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Offseason Sunday List: The foundations of fantasy fiction

Let’s talk fantasy: And I don’t mean Ole Miss making it to Atlanta

The World's Largest Viking Ship, Draken Harald Harfagre Docks In NYC Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Draken Harald Harfagre

What is fantasy?

Other contributors have weighed in on films (and have done so excellently, I add) about science fiction, the comic universe and other genres. Today, we’re taking a break from the silver screen and the boob tube to crack open a book or three of fantasy literature.

As the offseason progresses, I plan on doing some more of these for historical fiction, the modern “fantasy,” and will also add a fantasy film article a little later. So, bear with me as we talk about the luminaries, the classics, and the must-reads.

But, most importantly, we have to first define what fantasy is.

Fantasy, like horror and sci-fi, is a type of speculative fiction: it is a universe of what-ifs. What if this creature, or that feudal kingdom, this everyman-cum-hero, that fated destiny, or this fantastical ability existed? While historical fiction overlaps somewhat in this overbroad definition, we can say that in the fantasy milieu the events portrayed are not ones of artistic license; they simply have not occurred. And, unless you subscribe to an infinite multiverse as do I, then they most probably cannot occur. It is make believe in its purest sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the genre “usually involves magic, supernatural events, mythology, folklore, or exotic fantasy worlds. . .magic, myth, wonder, escapism, and the extraordinary”

Below we discuss the origins of fantasy and some of the foundational works needed to get your chops up in the world of the magical. Links below are to references or other reading and, where possible, free online versions of the book or poem.

Foundational Works: Folk Heroes and Quasi-Historical Protagonists

With that in mind, where does fantasy originate? Where do we turn to find the first instance of fantasy literature? The answer is one that is exceptionally perilous to broach because the line between mythology/folklore and religion is so blurry. When religions die out as a cultural force and lack adherents in any meaningful sense, we tend to relegate them to myth. But, for a thousand years, the belief in, and exploits of, Zeus, Marduk, Odin, Mithras, Osiris were just as real, sincerely-held, politically relevant, and as salient as the religions of the 21st century. There is power in myth: These began as people’s understanding of a higher power. Needless to say, I’m not going try and start the inquiry with mythology simply because it is so closely related to religion. So, to folklore we turn.

Probably the first piece of fantastical literature happens to also be the oldest literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The oldest parts of the text were most probably written in the 22nd century BCE, although some date it to the 15th century BCE -- the jury is still out — and it concerns the quasi-mythical King of Uruk and his tales, liaisons with gods, and supernatural feats. This quasi-historical folk figure coupled with heroic and implausible deeds are motifs that appear later, not only in Near Eastern myth, but in Western myth and literature.

A lot of the works below are familiar. Unfortunately, because they are shoved on us at too-early an age, for a grade or busy-work, we rarely read them for enjoyment, much less read them as the works of fantasy that they are.

In no particular order, the below take some of those nascent traits of Gilgamesh and then expand upon or add to them to create our current fantasy fiction. They also happen to be kick-ass reads, so you’re treating yourself. Grab a drink, lounge at the pool or lake or on your sofa, and bring these with you.

  • The Homerian classic The Odyssey (and to a lesser extent, The Iliad.) The ultimate hero’s travel adventure: So much of fantasy literature involves a perilous journey. Well, this Greek hero’s name gave us the word for it.
  • The epic tales of Sir Thomas Malory’s 14th century Le Morte D’Arthur (from which we derive the King Arthur legend.) Is there anything we associate more with fantasy than a quest or a magical sword? Arthur ab Uther Pendragon set the table for what has become a trope of the genre.
  • The Song of Roland: The French King Arthur, if you will: Loyal knight, defender of Christendom, and carrying a possibly-magical horn instead of a possibly-magical sword. There’s even an homage to Gilgamesh in that Roland possesses the superhuman strength to wrestle a monster bull.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was later incorporated into the Arthurian legends. Horror elements are often intertwined with fantasy, and a headless giant with a big-ass sword is pretty horrific.
  • The Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the braggart and mortal hero; one showing the intersectionality of the clash of civilizations (in this case it was the Danelaw, Anglo-Saxon Britain, and the syncretism of Christianity and Norse paganism.) Yes, I’m talking about Beowulf. (Come on, you knew it was coming. You’re not in high school/college anymore: you really should give it another chance;)
  • The 15th century tall tales of the very historical Owain Glyn Dwr, the last native Prince of Wales (Shakespeare’s Henry IV is a good starting place here;)
  • China’s delightful stories of General Yung Fei, Mulan, and the original mad monk, Monk Ji Gong;
  • 17th century’s first modern telling of the old stories of Robin Hood and the Monk [Friar Tuck.]
  • Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, probably the Bard’s best foray into fancy and humor. You have satyrs, dryads, Pan, Bacchanalia, fairy queens and some very dirty jokes.
  • Dante Alighieri’s three-volume opus, The Divine Comedy, particularly the tour de force of world-building and imagery, The Inferno. So very much of our our everyday vernacular of the Underworld and our understanding of the nature of Hell comes from the Italian’s brilliant mind. Purists can argue whether this is technically fantasy, but the world-building of Dante, the geography-is-destiny themes are hallmarks of some of the finest modern fantasy literature.
  • John Milton’s profound Paradise Lost. Like The Inferno, this may not technically qualify as pure fantasy, but just as Dante built a world, so did Milton build a character. We culturally carry with us to this day Milton’s notions of Lucifer the Angel and Adversary -- his pathos, his thought processes, his motivations, his longing, his pettiness, his attempted nobility, the sequence of the Fall, even some of his quotes — all were Milton expansions or inventions. There may be no finer psychic autopsy in Western literature. Besides, as we all know, an indomitable-yet-believable villain defines some of the best story-telling.

This list is by no means complete or exhaustive. However, before we dive into the modern authors and newer classics, it is helpful to have an idea of the themes that arose piecemeal and then coalesced to become fantasy fiction: world building, strong characters, heroism, often-violent conflict, fantastical creatures, acts and words and feats beyond the ken of mortals, divinity and man’s intersection with the divine, a likable protagonist, noble death or sacrifice, questing, traveler’s tales, a little bit of sex, and a dash of humor.