From a Science Future to a Fantasy Past

By Irwin, Robert | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

From a Science Future to a Fantasy Past


Irwin, Robert, Antiquity


One can learn a lot about fantasy by visiting Victoria Station. The W.H. Smith bookstall there carries a large range of paperbacks. One display book-case has been allotted to erotic fiction, another to romance, another to horror and three to crime, but science fiction and fantasy, shelved together, occupy four cases, and there are further displays of large-format fantasy paperbacks and graphic novels. The packaging of fantasy and science-fiction paperbacks is similar - the gold and silver lettering with often a touch of the runic in the fonts, the vivid airbrushed colours that hurt the eyes, and the men in exotically fashioned spiky plate-armour and the women either in armour or in wispy trailing robes, placed in landscapes whose vague vastness suggests infinity. It is often difficult to tell by looking at the covers what is fantasy and what is science fiction. But this cohabitation of the two genres is more than merely a matter of marketing and packaging.

Fantasy is very old - 'as old as fear', according to Jorge Luis Borges's former collaborator, Bioy Casares. Fantasy literature can be traced back to Malory and beyond him, to Dante and Apuleius, then further, all the way back to the Westcar Papyrus and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Indeed, the mainstream mimetic novel must be seen as a belated European 18th-century offshoot from fantasy literature.

If fantasy is not new, genre fantasy and its mass-market popularity are. Russian literature is said to have come out from under Gogol's fantastic Overcoat, but Anglo-American genre fantasy, as it has developed in the past three decades or so, has emerged from the more expansive forests of Tolkien's Middle Earth. It also owes a certain amount to the development of computers and role-playing games of the 'Dungeons and Dragons' type, to the rise in popularity of adult comics and to the iconography of some rock bands. Above all, genre fantasy has flourished as a kind of Tolkienoid parasite on the older-established genre of science fiction, and by now it even seems possible that the successful parasite will in time consume the parent body entirely.

The nature of the genre is to work with the reader's expectations. At times, the fantasy author may mock or gently subvert those expectations, but more commonly fantasy writing will simply conform to them. A set of well-established props and themes - the foundling outsider who must claim his inheritance, the quest of an ill-assorted band of disparate characters, the struggle between sorcerer and sword-wielding warrior, the power of the ancient matriarchs, the pastoral setting, the forest of adventure, the wily thief as hero, and so on - in unimaginative hands, these themes may constrain the imagination rather than inspire it. Many fantasy novelists make use of a mock-archaic style, which owes a lot to the worst stylistic excesses of the fantasies of William Morris and Tolkien. …

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