Provenance of the Literature of the Fantastic

Posted: March 22, 2010 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , ,

Apologies if my post is a little scattered today. Philadelphia went from sunny and 60 all week to chill and rainy today, and wild changes in weather always give me a migraine. I think it’s something to do with pressure; I’d ask a doctor about it if I could afford to see a doctor. So, maybe one day soon, right! Yay.

Anyway: the topic of today’s discussion will be the provenance of the Literature of the Fantastic.

A lot of folks tend to lump fantasy literature all together as an escapist literary form that started in roughly the late 19th century and is largely exclusive to the 20th century.  Tolkien, grandfather of the modern Epic Fantasy, and his descendants form the bulk of what we think of when we think about Fantastic Literature.

It’s true that there are notable exceptions, but I think that we don’t always take time to point out how MANY notable exceptions there are.  There are, in fact, so many notable exceptions — examples of fantasy literature being written before the 19th century — as to suggest that the general trend of fantasy literature as a 20th century phenomenon is hardly accurate at all.

So, let me take a minute and describe what my terms are here.  By Fantasy Literature (or, “Fantastic Literature,” “Literature of the Fantastic,” &c., I’ll probably use them interchangeably) I am referring specifically to any story in that includes in its characters and setting elements that are resistant to explanation by scientific reasoning.  The resistance is important:  essays about people living on the moon, for instance, that turned up in the 17th century can’t rightly be called fantasy literature — civilizations on the moon, at that time, represented a plausible hypothesis inserted into a gap in human scientific knowledge.  That is, the element could be established if you were able to look closely at the moon, and would yield itself to inquiry.  The elements of fantasy are resistant to that scrutiny, in the sense that no amount of scientific knowledge would be able to explain or eliminate them.

As a distinction:  GOOD Fantasy Literature requires that the fantastic elements be, in some way, essential to the plot of the story.  Fantastic elements as pointless “window dressing” is a sign of mediocrity; if it can be removed without substantially reworking the story, then the story could probably have been written better.

Philip Marchand, who remains inconsequential but whom I enjoy picking on, is generally scornful of Fantasy as a kind of purely-entertaining, fluffy and brainless kind of literature, unable to stand up to the rigorous intellect required of its cousin, Science Fiction.  I’ve already shown that Science Fiction isn’t really as necessarily rigorous as it’s made out to be, but is the compliment to that true?  That is, is Fantasy, historically speaking, quite fully as rigorous, in a literary sense, as anything we would like from literature?

Well, let’s look at my good friend William Shakespeare.  He’s got a number of plays that involve ghosts (Julius Caesar, Richard III), and at least one that involves a witch, a monster, a sorcerer, and a sprite (The Tempest), but the two that I’d like to look at today are the most fantastic of his fantasies:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth.

These two plays, one comedy, one tragedy, not only contain supernatural elements, but both hinge entirely on the presence and outcomes of supernatural events.  Macbeth is goaded into action by his first encounter with the witches, he’s emboldened by the prophecies he later learns.  And, more than that, the world responds to his fraudulent claims at monarchy in a decidedly supernatural way:

Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.

Ah, good father,
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:
Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?

‘Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.

And Duncan’s horses–a thing most strange and certain–
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.

‘Tis said they eat each other.

They did so, to the amazement of mine eyes
That look’d upon’t.

Macbeth, II, iv

I’ve kind of always wondered why no one in the play makes a bigger deal out of the unnatural darknesses that Scotland has fallen prey to.  I’d think that’d be foremost in peoples’ minds, if the sun were suddenly blotted out.  Certainly, I’d care more about that than I did about someone’s horses going mad.  Whatever the case, the horses DO go mad, and there ARE unnatural darknesses.  Hawks are killed by owls, cats and dogs are living together, it’s mass hysteria.  Not only does the plot of Macbeth hinge on certain supernatural events, but the world itself is a supernatural one, in which the nature of the land responds to the nature of the king.

Now, there are some who will say that Macbeth doesn’t count, because the witches are only included because James I was fascinated by witches.  Those same people are less likely to note that the supernatural disruption of Scotland was also included because James Stuart is the one that codified the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, but that’s because it’s a little more obscure.  Still, I believe that these positions are foolishness for a number of reasons:  1)  Who cares?  There’s probably boring reasons behind most of Shakespeare’s artistic choices.  The fact of art is that it suffers from the material limitations of the world; the beauty of art is that it transcends them.  Speaking of:  2) Shakespeare didn’t just “put some witches in.”  He fully-integrated the witches into the story, tying them into the plot and choking the whole thing with an atmosphere of dread.  The witches and their prophecy enables Macbeth’s hallucinations, his spiraling madness, the epic resolution in which the the very land itself (in the form of Birnham Wood) rises up to overthrow the wicked king.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, requires no explanation, I think.  The plot is really driven by a magical contrivance, and fully a third of the play is about the antics of supernatural characters.  If that’s not fantasy, I don’t know what is.

Now, there is some debate about the difference between Fantasy and Urban Fantasy; I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of value in making this distinction, but since some people are rigorously protective of their genres, I’ll acknowledge it.  “Pure” Fantasy usually takes place in a fantasy world, where things are different and magic is possible, &c.  “Urban” Fantasy usually encompasses those stories in which fantastic elements are included into the ordinarily comprehensible time and place that the reader inhabits.

I think that, for all intents and purposes, Macbeth and Midsummer both take place in fantasy worlds.  Macbeth takes place at the far end of Scotland (a long way in an era without trains) in the 11th century — and six hundred years, to a country that had little in the way of formal history textbooks and was largely illiterate is a very, VERY long time.  Eleventh century Scotland might as well have been on the moon, for all Shakespeare was concerned.  It’s true that he seems to have drawn some inspiration from at least one history book, Hollinshed’s Chronicles, but it also seems true that he didn’t bother with any kind of “historical accuracy” — his Scotland is a fantasy, peopled by characters of his own invention, as close to the “true” Macbeth as T. H. White bothered to get to the “real” King Arthur.

And if 11th century Scotland is a fantasy world, then Shakespeare’s “Athens” — ancient, epic Athens; pre-recorded history Athens — is as fantastic a setting as we could hope for.  Mythological references abound, but there’s not the slightest trace of history to be found in Midsummer; nothing at all to suggest that the world is anything other than a product of Shakespeare’s imagination.

I think it’s important to bring these two up, because Macbeth and Midsummer aren’t second or third-rate pieces of work; they’re both right up there near the top of their respective modes.  They have character, literary depth, intelligence — all the hallmarks of “Great Literature.”  Work like that is exactly the kind of thing that any writer could aspire to create without shame at all.

Well, at least, it was at some point.  Now if you said you wanted to write an elaborate fantasy about pixies and love potions, they’d tell you to stick it in the Young Adult section.

Where it would be the next Twilight and make a billion dollars.  EVERYBODY SHUT UP!  I THOUGHT OF IT FIRST!  YOU SAW ME THINK OF IT FIRST!

  1. Dmart says:

    It seems to me that a lot of anger towards fantasy as a genre stems from confusion between what fantasy actually is, as you’ve defined it here, and a certain type of fantasy that was codified by The Lord of the Rings. Sort of similar to how people whose only exposure to science fiction is Star Wars think it’s only about spaceships blowing up. But any reasonable definition of fantasy includes so much myth and classic literature, such as Shakespeare, that I can’t see how people can seriously claim the genre itself is flawed.

  2. Nelson Blaha says:

    It’s a good thing for me that World of Warcraft is loosely based on that Tolkienian style of fantasy. Dwarves, axes, and elves prevent me playing that game and probably becoming hopelessly addicted to it.

  3. Moff says:

    @Dmart: Although even in the case of Tolkien-style fantasy, I still wonder: Why the anger? Or just the dismissiveness? Why does a prevalence of magical swords and orcs and wizards somehow automatically qualify a work of literature as less-than? Because most epic fantasy books aren’t that good? But most of all types of books aren’t that good.

    I think it probably has more to do with this almost unconscious mind-set than anything else: If you prefer thinking about dragons to throwing things, you’re lame. Even though, arguably, cultivating and nurturing an interest in the workings of morality is probably more useful in today’s world than being able to throw well.

  4. braak says:

    Yeah, I don’t know, really. I firmly believe that what’s appealing about science fiction and fantasy is that it appeals to curiosity, wonder, the native human need to explore. It’s a powerful urge, and fantasy literature satisfies it pretty strongly, but it’s probably a consistently fairly small number of people that actually share that characteristic.

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