I lied and I admit it. While concluding my last column I said that the next installment would discuss the roots of fantasy found in medieval literary works, fairy tales and folklore. However, that statement was made before a torrential downpour of responses rained into my inbox, flooding my PC with your thoughts, insights, suggestions, and wit. Therefore, I’ve decided to pause and post some of your very well written replies and provide some comments of my own. Its been said that if you ever really want to learn about a subject you should try to teach it to someone else. In this case, I find myself learning from you, as it appears that our readership has a vast knowledge base in regards to the fantasy genre. For that, I say thank you! It has been fun and educational for me to read your responses and add your suggestions to my research into the roots of fantasy.
Concerning my “working” definitions of science fiction and fantasy.
I enjoyed your article on the history of fantasy literature. However, I think that you have made a serious oversimplification in your definition of fantasy. Myth is an earnest attempt to explain reality, not simply a collection of stories to entertain. Most of the works that you have listed are not myth per se, but rather epic poems based in myth (as opposed to history). Iliad, Odyssey, Aneid, Beowulf are all epic poems that are based in myth. An epic poem is an entirely different animal altogether, in that its purpose is to give national character and hero. It is meant to embody the greatest virtues of a people and give them a rallying point. In fact, Virgil was commissioned to write the Aeneid by Caesar Augustus for the express purpose of giving Romans a feeling of historical belonging and equality with the Greeks. Thus, both epic poem and myth are not merely stories for entertainment’s sake, but are stories with purpose.
Nice article about the birth of Fantasy. However, there is a philosophical question about the borderline between fantasy and science fiction. Your point is: the distinction between the two genres comes from the fact whether the author/storyteller explains the origins of the supernatural powers. Now today, this seems like a fine definition, and by today I mean today’s literature. But let’s look at the predecessors of Fantasy. Take the Greek myths, for example. The demigods have their powers pretty well explained: they are sired by some god (I’m not sure if it was always Zeus, but that is totally beside the point), and that is as good an explanation as, say, being bitten by a radioactive spider – for the public for whom it was written. Again, the powers of the Gods were about just as easily understood and accepted as the mutating power of radiation is now.
I just read your latest column at diabloii.net and wanted to comment on your mention of science fiction.
While I am happy to agree that Tolkien is not the origin of fantasy itself but the first to really create an almost completely fictional fantasy world, I was disappointed by your reference to science fiction. Although you defined SF quite correctly, it is sad you should mention Star Trek and Star Wars as examples, since I consider these “science fantasy”. The real science fiction of the old days is almost gone and forgotten today, with authors like Asimov, Lem, Wells, Niven, Henlein, etc. almost unknown by modern kids. I have a lot of trouble finding good science fiction in bookstores nowadays and often have to rely on my father’s vast collection. This is a sad thing indeed, since Klingons and Jedi can not substitute for Triffiths and Robot Laws.
I’ve just read and enjoyed the latest installment of your column on Diabloii.net. I do take issue with a few of your attributions, but agree with many of your major points. Star Wars is a nice, accessible example to use for science fiction, but as you note, it probably isn’t a particularly good one. In fact, it’s space opera at best, closer to fantasy than to sci-fi because science is rarely, if ever, addressed in the films. Star Trek is also space opera, but few readers might have heard of the work of Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, or James Tiptree, Jr. Trek serves as a better example.
More particularly, you should be perilously careful in using works such as Herodotus’ Histories in your attributions of the roots of fantasy. If you re-read the Histories, I think you’ll find that in the main, they are exactly that – an attempt to faithfully write down the truth of events as they occurred in his contemporary idiom.
You’ve probably already had a dozen pedantic nitpickers tell you this, but Star Wars is actually science fiction that ‘happened’ in the past, not the future. If you’ve seen it, you may recall the movie opens with, “A long, long time ago…” You did explain the differences quite well though, in my opinion, and I’m sure it’ll be of great help to some people who don’t quite get the differences between the sci-fi and fantasy genres. You may want to include a note that originally fantasy books were just lumped in under the general heading of sci-fi, but because of the increasing number of fantasy books being written, it became a genre all of it’s own, much as there are now a number of different “rock” styles of music.
Based on the feedback, I think that it is safe to assume that everyone has a little difference of opinion as to what fantasy is vs. science fiction. Especially when the genre’s become mixed together to produce such hybrids as Star Wars. There is also a fine line to walk between mythology, fantasy, religion and science, which we will discuss below.
Concerning religious doctrines and mythology as a basis for fantasy.
There is also the issue of using religious mythology as the root of fantasy. The influence of myth (particularly Greek and Norse myth) on English language fantasy cannot be denied; however, neither can the influence of Christian myth. Themes from the Holy Bible, particularly the book of Revelation, and from the life of Jesus, and from the Pentateuch, appear again and again in contemporary fantasy. Many people, however, would be offended at the implication that the ‘truth’ could be referred to as one of the roots of modern fantasy. That was, no doubt, how Classical Greek mythology was regarded by many – as the ‘truth’. This may be too fine a distinction for some of your readers to draw; nevertheless, I felt compelled to draw it to your attention.
Perhaps it is my own fault for providing such simplistic definitions to a more complicated problem in my column. Trying to isolate fantasy from mythology, religion, and pseudo-historical text is like trying to separate the eggs and flour from a cake after it has already been baked. By my own definition of fantasy, religious text would also fall into the fantasy genre due to the lack of scientific explanation for the events that take place. However, in my mind, there is one critical element that separates fantasy from religion. That one element would be faith – when you believe in something even though the entire scientific world does not support your thesis. As fundamentally flawed as faith may be in theory, regardless of religious affiliation, it is one powerful attribute that has been a primary factor in creating the real world in which we live. Therefore, I cannot in good faith (pun intended) add religious texts to my list of fantasy. Understand that I do not dismiss their importance to helping create various fantasy worlds. It is more a matter of respecting the beliefs of modern practitioners. Which is why I have no problem calling mythology a fantasy source. I understand that the people who created mythology were doing so because they believed it to be the truth at the time. However, I do not know of anyone still worshipping the Greek and Roman gods in the same context today. It may seem like a minor technicality which causes me to call one fantasy and not the other, but at least you can understand why I make the delineation whether or not you agree with it.
Some people responded with Tolkien specific comments or references to fantasy literature that I have not covered yet like the Arthurian romances, Charlemagne, pulp fiction and modern authors. I will address your comments in future columns as we further explore the roots of fantasy in up coming columns. Also, I have chosen to list the literature by topic, so occasionally you will see something (like Grendel) which seems to be out of place because of when it was written.
In the meantime, here are your recommended readings for the Ancient World:
Gilgamesh (suggested by Brian Vandegrift and many others – how could I have forgotten)
Aesop’s Fables (suggested by Crux)
The Hymns of Orpheus
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (suggested by Jer)[/INDENT]
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.