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Grandfathers of Fantasy

The idea of an amiable, bearded grandfather upon whose knee one could settle on a Saturday afternoon, all tired out after a morning spent building model aeroplanes, or trekking in the woods hunting for fish and all manner of adventure besides, is a pretty little notion that makes one all a-glow with warmth and fuzziness. Fantasy fiction, the “entity” we know today, has this very same grandfather, and without him, fantasy as it stands now—a strong and ever-growing genre—would never have been so much as a twinkle in his friendly blue eye.

In fact, without mythology and after it, fairy/faerie tales, our grandfather wouldn’t have existed himself. Fantasy literature—and science fiction, brought together under the banner of “speculative fiction”—is ultimately created from the desire, the need, to imagine, dream, and as the term suggests—to speculate. The “what ifs”, the “maybes”, and the “can you imagines” are all upon which the foundations of the genre are built.  Needless to say, the roots and reasons behind mythologies differ to that of even faerie tales. Faerie tales tend to teach, to make the listener wonder (I say “listener” as these stories, in their oldest forms, were spoken) about morality, and in turn, human nature and what lies within, be it darkness or light. Mythologies are different, built up from superstition, forgotten truths, or perspectives and stories that had been removed from context over time.

Fantasy’s origins lie within these areas.

J.R.R. TolkienTolkien is the ideal starting point for exploring where these areas merge. With the intention of writing a ‘mythology for England’ rather than expressly a fantasy novel, Tolkien delved deeply into all kinds of mythology and folklore to find the inspiration for his world, Arda, and deeper still to craft the fabric for his world, it’s mythology, for the Silmarillion. Whilst Tolkien’s work doesn’t expressly read like a faerie tale, it was unequivocally a reimaging of English mythology (or lack thereof), and thus it can be likened to the true faerie tales of the world—forget Disney, and think darker, deeper and truer to the folk tales of the world than a black and white mouse with red shorts.

The idea of fantasy might have first sprung up from folklore, faerie tales and other mythologies from around the world, but those who would begin to craft the foundations of fantasy literature itself, exploring imagination, the fantastic, and the various shades of speculation that colour our world were what truly gave life to the genre.

Tolkien was not the first, by any means, and neither was he alone even at the time—in his writing group, the “Inklings” also housed C.S Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. However, the fantasy (especially if we talk about the fantastic, the gothic, and horror simultaneously for a moment) tradition did not begin with these two giants; it predates them entirely.

H.P. LovecraftIf we consider writers from Edgar Allen Poe, to Mary Shelley, to H.P Lovecraft, we begin to see that the notion of fantasy and the fantastic is very old. If we turn philosophical for a moment, and consider that fantasists write their fantasies as a way to explore and express—to speculate, as we suggested earlier—it’s no real surprise that fantasy as a genre has been around for as long as it has, and instead of dwindling, it is growing and gaining momentum.

There has (not always, as some think) been a stigma attached to fantasy fiction: it’s geeky, awkward, and somehow not as valid as its supposed arch enemy “lit-fic”. However, consider the works of the writers cited above; consider their sheer influence and level of importance, not just on the evolution of fantasy fiction, but on the entire history and evolution of literature as a whole. There was a time in the world where authors simply engaged the fantastic more closely, more willingly. Then, as the world changed and became wholly industrialised, and with two world wars under history’s belt, the world lost touch with the fantastic, as a new “fantastic”, a new “magic” appeared: science.

It’s easy to trace through history that the rise and fall of the popularity and relevance of the fantastic came and went with the changes the world and society underwent. Nevertheless, fantasists have always been there, always writing fantasies—some more popular and time-tested than others.

The ancestor of fantasy is mythology; fantasy’s great-uncle, thrice-removed, is the art of faerie tale; but fantasy’s true grandparents are the fantasists who crafted dreams, speculative realities, and visions of distant worlds, whether by means of the gothic, the early fantastic, or uncanny commentary on the future. Fantasy’s grandparents are far, far older than Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, or Martin.

Due to our unswervingly human need to label, there are more subgenres of fantasy than you could shake a whole forest of ancient oaken sticks at. Helpfully, our predecessors were quite happy to call anything that didn’t mimic whole reality, fantasy. They were right, too. Anything that doesn’t fit into the neat little frame, within which the finite possibilities of our world sit, is left out, branded fantasy. Of course (and this won’t be the first time I’ve flirted with the admission of stating that I believe in what should probably not be believed in) the small grey areas outside of this accepted, built and well-maintained frame  are what fuel a fantasist’s speculation—or at least, that’s how it used to be.

PolidoriImagine living and writing in the times of Mary Shelley, or Poe, or John Polidori and his Vampyre, imagine not having all the facts staring at you, and imagine not seeing the world broadcast at you on the news every day. Imagine the itch to write, to learn, to dream, to explore—to speculate.

This is where fantasy proper first appeared.

Of course, the fantasy we know today is a world apart from the fantasy suggested here, and having become too fond of labelling, it’s near-impossible to really suggest where fantasy-as-we-know-it began, since the fantastic encompassed all of the now-subgenres we’ve suggested.

The fantastic gave light to a host of writers who can be dubbed the great-grandparents of fantasy, and this is fine, as now, if nothing else, we’re establishing somewhat of a bloodline—a family tree of fantasy. We’ve drafted in the roots of the tree, but we’re nowhere near close to filling in its leaves—the previous and subsequently current generation of fantasists.

I’ll give the briefest of mentions to the newest leaves on the tree—brief only because this isn’t about them, rather, their predecessors—and then skip back a generation or two and give the real movers-and-shakers of fantasy-proper a good, long spell of consideration. There are literally hundreds of new fantasists writing today, but only some of them are really gargantuan leaves on the tree; leaves that will inspire the saplings not yet grown into becoming big leaves in their own right, long after the others have crisped.

Brandon Sanderson—who seems to have another book out (or new edition) every time one turns ones back—is a massive contributor to the contemporary fantasy ideal, not least of all because his work adheres and differs to and from the norm, dancing to its own beat, instead. Patrick Rothfuss is already a legend, and love or loathe his work, he is extremely relevant. China Miéville is large, loud and exceptionally different, but his work is very much so at the heart of what it means to be a fantasist. Miéville is a speckled leaf on a silver birch tree; you notice his work and how it stands apart immediately. Jim Butcher, with a line-up of Dresden novels almost outnumbering a baker’s dozen, is quieter, unassuming, but as relevant to the evolution of the genre as newer fantasist, Ben Aaronovitch, who also explores fantasy in a real world, by letting the two concepts meet.

David EddingsThere are quite literally too many to mention without re-titling this “The Newest, Greenest Leaves on Fantasy’s Family Tree”, so we’ll leave it there and show some respect to our elders—it’ll be much like Sunday teatime at a nursing home, dappled in leaf-shadow across the green, green lawn, whilst grandma and grandpa argue over cutting the cake. (Grandma always wins.
We’ve already mentioned Tolkien, so we’ll respectfully pass him over now, and give more consideration to the late (2009) fantasy-warhorse, David Eddings, and his other (fantasy-fiction, speaking, not necessarily “age-wise”) village elders.

Eddings—aided by his wife, Leah Eddings, whose name began to appear alongside his on publications from the 90s onwards—was quite literally a fantasy giant. Writing strongly from the eighties, right up until he died, Eddings might not be the oldest fantasist about, but his work so strongly adheres to the initial and true spirit of fantasy that it’s impossible to not talk about him first.

Contemporary readers might complain that Eddings employs the old formulae of prophecy, farm-boy, and crowns, too much, but they’re simply not accepting Eddings’ work in a timely context, considering it for what it is, and not what it isn’t. Much of Eddings’ work can be described as either YA, or children’s, or, as I like to put it, without implying an age recommendation, “entry-level”. Eddings’ work is simple, rich with ideas and imagination, and enjoyable. It’s a shining example of what fantasy started out as, and indeed, what a certain, single branch of the fantasy family tree is gearing towards becoming again. The old tropes are reappearing, slowly and subtly, and dressed and pressed in brand new clothes, but they are coming back—and without Eddings and his ilk, they wouldn’t have existed in the same way at all, to be able to have a resurgence in contemporary fantasy.

With his lesser-known publications predating Eddings by at least half a decade, and with his best-known work more contemporary than most might thing, fantasy giant G.R.R. Martin is a fantasist whose work has given light to an entirely different type of classic fantasy. Not being a Martin fan—actually not having read his work—it’s ideal for me to demonstrate Martin’s sheer reach across the genre. Naturally, with a series under his belt as long, vast and deep as A Song of Ice and Fire, I assumed the earlier books were older, dating back to the same starting points as perhaps Brooks’, Eddings’ and Ursula Le Guin’s first works. Instead, I was surprised to find his series dating back merely to the nineties. His lesser work dates farther back, but his massive series is actually younger than I suspected, and, having researched and listened to Martin’s fans—namely authors—have realised that despite being rather young for a village elder (in terms of ASoIaF’s publication), Martin is a grandfather of fantasy in his own right, having sown the seeds of inspiration for a darker brand of fantasy, grittier in nature, and reaped by subsequent writers such as Abercrombie, Lawrence, and others who, instead of moving towards an old-made-new technique, are altering and exploring the expected boundaries, and openly challenging them, creating something far, far darker and with a much less forgiving streak. This sort of fantasy is nothing if not bloodstained.

George R.R. Martin

Martin isn’t the single herald of this branch of fantasy, just as Eddings didn’t usher in the “golden age” of fantasy alone; they are simply notable fantasists who have had a massive effect on the overall outcome. Fantasy doesn’t change overnight; there might be a single book that looks to change everything, but a single book never manages. What it does manage is to incite a new type of idea or approach, and it is that what heralds a change, or the beginning—or abandonment—of a particular idea, notion, or movement. There are a great many grandfathers and grandmothers lining the shelves of bookstores, sitting there, waiting to be read. And they will be read—true grandparents of any genre never come and go with fashion. Grandparents aren’t supposed to be en vogue, rather, they patiently wait to see the grandkids at weekends, spend time with them, sow ideas, and sit back to watch the magic happen. Whether these grandparents are read and embraced, or rejected, the effect is still the same: from these reactions grow the new leaves, the new generation of fantasists. Grandparents of a genre are important and they should be acknowledged and certainly not forgotten: in fact, they couldn’t be forgotten even if they are toppled from the shelf and left to gather dust. Someone will always read them. Take William Gibson and Neuromancer , a book that inspired an entirely new type of science-fiction-fantasy—cyberpunk—and see which bookstores don’t stock it.

Take a look to see if the shelves of your local store are devoid of Alistair Reynolds, Anne McCaffery, Jack Vance, David Gemmell, Philip Pullman, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, or Ursula Le Guin. I guarantee; they will not be utterly devoid. And maybe, this weekend, why not give a fond old grandpa a visit when you’re browsing your shelves?

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Absolutely unbelievable article there Leo. One of the best genre related articles I’ve read in a long, long time. These men and women have shaped the genre we love so much today and we owe them a huge applause for that.

  2. Avatar Scott Eder says:

    Leo,
    Excellent article. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve read the works of the grandfathers and most of the other, newer “leaves” that you mention and can’t wait to see what influence some of these guys will have on the up and coming writers.
    Thanks for puting this together.
    Scott

  3. Great article – though I’d also put in a word for the fantasy greats of the generation before Tolkien and Lewis, such as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell and E.R. Eddison. Eddison, in particular, could be seen as the direct ancestor of a lot of the epic fantasy around at the moment, including Martin.

  4. Avatar Jesse says:

    Brilliant article! I must quibble with no mention of Robert E. Howard though! With Conan, the man did for ‘sword and sorcery’ what Lovecraft did for the weird tale.

  5. Avatar Mark Tq says:

    I enjoyed the article, but once again George MacDonald, a major progenitor of modern fantasy, gets no mention. In addition to being a highly respected Christian theologian, his fantasy writings are a major bridge between folk and faerie lore and the writing of Tolkien and Lewis, who cite him as an influence, inspiration, friend, and mentor.

    • Avatar Hannah R says:

      absolutely agree about George MacDonald Mark. Looking forward with some trepidation to seeing ‘The Light Princess’ which is said to be ‘based on’ the GMcD story of that name. The Princess & Curdie and The Princess and the Goblin” were favourites of mine from a child, and I was happy to share with my daughters in turn, and like many good children’s books are still worth rereading as an adult.

      When I was a young adult I also tried out William Morris and Lord Dunsany, neither of which I rated highly, and James Branch Cabell, which I did (sorry this reply really belongs with Nyki’s comment, but I’m only doing one!)

      Would like to see a parallel article on grandmothers of fantasy! this one does refer to the inimitable Ursula Le Guin as well as Mary Shelley, and I am currently enjoying the readathon of Susan Cooper’s excellent Dark is Rising series.

  6. Avatar quickben says:

    excellent article! Congrats!

  7. Avatar JARH says:

    Bah, I don’t consider George Martin as a Grandfather of Fantasy. Nothing really happens in his books. Robert Jordan is the true grandfather of the ’90.

  8. […] has a great follow-up at Fantasy Faction to Leo Elijah Cristea’s previous post on the “grandfathers” of fantasy, highlighting classic female fantasy writers (up to about 1980) from Ann […]

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