The OF Blog: When did "Fantasy" begin?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

When did "Fantasy" begin?

Currently reading Adam Roberts' The History of Science Fiction and while I'll write a lengthy review of it later, that question popped into my mind during the reading of his early chapters. When did "fantasy," as an entity of its own, begin in your opinion?

I'll start it off by stating, without explanations for the time being, that I don't think one ought to label things as "fantasies" until some time after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

Your turn. When?

Edit: I added a poll for those who prefer such things.


S.M.D. said...

Oh, I read a good chunk of that earlier in the year. I borrowed it from the library (UCSC's library) and it was really interesting. I got too caught up in school work to finish it though, but I hope to go back to it again, because it was really interesting to see how he traces SF back to way before Frankenstein.

S.M.D. said...

And I probably should address your question, shouldn't I?

Well, my opinion is as such: I think that it's difficult for us to actually pinpoint when SF or F really begins (at least fantasy as a literary genre and not as mythology or folkloric one...though I do think that both those are part of the fantasy rubric, I don't think you would refer to them in the same way as literature, which is generally what we're talking about in reference to when "fantasy" started). SF and F were sort of linked, in my opinion. We might call a lot of old stories that have "SF plots" (such as space travel) fantasy because they aren't realistic (such as stories with civilizations on the moon and such), but we have to consider that at the time, those weren't entirely outlandish claims. Yes, they might have made people think someone was crazy, but we didn't know anything about the moon (or about Mars, for that matter, since similar stories have been written about people from Mars), so I would consider all those stories a mixture of fantasy and SF at the same time. We tend to think that all SF has to have realistic science, but by doing that, and by constantly getting more and more scientifically advanced as a species, we slowly are pushing stories that used to be SF into the fantasy rubric, when really we should acknowledge that SF doesn't have to be realistic by our standards today. If a story written in 1600 has spaceships and people on the Moon, that's SF, even if we know today that there aren't people on the moon and ships without pressurized cabins don't work.
Where the genres meet, however, is in the past where scientific ideas are given that flare of the fantastic. They are both fantasy and SF at the same time, in my opinion. They're fantasies because someone made up this story about people on the moon, with all these wild cultural differences and what not, but at the same time they are SF because of the same exact reasons. So the genres are linked, splitting somewhere along the line into more realistic science fiction and clearly "not real" (though probably attempting to be realistic for effect) fantasy, which melded into what we know of today as SF and F. SF with technology and space ships and realistic ideas (with exception to FTL and a couple other things); Fantasy with elves, magic, sword battles, and what not. No, I'm not saying that those fantasy things didn't exist in the 1600s and what not, but I'm simply saying that there was this common breaking point where the two genres broke apart, one leaning more towards its folkloric and mythological roots and another leaning more towards its science roots, with the disclaimer that just because something is unrealistic today doesn't mean that it was unrealistic then (new scientific discoveries can't exclude old science fiction, because then there'd never be any old science fiction...most of the old post-Golden Age greats would be tossed into the fantasy bin).

Yeah, that's my opinion.

Liviu said...

How do you label 1001 Nights?

We can quibble about Homer, Roland, and other sagas, but to me 1001 Nights is quintessential fantasy - urban fantasy when it appeared, historical fantasy now.

Larry said...

I label Arabian Nights as part of a folklore tradition and not SFF per se, but that's something I'll address at length when I review Roberts' book.

S.M.D. said...

I agree with Larry. I would consider it "fantasy" in its design, but it is part of that folkloric tradition of literature. I would still call it fantasy, but I would recognize where it came from too, because you sort of have to.

Fish Monkey said...

I would suggest amending your 'when' question with a 'where' -- because I strongly suspect that such definitions are very culture-bound.

S.M.D. said...

Oh, that's a great point, Fish Monkey. I'm not genius on SF history, but from what I've read and learned in the last year or two it's really interesting to note how science fiction springs up when industrialization settles in.
If you look at India, it just recently had its science fiction "movement". It'd be interesting to find a book that looks at this aspect...maybe Larry knows of one?

Mark C Newton said...

I'll throw in "The Tempest".

Larry said...

Kathy, I intentionally left out the "where" because that's something else I'm going to address whenever I get around to reviewing Roberts' books. Too often such studies take either an Anglo-American or Eurocentric view and I wanted to see who would be the first to note that it's much more complex than one time/place.

Fish Monkey said...

SMD -- and even in industrialized countries it is often bound by various sets... for example, in Russian lit until very recently both SF and Fantasy were lumped together under 'fantastika'.

Larry -- oh great! What do I win? :D

Paul Kincaid said...

It all depends what you mean by fantasy. Does work like Le Morte Darthur or Orlando Furioso or The Divine Comedy count? What about the Historia Regnum Britannia? What sort of dividing line would mark where myth ends and fantasy begins? Are you separating 'fantasy' from 'the fantastic'?

Basically the fantastic was the default form of all literature at least until you start getting realist novels in the 18th century. So a far better question might be: when did fantasy stop being the mainstream of literature?

Larry said...

I agree, Paul, which is part of the reason why some of Roberts' arguments are ringing a bit hollow for classifying works such as Swift's as SF.

Hal Duncan said...

Answer 1: 2000 BC or thereabouts, with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Answer 2: 1971 or thereabouts, with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy imprint.

It all depends on what you mean by "fantasy". Unpack that label one way and you end up with a huge host of strange fiction which utilises a "could not have happened" subjunctivity level (c.f. Delany's "5750 Words" essay) by representing events that breach the nomology of mundane reality. You don't need the Enlightenment and the Rationalism scientific worldview to have a framework of "laws of reality" the transgression of which creates the requisite sense of incredibility -- the sense that what we're being asked to suspend our disbelief in is strange, fabulous, fantastic. The Rationalism asserts a consistency to our world (rather than just the *known* world), insists that the laws of reality apply *everywhere*, so the incredible generally has to either take place in or have its origin in a metaphysical alterity; prior to that, though, you get a similar dislocation whereby the incredible takes place or has it origin in a geographical alterity, remote realms where the same laws don't apply. Mythology, fable, folklore and traveller's tales (The Voyage of the Argo, Gulliver's Travels, the El Dorado section of Candide) -- the elsewheres of these are evidence, I think, that the events are intended to be read in the same way, as extraordinary, anomalous, *outlandish*. The point is, the idea that we can't be sure whether the audience would have found giants and rocs and phoenixes and cities of gold and such "fantastic" before the Enlightenment -- it seems a bit prideful to me, like without the Enlightenment all we have to fall back on is the "primitive superstition" of "pre-Modern worldviews" in which a tall tale featuring humans with their faces in their bellies wouldn't be read with the same skepticism/wonder. I don't buy it; I think it's entirely fair to look at a whole lot of pre-Enlightenment literature as "fantasy" -- i.e. exploiting the incredible -- going all the way back to the earliest works we have. The Tempest, the Faerie Queene, Beowulf, The Golden Ass, The Odyssey -- it's all fantastic, all *fantasy* in one very definable way, I'd argue.

That said, if you want to contextualise fantasy within the discourses of fiction, literature and *genre* -- as the modern genre of Fantasy -- you have to take a much narrower perspective, I think. Looking at it that way, Science Fiction and Fantasy are totally 20th century developments. FRANKENSTEIN is part of a dialectic between Rationalism and Romanticism, high-brow Realist novels and popular Gothic romances, sure, but before you get SF/Fantasy as we know it, really that dialectic has to play out through the proto-genre fiction of the literary "variety" journals like the Strand, through writers like Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Buchan; you have to factor in the Mystery and Adventure aspects of SF/F that have their origin there, I think. Then you've got mass-production, from the dime novels and penny dreadfuls through to the pulp magazines, as a major force shaping the genres and creating the idea of "genre" as a quality in and of itself, the idea that there's this distinct form of "genre fiction" seperable from "general literature". Look at Street & Smith Publications, for example, which owned Nick Carter Weekly, Detective Story Magazine and Astounding. Gernsback's "scientifiction" and Campbell's "Science Fiction" really have to be understood as emerging out of that publishing industry, products of Modernity. At that point, with F&SF, Argosy, Weird Tales and all the rest, there's little clear distinction between SF, Fantasy and Horror -- it's all just "weird fiction". Campbell was a hard-ass about the plausibility of the speculation and extrapolation but his notion of SF doesn't really map to a field where Ray Bradbury is one of the canonical writers. Up until the Tolkien boom there's no real distinction between SF and Fantasy. There's so many escape clauses and caveats (like the "one impossible idea" notion) that works with utterly fantastical ideas like jaunting or ESP are entirely publishable as SF. Even Zelazny's ROADMARKS or Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS are seen as SF, regardless of the fact that their central conceits are wildly non-scientific. There's a splintering off of "fantasy", which partly serves to define it, in the application of the label "Science Fantasy" to the Dune and Pern novels and suchlike, but that definition is only finalised, concreted, in the actual schisming of the categories that takes place in the 1970s.

The process of speciation is begun with Tolkien, Peake, Eddison, Beagle and such, the works published in the previous decade, but I'd argue that there's a very real sense in which it's the marriage of these works which makes the "family" (genre as generis), and that it's only after this marriage takes place that you get works which are Fantasy because they were *written as Fantasy* -- i.e. deliberately designed to fit a certain aesthetic form.

So it's really dependent on your perspective, no? When you say "fantasy" what's the referent to that signifier? A fairly specific aesthetic form with its genesis traceable through the Fantasy genre's three or four decades of existence as a commercial category? Or something more open -- fantasy simply as that fiction which exploits a sense of the incredible, the strange, the fabulous, the *fantastic*?

Larry said...

Good points, Hal, ones that I mostly agree with. I want a bit of clarification, though, in regards to say the pre-17th century. When examining a work to see if it's "fantastical," how much weight should we give to how the original audiences themselves interpreted it? It is an issue that I see quite a bit in quite a few literary genres, not to mention religious texts.

I suspect there ought to be a fourth, nebulous player added to the Author-Text-Reader triad, that of the presumed "original audience." How did those Sumerians interpret stories such as the Gilgamesh? Was it an allegorical tale that tied into their beliefs about how the world was/ought to be? Was it an amusing tale, that while it contained "religious truths," ultimately served to excite the imagination? Some combination of the two? Or were there other things added?

That's the issue I'm trying to work out, that of mentalité. When did popular cultures make the shift of such storytelling modes from allegorical/instructional modes into something that was seen as being almost entirely a diversion?

Balerion said...

I think for fantasy to exist, it requires a tacit agreement between author and audience that what is being set forth is fictional -- the events recounted can't actually happen, and never did.

So, given that, I think the first work of fantasy might be Aristophanes' The Birds, first performed in 414 BC. It may or may not have satirical associations to events that were then contemporary (the Athenian invasion of Sicily), but I don't think this changes the fact that the mode in which it produces its commentary is pure fantasy. Though I suppose one might argue that it's more like an animal fable than a fantasy, but it's nitpicking.

The Greeks of the time were rather skeptical regarding the gods and their myths, so I don't believe the Athenian audience would have really believed that Cloudcuckooland was derived from anything but Aristophanes's imagination.

Prior to The Birds, I'm not sure that the audience of, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh didn't tend to believe that these things "really" happened. But The Birds, yeah, I'm sure the audience of the time understood that it was a work of fiction.

Larry said...

Since I don't think you're making the argument that all fiction equals fantasy (a rather odd one, to be honest, but the whys of my beliefs on that will have to await another time), I'll focus on the satire element. For me, a satire implies some deep "truths" about the society itself and if a "fantasy" were to be defined as being "outside" the society (again, something that I don't think I could do), then one might argue that satires make for very poor fantasies in most cases. But in Aristophanes' case (and having read many of his plays in translation, I'm somewhat familiar with his style and approach), I would argue that he and his audience have an implicit understanding that he's criticizing very real matters under the guise of a fictional place. The gods (and their foibles and ultimately, the question of their existence) serve only as a window dressing to what is transpiring within the story and the interpretations of that story.

All of which is just a very long-winded way of saying that I think it has to be something less rooted in symbolic worship patterns and more in a total and conscious rejection of the "reality" of both the apparent and symbolic "happenings." Otherwise, satires that dealt with even more "grounded" matters might risk being labeled as "fantasies."

Hal Duncan said...

Ach, missed out the end of that last comment. What I meant to finish with was a rough framework for how the origin of fantasy will shift, may be placed at any point between 2000BC and 1971, according to how far you narrow the definition you're applying.

Insist on the narrative being written as fictive entertainment rather than religiously purposed and you exclude myths like Gilgamesh; they're not really *fiction* in that sense, you could say, so they're not really fantasy. I'd say a lot of folklore and fables stay within our scope though, designed to be read or heard as tales rather than as allegories or as... I don't know... a sort of metaphysical reality told *through* narrative.

[Your point about the original audience's interpretation, Larry.]

Insist on the "fantasy" narratives being distinguishable, by their inclusion of the fantastic, as of a type qualitatively different from the "non-fantasy" and there's no such thing as fantasy until there's such a thing as realism. The 1700s is a good threshold, with Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson et al., but you could make a case for DON QUIXOTE as the big turning point where realism is born in the satirical critique of Romantic fancy; the whole novel turns on the disjunct between reality and fantasy. Either way, I think you can still place Swift in a "fantasy" category defined in those terms. The satire is in the absurdity and the absurdity is in the incredibility, the fantasticality.

(Which is, I guess, Paul's point about fantasy as discernable from the mainstream.)

Insist on the distinction between reality and fantasy being metaphysical rather than geographical, based on events that are extra-natural rather than just outlandish and you narrow down fantasy to post-Enlightenment fiction; as the sense that there are laws of reality (that apply even outside the known world) catches on you can hone in on the fiction that responds to that worldview by representing events which transgress it. That pretty much places fantasy as having its origins in Gothic fiction, no?

Insist on it being distinguishable from Gothic as an entity in its own right and you have to strip away the aesthetic of Gothic, the aesthetic of the grotesque. You have to allow for affectively positive, neutral or ambiguous worldscapes as well as worldscapes painted with that distinctive Gothic darkness. Then you're looking at fantasy as a fictional analogue of the whole Pre-Raphaelite / Celtic Twilight mode of Romanticism. You're bringing the origin point up to... what? George Macdonald? Lord Dunsany? Tolkien?


In respect of the audience's interpretation vis-a-vis Larry's point: Yeah, that's a trickier question; way I see it, it's really about where narrative becomes fiction as we know it, an art in its own right rather than in the service of religion. From Sumerian culture right through to Greek tragedy there's a distinctly deeper purpose to the narrative; it's all part of a ritual performance. You still see that in cultures where folkloric stories have particular contexts, where they're not supposed to be told to outsiders or youngsters. I'd have to say, though, I suspect fiction as we know it comes into existence a lot earlier than the Enlightenment. If the Greek tragedies still have an air of the arcane to them, a sense in which the audience were participating in a ritual as they watched the performance, the satyr play performed after a trilogy seems like a deliberate abandonment of that ritualistic purpose, like the religious reverence is done with, now let's throw off all the high purpose and relax into something that's just entertainment for the sake of it.

I think Apuleius's THE GOLDEN ASS is really quite interesting here too. To me it reads like a work that's exploiting a tradition of low fiction, a Classical picaresque of episodic exploits, told round firesides just for the sake of a good story. The revelatory climax with the appearance of Isis actually reads like a *subversion* of that low tradition, like the author has been leading the reader/listener along through this wild, fanciful series of adventures, lulling them into a false sense of security with the bawdy entertainment of it, only to deliberately smack them in the face by changing register, revealing that this tall tale actually has a serious point. If that's not simply a projection on my part (which it could well be) that would imply that there's a tradition to be subverted, that his audience would have been taking this narrative as basically just a fluffy piece of fictive fun up until the point where he pulls the rug out from under them.

Or you could look at Apollonius's AROGONAUTICA. As much as it's based on proper myth, the sort of Who's Who approach to the demigods and heroes of those myths, crewing the Argo with virtually everyone that's anyone, gives it a distinct whiff of... well... commercialism. Is the audience really meant to take this as a serious retelling of a profoundly significant religious narrative, or was it just their equivalent of a big-ass Marvel cross-over where all the biggest characters, each with their own individual storylines, team up in an Exciting Adventure? Herakles! Orpheus! Theseus! Jason! Together for the first time! AND ONE SHALL DIE!!! Ultimately, I suspect that this tale was told as a work of fiction, as a diversion, far more than as a ritual revelation.

Even a discernible moral / instructional purpose doesn't necessarily mean these works weren't still functioning as fiction. It might just mean that they're broadly didactic fables rather than whimsical fancies. So is Orwell's ANIMAL FARM when it comes down to it. The key question, as I see it, is really how far the audience would be religiously enrapt in the unfolding of the narrative as a ritual rather than engaging with it critically as an entertaining (and potentially edifying) fabrication.

Larry said...


While I agree with your points, I want to add something for consideration: other places, other values. While I purposely didn't address it in the original question (which was meant to be an inductive exercise and not a defining questions - thanks Kathy, for asking that "where" question), how would this model apply to say the "Cargo Cult" stories? Don't know if you've read it, but Marvin Harris's classic Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture makes for a fascinating read that touches upon some of these issues from an anthropological viewpoint.

Balerion said...


A mimetic work of fiction "could happen", beyond the fact that the characters aren't real; the events could actually happen whereas a "fantasy" never can -- birds will never team up to found Cloudcuckooland, the king will never return to Gondor, and so on.

I have no problem identifying, say, Gulliver's Travels as a fantasy. As Hal says, just because there may be an instructional aspect to a work doesn't change that while the mode and purpose may be didactic, the trappings are fantastical, and for me fantasy is very much rooted in those trappings and the agreement between the author and audience that make those trappings (or "furniture", as George R. R. Martin calls it) a part of the story.

I recently read Cortázar's "Casa Tomada", and while doubtless the political and social turmoil of Peron's first presidency are at the heart of that haunting story, it's still a work of the fantastic.

In the case of The Birds specifically, as I say, it's not actually clear that there _was_ a specific critique of contemporary events, but rather a more general influence and response to the culture in general. We just don't know. Regardless, there's plenty of modern fantasy (like the aforementioned Cortázar) that has been written in response to events of the time.

IIRC, Eco argues in "Postscript..." that fantasy can't have anything allegorical about it, but I think that's putting it too strongly. I don't think a fantasy has to just be a work of entertainment, and I think it can comment on the here-and-now.

Going back further, as I mentioned on the ASoIaF board, I think Aesop's Fables probably also fall under my view of what fantasy entails -- an implicit understanding that a secondary reality is being created, where the rules of how things work are different from those of the primary reality.

Larry said...

It's interesting that you interpret Swift's novel as a fantasy, since I just finished reading earlier today Adam Roberts' claim that it is a prime example of 18th century SF for its scientific examinations of the world around, couched in the rhetoric of the satire. While I don't buy Roberts' argument there (in large part because of other elements that are incongruous with his provided evidence), I still have just as many difficulties accepting the work as a fantasy because of its allegorical approach that is quite different from what we presume to label as "fantasy" today.

Are there points in common? Yes. Perhaps even a set of "family" characteristics. But the question remains: How did Swift and his original 18th century audience interpret it? I'm very reluctant to place late 20th/early 21st century labels (or values) on things written in a different time/milieu. That is a major reason why I'm finding Roberts' arguments for an earlier development of SF (and a "Catholic" and "Protestant" split) to be unconvincing in places.

S.M.D. said...

I don't know why allegory should be a means for excluding something as fantasy. Tolkien may not have intentionally written LOTR as an allegory, but people constantly see the allegory there. There are bound to be contemporary/modern fantasy novels that are allegorical, even unintentionally, but they still remain fantasy don't they?
As for Swift, I would say Gulliver's travels is part of what I was talking about when I said the two genres sort of split from one another. It has bits an pieces of both worlds in it, even if it's all generally crappy science. But in that time period, perhaps the science wasn't so nuts after all, you know what I mean?

By the way, Swift's work was not well received. He was pretty well blasted for what people perceived to be direct attacks on the Church and the like, and he didn't hide his disdain for England very well (read "A Modest Proposal" if you really want to see his dislike for English rule). At least, that's what I learned in my British Canon course not too long ago. Swift sort of crossed the "line", like Rochester did (you should read Rochester to get an idea just how far over the line he went).

As for labeling older works, couldn't we refer to them as fantasy, but perhaps make it clear they aren't "modern" fantasies, but perhaps early modern or pre-modern or some other word for it.

Larry said...

When allegory is meant to create a very 'real' situation in the minds of viewers', such as the debate in Gulliver's Travels regarding which end the egg ought to be cracked (it is referring to the origins of the Whigs and Tories, themselves rather symbolic names, and their arguments about the powers of the monarchs), the reader of that time would have much more readily have interpreted it as such than the average reader today who lives centuries removed from the origins of those political parties. In addition, Swift's writings circle back continually upon exploring the nastiness and corruption of human societies in such a way that one can never feel "removed" from the world while reading it; Swift is bringing it up, over and over again, our foibles.

It is for reasons such as this that I tend to favor using terms such as "influences on latter works that became regarded as SF/fantasy" rather than stating such forms were SF/fantasy. After all, such stories influenced other forms of writing as well that are quite "realist" in scope.

Balerion said...

Kingsley Amis called it an ancestor to science fiction, as well, but I can't say agree with that. The application of scientific or philosophica methodology to examine certain ideas doesn't in itself strike me as being sufficient to be "science fiction", in and of itself.

If that were true, The Lord of the Rings would be science fiction because Tolkien applied philological processes to the development of his world, which he rather directly indicated developed out of the languages he created via his philological training rather than vice versa.

S.M.D. said...

The problem I have with that assertion, Larry, is that there will undoubtedly be works written today that would be considered by most anyone "fantasy", but are ultimately allegorical. So what do we do with those works? Do we stop calling them fantasy because of the clear allegory? Or would we have to now call anything intentionally allegorical something else like "allegorical fantasy"? There are loads of science fiction novels, too, that are clearly allegories of things like the Vietnam Conflict, or I imagine the Iraq War, the Bush Administration, etc. Would those cease to be science fiction if they are clearly allegories?
Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. I get what you're saying, and I do agree that from our perspective we see it as fantasy, but at that time it would have been seen differently, but I don't think I can agree that we shouldn't see those works as part of the genre of fantasy (or SF for that matter), just because of the content.

Larry said...

Re-read my first lines on the allegorical content. I'm talking about allegories within the story that are meant to bring the reader's attention constantly back to "the real world" around, not something that composes a lesser percentage of the work at hand. Certain stories can be read as being "inspired" by "real" events (such as the recent hypothesis that the various Flood stories in the Middle East and Mediterranean basin regions might be the result of a catastrophic breaching of the Aegean/Black Sea at the Bosphorus 7-10K years ago), but if the context of the story depends so much on the allegorical content as to make the primary reading that of Story as Allegory, than how could such a work be more than something containing elements in common with fantastical stories?

S.M.D. said...

It can't be both allegory and fantasy? Why does there have to be a clear separation? If I write a story about elves who use magic spells, but have the story center around an elected official who starts a war after being provoked by a terrorist attack, etc etc etc., isn't it still a fantasy even if it is following the storyline of the last 8 years?

Also, if I recall correctly, Swift didn't understand the backlash to his work. He was just writing something about human nature. I could be thinking of someone else though...some of the stuff I read during Winter quarter got a little mixed up. And if it's true it's like Tolkien saying his stuff isn't allegorical, which is true in one way, and not in another.

Larry said...

It could be, but if the author conceives of the work as an Allegory and not as a fantasy that employs allegory, then wouldn't it be presumptuous to question that without clear evidence to the contrary? That was part of my point - if the story isn't intended to be parsed as a fantasy, then wouldn't those who do so risk distorting the origins of the story writing? Seems like more than careless expropriation to engage in such behaviors, but perhaps this is my memory of having multiple professors reminding me that we cannot assign 20th century (now 21st) values to people of other centuries/locales (and presumably, to their creations).

S.M.D. said...

Well, yes, I get the point, but how can we say it is not a fantasy if the author also intentionally put fantastic elements around his/her allegory? If someone writes a clear allegory, with that intention, then they would have the same intention for putting those fantasy elements into it. I think anyone would be hard pressed to say "I wrote this as an allegory, but it just happens to have elves and that's not fantasy" and make it a believable statement. The fantasy is still there and the author intended to put it there...otherwise he/she wouldn't have put it there in the first place. If anything, we can make a distinction that it isn't standard fantasy, I just don't think we can completely separate it.

Balerion said...

I'm sure Aristophanes knew he was using his imagination to create events that could never happen, nor ever would happen because they defied the logic of reality as he understood it.

I'm sure his audience understood and accepted this.

I understand that modern authors and audiences work under the understanding, and in so doing so that's one of the ways that fantasy comes about.

Ergo, I have no problem defining a term and then saying, "Ah, this is a fantasy." I don't think it necessarily matters that the author and audience understood it precisely the same way -- it's sufficient that the main elements (an acceptance of a fictive secondary reality which cannot come about because the rules are different from that of the "real world") is there.

It should be noted that Aristophanes's absurdist fantasies (to borrow from Clute) became a part of a recognizable sub-genre of Old Comedy and that the use of absurd fantasies fell out of fashion in a couple of decades.

Those elements which we would call fantasy -- the talking birds, Cloudcuckooland, walls two hundred meters tall -- were elements that were collectively discarded. I think that's rather telling about the fact that the Greeks were able to perceive the stuff I call "fantasy" as a collective group of tropes and concepts that have something in common.

I don't know. If you want to know when fantasy "started", I'll stick with Aristophanes as far as the canon of Western literature goes. Or maybe Aesop's Fables, but I'm less sure abotu that.

MattD said...

I think this is one of those cases where your expectations influence what questions you ask, which impacts what answers you get. If you focus on the shared acknowledgment between author and reader that what is read is intended to be impossible in a purely or predominantly whimsical fashion, you limit the starting point of fantasy to the emergence of the idea of "possible," the idea that the world is a system of universal, knowable, and unbreakable rules. If you focus more on the role of knowledge than possibility in fiction, and investigate fantasy as the literature that fills in the gaps of what we don't know by the imaginative morphing of what we do, your starting point may get shifted much earlier. If your focus is on the mentalité of the popular culture, then you limit your start point to the emergence of a popular culture. If on the other hand you take the view that people may not always be conscious of when they're transmitting or ingesting normative ideas, then that limit disappears and you're free to look further back into the past. And in contrast, if your focus is on fantasy as a hyper-awareness of the importance of Story, your limit gets shifted far forward, to the 1950s-60s if not later.

What makes any of these approaches intrinsically and universally the correct one? What would it mean for an approach to be universally correct, by what criteria would we judge it so?

In a way it's kind of funny to try to discuss fantasy as an objective, definable entity, and at the same time suggest that fantasy is a reaction against a worldview that sees the world as being made up only of objective, definable entities. I tend to see fantasy as a collection of approaches; strands of tradition and accretions of ideas. It's conceptual a toolbox to help me understand, appreciate, and enjoy individual books, to help me see the transactions between books and the societies that produce them. What I find myself constantly asking is, which approach or combination of approaches would be most useful in this instance to make the point I want to make; how, and how well, do the approach or combination of approaches chosen by the author work? Only rarely is an approach outright wrong, but a given approach may be insufficient in terms of the enlightenment it offers and its suitability for the levels of work an author is asking it to perform.

Larry said...

Matt, you pretty much sum up the fault lines here. As for myself, since my training was to be a cultural historian before I shifted gears and became a secondary school teacher almost a decade ago, I'm naturally going to look at cultures and cultural attitudes rather than at individuals or specific works. Others will see it differently. However, one tiny correction I want to suggest: I would consider a possible starting point to be the rise of mass popular culture. This isn't because I believe that fantasy is just a reaction to industrial developments, but rather that it is, in some senses, possibly a commodification of cultural values into a form that could be "sold" more than "believed" (and yes, I just totally revealed a certain bias of mine by using that term).

I do agree that a multitude of approaches can be viable and valid here; evidence is of course going to be necessary. I think in the end, I would use a modified Marxist approach toward examining the relationships between cultures and ideas, popular and mass, and the above-mentioned commodification possibility to explain shifts in attitudes towards what later became viewed as "fantasy" (which implies that earlier it was labeled as something else or interpreted differently).

Which I suppose would be a very long way of disagreeing with many elements of the book I'm currently reading and need to return to once my brain has settled down from all the thinking it's done here today!

Larry said...

For those who are curious, I found an interesting link that I think is well worth reading on a subject that is tangential to the ones being discussed currently.

Hal Duncan said...

I'm not familiar with the "Cargo Cults" stories, to be honest, but it sounds like that's a question of whether we're dealing with fiction (in its own right) or narrative (with another purpose entirely); as I understand it, you could look at some Native American storytelling traditions in a similar way -- the stories aren't just meant to be told for a purely fictive purpose. That sort of distinction is fair enough, and we also, I think, need to recognise that there are fuzzy boundaries with, say, Greek tragedies.

I'm just wary of metanarratives of progress and projections of alterity. I don't see any reason to assume that narratives from other times and places *aren't* designed with the same fictive purpose. At what point does *not* projecting 20th/21st century Western values onto other cultures become a denial of actuality? And what if the values we project in place of that are as deeply dubious as, say, Whorf's characterisation of the Hopi as having no concept of time?

Gossip, bullshit and anecdotes exaggerated for effect seem to be pretty universal across human cultures, so I tend to apply Occam's Razor here, work on the principle that those *oral* narratives-for-the-sake-of-entertainment are the root of our *written* narratives-for-the-sake-of-entertainment. I'm probably biased as a scribbler and inveterate bullshitter (not to mention stubborn irreligionist), but my suspicion is that the other purposings of narratives are exaptations of a basic fictive function.

In terms of the other part of the debate, where fantasy is distinct from realism, whether allegory and satire are also distinct, well, it seems to me fantasy is such a loose label that you can apply it either way.

For some it largely just signifies a technique (breaching the subjunctivity level of "could have happened") and any fiction which utilises that technique, whatever literary enterprise is involved -- allegory, satire, whatever. There's a hugely satiric purpose to Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGERITA, for example, but to many it's still fantasy. It's a tenable position given that the term has a widespread informal application, but it does cast a very wide net.

For others like Umberto Eco and John Clute fantasy signifies a literary enterprise in its own right, like allegory, satire, tragedy or comedy. You could argue that in tragedy and comedy the incredible occurs in particular flavours -- the abject (invoking pity and terror) and the absurd (invoking mirth) -- while in fantasy it occurs with a distinctly different flavour -- the fabulous (invoking awe?) -- so that these modes can be distinguished by the fact that they exploit these different facers of the incredible. Again, it's a tenable position given that the term has a widespread formal application, but this "closed" definition is clearly going to come into conflict with the "open" definition above.

For some of the latter group, in fact, that definition ends up even more closed because of the widespread application of the term fantasy as signifier of the contemporary genre (as product of the Modern era of the mass-market publishing industry, not just in ideological terms but in economic terms -- c.f. the commodification Larry references). Again this is an entirely tenable position, far as I'm concerned.

The only problem is, of course, they're all pretty much incompatible. Placing Bulgakov in fantasy will read as co-opting a classic to the canon to some; excluding him will read as over-specification to others.

Larry said...

Cargo Cults deal with the stories that certain Polynesian groups would tell (and before that, certain rituals they would perform) regarding the strange beings aboard these monstrous sea creatures (clippers, later ironclad steamboats) that brought "magical" items (gunpowder, manufactured items, the usual). I pointed them out for the reason that you gave: those narratives didn't serve an entirely fictive purpose and that as fantastical the elements might appear in the stories, there was a very "real" element behind them.

I'm very wary of those metanarratives as well, which is why I hesitate to ascribe certain cultural values beyond a certain point for a particular culture's past. I do agree with you in regards to how it can go too far in the opposite direction sometimes - there are at least some similarities between cultures, such as European and Japanese feudal practices. I just think, however, it's better to err on the side of caution and extensive cultural examination before ascribing more than surface-level similarities.

As for the "looseness" of the fantasy label, I believe that is the crux here, because as with "science fiction," there is just so many competing definitions that have elements that are agreeable to many as to make for a rather messy "fuzzy set" than anything else.

And as for the open/closedness, as you rightly note, mine is a more "closed" net than what many others are going to be. Come to think of it, the "magic realism" subgenre is going to wreak havoc on quite a few of those interpretative models, depending on how it is labeled, no? Rushdie agrees that his most recent novel, The Enchantress of Florence, can be called a fantasy, while Gabriel García Márquez is known for eschewing that label for OHYS. That might be a topic I'll explore at length later, since I'll need to think much more on it before I have any coherent responses to either/both sides.

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