Down to the Roots – Modern Fantasy

    If I asked each person in my office building how they came into work this morning I would get dozens of answers. The answers would be subjective to starting location and what roads or highways are the most convenient for them to travel. Thus, the only important aspect would be the final results; we all arrived at the same relative location and each of us had a different view of the world during our commute.

    My research into the roots of fantasy literature has produced similar results. I believe that the roots of fantasy literature are subjective to the individuals perspective and to the particular “brand” of fantasy that they enjoy; be it Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Pulp, Modern, etc. Thus, with this column I will conclude my series on the roots of fantasy and I will concentrate upon modern fantasy (within the last 200 years, in some instances referred to as Swords and Sorcery, or Hi-Fantasy).

    As discussed in previous columns, the roots of fantasy can be traced throughout the ages. However, it is generally agreed that modern fantasy began during the late Victorian era. Literacy was at an all time high in the world and technology was readily available to put literature into the hands of the masses at an unprecedented rate. A turning point for fantasy literature during this period involved having the plots played out in alternate time periods and/or unknown lands. For example, Andrew Lang’s The Romance of the First Radical (1886) and Henry Curwen’s Zit and Xoe (1887) both created pseudo-Stone Age environments for their heroes to adventure in.

    The Victorian era also includes Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), wherein he introduced hunter Allan Quatermain and put him on the pursuit for ancient treasure. Two years later, She (1887) was published which featured a goddess-like woman whom is discovered ruling a native tribe in present-day Africa via sorcery. Again, with both of Haggard’s stories, we begin to see the trend of mythical lands used as settings for the noble heroes to overcome their antagonists.

    At the turn of the 20th century several key authors picked up their literary hammers and began to further forge modern fantasy into what we see today. Most notably, are the writings of William Morris, Lord Dunsany, A. Merritt, E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell. Influenced by Sir Walter Scott and Haggard, Morris penned News from Nowhere (1890) and The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891). In both of these works, Morris makes the decision to forego technology in favor of magic and creates a quasi-medieval setting where chivalry is not dead and people live by their ideals. Additionally, Morris creates one of the first believable magic-systems for his world. His later works included The Wood Beyond the World (1894), Child Christopher and Goldiling the Fair (1895) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). These three literary works also included larger than life heroes whose ideals borderline on the unbelievable.

    Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany) also wrote stories concerning free-spirited adventurers in unexplored lands, which he referred to as “at the edge of the world in the Third Hemisphere”. His first two collections mainly involve heroes confronting the forces of false gods and charlatans in The Gods of Pegana (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906). His later novels honor Spanish royalty and splendor in a make-believe setting during the Middle Ages; The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926). Both of these stories have “privateers” as heroes, or as history as shown us, “pirates” depending on which government is profiting from the privateer’s efforts.

    Through the Dragon Glass (All Story 1917) was the first fantasy work by Abraham Merritt who went on to write many during his distinguished career. His setting, the Forbidden City of China, is actually found within an ancient artifact and it becomes the unexpected destination of an American adventurer. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen (1919) takes place in the realm of Poictesme. Cabell explains that Poictesme is actually a place in Europe that was conveniently overlooked by mapmakers and geographers and existed between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The Worm Ouroboros (1922) by Eric Rucker Eddison’s takes place on the planet of Mercury in which his hero travels during a dream. Throughout the adventure his hero battles witches, demons and powerful ladies of a Renaissance-like court. Like many others, the stories of Merritt, Cabell and Eddison all aimed to escape from the scientific universe to simpler mythological realms where chivalry and heroic ideals kept the forces of evil in check.

    Several prominent fantasy authors of the 20th century introduced their legendary characters via pulp fiction, three of them were Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. (Howard Phillips) Lovecraft, and Robert E. (Ervin) Howard. Burroughs first two stories, Under the Moons of Mars (later released as A Princess of Mars, 1917) and Tarzan of the Apes, both appeared in the 1912 pulp magazine, “All-Story”. These two stories brought forth Civil War Captain, John Carter and Lord Greystoke, John Clayton, aka Tarzan. Though the stories take place in different settings, both characters battle strange peoples, find lost cities, and confront odd beasts. Both are tall, lithe and powerful fighting men who use their wits and endless adaptability to conquer strange worlds.

    Influenced by Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft brought forth his first effective works in the early issues of Weird Tales and can be credited with breaking down the barriers between imaginary worlds and the real world by exploring the darker side of human experience in The Call of Cthulhu (Weird Tales, 1928). Soon after, other writers in Weird Tales followed Lovecraft’s lead and invented a new sub-genre that would be later termed “Sword & Sorcery” by Fritz Leiber. The most ingenious writer to enter this new realm of sword and sorcery was Robert E. Howard. Most of Howard’s characters where first introduced via Weird Tales and include King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, Cormac Mac Art, and the prototypical thief, slayer, and anti-hero known as Conan the Barbarian. Like Lovecraft, Howard blended his Hyborian Age with the real world to create an imaginary past for Conan to conquer. The Phoenix and the Sword (Weird Tales, 1932) was the first time that the muscle bound swordsman made his appearance. Howard wrote an additional sixteen stories that fanned the flames of the readers’ fire to read more about Conan and his exploits.

    During the 1950’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-56) was published for the first time. Whereas Howard’s characters where often larger than life and seeking riches and/or fame, Tolkien’s characters often fit the “unlikely hero” mold who are forced into the lime-light by destiny mixed with happenstance. Tolkien was the first author to use the plural form of “elves” and “dwarves” and he created a world for them to live in that was balanced by both good and evil forces. Tolkien first entered Middle-Earth with the simple children’s fantasy The Hobbit (published in 1937), but his return to that richly imagined world meant a turn from the blood-and-thunder of Howard and his contemporaries back to the purity of vision that once established the genre.

    The influence of both Howard and Tolkien can be found in much of the work of the past forty years. Today there are literally hundreds of fantasy writers taking us to all sorts of worlds and introducing us to their characters. Whether you appreciate them all or not, we all have our favorites, these are the authors who have helped to bring us to where we are today both from a literature view point and a storyline viewpoint of the games that we enjoy playing.

    • Flynn, John L. – A Historical Overview Of Heroes In Contemporary Works Of Fantasy Literature. Parts 1, 2, and 3.
    • Moorcock, Michael – Wizardry and Wild Romance
    • Sologdin – So You’d Like To Be A Fantasy Lit Dork? – Amazon.com website.>


    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.

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