Fantasy Novels and Novelists

The term “fantasy” refers to all works of fiction that attempt neither the realism of the realistic novel nor the “conditional realism” of science fiction. Among modern critics, the primacy of the realistic novel is taken for granted. Realistic novels not only describe normality but also constitute the normal kind of fiction; fantasy, in dealing with the supernatural, seems to be almost perverse. Prior to the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, however, this was far from being the case. Prose forms such as the imaginary voyage, the dialogue, and satire blurred even the basic distinction between fiction and nonfiction, let alone that between “realistic” and “fantastic” subject matter. The separation of realistic and fantastic began not with the casting out of fantastic genres from the literary mainstream, but rather with the withdrawal of a realistic genre—the novel—from a mainstream that had easily accommodated fantastic motifs.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

To speak of the “fantasy novel” in the context of the eighteenth century comes close to committing a contradiction in terms: Novels were about life as it was lived and had left behind the conventions of allegory and fable along with the decorations of the marvelous and the magical. It is arguable, though, that the withdrawal left behind a connecting spectrum of ambiguous works, and—more important—that it soon led to some important reconnections. Jonathan Swift’s use of the techniques of narrative realism in his chronicling of the imaginary voyages of Lemuel Gulliver gave to his work a crucial modernity that is responsible for its still being widely read and enjoyed today.

The rise of the gothic novel in the last decades of the eighteenth century, in connection with the emergence of the Romantic movement that spread from Germany to France, England, and the United States, represents a definite reaction against the advancement of literary realism. The gothic novel, indeed, is almost an “antinovel” of its day, substituting a fascination with the ancient for a preoccupation with the modern, an interest in the bizarre for an obsession with the everyday, an exaltation of the mysterious for a concern with the intelligible, a celebration of the barbaric for a smug appreciation of the civilized. From the standpoint of today, the gothic can be seen to have been subversive in several different ways. It was subversive in a literary context because it opposed the dominant trend toward the development of the modern realistic novel. It was subversive in a sociological context because it reflected the fact that the values of the ancien régime were under stress and that the decadence of that regime was symptomatic of its imminent dissolution. It was subversive in a psychological context because it provided a parable of the impotence of the conscious mind to complete its oppressive victory over the forces of the unconscious, whose imprisonment could never be total.

Gothic novels dealt with strange events in strange environments, organized around the passions of the protagonists. The passions were frequently illicit in a perfectly straightforward sense, often involving incest and the breaking of sacred vows, but the more careful and controlled gothics—the archetypal example is The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), by Ann Radcliffe— emphasized the extent to which the trend toward a less permissive morality would eventually rule, especially in England.

With the exception of the gothic novels, few of the products of the Romantic rebellion were cast in the form of long prose narratives. Short stories were produced in much greater quantity, and the evolution of the short story in Europe and America is closely intertwined with the Romantic reaction against realism and classicism. Poetry, too, was affected dramatically. Even the gothic novel underwent a rapid decline—not into nonexistence but into inconsequential crudeness. After the appearance, in 1824, of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner—a masterpiece of psychological terror involving paranoid delusions— there followed a long period in which gothic romance was primarily associated with the lowest stratum of the literary marketplace: with the partworks and “penny dreadfuls” marketed for the newly literate inhabitants of the industrial towns. Such interminable narratives as Varney the Vampyre (1847), by James Malcolm Rymer, and Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-1847), by G. M. W. Reynolds, achieved considerable success in their own time but have little to offer modern readers.

Although the gothic novel was primarily a species of horror story, its supernatural trappings did overflow into moralistic fantasies that might be comic extravaganzas, such as James Dalton’s The Gentleman in Black (1831) and The Invisible Gentleman (1833), or earnest parables, such as John Sterling’s The Onyx Ring (1839). The themes of these novels—tricky deals with the devil, invisibility, wish-granting rings, and personality exchange— were to become the staples of what Nathan Drake had called “sportive gothic,” while curses, ghosts, vampires, and madness remained the characteristic motifs of “gloomy gothic.”

The writers who produced the most notable works of fantasy in the middle of the nineteenth century—including Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the United States, George MacDonald and William Gilbert in England, and Théophile Gautier and Charles Nodier in France—primarily worked in the short-story medium. The novels written by these authors often have fantastic embellishments, but for the most part they pay far more heed to the restraints of conventional realism than do these authors’ short stories.

Victorian Era

The revival of the fantasy novel in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was associated with several trends that can be traced through the fiction of the twentieth century. The partial eclipse of substantial work in fantastic fiction in the mid-nineteenth century is clearly related to the repressive morality of that period— it is notable that in France, where the repression was less effective than in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, the Romantic heritage was more effectively conserved. It is possible, in consequence, to see the various threads of the revival in terms of reactions against and attempts to escape from that repression.

During this repressive period, indulgence in fantasy came to be seen as a kind of laxity: It was in the Victorian era that the notion of escapism was born. An exception was made in the case of children’s literature (though even here there was a period when fantasy was frowned upon), and there eventually arose in Britain a curious convention whereby fantasies were considered suitable reading for Christmas, when a little token indulgence might be overlooked, an idea that led to the emphasis on fantasy in the Christmas annuals to which Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray contributed. Such writers as Thackeray, MacDonald, and Lewis Carroll brought to the writing of books nominally aimed at children an artistry and seriousness that commended them to the attention of adults and helped to open a space for the production of fantastic novels within the British literary marketplace.

Another form of fantastic fiction that became to some extent associated with the British Christmas annuals was the ghost story, which became extremely popular in the 1880’s and remained so for half a century, during which virtually all the classic British work in that genre was done. There is, however, something intrinsically anecdotal about ghost stories that keeps them more or less confined to short fiction. Though there have been some excellent novellas, there have never been more than half a dozen outstanding ghost novels. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who stands at the head of the line of British ghost story writers, produced several neogothic novels, but almost all of them are so ponderous as to be nearly unreadable. M. R. James wrote only short stories, and Algernon Blackwood’s novels have not worn nearly as well as his shorter pieces.

The Victorian interest in ghosts, however, went far beyond the traffic in thrilling anecdotes. The influence of such contemporary fads as spiritualism and Theosophy sparked a new interest in the occult that began to be reflected quite prolifically in literary production. The great majority of the spiritualist fantasies of communication with the dead and accounts of the afterlife supposedly dictated by the dead through mediums are wholly inconsequential in literary terms, despite the eventual involvement in such movements of writers of ability, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. They did, however, lay important groundwork for those authors who followed. The fevered Rosicrucian romances of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Marie Corelli’s exercises in unorthodox theology, and commercially successful accounts of life “on the other side” by such writers as Coulson Kernahan and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps paved the way for much more substantial posthumous fantasies by Wyndham Lewis (The Childermass, 1928) and C. S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, 1945) and for the theological romances of Charles Williams and David Lindsay. Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve (1945) is possibly the best of the ghost novels, while Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) is a masterpiece of creative metaphysics.

The 1880’s also saw a renaissance of comic fantasy, exemplified in Britain by the novels of F. Anstey and in the United States by Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). The calculated irreverence of these stories reflects a self-confident rationalism that stands in opposition to the mystical movements inspiring most posthumous fantasy. The primary target held up for ridicule in these stories, however, is not the vocabulary of fantastic ideas itself but rather the moral pretensions of the contemporary middle classes. Anstey’s stories use fantastic premises to expose the limitations of the attitudes that were rigidified within closed Victorian minds.

In the twentieth century, this tradition of humorous fantasy thrived more in the United States than in Britain— the leading American exponent of the species has been Thorne Smith—and this reflects, in part, the fact that as Britain has become somewhat less obsessed with the protocols of middle-class culture, the United States has become gradually more so. It was in the United States also that the absurd logical consequences of fantastic premises began to be exploited for pure amusement, largely in connection with the short-lived magazine Unknown, whose leading contributors were L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, who produced, in collaboration, a series of excellent comic fantasies.

A third species of fantastic fiction that first became clearly delineated in the last decades of the nineteenth century is the kind of story that translocates contemporary persons into fabulous imaginary worlds. Stories of this kind are among the oldest that are told. The mundane world has always had its fantastic parallels: its earthly paradises, the land of Cokaygne, and the land of Faerie. In the mid-nineteenth century these alternate worlds were retired into juvenile fiction, except for a few desert islands populated in a relatively mundane fashion. Victorian romances of exploration, however, celebrating the journeys of white men into the heart of the dark continent of Africa, reopened imaginative spaces for more exotic traveler’s tales.

Numerous “lost race” stories and a few “hollow earth” romances were published before 1880, but the writer who first made a considerable popular impact with exotic romances of exploration was H. Rider Haggard, first in King Solomon’s Mines (1885), and later in She (1887) and The Ghost Kings (1908). The example that he set was rapidly taken up by others, and the fantasization of the lands where adventurers went exploring proceeded rapidly. Because this was also the period when interplanetary stories were beginning to appear among early scientific romances, it was perhaps inevitable that writers began to displace their more exotic imaginary worlds to the surfaces of other planets. The example set by Edwin Lester Arnold in Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) was rapidly followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others. In The Lost World (1912), Arthur Conan Doyle revitalized remote earthly locations with survivals from prehistory, and this too was an example enthusiastically followed.Anew vocabulary borrowed from scientific romance allowed later writers to send heroes through “dimensional gateways” of one kind or another into magical fantasy worlds as exotic as could be imagined: The most determined of all writers of this kind of escapist fantasy was the American Abraham Merritt, author of The Moon Pool (1919) and The Face in the Abyss (1932).

Though the lost-land story set on the earth’s surface was gradually destroyed by news of real explorations— the last classic example was James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933)—the borrowing of conventions from science fiction has allowed the basic story framework to be retained to the present day. Contemporary humans can still be precipitated into magical imaginary worlds with the aid of a little fake technology or even a light sprinkling of jargon. The removal of imaginary worlds from darkest Africa to other planets and other dimensions, however, coincided with another and possibly more important innovation in the use of the theme, which was to dispense with the protagonist from the familiar world.


Fairy Tales and Heroic Fantasy

Although traditional fairy tales had, at the time of their origin, been set in the believed-in world, their remote printed descendants could not help but seem to their consumers to be set in an entirely imaginary milieu. The magicalized medieval milieu of such stories became a stereotype useful to modern writers, who began to repopulate it with complex characters whose adventures were filled with allegorical significance. The pioneers of this kind of enterprise were the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, in his novel The Magic Ring (1813), and George MacDonald, in Phantastes (1958), but their example was followed in far more prolific fashion by William Morris, whose several romances of this kind include The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897). The form gathered further momentum in the work of Lord Dunsany, most notably in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926); other contemporary examples include Margaret Irwin in These Mortals (1925) and Hope Mirrlees in Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). These sophisticated but slightly effete fairy tales then began to give way to a more active brand of heroic fantasy, first featured to extravagant extent in E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ourobouros (1922).

Modified fairy-tale fantasy reached new heights of popularity in the fantastic volumes included in James Branch Cabell’s “Biography of Manuel,” set in the imaginary magical European kingdom of Poictesme. It was also developed in a much more extravagant way by several of the contributors to the magazine Weird Tales, who used imaginary lands set in remote eras of prehistory in order to develop the subgenre commonly known as “sword-and-sorcery” fiction. Because it was initially restricted to the pages of a pulp magazine, this subgenre was developed primarily in the short-story form, although it is actually better adapted to novel length. Its most famous progenitor, Robert E. Howard, wrote only one novel featuring his archetypal hero Conan: Conan the Conqueror (1950; originally “Hour of the Dragon,” 1935-1936). The first important novel of this kind to be published initially in book form was The Well of the Unicorn (1948) by George U. Fletcher (Fletcher Pratt), but since the advent of the paperback book the species has become established as a successful brand of pulp fiction.

The most notable modern novels set entirely in imaginary worlds tend to give the appearance of being hybrids of sophisticated fairy romance and a variety of heroic fantasy not too far removed from American sword and- sorcery fiction. The masterpieces of the genre are The Once and Future King by T. H. White—published in its entirety in 1958 but absorbing three earlier novels— and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955.

One of the most striking side effects of the development of fantasy novels of this kind for adults was the revitalization of work done primarily for the juvenile market, which is often remarkably sophisticated in both technical and ideative terms. Tolkien’s juvenile novel, The Hobbit (1937), is an old example; later ones include Ursula K. Le Guin’s six novels set in the world of Earthsea and various works by Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander.

The paperback publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the 1960’s and the feature films released to great acclaim in 2001-2003 sparked countless exercises in imitation that proved popular enough to make the trilogy the basic form of modern fantasy fiction. The reborn genre went from strength to strength in commercial terms, making best sellers out of dozens of writers, many of them direly mediocre in terms of the quality of their prose. Nor is it simply oral fairytales that were rehabilitated within modern commercial fiction; following the success of Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972), animal fables— which were also popular in medieval times— were similarly produced in some quantity. The leading examples of this form are the twenty-one novels in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, in which generations of woodland creatures inhabit a vaguely medieval world.

This exploitation of imaginary worlds is the most striking aspect of the evolution of fantasy novels during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and it is not entirely surprising that the “fantasy” label is now retained for such novels by publishers. There has, however, been a parallel evolution of occult and horrific fantasy. The Decadent movements at the end of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a kind of fiction that reveled in the unnatural, and though most of the fantastic fiction of this kind was cast in short-story form, there were a few notable novels, including Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (serial 1890, expanded 1891) and Hanns Heinz Ewers’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1907) and its sequels.


Twentieth Century Gothic Fantasy

In parallel with these works appeared a new wave of stories that developed the gothic images of fear into new archetypes, treating them with a determined quasiscientific seriousness. The great success in this line was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which has remained in print and which surely stands as the most heavily plundered fantasy of all time, being the sourcebook for literally hundreds of vampire stories and films.

This resurgence of fiction that deals with the supernatural in a deadly earnest fashion may seem rather paradoxical. It was possible for nineteenth century rationalists to imagine that their victory over superstitious belief was almost won and to look forward to a day when the irrational might be banished from human affairs. If anything, the reverse is true: Superstition, mysticism, and irrationality now thrive to a greater extent than ever before, and modern fiction reflects that fact.

Fantasy novels intended to evoke horror and unease are more prolifically produced and consumed today than they were in the heyday of the gothic, and one of the world’s best-selling novelists, Stephen King, is primarily a horror writer. In addition, the role played by occult forces within the neogothic novel is crucially different; in gothic novels, normality was usually restored, and when the forces of the supernatural did break free, they usually did so in order to punish the guilty and liberate the innocent. In later neogothic fantasies, however— whether one looks at the respectable middlebrow tradition that extends from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy to the works of Angela Carter or the lowbrow tradition that extends from Dennis Wheatley to James Herbert and Clive Barker—the gothic elements were superimposed in a wholesale manner upon the mundane world, subjecting it to a surrealization from which there could be no possibility of redemption.

This situation has been complicated by a marked tendency among writers of dark fantasy to subject the traditional monsters of gothic fiction to moral reappraisal. In modern vampire fiction, particularly the lush historical romances of Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, S. P. Somtow, and Elizabeth Kostovo, the male vampire is more hero than villain, and his unusual existential plight is subject to a sympathetically fascinated scrutiny. Modern awareness of the extent to which such figures as the vampire and the werewolf embodied and exaggerated the sexual anxieties of the nineteenth century has enabled writers to redeploy them in fictions that champion the cause of liberalism, although the question of whether understanding automatically paves the way to forgiveness remains interestingly and sometimes achingly open. The psychoanalytical sophistication of much modern horror fiction has moved so far beyond traditional considerations of good and evil that it seems to some critics to have turned from stigmatization to glamorization— an argument supported by the strangely reverent tone adopted toward their all-too-human monsters by such writers as Poppy Z. Brite and Thomas Harris.

The concerted attempt made by many modern writers of supernatural fiction to redeem the Byronic literary vampire from the negative image foisted on him by John Polidori and Stoker extends beyond the limits of literary fantasy into lifestyle fantasy. Similarly intricate relationships between literary and lifestyle fantasies, aided and abetted by extravagant scholarly fantasies—a process that began with the modern reformulation of the idea of witchcraft—have developed across the entire spectrum of New Age philosophies, pretenses, and practices. The relationship between fiction and action has been further complicated by virtue of the spectacular success of fantasy role-playing games, pioneered by Dungeons and Dragons, and fantasy-based computer games. Although play has always been a significant medium of fantasy, it has never been the case before that so much play (involving adults as well as adolescents) has drawn so extensively upon a vocabulary of ideas established and embodied by literary and cinematic fantasies.


While the contents of popular fantasy fiction have overspilled in this remarkable fashion, fantastic motifs and literary methods have been imported again into the literary mainstream on a considerable scale. The mid- 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the beginnings of a significant break with the American realist tradition in novels by such fabulists as John Barth, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover, which eventually expanded in the 1980’s into an entire field of postmodern fiction closely connected—at least in the eyes of critics—with a series of formal challenges to the very ideas of realism and reality. British writers of a broadly similar stripe whose work spanned the same period include Angela Carter, Peter Ackroyd, Alasdair Gray, Robert Irwin, and Russell Hoban, although the notion of postmodern British fiction never took hold to the extent that their work began to be aggregated into a symptom of some crucial cultural transition.

Although postmodern fiction borrowed a good deal of imagery from science fiction—and postmodern critics happily conscripted such science-fiction writers as Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling into the field—its mainstream practitioners usually deploy such imagery as a set of metaphors commenting surreally and satirically on contemporary society, in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut and Don DeLillo. The typical materials of commercial fiction bearing the “fantasy” label are far less diverse, but their potential in this regard has been demonstrated by such works as Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèrÿon series and Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996).

The translation into English during this postmodern period of several highly esteemed Latin American novels that productively and provocatively mingle mundane and supernatural materials, including key examples by Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Amado, introduced the concept of Magical Realism to contemporary literary criticism. The style is widely, and perhaps rather promiscuously, applied to works that owe some allegiance to alternative cultural traditions, whether or not it requires translation. Key examples can be found among the works of Ben Okri, Milorad Pavi6, and Salman Rushdie. The increasing interest of African Americans and Native Americans in their traditional cultures—previously obscured by the dominant Euro-American culture—and increasing curiosity about the folkways of Asiatic and African cultures, have led to a steady flow of new works into the American book market, much of which is advertised as Magical Realism for want of any other convenient label.

The relaxation of the realist norm allowed several varieties of fantasy that had long been dormant to resurface in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Although the classical models of the conte philosophique established by Voltaire were mostly novellas, their modern equivalents frequently take the form of novels. Significant examples include Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1989) and The Island of the Day Before (1995) and the series of theological fantasies by James Morrow begun with Towing Jehovah (1994). The classical Kunstmärchen (art fairy tale) also was confined to shorter lengths, but its modern variants are similarly making increasing use of the novel form; key examples include John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) and Coover’s Briar Rose (1996). Comic fantasy has been resuscitated with great success by such writers as Terry Pratchett—who was the best-selling novelist of the 1990’s in Britain and whose work has been translated into dozens of languages—and by Pseudonymous Bosch, author of The Name of This Book Is Secret (2007) and If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (2008).

Although the bulk of the commercial fiction published under the fantasy label has become extraordinarily stereotyped and repetitive, with heavily promoted best sellers religiously following dumbed-down formulas derived from Tolkien, the fringes of the marketing category continue to play host to a number of highly imaginative and accomplished writers. These include Peter S. Beagle, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock. It is now commonplace for writers who produce excellent fantasy for children to extend their endeavors into adult fantasy; writers working with great facility on both sides of this increasingly ill-defined boundary include Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, and Nancy Willard. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, which has sold 500 million copies in dozens of languages, was marketed (if not written) for young adults but read by adults as well. In Britain, Rowling’s publisher printed the books with alternate covers for adult readers who did not wish to be seen reading children’s literature. Adults are also drawn to the witty absurdist Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer and to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Pullman’s books are marketed for young adults, yet their handling of complex religious—or antireligious— themes has made them a topic for serious scholarly debate.

The simultaneous extension of all these trends gives contemporary fantastic fiction such an extraordinary variety that it is becoming difficult to attach much meaning to the overarching notion of the fantasy novel—a difficulty clearly reflected in the comprehensive yearly summations of novel production offered by Terri Windling in her introductions to the annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies that she coedits with Ellen Datlow. Windling routinely employs such fantasy categories as imaginary world, contemporary or urban, Arthurian, dark, religious, humorous, mysteries, historical, and literary fairytales but still requires such residual headings as “fantasy in the mainstream,” “young adult fantasies,” and “oddities” for the remainder. The priority traditionally awarded by critics to realistic fiction seems to be in the process of breaking down, and it may well be that a more elaborate literary taxonomy will have to be developed for the new millennium.

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_______. The St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1998.
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Categories: Fantasy Novels, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis

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