7 minute read

Fantasy: Tom Shippey

Fantasy fiction was established in modern times as a popular genre, for most readers, by the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien's two classics, The Hobbit (1937) and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings (1954–5), created the format of extensive adventures set in a world similar to that of ancient legend and fairy-tale, and populated by creatures such as elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards, and talking dragons, as well as hobbits and humans. The success of these two works inspired a whole series of emulators, who responded to the Tolkienian format while contributing often powerful imagination of their own.

Of these the most distinguished are Stephen Donaldson, whose two trilogies The First and Second Chronicle of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever began with Lord Foul's Bane (1977); David (and later Leigh) Eddings, with four sequences including the five volume Malloreon begun by Guardians of the West (1987), and the Elenium series begun by The Diamond Throne (1989); and Robert Jordan, whose Wheel of Time sequence began with The Eye of the World (1990). All three authors are actively writing at present, and the works mentioned above are only a sample. One of Donaldson's most creative strokes was to make his central hero a leper, whose health, as in legend, is bound up with the health of the magic land to which he finds himself transported. Eddings meanwhile is distinguished by a pervasive humour; Jordan's sequence is the most ambitious to date in size and scope.

Other writers in the ‘epic fantasy’ mode (a label which is often disputed) include Tad Williams, whose The Dragonbone Chair (1988) and its successors, published in Britain in two volumes as Siege and Storm (both 1994), present in some ways an ironic reversal of Tolkien, in which the forces of ‘good’ prove less reliable than in their predecessor; and Terry Brooks, whose first book in the Shannara series, The Sword of Shannara (1977) sticks very close to Tolkien indeed. Michael Scott Rohan has produced two trilogies, the Winter of the World sequence starting from The Anvil of Ice (1986) and the Spiral sequence begun by Chase the Morning (1990); he is perhaps the best of Tolkien's successors at integrating his knowledge of early legend into his own narratives. ‘State of the art’ in epic fantasy is meanwhile represented by George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, projected as six volumes, of which the first two appeared as A Game of Thrones (1996) and Clash of Kings (1998).

Determined attempts to strike out in new directions, meanwhile, have come from Michael Swanwick, whose The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) opens unforgettably in a fairyland munitions factory staffed by changeling slaves, one of whom manages to escape in the Iron Dragon itself, a kind of fairyland intelligent bomber; and by Tim Powers, whose most recent works, such as Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1995) are best described as occult thrillers set in a modern United States infiltrated by magi and ghost-eaters.

Some of the most exciting and readable fantasy currently available however comes from authors whose careers began before the Tolkien revival, in a tradition which goes back to the short-lived American fantasy magazines of the first half of the twentieth century. The best of these is Jack Vance, who began a sequence set in a very far future with The Dying Earth (1950), and continued it through The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) and Cugel's Saga (1983). More recently his Lyonesse trilogy (Lyonesse I, II, and III, 1983–9) is set in a Dark Age land now lost beneath the Atlantic. One of Vance's major characteristics is a mordant humour, combined with fantastic invention: his imagined worlds are the most unforgettable yet created.

A close rival to Vance is Avram Davidson, whose work (like Vance's) has varied between fantasy and science fiction. The lead character of his The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969) is the Roman poet Virgil, here seen not as the author of the Aeneid but as Vergil the arch-magician of medieval legend, contesting not with trolls and orcs but with gargoyles and manticores. An excellent set of linked stories, set with prescient gloom in a happy alternative-universe Yugoslavia on the edge of break-up, is Davidson's The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (1975); Eszterhazy functions as a kind of Balkan Sherlock Holmes whose cases invariably involve the supernatural.

Going back still further into the popular American fantasy tradition, one should note the work of authors who made their mark in the 1930s, in particular Robert E. Howard. Howard has had major posthumous success through his invention of ‘Conan the Barbarian’, the hero of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film. He completed only one full novel in this sequence, Conan the Conqueror (in book form, 1950), but many of his early magazine stories have been collected, completed, and continued by other authors; the barbarian hero entering civilization has become a fantasy cliché.

At least one of Howard's continuators has however found his own voice and his own worlds, Lyon Sprague de Camp. In collaboration with Fletcher Pratt, de Camp created the Incomplete Enchanter sequence, in which a group of modern American university dons find themselves able to enter one imagined world after another (that of the Norse Elder Edda, of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, of the Finnish Kalevala, etc.), and to succeed in them through their rather imperfect scientific understanding of the rules of magic. The series was collected almost fifty years after its original publication as The Intrepid Enchanter (UK) or The Complete Compleat Enchanter (USA), both 1989. De Camp also created a solo sequence set in another ‘world where magic works’ in the Novaria novels, begun by The Goblin Tower (1968), and partly collected as The Reluctant King (1985). Another author of the same generation, Fritz Leiber, developed a switch on the Howardian ‘barbarian’ motif with a hero-pair, Fafhrd the gigantic Northerner partnered with the defter and shrewder ‘Gray Mouser’. They occupy a series of tales set in and around the wicked metropolis Lankhmar, of which the only full novel is The Swords of Lankhmar (1968), in which intelligent rats threaten to take over the city.

The most distinguished continuator of this mode is Michael Shea, who began, with Vance's permission, by writing a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld above, A Quest for Simbilis (1974); but went on to produce the brilliant, if gruesome, In Yana, the Touch of Undying (1985). Two further variations of the ‘world where magic works’ theme are Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos (1971), and Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians (1967). Both are set in the present, but in worlds where events have taken a different course so that magic has developed rather than science. Anderson's is an at times grim fable of world war, Garrett's by contrast set in a happier, still-feudalized world, where the hero is again a Sherlock Holmes figure, accompanied not by Dr Watson but by an Irish sorcerer, Master Sean.

The whole epic fantasy genre has meanwhile been transposed into comedy by Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld sequence is now up to twenty volumes. The first of these, The Colour of Magic (1983), began with parody of several of the authors above (Howard, Leiber, Tolkien), but the sequence then created its own momentum, with several interlinked groups of characters recurring in repeated volumes. Pratchett makes fun of epic fantasy conventions, but with a deep knowledge and love of the genre.

The fantasy genre has had room, however, for many less readily classifiable authors. T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958) retells the Arthurian story with an extraordinary blend of humour and anachronism, starting from Arthur's childhood (about which all early legends are silent). While C. S. Lewis is best known in fantasy for his children's Narnia sequence, his ‘fairy-tale for adults’, That Hideous Strength (1945), forms a kind of bridge between Orwellian science fiction and Arthurian re-creation; in it the sorcerer Merlin is brought back from his enchanted sleep to thwart a new if diabolically inspired technological tyranny.

Finally, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea quartet, which opens with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is aimed at a teenage market, but like both White's and Tolkien's work ‘grows up’ as it progresses. Her later novel Threshold (published in Britain as, Us the Beginning Place, both 1980) is one of the best of modern ‘window’ stories, in which modern characters step though a gate of some kind into another world: in Le Guin's story, to meet and slay a dragon, and so to gain the confidence to fight the dragons of our own real world. A similar motif is found in Alan Garner's Red Shift (1973), also aimed at teenage readers, as is Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock (1984), a retelling of the ballad of Tam Lin and the Elf-Queen in a strongly contemporary context.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction