May 01, 2011

The Foundations of Fantasy

by Alan Beatts

I was recently chatting with a customer who was looking for suggestions for fantasy novels that he might enjoy.  After a few twists and turns, the conversation got onto some of the basic ideas in the field.  We determined, to my surprise and his pleasure, that he hadn't read a number of the original works that those ideas came from. Below are a few of them.  I'm not suggesting that any of them are "must reads," but they are all quite good in their way.  There is also a certain quality of excitement to the writing because, when they were written, the ideas were new and fresh to both the readers and the author.  Something else that interests me is the way that the ideas are richer and more complex in these earlier appearances, rather than than the hyper-simplified versions that appear in the hands of later writers.

A side note for the scholars out there -- I know that some of these are not the first time that the ideas appeared.  But they are the first time that the idea appeared in a modern work that was widely read and reasonably successful.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Certainly, almost everyone who reads this newsletter has probably read it and, if not, you've almost certainly seen the movies (which are, I think, quite good).  The original element here is that this was the first time that a small, diverse group of heroes ventured forth against terrible odds to defeat the Dark Lord.  Granted there are many other ideas that appeared here for the first time but that quest is the thing that has probably shaped more subsequent novels than any element.  If you've some time, give it another read and notice that the group of people who join together on the quest have a number of sometimes mutually incompatible motivations and agendas.  They're not by any means friends or even allies at the start and, halfway through the story, the group is broken apart by internal friction, distrust and the loss of its leader.  That particular element is often eliminated by other authors who are working the same idea.

The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard.
I picked this novella because it's my favorite Conan the Barbarian story but almost any of the authentic Howard Conan stories will do (as opposed to the fix-up and share-cropper novels that were completed or written by other authors).  Conan is the original "savage barbarian" character in fantasy fiction.  But he's much more than a big, muscle-bound, unlettered, dumb sword-swinger as portrayed in the films from the 80s.  During the course of his life he advances from being a simple thief to leading larger and larger groups of men until he finally reaches the pinnacle of being a general and, later, a king.  He is portrayed as being both very intelligent and highly literate.  The picture of the barbarian in modern fantasy tends to lack these elements but, more importantly, it lacks a fine but very important distinction present in Howard's work -- Conan is a barbarian because he disdains the trappings and rules of civilization, not because he is incapable of functioning within them.

The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft.
"Nameless elder gods" is a phrase that most people who read fantasy have run across somewhere, sometime.  And The Necronomicon is possibly one of the most famous nonexistent books in the world.  Lovecraft came up with both of those ideas.  The Dunwich Horror (alongside The Call of Cthulhu) is both one of his best stories and gives the fullest outline of his cosmology.  The idea that there are old gods (or aliens, or demons, or . . . ) that wait outside of our world and desire to return, with very bad consequences for us, pops up all over fantasy and science fiction.  But one of the fine points of Lovecraft's vision is that these Elder Gods are so old, so alien, and so powerful, that human beings are completely below their notice.  In Lovecraft's world, humans aren't at war with these beings any more than ants can be at war with a bulldozer.  We're just in the way and will be swept aside whenever "the stars are right".  Only a small handful of the characters in his fiction survive their encounter with the truth of the larger universe and most of them are driven insane by the experience.  This idea of a heartless cosmos in which humanity is essentially insignificant and powerless is absent in most other fantasy.  It would seem that this is with good reason; after all, who wants to read about that?  But if so, then why has Lovecraft's work continued to attract readers for almost a century?

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