50 years ago and asked the clerk where you could find the fantasy section you would probably receive one of three responses. A young and unpresumptuous clerk may just give you a blank look and have no idea what you are referring too. A seasoned clerk may assume that you are referring to Greek and Roman mythology and point you in that direction. Lastly, a sarcastic and self-amusing clerk may tell you that the adult bookstore is down the street and around the corner. Today, the fantasy section of your favorite bookseller is full of stories about elves, dwarves, orcs, magical artifacts, dragons, demons, and (insert your favorite hero’s and villain’s here). The fact that these modern fantasy stories even have a dedicated section devoted to them can be directly attributed to the father of contemporary fantasy; J.R.R. Tolkien.
Notice that I said Tolkien is the father of contemporary fantasy. Some people mistakenly credit Tolkien as the father of all fantasy but in doing so they unwittingly dismiss some of the greatest literary works in history. Even the esteemed Tolkien paid homage to his predecessors and enhanced his own craft by studying those that came before him. What made Tolkien a great author is that he was able to create a completely believable fantasy world while living in the 20th century and use it as a backdrop for a great storyline. I don’t think that it is completely ironic that these keys to Tolkien’s success are also major contributing factors to the success of contemporary fantasy literature and to fantasy based games. I’m sure that each of you could list a few fantasy based games that don’t have much of a plot, but the most successful games have very intricate storylines that help draw us into the concept of the game.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to lie down a few ground rules concerning the definition of fantasy before we begin to discuss the grandfathers and great grandfathers of the fantasy genre. I won’t even attempt to write the authoritative, be all and know all definition of fantasy, as if it could be done. My definition of fantasy will only be used in the context of this column to distinguish fantasy from any other genre, especially science fiction.
What is fiction? Generally speaking, fiction includes stories that never happened, but they could realistically happen in our real world. When I say “realistically” I mean that everything that happens in the story is believable and can be explained scientifically with the current level of technology that exists in the story. There is no unexplained “magical” events or speculations on scientific theory. Because of this, most fiction stories happen in the present or the past. Very rarely do fiction stories happen in the future because they are bound to known technology. Just off the top of my head, a good example of fiction would be the movie Saving Private Ryan. Yes, World War II happened and there was an invasion at Normandy. However, the idea that a squad of soldiers was sent into the area to find a Private James Ryan and bring him back alive is just a good story and if it did happen, it probably didn’t occur exactly as was presented in the movie.
What is science fiction? Obviously the key word here is “science”. When an author speculates on what “could happen” and includes scientific explanations for events that could not otherwise occur the author is writing science fiction. For this reason most science fiction takes place in the future and present. A few examples of this would be Star Trek and Star Wars (though there are a few elements of fantasy involved). Present day science fiction would include all the Marvel comic super-hero’s, most monsters terrorizing New York and Tokyo, and movies like Jurassic Park.
What is fantasy? When science is not deemed necessary to explain extraordinary or fantastic events you are dealing with the fantasy genre. Events in fantasy can just “magically” occur and nobody questions why, assuming that there is a plausible explanation for the source of the magic or supernatural power. The challenge facing most fantasy authors and game developers is controlling the level of power available to the average denizen inhabiting the fantasy world. Thus, most fantasy settings include technology restricted environments (such as medieval Europe) and a rigid magic system. Occasionally fantasy and science fiction get mixed together but those stories are usually the exception and not the rule. With a definition of fantasy in place we can begin to look back at some of the writers that began the genre.
The ancient world is probably the best place to start discussing the roots of fantasy. Mythology is full of fantasy stories dating back to the cradles of civilization including early Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Far East, and the icy Nordic lands. Many of these early stories include Gods interacting with man, Gods creating the world, and Gods secretly carrying out their hidden agendas causing all kinds of chaos. Mr. Promiscuity himself, Zeus, is often found roaming the hills and dales of the time in search for his next female conquest whether it be a beautiful human maiden or one of his own goddess children all the while trying to hide his affairs from his wife Hera. Of course, Hera always finds out (gee, like that doesn’t happen in real life affairs) and focuses her vengeance upon the helpless damsels and their offspring rather than confront her husband who is father of the Gods. Coincidently we find a number of half-god children who are born with semi-godlike abilities and go forth into the world to either help or terrorize early society.
The ancient world also provides our first “hero” in the classical sense – Beowulf. Beowulf is the prototypical superman that helps everyone in distress. If there is a monster to be slain, or and it’s evil mother to be deposed, Beowulf is there to save the day until he eventually receives a mortal blow while fighting a dragon.
Obviously, I won’t be able to cover all the classics and I will miss a few of your favorites. Therefore, I am apologizing in advance and only ask that you e-mail me your recommendations and I will add them to the list of “recommended reading” that will appear with each column. The next column will focus on medieval literary works, fairy tales and folklore. In the meantime, here is a list of several sources that began this journey to contemporary fantasy.
- Illiad and Odyssey by Homer
- The Aenid by Virgil
- Grendel by John Gardner
- Bullfinch’s Mythology
- Histories by Heroditus
- Germanica by Tacitus
Disclaimer: Fortuitous Ephiphaneia is written by Drandimere (Paul J. Darling) and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.